Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Trip South

Now that internet is once more accessible, I can recap the last few days. Wow, it feels like a million years ago that we were in Tel Aviv. Each day feels like a week because it is not only jam packed with so much but it is all very intense and amazing.

On the Way to the Negev
We began heading south on Sunday morning and stopped at Gedera. This low income community is home to many Ethiopian Jews. It was there that we met one of the remarkable women on the trip, Yuvi, who has founded a community of people (Friends by Nature) who permanently live with the long time residents in order to show that not everyone who has been educated leaves the community. We were first treated to the traditional coffee ceremony as a welcome and then discussed the history and current status of Ethiopian Jews.
Preparing for the coffee ceremony

Yuvi herself came to Israel at age 8 after her entire village of Jews (80 people) walked north from Ethiopia into Sudan for one and a half months and then waited for 8 more months before being airlifted as part of Operation Moses. Avi, a teenager who also spoke with us, had an easier time getting to Israel. He was airlifted right from Ethiopia.
Avi plays a traditional instrument which
he later donated as a gift to our synagogue.

Once in Israel, the social services folks descended, criticizing the parenting skills of the Ethiopian mothers and removing the children to boarding schools (similar to how Native American families were treated in the US).

By contrast in Gedera, Yuvi works with families so that they can participate in understanding how to improve their conditions themselves. One of her group's programs called Homework at Home has helped totally eliminate the high school drop-out rate among youth in the community.

After our discussion we were served an Ethiopian lunch. I usually am not a big fan of Ethiopian food and this food was a bit too spicy for me. But surprisingly I liked the spongy bread we were served (thicker and darker than the US restaurants) and the lentils were excellent.
Our Ethiopian lunch

After Gedera, we continued south to the border of Israel and Gaza where we visited a community (Moshav Netiv Haasarah) that is right on the border. Honestly, this was the scariest part of the trip for me. Our host, Raz, was born into this community of 60 families when it was located in the Sinai Peninsula and then relocated into its current location when Israel gave the Sinai back to Egypt. It is a lovely community, sort of a modern version of the kibbutz with a number of community services but much less collectivity. A closer look at the community and you get a better idea of what life is really like. Sensors at the border sound a siren every time a rocket is launched from Gaza. At that point, the residents have 15 seconds to get to one of the many bomb shelters in order to be protected. Raz's 4 year old son already knows the location of the bomb shelter adjacent to the playground. Unfortunately, if a mortar is launched instead of a rocket, then there is no siren, no warning.
A bomb shelter (right) next to the playground.

Raz grew up with the Palestinians. They worked on his father's farm and he played with their children in Gaza. He told us he wants peace ("if they are happy, I am happy") but he also said "if someone steps on your toe again and again, sooner or later you are going to kick him." He then took us right to the border, where we stood on a cliff looking directly at the concrete wall.
The wall at the border and Gaza beyond.

This whole part of the trip terrified me. I looked around and could not find a safe place. What if I just stayed on the bus? It's very visible, it could be attacked. What if I went with the group? Then I'm in a group of vulnerable people. What if it's a mortar and there is no warning? What if something happened to my son?
Part of the community's collection of rockets that have been launched at them.

I have to admit that I stood out as being the fearful one in the group. It made me realize that I had no idea how this could be someone's ongoing way of life, even though they have the choice to leave and not have to live this way. While we have had to wrestle with many complexities during this trip, I would say that so far this is the one that has stumped me the most. I was relieved when we were on our way moving farther inland.
Rabbi Kleinbaum and Raz displaying a box of cherry tomatos grown on his farm.

Our final stop for the day was the kibbutz (Kibbutz Mashabei Sade) where we spent the next two nights.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

All We Celebrated Was Shabbat

How fitting that on Shabbat our itinerary turned toward the hopeful. And in Tel Aviv, we were able to have hope without Christmas.

