Saturday, October 25, 2014

Broadening our Perspectives - Part II

Shabbat Shalom! We're back in the States and by the time you see this, we invariably will have slept in our own beds. But this trip was so rich, so intense, and so multi-faceted, we would not do it justice if we did not close out with some perspectives.

Let us start by reviewing that this was not an ordinary itinerary for Israel, Palestine, and/or the Holy Land. Conceptually, we did not visit one country, but two. Not only did we see places and hear speakers not usually included in such trips, we also engaged in dialogues most evenings-- facilitated by Rev. Dr. Chuck Mize from the Glenview Community Church (co-sponsor of the trip with Hands of Peace). Chuck did a masterful and extraordinarily respectful job of helping a diverse group process some pretty heavy stuff.  Indeed, some of what I've already shared in the blog is what I shared in our dialogue sessions.

So, with that, it's important you hear from both of us.

Emily first: "I honestly didn't know what to anticipate or expect as I prepared for this trip.  Knowing my mom had been planning the itinerary for over a year allowed me to trust her lead. However, I'm not sure I could have been fully prepared for what I experienced.  On our first day we were told it would be very complicated -- and it was.  We were given a privileged glimpse into the lives of Palestinians and Israelis, trying to make sense of the complicated realities of life in this historical land.  We were told that this is a land without history because history is being made in this place every day.  My heart was continually burdened by the lack of peace and the ongoing injustices -- made even more ironic by God's promises of peace and abundance that frame the story of the land.  Seeing the sights was a unique experience.  I walked away more encouraged in my Judaism; indeed, given the tumultuous history of the Jewish people, it is a miracle and evidence of God's promises that a widespread community of Jews still exist.  I also felt privileged to walk in some of Jesus' footsteps -- sure the dirt roads of that time have been paved over, but these were places where Jesus physically lived.  Overall, I came away with some tender seeds of hope, and those planted by the sweet, genuine relationships between Palestinians and Israelis -- not any grand political statements, but a commitment to love, honor, respect, and see the other person as equally human, equally deserving of justice, peace, and a place to belong.  I didn't have faith in politics before this trip and I certainly don't now.  But, I do have confidence that this story is not yet finished and the ending will be peace."  

Now, Wendy's thoughts: "Let me preface those by saying I am not anti-Semitic nor am I a self-hating Jew. I am proud to be Jewish-- by faith, tradition, history, and ethnicity. And nothing or no one can or will ever take that away from me.  Further, I am a 61 year old woman who just visited Israel for the first time-- with a strong interest in all things          multi-cultural, a social justice lens toward the world, and an openness to people with a different world or life view from mine.  Additionally, when I am not traveling in Israel, I serve on the North American Board of the Union for Reform Judaism (chairing a community initiative in the Chicago area), I serve as the current Chair for Hands of Peace, and I sing with Kol Zimrah-- the Jewish Community Singers of Chicago. I do not recite these roles because I'm applying for a job-- but, rather, because they inform the way I experienced this journey. (My myriad of other passions do not really play into my reflections here except, of course, my passion for a good meal and great shopping!)

More seriously, like the situation in Israel that we experienced, my relationship with Israel is complicated-- and quite emotional. As blogged earlier, my reaction at the Wall was affirming and life changing. My discomfort at Yad Vashem was expected. My fear in the refugee camp and in Hebron was genuine. My disdain and horror for how the Palestinians are being treated is real. When Husam told us his family had been in Palestine for over 800 years, that made it even more real. To synthesize those emotions, by the end of the trip, I tearfully expressed to my fellow travelers that I needed more. I wanted more exposure to the wonderful, vibrant, creative, warm, progressive Israel that I know is there but didn't have a chance to fully experience. I wanted and needed more balance.  At every Shabbat service, we sing beautiful songs for Shalom / peace. How can there possibly be such a disconnect?  I leave Israel having seen things I didn't want to see and having experienced emotions I didn't expect to experience-- but desperately clamoring for much, much more.

