Israel Journal, Part 2: Good People Everywhere

Dear Friends,

I managed one dispatch during our tour, but then no more until now – flying back across the ocean to home in Woodstock. But I would still like to share some of the highlights of our trip with you.

Palmach Museum

Tel Aviv is such a vibrant city – it is at the hub of a metropolitan area of 3,000,000 people. Building cranes are everywhere, jackhammers resound, and skyscrapers rise. As one is enveloped by this massive urban reality, it is difficult to conceive of just how tenuous and uncertain the Zionist enterprise was a mere 65 years ago, during the years leading up to the declaration of the State, and during the War of Independence. During World War II, as news of the concentration camps and the destruction of European Jewry filtered to the Zionist leadership in Palestine, the crushing urgency of their mission to create an independent Jewish state weighed impossibly on them. I recall an iconic photo of David Ben Gurion and his provisional government ministers holding their heads in their hands as they listen to the news from Europe. It was imperative that Jews be trained to fight. The British complied by recruiting and training a Jewish battalion to help in the fight against the Nazis. When the British no longer needed the services of these soldiers, Ben Gurion assigned them a new task: fighting the British, and, after the United Nations approved the Palestine Partition Plan of 1947 and voted for the creation of a Jewish State, fighting the Arab armies as well. These fighters were known as the Palmach, the vanguard of the Haganah, the first Jewish army in almost 19 centuries.

The Palmach Museum in toney North Tel Aviv is a museum primarily for Israelis, not tourists. Young Israelis, immersed in a booming materialistic society, may not be aware of the life and death struggle that their grandparents faced in an effort to ensure a Jewish future. The young Israelis, surrounded by one of the most powerful militaries in the world, may not know that their grandparents scrounged for bullets, often used World War I-era rifles, and faced impossible odds.

The museum is designed as an experience, as one walks through recreations of settings in which a film is projected on the walls that tracks the history of the Palmach by following a fictionalized group of soldiers from their recruitment in 1941 until the Palmach was incorporated into the newly created Israel Defense Force after the War of Independence. The determination and losses of these fighters is hard to imagine. Historical outcomes are not a given – the future rested in their under-equipped hands. And they won, at staggering cost.

As an exercise in collective memory, the Palmach Museum is amazingly effective. Rather than encountering static exhibits, one is immersed in a historical retelling, and one cannot help but identify with the ragtag soldiers as we accompany them on their mission. At the end of the journey we hear a recitation of a poem by the great Natan Aterman. This poem is recited every year on Israel’s Memorial Day, which falls one day before Israel Independence Day. It is called “Magash Hakesef” – “The Silver Platter”:

The earth grows still.
The lurid sky slowly pales over smoking borders.
Heartsick but still living, a people stand by
To greet the uniqueness
Of the miracle.
Readied, they wait beneath the moon,
Wrapped in awesome joy before the light. – –
Then soon,
A girl and boy step forward,
And slowly walk before the waiting nation;
In work clothes and heavy-shod
They climb
In stillness.
Wearing still the dress of battle, the grime
Of aching day and fired night
Unwashed, weary until death, not knowing rest,
But wearing youth like dewdrops in their hair.- –
Silently the two approach
And stand.
Are they of the quick or of the dead?
Through wondering tears, the people stare.
“Who are you, the silent two?”
And they reply: “We are the silver platter
Upon which the Jewish State was served to you.”
And speaking, fall in shadow at the nation’s feet.
Let the rest in Israel’s chronicles be told.

Good People Everywhere

One of our goals on this tour was to explore some aspects of Israeli society that are off the beaten tourist track. To this end we took a decidedly unglamorous side trip to – no kidding – Shafdan, the enormous wastewater treatment plant that services the entire Tel Aviv metropolitan area. It was fascinating. Israel, as you may know, is a water-poor country with a booming population. Out of necessity Israel has transformed itself into the world leader in water conservation and recycling. The Shafdan plant utilizes state-of-the-art technology to receive, purify and recycle all of the sewage produced in greater Tel Aviv. The purified water is then used to irrigate the crops grown in the Negev, while the sludge becomes fertilizer. Israel is now exporting this technology worldwide.

