Mishna: We may compel a person to contribute to the building of a gate house for the community Gemara: Is a gate house always a positive thing? There was a certain pious man who was frequently visited by Elijah but he built a gate house and Elijah stopped appearing to him. Rashi: That is because a gate house keeps the poor away, so that those inside the community cannot hear their cries.
-Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Baba Batra 7b
Now that the weather is warm, we are experiencing the annual renewal of a recurring dilemma: In the afternoon, large family groups of Arabs from our neighboring village of Shaab walk over to enjoy the lawns and playground here at Shorashim. So whats the dilemma?
Shorashim is a small community (50 families). From the beginning, we placed a high value on the education and quality of life of our children. Our preschool has a reputation that draws families from the surrounding area. We always invested resources (even when we didnt really have them) in communal landscaping, and in a lovely, shaded little playground right in the middle of the community, with various climbing structures, swings etc., built of treated timber. And when the days are warm and long, the playground is the social center of Shorashim in the late afternoon, as parents congregate to shmooze while the kids play.
Shaab, a Moslem village a twenty minute walk through the olive groves, has a population of about 5,000, and no playground. Karmiel, the nearest city with large parks and playgrounds is a twenty minute drive from Shaab. So the walk to Shorashim is an attractive option for Shaab families. Thus, it is not uncommon to encounter a group of three or four families, usually mothers and lots of small children, picnicking on the lawn and enjoying the playground equipment. And so it happens that Shorashim kids on the playground find themselves feeling pushed aside on their own turf, outnumbered by kids who seem to take over the playground, speaking a foreign language. Periodically, the discomfort overflows, and the Shorashim council decrees that the gate should be closed all afternoon or puts up a private property no trespassing sign. Many people feel awkward when they encounter the guests on the one hand one wants to be hospitable and nice, to put on a friendly face on the other hand, one feels reluctant to encourage them, for there is no way our little playground can really service a village of 5,000.
On the one hand, this is a free country, and no one looks askance if we take a Shabbat afternoon hike across the olive groves (which belong to the people of Shaab) to the village or to the archaeological site adjacent to it. Shorashim and its facilities have been subsidized by various government agencies its public spaces are indeed public, not private, spaces, just as are the parks in Karmiel. On the other hand, it feels unfair to have the facilities that we worked to hard to create for our community taken over by outsiders in such a way as to prevent our enjoying them.
And when you start to wrestle with this dilemma, seeking to be sensitive to racist assumptions that may be lurking in your rhetoric, you of course ask, why is there no playground in Shaab? Who should take responsibility? The city council? The parents? The government? With such high unemployment, perhaps their tax base does not allow for such luxuries (not just construction, but maintenance) and they dont have the UJC to help them. And if no one takes responsibility, are we obligated to pick up the pieces? On the other hand, how is this different from Manhattan residents picnicking in the parks of the Long Island suburbs?
And why cant we escape these dilemmas, even on the playground?