Despite needing more, I am proud to say that now that I've finally visited there, I love Israel-- more than I imagined possible. I loved sleeping in a room with a mezuzah outside the door. I loved hearing our ancient language used conversationally. I loved the zest for life. I loved seeing people who looked like me. I loved knowing this is my place.

Having seen the Hands of Peace kids from the Mideast so willing to take risks and lay it all on the line in engaging in a better future, I leave with a heart that is saddened, unfulfilled-- yet full of hope.  And I leave very ready to come back.

I also leave Israel feeling so blessed that I could travel with one of the most extraordinary women I know-- my daughter, Emily. We created memories that will be in my heart forever."

Thank you for accompanying both of us on this journey.
At Masada

Enjoying ice cream in Ramallah

Sailing the Sea of Gallilee
Overlooking the Mount of Olives

In the Druze Village

Emily with our tour guides (l-r)
Husam, Mustafa, and Yuval


Peace, shalom, salaam, and much love until we travel again,

wendy and emily

Friday, October 24, 2014

Broadening Our Perspectives - Part I

As I write this, it is early Friday morning and we are flying over the Labrador Sea toward Newfoundland on our way to Newark (where we'll connect for home). In the event our perspectives and imaginations hadn't been stretched and twisted up until this point in the trip, that stretching and twisting took on new shapes as we began to wind down for our departure.

A few words back to our speaker on Tuesday morning. As I wrote, she was a councilwoman in the Jerusalem city government. Yes, she represents one of the far left parties and they are definitely in the minority-- but her words gave me hope. She articulated the three major challenges facing Jerusalem (as a microcosm of Israel): 1) rich/ poor, 2) Palestinians/ Israelis, 3)  across religious groups. If you think of Israel as a very detailed, intricate tapestry with many threads and patterns converging and diverging, that's it. Extraordinarily complex. For instance, many of the ultra-Orthodox (Israeli) Jews are very poor. They don't send their children to the public schools (and this is sanctioned by the State), so they don't build marketable skills, and as a result, they cannot or will not work and, as a result, receive financial support by the State-- with an allowance that increases per child. These individuals have no interest, whatsoever, in sharing (or exploring the possibilities of co-existence) with the Palestinians (indeed, our speaker described this group as racist). So, the cycle continues.

When our speaker was asked what she thought President Obama and the U.S. should do, she responded that we should dish out some very tough love (my words) to Netanyahu. Not to get political here (but I will), but we need very strong leaders (with immense amounts of intestinal fortitude) to address the conflict and it just isn't happening.
On Tuesday afternoon, some of us headed back to the Old City for some retail therapy-- where we entered through the Damascus Gate. 

Those are spices stacked into a pyramid!
We were successful on that point-- but here we were exposed to the rough and tumble elements of Jerusalem. One member of our group was jostled to the ground and his cell phone was stolen. Another member was hit by one of the large, unwieldy, fast-moving rolling carts . She needed stitches in her leg. So the perspectives' broadening continued.

On Wednesday morning, we headed north toward Haifa with planned stops at the Sea of  Galilee, Capernaum, and Safed / Tzfat.  First, we took a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. (Emily stayed behind to try her hand at "walking on the water".)
For many of our group, this was the most moving experience of the trip as this was where Jesus actually walked. Our ride was lovely and became part of the dual narrative when Yuval exuberantly initiated an Israeli dance-- several of us joined in. The skipper played the Star Spangled Banner at the outset and raised the American flag. While the flag of  Israel was also flying on the mast, there was no Hatikvah played-- perhaps out of political correctness and respect to Husam? This was one of those painful "dual narrative" moments (more on that later).

Our next stop was Capernaum, where Jesus lived and healed Peter's mother. The old synagogue (circa 4th century AD) was remarkably well preserved. 

Next, we journeyed to Safed / Tzfat, a Palestinian city taken over by the Israelis in 1948 that has become a center of Jewish mysticism (through Kabbalism), an art colony, and a retreat for the 1960's hippies' spirit.

