Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Coming Into The Kefar

Dimona is a city in Israel’s Negev desert. It’s the home to about two to three thousand ex-patriot African Americans known as the Black Hebrew Israelites. I should say African Americans and their offspring, because more than half of the population was born here, since the community was established in late 1960’s. It is a prolific community, created by its founders “to establish God’s new kingdom on Earth”, and as such, it’s very pro-children. Families are the fundamental unit of the community, and many of them are very large. Some of the men have two, three or even four wives, and sometimes a dozen or more children between them.
My father immigrated here in 1973, part of a large group, mostly from Chicago, Detroit and Gary, Indiana, who came here with very little but their faith in what they were creating. There were many hard years, during which they faced financial struggles, deportations, and a fair amount of desertion. Since that time, they’ve won allies and admirers, certainly acceptance. But I’m not here to write a history, but to share the experience of welcome and community I experience coming here.
I first came here twelve years ago, to celebrate my father’s eightieth birthday with him and his two wives. The lived in Tiberius at the time, part of a small contingent of “the Nation” settled in that northern city on the Sea of Galilee. But even then, it was Dimona I was most eager to see and to visit – to see the heart of this community that my father joined so long ago.

Emmah Kaninah, 96 & Abbah Avraham, 92 (9'16)

One of the things that always strikes me here is that the Kefar – the perhaps ten acre square of mostly single-story, densely-packed apartments that holds the heart of the community – is full of my people. They are the people I was born among in Detroit, lived among in my teens in New York City, and encounter in the Black communities all over the U.S. They speak my language and I speak theirs; we share common roots and culture and growing up experiences. In some ways, they remind me, who has lived mostly among white folks through most of my adult years in Seattle and Toronto, of the communities of Black students I belonged to in boarding school and in college in New England: we were from all over the country, but were conscious and intentional in over-coming whatever differences we might have to support our togetherness.
Emmah & friends on the Kefar (9'16)
The other thing that makes an even bigger impression on me, is how healthy, vibrant and truly communal the Kefar is. For years, I worked in Toronto’s Regent Park, Canada’s largest public housing development. I love Regent Park, and it is certainly home to real community, with powerful, loving bonds, healing, grassroots energies and movements, and a powerful sense of identity. But Regent Park’s beautiful community existed on top of and inter-mingled with other communities that were disruptive and discordant and constantly draining it’s health – like the subculture of its violent, street drug trade.
Life in the Kefar, on the other hand, while I don’t suppose it to be trouble-free, is guided by a single vision and a fairly strict code of values and conduct that prevent any oppositional culture from setting roots. I don’t know that I could or would live within this particular vision and code, and this isn’t a time to explore that. By virtue of my father’s belonging, I have a foot in the community, and find acceptance here, but I am a visitor, an outsider. And yet, I look upon the Kefar with love, admiration and even a little, wistful envy.
Kids on the Kefar (9'16)
The Kefar is beautiful. It is humble and simple, but clean and welcoming. Though dense, it feels open. It is the village it aims to be. But it’s the life of the children here that speaks to me most. When I was first here, I wanted to return to Regent Park and scoop up all the children and bring them here. It is safe. Children play unattended, because all adults here share responsibility for their supervision and care. I observed a child of about four approach an adult to ask for assistance crossing the street that borders the Kefar. The adult called over a youth, who promptly responded, escorting the child to the school yard across the street. There are no glass shards, cigarette butts or other kinds of trash lying about. No obscenities or threats are being shouted. When I asked the children for permission to take their photo, they gathered around, eager, giggling and polite, showing no fear of the stranger.
In so many ways, life here is as it ought to be. And it makes me wonder at the extent of what most of us have sacrificed for our modernism and ‘progress’.
Rofe Amadyah's Cactus Garden on the Kefar (9'16)

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