The guests arrived from many walks of life — Israeli Jews, Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, religious, secular — but all had one thing in common: They were among thousands of COVID-19 patients the Israeli military quarantined in hotels throughout the country.
From mid-March until early May, the Dan Jerusalem hosted about 180 guests. Guests arrived by ambulance, others came straight from work or from the airport. They could only leave after they tested negative twice. None of them was staying at the hotel by choice.
So how were people who don’t usually mix going to get along? A real social experiment for a time suspending the usual way of life in Israel where Jews and Arabs, ultra-orthodox and secular tend to live separate social lives in separate cities and study in separate schools.
And is often the case, the outcome relied on exceptional individuals who were prepared to break the boundaries and set the scene. Aysha Abu Shhab, Noam Shuster-Eliassi, Amram and Gina Maman were the influencers here.
The very first COVID-19 guests to check in were 19-year-old Aysha Abu Shhab and her 21-year-old brother Mohammed. Both were employed as janitors at an Israeli hospital, where they’d been infected by the virus. As the hotel began filling with more patients, Aysha Abu Shhab, who is Muslim, noticed everyone was sticking with people from their own background at dinner. She decided to do things differently. She joined a Jewish couple, Amram and Gina Maman, “They were laughing all the time, so I chose them,” Wearing a hijab, she sat down with Gina and Maman, wearing his kippah, By the end of the meal, they were all laughing and singing “Inta Omri,” (“You Are My Life”), a popular Egyptian song from the 1960s, still beloved in the Middle East.
Noam Shuster-Eliassi, a comedian, was sent to recuperate at the hotel after catching the virus on her way back to Israel from the U.S. In the hotel lobby, she told her jokes in Hebrew and Arabic, surprising the audience. She learned both languages growing up in a village called Oasis of Peace, where half the residents are Jewish and the other half Palestinian. She was worried that she was still too weak to be very funny, but told the audience her patient number was 3,555 — a lucky number. “So I’m going to bring you my good luck with my number,” she told them. “Hopefully, you’ll get out of here.” But, she says, “They’re like, ‘no, we don’t want to get out of here.’ What are you talking about? ‘We want to stay.’ And I’m like, so who here is really sick and who here caught it on purpose, licking a bench outside in order to get in the hotel for free?”
As the days went by the Arab and Jewish guests began intermingling more. The biggest test of togetherness came in early April, a month after the first guests had arrived. Passover was approaching. The hotel management decided to open the banquet hall for guests to host their own Passover Seder. The younger, non-orthodox Jewish guests wanted to film the Seder, but orthodox Jews don’t use electronics on religious holidays. To avoid friction, the hotel divided the banquet hall so there could be two separate Seders. A floor-to-ceiling barrier was set up to separate the orthodox Jews from the rest. Amram and Gina Maman walked in and saw the barrier. Gina said to her husband: “I can’t do the Seder like this. Everybody’s getting along well in this hotel. What’s happening here?” “Give me two minutes,” Amram replied. He recruited some younger guests to help him dismantle the barrier. An ultra-orthodox man jumped up — not to protest, but to help move the barrier into the corner. Then, as one room, about 180 people in all, they blessed the wine and the Seder began — with Abu Shhab and the other Muslims and Christians in the hotel celebrating with them.
The Dan Hotel has become the Corona Hotel. The life the guests created together has become the envy of the rest of Israel.