We saw all three of these influences converge when we visited David Friedman's art studio. David made Aliyah over 30 years ago from Denver and acknowledged that the music of the Grateful Dead (plus the drug culture) influenced his art. His works are stunning and reflect many Kabbalistic elements, which he beautifully and spiritually spelled out. Many in our group were moved to purchase his artwork (your writer among them).   

After the time at David's studio, we visited a stunning Ashkenazi synagogue...

...and then proceeded down a beautiful alley full of amazing galleries and the best opportunities of the trip for significant and meaningful retail therapy.

Alas, we didn't have time for anything but high level browsing. Note to self: must return to this must not miss spot. (If readers are concerned I did not get in my usual shopping quotient, no fear as the Yad Vashem gift shop offered many fine opportunities to fill my extra bag-- and fill it I did.)

We ended the long day in Haifa at Maxim restaurant-- a Palestinian restaurant that was the site of a suicide bombing incident about 12 years ago. (The restaurant is "in the family" as one of our staff members is related to the owners ).  Of course, as elsewhere on the trip, the Palestinian food and hospitality were outstanding. More importantly, though, we were joined at dinner by 60 Hands of  Peace kids and their parents; it was electric and inspirational to hear their stories of hope and understanding.....
...while nearby was a reminder of today's reality:
We were fortunate to be seated alongside Judy and Amit (she is an American who made Aliyah  20+ years ago and now writes for Ha'aretz-- the left-leaning Israeli newspaper that many American Jews enjoy-- and he is a university professor who was on Rabin's team at the time of the assassination). Their son was in our San Diego Israeli Jewish delegation this past summer.  It was fascinating to hear their perspectives (they now live in Tel Aviv and love it there-- they used to live in Jerusalem but left because it was so intense-- this reminded me just a bit of the dichotomy we experienced between Shanghai and Beijing several years back). Most heart-wrenching though was to hear their story from this past summer. They have four children. Their oldest is in an elite infantry unit of the IDF so of course was on the ground for the Gaza operation this past summer.  They heard from him most evenings. Their next child, a daughter, is taking a gap year before entering the army. Their third child was in San Diego this summer attending our program during the Gaza operation. And their fourth child was at home. As Judy told the story of the family's angst, my heart burst for her. So difficult.

We checked into our hotel in Haifa to get some rest before our last day of touring. We started Thursday morning with a visit to the glorious Baha'i shrine and gardens. This was quite a fitting "last day" stop to our trip as the Baha'i faith speaks to all faiths and reinforces unity, diversity, and peace. While the narrative was interesting and somewhat compelling, several of us were surprised to hear how very conservative the doctrines are. That aside, the views were spectacular. 



Last stop-- a Druze village where we heard from a non-devout gentleman and a devout woman. (You may be aware that George Clooney's bride, Amal Alamuddin, has a Palestinian Druze background-- though she is not devout-- as intermarriage is definitely not permitted). Developed partly from Shia Islam, this ancient faith believes in reincarnation and very little reverence for the dead.
We were told that many Israeli Druze families support Israel (there are also communities in Syria and Lebanon).  Druze families go so far as to send their children to the army. Husam informed us (as it has been his role to do), however, that the Israeli Druze support for Israel is not unilateral.

In a journey punctuated by memorable dining (and when has that not been the case?), our lunch at the Druze village was an absolute standout. The platters kept coming and included (but were not limited to): hummus, home made flatbread with Zatar -- a zesty Mideast spice made from dried herbs including oregano and sumac, home-made flatbread with tomato sauce, roasted eggplant, rice, mini stuffed cabbage leaves, mini stuffed grape leaves, kebabs in Tahini, chicken, and amazing cookies .

