On Rosh Hashanah 2006, following the Second Lebanon War, I spoke about my sense that I could simply stand at the bimah, say “Israel,” sit back in my seat, and we would all witness fireworks as people reacted from all sides with their feelings for, against and about Israel. It’s a sad reality that for so many in our Jewish community, Israel evokes such strong and passionate feelings. For many, there is a sense that we can no longer talk with one another civilly about the subject. In the round of house meetings held throughout our Temple Shalom community two years ago, we learned that one wide-spread concern is that civil discourse is all-too absent in our society these days. In the coming weeks, our Ani v’Atah Organizing Team will launch a project in which we will have the opportunity to direct our questions, feelings, concerns and passions about Israel into what we hope will be a congregation-wide opportunity for learning and civil discourse. Beginning on Monday night, February 11th we will have an opportunity to hear the first of a number of incredible speakers who will help us to move beyond headlines and talking heads to learn, and then challenge ourselves to engage one another in facilitated conversation around what we’ve heard and the questions, concerns and passions we each have.
However, as I sit here in Jerusalem, I am drawn to a different sense of the power of passion when it comes to Israel. It is the power of the passions of people I have met over the past week during the CCAR Social Justice and Solidarity Mission in which I was privileged to participate, and in the days since as I have shared coffee, meals and conversation with both friends and strangers from many walks of life in and around Israel, and in more recent days, Jerusalem. There are passions here beyond those found in the political sphere, which came to a head of sorts with last week’s elections. Yes, one can easily tap into abundant passion surrounding discussions of politics. And there is the fever which sweeps Israeli society around its sporting events (I write as the Israel Soccer Cup Final is beginning at Teddy Stadium across the street from where I am sitting and writing these words.) Rather, I am speaking about the passion I encountered in the people, of all ages and of many different backgrounds I have met during the past week.
Some examples: At the beginning of our CCAR Mission we met with the students at our Israel Progressive (Reform) Movement’s Mechina in Jaffa. In Israel, the mechina programs, which abound, are a sort of gap-year for high school graduates, before they begin their military service. The Hebrew word mechina means “preparation,” and the concept behind these programs is to give these young people an opportunity to learn, and do community service, all while maturing a bit before they enter the Army. The Reform Mechina program, has grown from 4 participants in its first year a decade ago, to the 50 students currently in the program. They study Judaism, Jewish texts and explore their Jewish identity, and they spend much of their time volunteering in the Jaffa area — in schools, in community centers, in nursing homes, and in many more settings, working with Jews, Christians and Arabs. These incredibly impressive 18-19 year olds choose to spend a year of social and communal service, for which they pay, while deepening their identity and sense of commitment.
Lest you think I have only found commitment and passion among the young, let me add the experience of meeting Dr. Dalia Fadila, the founder of Q Schools, in Tira, an Arab-Israeli village in the center of Israel. Dr. Fadila was raised in Tira, one among a number of Arab-Israeli Villages in an area known as “the Triangle,” a wholly Arab area located in the heart of Israel. She received her Masters degree and Doctorate focussing on minority identity and status in society at Bar Ilan University (functionally an Orthodox institution) in Ramat Aviv. Dr. Fadila was the first Arab-Israeli woman to be appointed to a position in higher education in Israel. She has served in various teaching and administrative positions at Al-Qasemi Academy, an Arab College of Education in Bake El-Gharbiya, another Arab village in “the Triangle.” She served for a time as Acting President of the college and currently serves as Provost. An expert on organizational development and a researcher of American literature, women’s literature and ethnic studies, Dr. Fadila is deeply concerned with promoting quality education for Arab students and has established a network of private schools for teaching English called Q Schools – English Language and HR Development which utilizes a unique approach to learning/teaching English suited to Arab students and stemming from the need of these students to develop personally and professionally. The Q stands for quality. Sitting in her school in Tira, we watched and listened to a woman who believes she can changes the lives of young Arab students, and the Arab community through her network of Q Schools which to date has touched the lives of some 2000 students in just a few short years. Listening to Dr. Fadila was like watching flames dance as she captivated us and inspired the members of our group with her passion for education and with her belief that education can change lives and the world. While she is realistic that life for Israeli Arabs has a ways to go, she believes that change will be advanced by instilling a sense of pride, confidence and self-esteem, along with the tools for young Arab students to prepare themselves for life and careers in the 21st century. Dr. Fadila also serves on the faculty at the Israel Defense College in Herzilya. She is a tireless, passionate educator who is changing the world around her one life at a time.
There’s also Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, a young modern-Orthodox rabbi who is standing up to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and its Kashrut supervision as he seeks to help shopkeepers and restauranteurs run quality establishments without having to get caught up in the often tangled web of intrigue surrounding kashrut certification in Israel, which is widely known to involve extortion and graft. Or I could write about Elyasaf, a young social entrepreneur who has engaged in creating a number of start-ups in this “Start-Up Nation,” the most recent being Salon Shabazzi in Jerusalem’s Nachlaot neighborhood. The establishment hosts an alternative radio station (a remnant of 2011’s social protest movement); allows local artists and craftspersons to display and sell their wares, provides a cafe for the neighborhood which is also a meeting place for an incredibly diverse range of people; and by the way, has a washer and dryer in the basement, which neighbors are free to use. Elyasaf’s passion is for bringing people together — young and old, gay and straight, men and women, Christians, Muslims and Jews — you get the idea. And it is working!
We can be passionate about our feelings and concerns surrounding Israel. But this week I learned that there is abundant passion in Israel — for Israel and for change in Israel. These are stories we need to hear. We have to look and listen beyond the headlines and the politics which can all-too-often be discouraging. These are the stories of real people, real Israelis — Jews, Christians, Muslims and others whose passion can light flames in and for us to carry beyond the all-too-frequent challenges that many feel about this neighborhood over here.
More to come . . .
Rabbi Eric Gurvis