As interesting as the presentation was, I found our presenter equally interesting. I mean, this young man spoke with passion about sewage, good microbes, and sludge. He addresses dozens of school groups who come to the plant to learn about water conservation. When I spoke to him afterwards, he explained that he had left a job in the corporate world because he wanted to make a positive difference in the world. He would not be the only idealistic young Israeli we would meet on this trip.

On our way up north to the Galilee from Tel Aviv, we stopped in the Israeli Arab village of Baneh to meet an afterschool circus program for Jewish and Arab kids. The population of the Galilee is pretty equally divided between Jews and Arabs, but the two populations have little contact. The two communities have separate school systems, and even though the countryside is a patchwork of Jewish and Arab villages and towns, Jewish and Arab children have little contact. The founders of the circus are local folks who wanted a fun way for these kids to build friendships and trust. The lead teachers are a strapping pair of young men, one Jewish and one Arab. We entered the community gymnasium and were treated to a surprisingly good performance of acrobatics and clowning. We learned that, indeed, the shared activity had led to some budding friendships between Jewish and Arab parents, even some play dates. We learned that, as with all children’s performances, parents and extended families showed up for performances, meaning mixed audiences of Arab and Jewish families, a rarity. As we played and spoke with the children afterwards, I also got to show off my handstand!

The next morning we visited the Tsfat studio of Avraham Loewenthal, an artist and student of Kabbalah. I have brought groups to Avraham’s studio several times now. Avraham was born and raised in the USA, and came to Israel some 20 years earlier on his own spiritual search. He arrived in the mountaintop town of Tsfat, center of Jewish mystical study, and never left. Avraham is one of the sweetest neshamas – souls – I have ever met. In 20 minutes he gave us an introduction to the Kabbalah that cut through to the core: we are here for a reason: to love. The purpose of kabbalistic study is to discover the particular loving work of each of our lives.

Avraham’s work hangs on the wall of our sanctuary in Woodstock. It is known as “shiviti”, an aid to focusing in meditation and prayer. The piece is composed of the word “ahava” – “love”, written hundreds of times in different sizes and patterns, with the infinite name Yud-Hay-Vav-Hay prominently in the center. I feel connected to Tsfat, and to the deepest meaning of God, every time I look at it.

That very evening we found ourselves in Kiryat Shmona, a perpetually depressed development town up at Israel’s northernmost border, an easy and frequent missile target from Lebanon. We were here to visit and share dinner with Israeli college students in the Ayalim program. This program offers scholarships to students who are willing to live and volunteer in distressed communities throughout Israel while they attend college. This particular neighborhood, once a haven for drug dealers, is one of Ayalim’s great successes. Over the past several years that the Ayalim students had lived in this neighborhood they had renovated numerous apartments and initiated a wide variety of afterschool programs. Remarkably, there were no drug arrests this past year, and there are children playing on the streets. We spoke with one of the directors of the program, a young Israeli man who, like his counterpart at the water treatment plant in Tel Aviv, had left a corporate career in order to find more meaningful work. Many of the Ayalim participants see themselves as representatives of a continuing vision of Zionism, a vision that requires that a Jewish national homeland also be a humane and just society.

Oh Jerusalem!

Here I must make mention of our erudite and patient guide, Ariel Fogelman. In his late 30s, Ariel is a Jerusalem native who is a passionate student of Jewish and Israeli history, politics and culture. In particular, he grew up in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, and would appear to know every alleyway and building crammed into that single square kilometer. But what makes Ariel extraordinary is that he is a committed educator, preparing now to pursue a doctorate in how to teach critical thinking. He is also very good looking, and many in our group thoroughly enjoyed swooning over him. Our group was also blessed to have a very caring program organizer with us, Cheryl Meskin, who helped our travelers in countless ways.

On our walking tour of the Old City Ariel took us into what are known as the Western Wall Tunnels. This is a relatively recent archaeological exploration that defies easy description, but imagine this: when one stands at the Kotel, the Western Wall, in 2014, one is standing upon up to 90 feet of the accumulated rubble of the ages. That is, the base of the Kotel is many meters below the small section that we touch when we pray at the Wall. The Western Wall tunnels dig under existing neighborhoods and reveal a part of King Herod’s Jerusalem of the 1st century BCE that is relatively untouched by the ages. As we stood deep below present day Jerusalem, I marveled at the massive, perfectly aligned stone building blocks of Herod’s ancient Temple Mount.