All of this was accompanied by a tangy and sweet Tamarind tea.  We bid our good- byes and headed back to Tel Aviv for our late-night flight home.
As for our departure, security and check in at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion's airport are really something else. We prepped our group that they should not volunteer that we had spent considerable amounts of time on the West Bank. It was " Kosher" for us to be there-- but a detailed description might be problematic for Israeli Security, so we were strongly advised to stick to a straightforward and simplistic script. As tour leader , I was singled out by security for fairly extensive questioning.  Good thing my mental and physical exhaustion did not affect my brain cells as I was able to answer the following questions with some semblance of agility: Why were you here?  Who was your leader? Did you have meetings? Why? What cities did you visit? Who was your guide (here, we had been explicitly coached not to identify Husam as a guide)? Why did you come early? Did any of your group separate from the rest? Why? Etc., etc. Then, I had to walk alongside our group with my new BFF Security guy to verify our group members (I was pretty pleased I did not have to recite names as by this point, I was wiped!), but that wasn't all. After my bags went through the initial screening, I was pulled aside so the friendly Security folks could do a deeper dive into my baggage for something suspect.  (Luckily, my laundry was elsewhere). Low and behold (gift spoiler alert!!!), they discovered that the Dead Sea salt gifts had set off some kind of alert on the X-ray machine. Fortunately, this discovery did not at all affect my ability to keep these gifts and continue through the security labyrinth. 

From the stirring moments at the Galilee and Capernaum to the mystical visit to Tzfat to the inspiring kids and parents and the Baha'i and Druze experiences, our last two days absolutely exposed us to yet additional narratives for this rich and emotional trip.  The last blog for this journey will contain our reflections. Stay tuned.

Peace, shalom, salaam,

wendy and emily


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Highs and Lows (Part II)

We had been given the heads up that Sunday could be a difficult day. And it was.

We started off heading to the West Bank once more. This time our destination was the UN-operated Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. I expected to see a Syrian-type camp (like we have seen at home on the news). That was not the case. This camp was basically a Palestinian neighborhood with narrow streets, minimal (if any) municipal services (as in street cleaning), lots of PLO-supported graffiti (including some memorializing young martyrs killed in the conflict) and close-quartered apartments. We stayed fairly close to the major road outside so we were not exposed to the abject poverty that lay deeper within the camp.  Of course I am and was saddened by the conditions in the camp. Of course, I decried the human rights violations apparent throughout the West Bank and in the camp, whether that be the constant police presence, the lack of municipal services, the absence of basic civility and/or civil rights, the inaccessibility and imposed travel sanctions for those who live here, and more. But, once again, I had an unexpected response-- this time that response was one of absolute fear.  Did the young men roaming around the streets know there were Jews (me among them) in our group? And how did they feel about being inspected (almost like caged creatures in a zoo)? I now can fully understand how rage can foment so easily and manifest as violence in this environment and in other areas just like it throughout the West Bank and in Gaza. I am, by no means, sanctioning that violence. But that fear was my immediate reaction and it stuck with me throughout the rest of the day. We were perfectly safe, but I was on edge.

Our next stop was to travel more deeply into the West Bank to Hebron -- an ancient and holy city revered  by Christians, Muslims, and Jews as the site where the Tombs of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs are located. It is a very conservative city from religious practice and extreme views perspectives. While 250,000 Palestinians live here, they are joined by approximately 600 extremist Jewish settlers (who live here because of the Tombs). 

20% of the city is controlled by Israel.  There has been two-way violence here.  The atmosphere was absolutely oppressive and my level of fear from our morning visit to the camp did not subside. The first scary moment was when we drove through the checkpoint leading up to the Settlement.  There was a possibility that Husam wouldn't be permitted in-- so we held our collective breaths as the checkpoint police scrutinized the bus. Then, at lunch, our host declared that he "didn't hate all Jews"...  He was trying to make a point about the gravity of their living conditions -- bit it wasn't lost on me. 


A visceral sense of  fear struck again in the mosque. As context, the tombs share a wall between a synagogue and a mosque. Jews are not permitted in the mosque and Muslims are not permitted in the synagogue. In the spirit of enabling all of us to have a complete experience, our guides informed us they would tell a white lie so that our entire group could enter the mosque. Some of the women were asked to don rather frightful KKK-type robes. Others wore their shawls wrapped as head scarves. I arranged my shawl so it matched the others (in a manner that was perfectly acceptable at mosques in Istanbul). All of a sudden, the gentleman handing out the robes singled me out to wear one.  Was I being busted as Jewish? Needless to say, that interchange gave me the creeps.

