It might not have been a Monty Python sketch, but it was no less surreal.  A group of about 40 Wexner Israel Fellows parading through Jerusalem’s Ultra-Orthodox Bukharim neighborhood on the fifth night of Hanukkah.

Following (literally) in the footsteps of President Reuven Rivlin’s June 2015 admonition that Israel runs the risk of fragmenting into four distinct “tribes” — three Jewish ones: Secular, Ultra-Orthodox, National Religious and a fourth Arab one — this year’s Hanukkah alumni gathering served as the backdrop for a face-to-face encounter with members of Israel’s rapidly expanding Ultra-Orthodox community.  Walking the streets and alleys, lighting Hanukkah candles in people’s homes and hearing about the challenges of preserving tradition in the modern world, our Wexner cohort was granted a glimpse into an insular space that remains largely mysterious to the uninitiated.

Our evening began with a guided tour, including stops at some of the premiere institutions in the vicinity.  Outside the flagship Mir Yeshiva (a.k.a. The Mir) — possibly the world’s largest, with more than 8,000 students by some accounts — in nearby Beit Yisrael, our group took in the massive array of lit hanukkiot.  Standing at the façade of Beit Yehudayoff, known also as “the Palace”, we learned about the Bukharian quarter’s original namesake inhabitants.  Hailing from Central Asia, fiercely devoted to their cultural heritage and many of them possessing a degree of wealth, the first wave of these immigrants arrived in Jerusalem during the second half of the 19th century.  On the bus, our guide emphasized that the commitment of Ultra-Orthodox Jews to living in Israel is second to none, although their motivation stems not from reasons of national sovereignty, but from the opportunity to observe mitzvot which pertain exclusively to those who live within the Biblical borders of Eretz Yisrael

Afterwards, we joined local families for candle-lighting and, sitting around tables heaped high with holiday fare, engaged in a brief dialogue with our hosts, who gladly fielded questions about their way of life.  Not surprisingly, there was great curiosity about both the sacrifices and benefits attached to raising their large families in relatively modest surroundings. 

At our final stop, the neighborhood Cultural Center, we were the guests of Racheli Ibenboim, the founder and CEO of Movilot: Employment Leadership for Haredi Women, who moderated a panel comprised of Avraham Yustman, VP of the Kemach Foundation, attorney Vardit Rosenblum, and WIF alumni Avi Armoni (Class 1) and Esti Shelly (Class 26) — both of whom interact professionally with the Ultra-Orthodox sector.

The enlightening discussion revolved around the inherent tension between integrating into broader Israeli society — which many of the Ultra-Orthodox view as an imperative — while still safeguarding communal norms.  Among its salient points were the need to move away from a conversation based on the language of “rights and obligations” and toward one of “responsibility”; the fluidity of classic definitions (Ultra-Orthodox, Israeli); the deleterious effects for Ultra-Orthodox youth of the increasingly heavy religious restrictions placed upon their behavior; and the community’s conflicted relationship to technology.

The few hours we spent in the company of our neighbors were enough to only scratch the surface of their complex ecosystem, leaving us all with a taste for further engagement in the future.

Shalom Lipner (WIF Alum, Class 16) is a Nonresident Senior Fellow of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.  He recently retired from the Government of Israel, where he served at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem since 1990.  He can be reached on Twitter @ShalomLipner.