Wednesday, May 15, 2013


I've spent about a week in Jerusalem since last Wednesday. We had our Jerusalem seminar and then I returned to Shavuot. This city is amazing, and I can't wait to live here!

Thursday morning, we got on a bus and drove to Katamon, where we met Inbal, our program coordinator, and Rabbi Levi Lauer, with whom we had learned a few months ago. He spoke about his organization, ATZUM, and the work they do on human trafficking in Israel. It was a powerful discussion. One thing at really stood out of the discussion was this question: not only how do I lead a meaningful life, but rather how do I lead others to do meaningful work? How can I work with others to make life meaningful? We talked about the intersection between Judaism and social justice and how we cannot separate the two. I felt that at the end of the discussion, if we are to identify as Jewish (religiously or not), we must be working on social justice.

We then took a tour of the Supreme Court and learned about how the judicial system works with halakhah (or not) and the contrast between the religious courts and the state courts. Afterwards, we met with two women who are active in social justice in different ways. The first worked for the Jewish Agency on their service learning programs and had been active for a while in two causes: socially responsible restaurants in Jerusalem and disability rights in Israel. We spoke about the differences between working for a small organization and for the "establishment," or a big organization like the Jewish Agency. The next woman we spoke to was in her early 20s, Modern Orthodox, and working for a political think tank. She spent time in Egypt and Morocco and is fluent in Arabic. She writes for Open Zion and travels often to the West Bank. She literally was amazing. I had read an article she wrote for Open Zion on the Daily Beast the day before about Orthodox women rabbis, not knowing that we were going to meet her.

On Friday, I went to the Kotel with Savyonne for Rosh Chodesh. Women of the Wall were there and we wanted to see what was happening. Last week, the Supreme Court gave a ruling that the women had the right to pray at the Kotel as they wish, to the dismay of many ultra-Orthodox. When we got there around 7am, we could not see anything. There were so many seminary girls and other ultra-Orthodox crowding. We saw someone get arrested, we think. We attempted to get to the front where the group usually meets, but it was just too chaotic. We left after about 30 minutes. Later in the morning, we met with an ultra-Orthodox guy who gave us a tour of a girls' school in Geula, a Haredi neighborhood near Mea Shearim, and he spoke briefly about Women of the Wall. He felt the Orthodox were going about it in the wrong way. If the Women of the Wall were doing this all for provocation, then the Orthodox should have just ignored them and let them attempt to pray. Without all the hubbub, they would have stopped. He asked if they pray everyday, and I said I don't know, but I'm sure many do. I asked what he thought would have happened if they continued to pray because this is the way they pray. I don't remember the answer, but I think that if the Orthodox had ignored it, then the women praying in the way they want would not be a big deal at all. They would be able to pray as they want without issue.

After this, we went to the shuk and had time to hang out there before we returned to get ready for Shabbat. Our Israeli friends joined us for Shabbat. We had a discussion about what Jerusalem means to us and where we hope it will be in the future. Then, we lit candles and some of us went to services at Shira Chadasha, a feminist, egalitarian Orthodox synagogue on Emek Refaim. I've been here before, and I love it. Some of the service is led by a woman and some by a man, and women sing loudly and beautifully. While there is a still a mechitza, the room is divided down the middle and there is plenty of space for everyone.

In the morning, we walked to the Tayelet, where we went for Sigd back in November. We had a mock panel, where each of us took on a different role regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, and we had a great time acting it out. We ate lunch and promptly returned to our apartment to take afternoon Shabbat naps! We then walked to the Old City and completed part of the Rampart's Walk, where you walk along the outer wall. At the end, we split and many went to the Kotel, while a few of us returned to the apartments to prepare for dinner and Havdalah. After Shabbat was over, we said goodbye to our Israeli friends who had to return home.

On Sunday, we had a discussion about Shavuot and read the Book of Ruth, a story I hadn't read in a long time. Then, we went to Nachlaot, where we met with two people who work for an organization that encourages Mizrachi Jews to learn about and embrace their heritage. In a way, this is similar to the work we do with the Ethiopian Jews, and it was cool to hear about other identity work happening in Israel. Finally, we had our check in and went home.