After visiting the tombs,
we walked down the main street which was once a thriving marketplace. Now it's a ghost town with boarded up stores and separate walking lanes for the settlers and the Palestinians.  When we were getting ready to walk through the remaining markets in the PLO part of town, Yuval could not join us and we were advised not to greet the Israeli police with so much as a Shalom-- as Jews are not allowed to be owners where we were going.  So, my edginess continued. As we walked through the open air market, our eyes were directed upwards where netting protected the folks in the markets from being pelted with eggs, garbage, or worse by the settlers . The settlers feel strongly that this town is meant for them and any terrorizing they do to the Palestinians here is not prosecuted. Again, I was fearful for my own safety and very gratified to finally get on the bus.


Our day came to a close with the opportunity to actually walk through a checkpoint from the West Bank back to Jerusalem. Our guides  anticipated that we would have no difficulties whatsoever-- but the barbed wire and signage felt like we were waiting in line at a concentration camp.

A good dinner was called for so several of us headed out to Chakra-- Israeli farm-to-table small plates and beyond in West Jerusalem. We decided to share everything, which worked wonderfully for these comfort foods-- smoked eggplant, chopped liver (the ultimate comfort food), lemon garlic cauliflower, greens and garlic, pasta, shrimp, focaccia, and several amazing desserts-- including vanilla ice cream with Tahini, honey, and crushed almonds.  It was great to wind down from such an intense day with good food and good friends.


However, we weren't about to get a break from intense sights. So, on Monday morning, we went to Yad Vashem (Israel's official memorial to the victims of the holocaust).

As to be expected, Yad Vashem was powerful and extraordinarily well designed and curated. The memorial begins with a history of the arc of anti-Semitism followed by very detailed portrayals of the rise of Naziism in each country throughout Europe and North Africa leading up to the implementation of the Final Solution.  I expected to get weepy here and I did-- but I was particularly struck by one of our new travel friends (not Jewish) who literally broke down into sobs only two dioramas into the exhibit. She asked us to forgive her for the horrors Hitler had wrought. It was very moving and very sad.

Several other moments really struck me-- remnants of burned Torahs from Kristallnacht, an exhibit of a cantor's transcription of Yom Kippur prayers written on scraps of parchment that he had received in exchange for bread rations (so that he could lead a service in his concentration camp barracks), Torah scroll fragments used as insoles, and a photo and profile of a young man named Jiri Bader (1930-1944) -- my mother's maiden name-- maybe a relative?  The children's memorial was also very poignant; a creative and powerful way to remember those precious victims. 

We closed out the day with a brief visit to S'derot, an Israeli town of 24,000 less than a mile from Gaza, where we heard from the deputy mayor and a Hands of Peace alum. There are many bomb shelters here and it is an everyday routine to run to a shelter with a 15 second warning. The leaders of this relatively small town are doing everything they can to turn it into a cultural hub. We passed a kibbutz and then drove to a Gaza overlook. Everything about this conflict is heart-wrenching.

In the spirit of balancing out this blog with something uplifting (literally), we started out on Tuesday with a ride to Mt. Olive for beautiful views of Jerusalem....

...and a camel ride-- truly uplifting as I had to climb on a seated camel who steadily lifted me way up! This was quite a different experience from the camel ride in the parking lot of the Oberoi Hotel in Udaipur, India. That one, with Wayne holding on for dear life, was very much more refined!   

The rest of Tuesday included a "Politics in Jerusalem" lecture by a New jersey-born Harvard graduate city councilwoman, a visit to Ramallah where we had an excellent lunch with their famous ice cream and heard from a Palestinian non-violence advocate who aspires after Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, and a powerfully moving talk from two representatives of Parents' Circle  -- a group of 600 Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost children to the conflict. The gentlemen we heard from had each lost daughters-- one was 14 and one was 10. This group of families works toward peace, reconciliation, and tolerance.

We leave Jerusalem Wednesday morning for Haifa and stops in between.

Until then shalom, peace, salaam and love,

wendy and emily