First, there was rest. After catching up on sleep and resting a bit, my day began in the early afternoon as we all went to the Yarkon River north of our hotel in Tel Aviv and learned about environmental issues in Israel. Our teacher, Hannah Schafter, an American from Portland, Oregon, now living here and working for Zalul, which focuses on ending water pollution, explained a great deal about how the serious need for water and industry in the country has impacted water quality here. Her organization managed to end the destruction of an important coral reef just off the southern coast of Israel and they have worked to get industry to improve its environmental practices. We then went off in pairs with plastic trash bags and gloves on our hands to do some cleaning up along the river bed. I was paired with Judy, who is also blogging this trip (officially for CBST) and we filled up our bag very quickly. It was a beautful sunny 70 degree day and families were out in full force in the park located along the river bank.
The Yarkon River

Judy after the clean-up with Adam and Chet behind her. The CBST blog can be found at http://cbstisrael2010.blogspot.com/

From the river we went south to Jaffa, the city next to Tel Aviv that is home to both Arabs and Jews, and visited with a group of young people in the Mechina program, a one-year pre-army program for high school graduates. In a sense, this is a gap year for Israeli students before they do their mandatory army service. This Mechina (which means Preparation) is run by the Reform Jewish movement and stresses social justice and human rights (including how to apply these values into army service). The students live together communally, do a variety of different community service jobs and study social justice topics. We met as a large group and then broke into 4 small groups to be able to talk more easily and get to know one another a bit better. One of our group's members, Elizabeth, noted publicly that she has been a teacher for 40 years of students in the 17-18 year old age group, and just by looking at these young people she could see their commitment and dedication. It was a very moving statement and made an impression on the kids. After our small groups, we all went outside together and in one big circle celebrated Havdalah, the end of the Sabbath, with a braided candle, sweet smelling spices (which in this case was improvised from coffee grounds) and wine. We came away refreshed and hopeful.
In the apartment of Melchina youth. Many peace stickers on the wall, plus The Simpsons, and the only Christmas tree we saw in Israel. When asked about it the kids said it was "a joke."

Israeli youth must perform their army service at age 18--boys for 3 years, girls for 2. For those small number who are exempted, there is an alternative community service program. College does not begin until army service is completed. I asked them about that, contrasting it with the US where kids by and large go right to college from high school. One student responded that if she were to start college now she would have no idea yet what she wanted to study. They mostly saw the army as a maturation experience and felt that their year in Mechina helped them mature even more. This is a great contrast to the US where we view college as the maturation experience and where there is much more emphasis on finishing one's education to get into the job market as quickly as possible. I imagine that there are few if any so-called party schools in Israel.
Some of the young people in our small group.

Tonight we were on our own in Tel Aviv and 5 of us went to dinner, hoping to do some shopping after, but alas, after Shabbat, the stores did not reopen. Truly, the only disappointment of the day.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Multiple Realities

You would never know from where I sit in Tel Aviv that it is Christmas eve. Even at home in my very Jewish Upper West Side neighborhood, there is a smattering of Christmas lights on apartment windows and there are trees and wreaths for sale on Broadway. Here there is nothing. Not one thing that is red and white or red and green to remind me. I basically forgot all about Christmas until the rabbi reminded us (a few in our group are not Jewish and so they were afforded the opportunity to attend a Christmas morning mass in Jaffa, the mixed Arab-Jewish town south of Tel Aviv very close to our hotel). How strange for the first time to be in the religious majority, even more so than in Queens or Brookline or Manhattan.

Today we were pulled in many emotional, intellectual and political directions, which I think is the objective of this trip. First, we visited the Israeli Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed and proclaimed. It was a very moving introduction to Zionism and to the experience of the nation's founders. In 1909, Tel Aviv was just a sand dune, a stretch of land bought from the Turks (who ruled the area before the British) for a lot more than the Dutch bought Manhattan from the Native Americans 300 years before, even after inflation! The woman who works as a guide at the Hall was clearly an accomplished speaker or even actress and spoke with passion about the founding of the country. She said many things you would expect, but one of them stuck with me. She said that each time there is a tragedy--a war, an attack--it feels to Israelis like it is the first time; they have not become inured. I don't know if that is true or if it is part of her shtick, but I did wonder.

