This week I had a wonderful opportunity to do something new: be a sort of private tour guide for American guests. I am not an official tour guide. And our tour was not your traditional tour in Israel. My guests were my wonderful colleague (and fellow native Clevelander!), Rabbi Brian Leikin of Temple Beth Shalom in New City, NY and congregant Steve Klein who came to Israel to participate in a seminar of an Israeli consulting company for innovative thinking. Rabbi Brian wrote me a few months ago – ” I am coming to Jerusalem with a member of my synagogue….I was also trying to figure out stuff to do. He’s been to Israel before so we are both looking for ways to be inspired for five days–either study, being a part of Reform Jewish life and beyond…any thoughts???”
So this is what happened after I had some thoughts –
I picked them up at their hotel in Jerusalem. We exited Jerusalem to the south traveling on Derech Hevron (the road that if we kept going and going would lead to Hebron), as the city became suburban with only apartment buildings and then sparse as you can look out over the hills and already see into Bethlehem (only a 10 minute drive away). We turned to the Tunnels Road which leads to Gush Etzion, passing the Gilo neighborhood on the right (over the green line but a part of greater Jerusalem) and Beit Jala and part of the separation wall on the left. Throwing around terms like Area A, B, and C, the green line, the West Bank territories, Judea and Samaria. We passed the military checkpoint turning right for the short drive on the other side of the green line passing the sprawling Palestinian village of Hussan on the right and the sprawling Ultra-Orthodox city/settlement on the left. We passed through the checkpoint and immediately turned left into Tzur Hadassah.
On this rainy day, we drove through the new neighborhoods being built in Tzur Hadassah, beautiful little duplexes and small apartment buildings, which overlook Beitar Ilit and in the valley the small Palestinian village of Wadi Fuqin, as I described the relationship between Tzur Hadassah residents and both the Ultra-Orthodox city and the Palestinian towns.
At our building, they heard about our congregation’s history, activities, political achievements and challenges. They also shared their fascinating story – something which I thought was unique to Israel and never imagined would happen in America. They told how the Ultra-Orthodox were moving to their county in large numbers, running for public office, diverting funds and influencing public policy to serve only the needs of their own community, not taking part in overall Jewish communal life, and essentially creating a situation in which non-Orthodox Jews are beginning to leave the area. I was really shocked. It’s not just Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh! One of our congregants Rabbi Gail Diamond joined our meeting, who told about her participation in a local program sponsored by Partnership Together (Jewish Agency) that brings together women of all backgrounds in our area – Orthodox, secular, Reform, Arab, lesbian, etc. – around the subject of music. She brought a wonderful perspective to the topic.
We then drove over to a neighboring moshav called Nes Harim, to visit the Raviv Winery. We met Dina Raviv who, together with her husband, runs the winery. She made aliyah from America at the age of two. The winery is really her husband’s passion and dream. He works as an engineer during the day and deals with wine in his spare time. A few years ago they turned their 10-dunam backyard into a vineyard.
This is the first year they are producing wine from their own grapes. We came to them because last year, I turned to the four wineries located in our close proximity and asked them to donate a bottle of wine for an event in our congregation. Dina responded positively then, so I thought I would try her now. Again, she said yes and graciously met us in the middle of the week, showed us the cellars, let us taste from the vats and from the bottle. We bought a few bottles (you can only buy them at the winery – they only make a few thousand bottles a year). I already have some ideas for future contacts…
Then we headed back past the military checkpoint. We met our congregants Lonny Baskin and Phil Saunders who operate a small non-profit called Path of Hope and Peace, to create dialogue between Jews and Palestinians in our area. We met with them Ziad Sabateen and Ali, peace activists from our neighboring Palestinian village of Hussan (which is Area B). We rode with them into the village and visited at Ziad’s home. We had not had the opportunity to have lunch (very important for me!) and when I mentioned I would pick up a snack at the gas station, they refused and said we would take care of something at Ziad’s house. I gave them some money and they came back with a feast of chicken, spiced rice, laffa bread, and hummus.
I will try to summarize the conversation – Ali and Ziad told their personal stories and that of their families. Ziad told of the 1980s when soldiers cut down his family’s olive trees and beat his family. He joined the intifada. He was in jail for a number of years. There he found his way to seeking peace and not violence. He joined Combatants for Peace, an organization of former soldiers and Palestinians involved in violence who now speak out against violence. He met Rabbi Menachem Froman, a settler and peace activist, and he became his disciple. Ziad and Ali said that they do not care what kind of state there is. They just want to be able to provide for their families, have freedom of movement, and leave peacefully whether their neighbors are Arab or Jewish. We discussed many complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also with Lonny and Phil.
Finally, we visited in Gan Tiltan, the public kindergarten which is in cooperation with our congregation and gives Jewish enrichment based on pluralistic egalitarian values. Because it was going to take the taxi a little longer to get there, Rabbi Brian and Steve had to stay while I led an activity for the kids.
This year, the theme of my weekly activity with the 4-5 year olds is community involvement and we emphasize a value and do a good deed/project for every holiday. As we are now getting ready for Purim, I started talking about Mishloach Manot (sending gifts of food). I connected it with last week’s Torah portion Beshalach where the Israelites were “sent” by Pharaoh out of Egypt. We reviewed the story and our guests were amazed how much the kids already know. And, of course, how appropriate that here is where our visit ends – educating the next generation from a young age to celebrate diversity, love and respect others even if their practice is different from yours, and give these values Jewish names.
Rabbi Brian and Steve left me with these words:
“This has been a life-changing day.”
Indeed it was. It was a powerful experience to share my everyday life and show the reality as opposed to the news sound bite. To meet someone and after an hour feel a strong connection with them. To see how much is different and yet how much we have in common.
In the spirit of this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, when we read the standing at Mount Sinai and the receiving of Torah, we remember that we all stood at Sinai together. Our meeting this week was a happy reunion.