ConnecTech is a year-long fellowship for MIT and Technion Jewish students. The primary focus is on student interaction—creating personal bonds between small core groups of students at each institute and strengthening a sense of Jewish peoplehood. For more information or to read our Fellows’ bios, visit our website.
On Friday, the 10 MIT students went to Beit HaGefen multicultural center in Haifa. We spent four hours there learning about their mission, exploring Wadi Nisnas and exploring our personal cultural connections and biases. I was really excited to spend time at Beit HaGefen. I think their mission of connecting Arabs and Jews through theater and other artistic endeavors is really important to bridging the gap between residents of Haifa and helping support the multicultural nature of the city. Interestingly, our guide made a very clear distinction between multiculturalism, having multiple cultures in one place and interculturalism, an active exchange between cultures. She explained that Beit HaGefen’s purpose is to promote and instigate interculturalism.
One of the activities that resonated with me was when she asked everyone to think about and share an intercultural experience. I thought of the time my Pakistani friend lent me some of her family’s tradition clothes and brought me with them to Devon Street, the center of Pakistani and Indian life in the Chicago area. There we ate delicious and exotic foods, went into stores with more colors than I knew existed and got henna done in the back of a hair salon. Not only did I feel welcome, but I was also in awe of the vibrant culture and different traditions happening so close to me.
I hope in the future that I can have more of these experiences in Israel as well. I think America can feel like neutral territory, where everyone has their own families, backgrounds, customs and culture that are valid and respected. Israel to me does not feel like as much of a clean slate. I have spent much more time and see publicly presented Jewish life and Jewish-Israeli culture. I hope to get the chance to make connections beyond my comfort zone and authentically experience the cultural diversity of Israel.
Another really powerful moment at Beit HaGefen was when we did the tour around Wadi Nisnas. I was slightly skeptical since we had toured the Wadi already the day before. This time, however, our guide focused on other elements. I was struck by the thoughtful and provocative art around the Wadi. We ran into an artist who collected tiles and doors and everything, it seemed. I enjoyed the honesty and creativity of the tour. It was worthwhile to hear different perspectives of the same place. The emphasis also displayed the points of view and priorities of the independent tour guide and the guide from Beit HaGefen. We also ended the walk with knafe (a delicious Arab dessert), which may or may not have influenced my view.
Overall, I thought Beit Hagefen was a very enriching experience. It gave me a lot of hope to see such an established organization that was giving a voice to people traditionally stifled and promoting cross-cultural understanding. After a great day of interculturalism, we met up with the Technion group to start Shabbat in Zichron Yaakov. It was really interesting to share our experience with the Israelis, especially those who had not heard of the center.
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