From there we went to the offices of the Agudah, Israel's national LGBT organization and also the place where a gunman invaded a meeting of LGBT youth 18 months ago killing two people and wounding many others. It was difficult to be in that same space, especially sitting next to my 18 year old son, but important to hear that story.

This afternoon and evening was devoted the The Situation - no, not the guy with the six-pack abs, but the Arab-Israeli conflict. We spoke with the head of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (similar to the ACLU) and the Israeli Religious Action Center, the Reform branch's policy and social justice organization. They are both very upset with their government and where it is taking the country ("over the cliff" one of them said). There were many assertions that the situation as it is now is just not "sustainable." Basically, the polarization is getting worse and worse and hope is waning. But of course, they are the hope. The work they do, with so many others, including their Palestinian partners, keeps the pilot light of peace lit.

I would be remiss (and not at all myself) if I didn't mention the food. First of all, there is so much of it. Every place we have eaten has been a veritable banquet. The plates just keep coming and coming. It's like the Israeli version of the Catskills. The fruit (the reddest grapefruits) and the vegetables (gorgeous multicolored salads, luscious avocados), fresh cheeses, and amazing hummus. Luckily there is a lot of walking.

I'll end with some pictures:
The view of Tel Aviv from our balcony

Some great sculpture from Neve Tzedek, the first Jewish neighborhood before Tel Aviv was built.

Political street art. Above the gun it says "Zionism is Death" and on the post there is a sticker (with the yellow arrow) that says "Cheer Up."

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Safe Landing - A Tug At My Heart

Outdoor Cafe at the Tel Aviv LGBT Center

I didn't expect to feel it but as we landed this evening (it's 7 hours later here) I felt a tugging at my heart. It was unexpected because I had been reading Amos Oz's memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness (excellent, highly recommended) and so much of what he talked about was the discrepancy between how immigrants imagined Israel (the Land, they called it, which conjured up images of the Michigan Women's Music Festival, I'm sorry to say) while they were still in Poland and what Israel was really like for them once they got here (the hard life, reduced career expectations, crowded living situations). Like the immigrant view of America with its streets paved with gold. Not only was I expecting to feel jaded from reading Oz, but also because of what I already knew about the Land and its treatment of the Other, whether Palestinian, Bedouin, Ethiopian. So because I had been focusing so much on all this oppression, the last thing I expected was to feel the heart pangs of love.

Much like the Biblical Balaam, king of Moab, who looks out on the Hebrew encampment and opens his mouth to curse it, but instead what comes out are blessings ("how goodly are thy tents, O Jacob..."), I was taken by surprise at my unplanned reaction. Maybe it is necessary to love something/someone/some place in order to care enough to want it to be the best it can be.

The Tel Aviv LGBT Center
Our first stop and it is impressive. Four stories and an outdoor cafe that provides some revenue for the Center. Though most of the support comes from the municipality and the employees are city employees. Amazing.

One entire floor is for the youth - the Israel Gay Youth organization or IGGY as it is called. Its brochure is pretty standard for most organizations of this type, except on the back panel there are a series of diagrams that look like something you'd find in an Ikea instruction book on how to assemble furniture. Curious, we asked about it and were told that these were instructions for disassembling a closet. Clever.

They were wonderful hosts and fed us well.

There was evening and there was morning. The first day.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Different Country - Just a post before I go

Yesterday Jacob and I attended the pre-trip brunch for the group of us going to Israel and as we went around the table introducing ourselves, one woman said that she hadn't been to Israel for 20 years. "It's a different country," the rabbi interjected.

On Friday, I'd spent quite a long time online looking for an article that I could have sworn I'd read in the NY Times this year about Americans' perceptions of Israel (I can hear my gf in my head saying, "isn't that EVERY article in the NY Times?"). In this particular article, the writer juxtaposed the Israel of the 1960s, the one many people of my generation grew up with, with the Israel of today. What we grew up hearing about was a collective paradise of kibbutzniks doing Israeli dancing, raising children together, transforming the desert into an agricultural paradise, and providing all citizens with education, health care, and other social services. New Jewish immigrants would be welcomed with open arms and put through an assimilation process where they would learn how to become Israelis, very different from how the Jews (and the Italians and the Irish, etc.) were dumped on the docks of Manhattan after the brutality of Ellis Island, many with empty pockets, at the mercy of whatever huckster greeted them with promises of housing and a job, squeezed into "cold water flats" as my parents called them, working day and night in sweat shops.