Of course, all archaeology is political in Jerusalem. We were standing below the current Moslem Quarter of the Old City, literally undermining their claim to Jerusalem while verifying our own Jewish claim. The golden Dome of the Rock, which stands where our ancient Temple once stood, has only been there since the year 691(!) When these tunnels opened some 15 years ago, deadly riots ensued. But the tunnels themselves reveal irrefutable historical wonders.

When we surfaced we walked up the Via Dolorosa, the Path of Suffering, that Christian pilgrims take as they walk in the footsteps of their savior, leading to the holiest Christian site in the world, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This is the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, the heart of the Christian narrative. We then took a short walk over to the Jewish Quarter and stood by remnants of King Hezekiah’s wall from the 8th century BCE. Ariel read to us Isaiah’s account of the Assyrian emperor Sennecharib’s unsuccessful siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE.

This is what it is like to be in Jerusalem. Books and lectures and movies are no substitute. Perhaps you can understand why I always want to bring people over here to experience it in the flesh, and in the stones.


“Hamatzav” literally means “the Situation”. It is the term Israelis use to refer to the perpetual conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. As John Kerry attempts to wring some kind of agreement out of the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, I felt that it was critical that our group also get a taste of the competing Israeli and Palestinian narratives and claims over this small strip of land. To this end we spent a full day across the “Green Line” – the border that was conditionally established when a ceasefire ended the Israeli War of Independence in 1949. As you may know, that war that Israel celebrates is known to the Palestinians as the Nakba, which means the Catastrophe. The winners and the losers of that conflict have meager trust or goodwill for each other. Since the Six Day War in 1967, Israel has controlled both sides of this “Green Line”.

Our bus traveled the short distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, passing a massive concrete wall and checkpoint. In Bethlehem we met with Raed Othman, the head of the official Palestinian Authority News Agency. Raed was very personable, and he graciously hosted us in his spacious office. Many in our group found him infuriating, spinning his answers to our questions like a master politician, giving us a straight answer only when pressed.

We then traveled to nearby Efrat, a place that the news media always refers to as a “settlement”, but resembling nothing other than what it is today, a bedroom community a few minutes outside of Jerusalem. There we sat in the living room of Bob Lang, who had come to Israel nearly 40 years ago from Wisconsin and has been advocating ever since for the right of Israelis to live where they choose on either side of the Green Line. Personable and articulate, Bob is a hard liner of the Israeli Right, and I wanted our group to hear from him too. I wanted our group to understand how entrenched the two sides are, and how impossibly intertwined their aspirations are, cheek by jowl. The “Two-State Solution”, whereby an independent Palestine will take its place on one side of the Green Line, looks much more complicated – nearly impossible, in fact – up close. Bob Lang, along with a growing number of Palestinians, advocate for a “One-State Solution”, whereby the former West Bank will be annexed by Israel, and citizenship offered to all residents, Jewish and Palestinian. This too sounds good until you listen closely to the hopes and fears of these adversaries. I am wishing John Kerry luck.

However, I do not wish to part on this bleak note. For although the leadership of the Israelis and the Palestinians are little inclined toward reconciliation, an extraordinary number of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians continue to cooperate on grassroots initiatives for peaceful coexistence. Most of these efforts function below the media radar. For example, some of our group met two of these inspiring folks, Ibrahim Issa and Eden Fuchs over dinner one night in Jerusalem. WJC member Roberta Wall, who is spending another winter in Jerusalem teaching Non-Violent Communication skills to Palestinians and Israelis, arranged for our meeting. Ibrahim has been teaching coexistence to Palestinian children for many years at the Hope Flowers School in Bethlehem, a school his father founded. Ibrahim explained that he had come to the conclusion that both sides needed to truly understand the other, and that non-violence was the only path that he could pursue. Ibrahim is a very brave man. Eden was a career officer in the IDF. When he retired he felt compelled to finally get to know his enemy, and for the first time in his life began to listen to Palestinians and make friends, an experience that has been life-changing for him. Eden made a very compelling case for grassroots social activism, and for the possibility of changing attitudes from the bottom up, especially in a small country like Israel, where lines of connection pretty rapidly lead to the top. Eden is completely committed to this work, come what may. Eden and Ibrahim’s organization is called The Center for Emerging Futures.

I pray that it is indeed their vision of the future that somehow emerges in that land that I love.

Rabbi Jonathan