Reflections of Israel
Just over one month ago I stood on this Bimah and received a blessing for a safe trip. I was departing for Israel and was strengthened by this prayer. But it also provoked some worried looks from our congregation. After services, many approached me to ask why I was going? “To express my support and solidarity with Israel and to see with my own eyes what is happening there.” Was my reply. Some said I was crazy for going, and many worried for my safety. I received an unusually large number of hugs. I hadn’t felt anxious about my trip until so many here and others in my family made it seem like my safe return was not necessarily inevitable. This anxiety festered for two days until our El Al jet landed at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel.
Once I descended the stairs of the plane onto the tarmac and inhaled a fresh breath of Israeli air, a wave of familiar memories washed over me. These memories became realities as once again I stood amidst a crush of tourists waiting, impatiently, for our passports to be stamped. This was so familiar.
Our bus slowly climbing Highway 1 toward the entrance of Jerusalem was so familiar. The traffic, car horns, and impatient drivers on Jerusalem’s narrow, winding streets were so familiar. By the time I set foot in Jerusalema city in which I had lived twice beforemy anxiety had dissipated. I felt like I was home. Everything was familiar. I was determined to experience this trip as if I were living in Israel. Before leaving, I told my wife, Karen, I wouldn’t do anything seemingly foolish like meander through the narrow alleyways of the Old City or stroll up and down Ben Yehudah StreetJerusalem’s Pedestrian Mall, or eat in restaurants, and shop in Malls. Once there, however, I couldn’t help myself. I did everything I said I wouldn’t. Was this reckless? No. Rather it was human. It is what people do when they visit Israel. ABOVE ALL, I FELT SAFE AND SECURE.
For six jam-packed days, I was able to affirm what makes Israel so remarkable; the peoples’ unwavering resolve and strong-willed determination in the face of enormous challenges. I won’t sugarcoat the reality there. Indeed, these are difficult times. Terrorism remains a daily threat. A large percentage of the Israeli population is living below the poverty line. Last year, for the first time in its history, the economy of Israel shrunk. Tourists have abandoned Israel. Although hobbled, Israel continues to move forward. Most importantly Israelis continue to live, and work, and even play. It is not easy, but they are no longer paralyzed by despair and fear. Everyone we metpoliticians, professors, doctors, social workers, soldiers, Reform rabbis, and everyday Israelisexpressed their grave concern for the current situation. None could point to an immediate resolution to the conflict, but all shared their determination to continue living and doing their part to improve the quality of life in Israel.
We met many people. We visited many places. Our mission took us to cities and towns on the front lines of the current Intifada. We stood at the edge of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Giloone of several neighborhoods built on the border of the West Bank since 1967 to form a protective ring around Jerusalem’s city center. Gilo overlooks the Palestinian village of Beit Jalla. A good pair of binoculars would enable you to look into Palestinian homes from the edge of Gilo. Before the current Intifada, residents of these two neighborhoods traveled back and forth easily, shopping in each other’s marketplaces, engaging in commercial activity. Today 8-foot high concrete barriers separate Gilo from Beit Jalla, protecting Gilo’s residents from Palestinian snipers who had been shooting at that exposed neighborhood several months ago. The barriers now block a picturesque landscapethe rolling Judean hills, minarets piercing the sky, high above the chalky-white, stone homes of Beit Jalla. Gilo’s residents were distressed to lose their view, so neighborhood artists painted large murals of the blocked vista on these concrete barriers, trying to recreate the view, attempting to provide the residents of Gilo with a glimpse of what life was like before the Intifada.
We drove to a military checkpoint on the Green Linethe border between Israel and the West Bank and saw a small section of the controversial wall being built to separate Palestinian towns from Israeli towns. If built completely, this wall will encircle the West Bank. The intent is for this barrier to prevent future terrorist incursions into Israel. The section we saw separates the Palestinian town of Qalqiliya from the Israeli town of K’far Sabaa Tel Aviv suburb. Some homes in each town stand no more than several hundred yards apart from of each other. Yet they are worlds apart socially, politically, and economically. These visits were a stark reminder of just how closely Palestinians and Israelis live to one another, and how in the minds of both peoples, every inch of land is relevant.
We stopped in towns that tourists rarely visit. When I told, Hadar Peledwho teaches here at Beth Am that we spent a few hours in her hometown of Hadera, her first reaction was “Why?” It wasn’t to sightsee, but rather to visit with social workers and community leaders who have developed a rapid response to acts of terror in that particularly hard hit area of Israel. There I met Jackie Weinberg, a social worker who also collects money to distribute to victims of terror. When our Israel Action Committee was looking for a way to aid Israelis earlier this year, our member, Moshe Iofis, contacted Mr. Weinberg with a simple message: Beth Am wants to help the residents of Hadera. We sent money and have made a difference in many lives. Seeing the face, shaking the hand of the person who has been our link to Hadera was quite extraordinary.
Listening to this overview, it must seem like our trip was focused entirely on the effects of the Intifada. The matzavthe situation as it is called, is the dark reality. Yet despite all the challenges, we saw many rays of light shining brightly, illuminating the darkness. We heard many remarkable stories from those working to make Israel stronger, safer, and more caringeven while working under the cloud of the Intifada. We met with several Reform rabbis working to build an active, vibrant Reform movement in Israel. We met a woman who runs one of the few hotlines for victims of domestic violence. We met leaders of the Israel Religious Action Center who are fighting to keep issues of civil rights, economic justice, and religious pluralism on the political radar screen.
These issues can’t be ignored. They are just as important for the ultimate well being of Israel as secure borders. And even today, when there doesn’t appear to be an immediate solution to the ongoing violence, and the threat of war in Iraq looms over the entire region, the Israelis we met continue to greet each day resolved to further an agenda of social and political change that can only serve to strengthen Israel. The politicians may frustrate us, but the creative force of these social workers, rabbis, and community activists inspire me.
Chanukah falls during the darkest days of the year. When we kindle the Chanukiah, its light illumines the darkness. We need to stoke the flames of those working to maintain the light in Israel through these dark and difficult times. We need to demonstrate our support, and to see for ourselves just how remarkable and resilient Israel remains. We need to visit Israel. Be confident in the expertise of the tour leaders who take every precaution to ensure the safety and well being of the group. I felt safe. You will too. Rabbi Zweiback will be leading a Beth Am family trip next June. Pack your bags and go. ARZA/World Unionthe sponsor of my mission will be sending several groups over the next 18 months. Pack your bags and go. The San Francisco Federation will be sending solidarity missions in the future. Pack your bags and go. I hope and pray that we can demonstrate our support to Israel by providing her with what she needs most--visitors. Let us go, bearing torches of hope and promise.