Thousands of Miles From Home, My Kids Get Their First Positive Exposure to Judaism

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An ice hockey match at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina, last month.
An ice hockey match at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina, last month.Credit: Jared C. Tilton - AFP

I’m an Israeli lawyer, Jewish, married to a Palestinian resident of Ramallah. After years of wandering throughout the world, we returned to the West Bank with our two children, 6-year-old Forat and 3-year-old Adam, but are currently temporarily residing in Raleigh, North Carolina. We are trying to lead ordinary lives in an extraordinary and unforgiving reality, one that I will share with you here. (Click to read all previous posts.) I have changed the names of people in the blog, including my own: “Umm Forat” means “Mother of Forat” in Arabic. I invite you to visit my website: www.ummforat.com

After spending nerve-racking hours at a checkpoint between Ramallah and Ben-Gurion Airport, we left for Raleigh, North Carolina, in December. This is our new home for the coming months, for my partner Osama’s sabbatical.

Our arrival in Raleigh was as easy as our exit from Palestine had been hard. We traveled by Uber from the airport to a furnished apartment rented in advance. An hour later, a delivery of groceries from the supermarket landed on our doorstep. I left Osama with our children, Forat and Adam, who were jumping on the new beds and couches in excitement, and ran to the nearby mall to buy two U.S. SIM cards. By 2 P.M. the following day, I had obtained a North Carolina driver’s license, bought a used car, and registered and insured it.

Jewish moms to the rescue

We owed our speedy car purchase to a Facebook group I joined before we left Ramallah: “Jewish Moms of Raleigh.” I posted a request for help finding a used car, and clothing and toys for 6-year-old Forat and 3-year-old Adam, as we were traveling light. By the time we landed in Raleigh, the moms had already introduced me to the most trustworthy car seller I’ve ever met (“I’ll have the car serviced before you arrive – I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if it broke down on you and the children on the highway”).

The moms also competed with each other for the privilege of filling our new house with Lego sets, children’s clothing, bicycles, books, a mattress and toy cars. They messaged me photos of their hand-me-downs and asked me which colors Forat preferred for dresses.

I’d been told that the Jewish community in Raleigh was well-off – and judging by the quality of the items they gave us, that’s true. Its moms, at least, were also very kind.

The moms also helped us find a preschool for Adam, in a synagogue. The Jewish preschool had a good curriculum, an excellent record in preventing coronavirus spread and a generous scholarship policy. I explained to the staff that Adam transferred from a preschool in Ramallah, that he understands English well, but that he would speak in Arabic until he adjusted to English as an active language. The teachers, however – some of whom took Hebrew language classes – were excited about the new “Israeli boy” and insisted on talking to Adam in Hebrew.

“Which building block do you want?” they would ask him in Hebrew. When he answered, in Arabic, that he preferred the red one, they would turn to me, disappointed in themselves for not understanding his answers.

“I thought I understood Hebrew well,” one of them said to me. My explanations didn’t help – as if they didn’t hear or want to hear the word “Ramallah.” When Osama picked up Adam in the afternoon, one of them hesitated and then asked, in Hebrew, “Do you also speak Hebrew?” Osama answered her, in English: “Yes.”

To Forat, the Jewish moms were Santa Claus. Each day, I returned home with bags full of clothing, stuffed animals and toys, until Osama threatened to open a Facebook group of his own – “Palestinian Dads of Raleigh” – and to use it to pass along our new loot, which he said was cluttering the apartment.

Ima, can we ask for a Hello Kitty bag from the Jewish moms?” Forat asked. It was her first exposure to a Jewish community of any kind, and to positive associations with Judaism. Until then, Judaism for her was what determined whether or not you were allowed to cross a checkpoint.

A COVID-19 vaccine center in Raleigh last month. Social distancing isn't good for social interaction. Credit: Gerry Broome/AP

There’s injustice here, too

“Are you going to stay in the United States?” an American friend asked. She didn’t understand why we intended to return to the West Bank, to the occupation and the complexity of raising mixed children there.

“There’s injustice here, too,” I answered, and told her about a conversation I overheard in the Raleigh licensing office. The clerks there offer to register new driver’s-license holders to vote. The man in line next to me agreed to register, and the clerk asked him a number of follow-up questions.

“Have you been convicted of a crime?”

“Yes.”

“Did you complete the period of parole or probation?”

“Not yet,” he answered.

“I’m sorry, but you can’t register to vote,” she answered him. He was Black.

In 1876, white legislators passed a law disenfranchising released felons in North Carolina, in order to prevent as many Black people as possible from voting.

But my friend was right that for us personally, Raleigh is simpler. As a white family – and Osama is still trying to digest the fact that here he’s white – we don’t pay the price of discrimination. We are both permitted to drive our new car, and I don’t expect to cross a checkpoint to get to the sea.

A crowded street in Ramallah last December. A contrasting image to the deserted streets of Raleigh.Credit: Umm Forat

Missing home

It’s beautiful here in Raleigh, but we don’t have any human contact except for Adam’s preschool teachers. It’s hard to create a social life while socially distancing.

Before we left the West Bank, I ran errands in Ramallah. The city’s operating hours had been restricted, because of the weekend and evening curfew, and so the streets were crowded. I took photos of the busy city, which since then has undergone a stricter lockdown because of a rise in coronavirus infection rates. I wonder what Ramallah will look like when we return.

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