Julis: Basically the Coolest Place I've Been

By Michael Dempster, Masa Israel Service Fellows
Since the fall, Michael has been teaching a photography and videography class to Druze youth. In late January, the Julis Youth Center hosted an exhibition of his students' photographs. Below, Michael writes about his experience volunteering in Julis, and shares a few photographs from the exhibition.
A Druze village is a pastiche of seemingly antagonistic elements. Every Thursday droves of cloaked religious women trek uphill to the khalwa, their place of worship, deftly sidestepping the mopeds driven by their secular children and grandchildren. Teenage girls are careful to remove their heels and silence their iPhones as they enter shrines memorializing departed sheikhs, whose graves they encircle and kiss reverently. And in Julis, a village in the mountainous Northern region of Israel, it is now common to see children shutterbugging their way through narrow cobblestone alleys, trying to capture an image that reveals their culture’s unique blend of modern and ancient, integrated and isolated, accessible and obscure.
It was with immense pride that I watched my film and photography students participate in the first public exhibition of their work at the end of January. A humble art show was amplified by a highly enthusiastic turnout from the village. Actually, it reminded me of the crowds that amass at High Holiday services in a shul, as many kids had to stand outside and peer through open windows after their elders filled up the indoor seating rather quickly.
Though the students have only studied their craft for a few short months, the photos on display were characterized by the marks of true artists: Surprising compositions, a strong sense of light and color, and a clear appreciation for focal depth. More importantly, the exhibition celebrated visual narratives from an essential but underappreciated people within the Israeli mosaic. In the next five months these talented young imagemakers will embark on more ambitious projects, including music videos, time-lapses of a blooming garden, and a transcontinental dialogue with Druze communities living outside the Middle East.
Many Israelis unfortunately never get the chance to interact with the Druze. Most would somewhat distantly refer to them as being “mysterious” and “esoteric”. True, their religion is rich, and some of its principles are only revealed to the devout. But in my experience the Druzim are usually open to discussing their beliefs, and quite proud of their culture’s depth and complexity. Another common refrain is that the Druzim are a “kind” and “hospitable” bunch. This is an egregious understatement. They are the most warm-hearted and exuberant people I have ever met, and although I speak about three words of Arabic and come from a very different background from my new students and friends, I truly feel like a part of the Julis community whenever I go there. When I make Aliyah I’ll be blessed to have an entire village as part of my new Israeli family.
All photos are courtesy of the Julis Youth Center, 2012-2013

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