Rabbi Esther L. Lederman is the associate rabbi of Temple Micah, in Washington, DC. She travelled to Israel this December.
Before I left for Israel on a quick trip this past December, I told a colleague, “I am going to have my heart broken.” It had been six years since I had visited. Way too long, in my opinion. So off I went, expecting to return even more depressed about the state of affairs than when I left. I was wrong.
During my trip, we visited some surprising places: a dual language, Hebrew-Arabic school in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Pat called Hand in Hand; Rawabi, the first planned Palestinian community of its kind in the West Bank which APN visited in their study tour this past year, and which you can learn more about here; and the Arab community of Kfar Manda in the Galilee, to meet with counselors of the Noar Oved Vehalomed youth movement.
At Hand in Hand we had a chance to visit a kindergarten classroom, tour the school with an administrator and meet with two students, one Jewish, the other an Arab, about their experiences learning in a shared society environment.
In Rawabi, we visited the model home showroom, and many of us envied the beautiful architecture and finishes. The problem? The Ministry of Defense has yet agreed to turn on the water, not withstanding the support of many Israeli politicians. Without water, no one can move in. The challenge is not one of infrastructure. It is one of political will. Are the Israelis willing to turn the water on?
And in Kfar Manda in the Galilee we sat with 4 young women – three Jewish and one Arab – and they explained how they created youth movement activities to engage local Arab youth as well as Jewish youth from the area. The young Arab woman spoke about the challenges of living in Israel. When asked how she identifies, she explained she see herself as a Palestinian residing in Israel. She spoke wistfully about the possibility of leaving to move to another country. Her friend and fellow counselor looked at her, clearly saddened by what she had just heard and said, ‘as an Israeli and as a Zionist, if there were no Arabs in Israel, it wouldn’t be the Israel I would want to live in.’
Yes, things in Israel can be depressing. Just witness the stabbing last week on a bus in Tel Aviv. No one knows what the elections will bring. There is distrust in government, anger towards the other, racism and hate.
This week we read of the story of our redemption from Egypt --- the crossing of the Sea of Reeds to safe and free shores. There is a moment where the Israelis stand frozen on the shore , deep waters before them and Egyptian cavalry quickly approaching from behind. It seems impossible for them to move, paralyzed by their unknown future and the fear of their past. All of a sudden, God calls out to Moses: “Why are you crying out to Me? Speak to the Israelites and tell them to go.” And go they do.
In some ways, Israel is at such a moment as well. It is unclear what the future holds and what the journey through rough waters will bring. The memory of victimhood at the hands of Israel’s enemies is paralyzing. Israel appears frozen.
And yet…things are happening. People are doing things. They are not calling out to God or waiting for instructions. They are acting and doing. They are teaching their kids Arabic and building a shared society. They are working with their neighbors, the Palestinians. Groups like Peace Now are working towards a peaceful resolution to the conflict. There are even people in Sderot, one of the Israeli communities most hit by rocket attacks from Gaza, who are working to build bridges with Palestinians in Gaza.
My heart did break, but it broke open, and not apart. It broke open with the hope and courage and determination with what I witnessed. These Israelis and Palestinians give me hope. They will move us forward.