The article I read (unless it was a hallucination and I would welcome anyone to find this article and send me the link) contrasted the view of that former Israel with the present Israel, where there is a growing economic disparity between rich and poor, where the kibbutz is more or less marginalized, and where socialism is on the wane. This is now a land that has built a wall around itself (both literally and figuratively), that imports foreign labor to take jobs its citizens don't want (and Palestinians can no longer get to) but then won't legitimize those foreigners, and that has become an occupier in a situation that is looking less and less temporary. Concurrently, it is a country that is still a refuge for a people who have not had one for centuries, that despite all its flaws is still a democracy, that exalts learning and literature so that its writers are as celebrated as its rock stars, and that has a burgeoning technology sector responsible for many groundbreaking discoveries and innovations. Except for the prominence of the writers, it is starting to sound more and more like the US. You might ask, "is that a bad thing?" or "is that such a bad thing?"

Two Jews, three opinions.

Almost time to pack the clothes, the books and all my assumptions for the trip.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Dusting off this blog

:::turning on the lights in here:::
:::wiping off the cobwebs and dust:::
:::opening windows to let in fresh air:::

Ahh, that's better.

There's nothing like an impending first-time trip to Israel coming up in just one week to get me blogging again.

On December 22, Jacob (18 year old son) and I will be joining a group from Congregation Beth Simcha Torah (my synagogue), including our esteemed Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, for a 10 day trip to Israel. We'll be in Tel Aviv, the Negev and Jerusalem. This is a social justice oriented trip, so we'll be meeting activists from the human rights, LGBT rights, Palestinian rights and Bedouin movements and communities in addition to seeing important sites and, of course, shopping.

I have attended two evening classes led by the rabbi for this group so we could all learn a bit more about our trip and the contexts in which we will be finding ourselves. We have each been asked to become "experts" on two areas or issues related to Israel. I am working to learn more about Bedouins and about Russian Jewish emigration in the 1970s, two topics that interest me.

This social justice focus is the only kind of trip I would want to make to Israel. I want a balanced view of the country. The rabbi says that there are no easy answers and that anyone who says all that needs to happen is one thing or another really doesn't understand or know the situation. She wants us to immerse ourselves in the complexities and to challenge whatever positions we hold going into the trip.

This is important to me. I want to wrestle with this like Jacob wrestled with the angel. I want to be challenged by people I know who support divestment and boycotts so I can better understand why and I can balance that understanding with the opposing view. I want talk to the marginalized, to the unrepresented, to the oppressed and to come away with an even stronger commitment to them than I have now. I want to love and criticize Israel, the way I do the US. I want to believe the country has a better self, that it can be "touched by the better angels of our nature" in the words of Abraham Lincoln.

I believe that to call oneself a member of the "chosen people" implies an obligation, not a privilege. And it is an obligation to all humanity, not just to one's self and one's tribe.

These are the beliefs and values that I pack into my bag along with the shoes and shirts and other items on the list we received.

I will write about all of this and how it is impacted as we move through the trip. One of my trip-mates, an older man, told me that he was happy to hear that my son was coming because he wanted to see how an 18 year old experienced Israel for the first time. I do too, and I will write about that.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Has Rick Warren Got a Prayer? Frank Rich Nails It.

Here's the link to the full piece today in the NY Times, but the best quote is this:

"Fighting AIDS is not a get-out-of-homophobia-free card. "

This pretty much sums up my feeling that I would have been impressed 20 years ago had Warren been out there talking sensibly about AIDS. But now? In 2008? Working on AIDS is just sensible and mainstream and it does not deserve a Nobel Prize just for doing what should be expected of a renown faith leader in the US. C'mon people. Let's set our expectations where they belong.