I came back yesterday for Shavuot, and what an experience it was! I stayed with a friend and we went to dinner in Nachlaot, then to hear rabbis speak at 1am and 2am at Mayanot. My favorite part was the singing around 3am. Then we walked to the Kotel and stayed there until after sunrise. There were so many people there, even more so maybe than when I went last week. It was so packed. After the sun rose, the morning services began, and while it wasn't how I imagined it would be, it was cool. On the way back home around 7am, I was thinking about what the man had said last week about Women of the Wall being there at times other than Rosh Chodesh, and I wondered how it would have been different if there were pluralistic services on Shavuot or everyday, for that matter. There were very few non-Orthodox women at the Kotel - I saw a few in pants, a few in more Modern Orthodox clothes, but not many. What if we had had a pluralistic service every morning or at least on other days than Rosh Chodesh? Would not that make an event stronger argument for the need to have space to do so? I would have loved to have a service to go to. As someone who isn't Orthodox and doesn't know all the prayers, I would have loved to be able to follow along with a service, but instead, all the women prayed silently to themselves while the men were loud and praying together.

I figured I would not have this opportunity again - to spend Shavuot in Jerusalem, staying up late, going to the Kotel for sunrise and walking the streets of Jerusalem along with everyone else in the middle of the night. Maybe only some of that is false. In fact, I have at least 6 months when I move to Jerusalem to be able to do some of this. Will I? We will see. Regardless, it was an amazing new experience!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Our Trip to the West Bank

Before coming to Israel, I did not like to engage on Israel issues. I never felt connected to the land, nor did I feel a connection to the people. Sure, I knew most Israelis were Jewish, but they were not necessarily a part of my own Jewish identity and Jewish community in the US. The mainstream media and Jewish community seemed to make me choose to be "with" Israel or "against" Israel, and truthfully, I didn't know anything about the Conflict (or Israel for that matter) other than the stories of suicide bus bombings and the Kotel.

Since coming to Israel, I've learned an incredible amount about Ethiopian Israelis, Druze Israelis, migrants and refugees, the climate, the food, the culture, the government, and the Jewish religion. Only now, after gaining some background on Israel, it is necessary to also discuss the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Last week, we spent the day traveling in the West Bank and spoke with four Palestinian activists, who talked about their experiences in grassroots social change. Throughout the last few weeks, we have been looking in depth at the Conflict here, which has proven to be an increasingly complicated situation.

During our day trip, we spoke with a man who works on water issues, helping to partner Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian communities with the shared goal of working on resource management. He showed us where the separation barrier would have been built in Battir and its effect on the water system. We also met with a man who works for the UN on Palestinian/Israeli issues. He guided us through a discussion of a map illustrating land usage of the West Bank, of which 60% is controlled by Israel.
We looked at a map more complete than this one. The West Bank is fragmented into Areas A, B, & C.

What I was most surprised about was the breakdown of the land and stubbornness on both sides in relation to the land. We visited the south Hebron Hills to look at a Bedouin village with one legal building and a number of tents. Literally next to the village was an Israeli settlement with all the amenities of modern living. The two groups do not communicate. We saw a kindergarten that serves this village and another village nearby consisting of members of the same Bedouin family who live in buildings rather than tents because they submitted a master plan for the community to the Israeli government.

Many Bedouin villages are on Area C land (Israeli-controlled), which means that they must receive approval before building. The process is long and the Israeli government often rejects requests. The Israelis regularly demolish illegally built homes. For example, the Israeli government demolished an attachment to the one legal building in the village we saw because the village had not received approval to build it. We saw another Bedouin village in Area C, located on land that the army has designated to be a fire zone. When the military uses the land, the residents are not allowed on the area, mostly affecting grazing animals. The military does not use the land frequently, and this strip of land was utilized maybe 3-5 times since 2003, yet it is still controlled by Israel.

After this, we drove back north to meet with two Palestinian women who also work on grassroots change. One woman is a student at Birzeit University, near Ramallah, studying Political Science. Though she received a full scholarship to a university in Germany, during her first year there, she experienced discrimination and decided to return to the West Bank to finish her studies. She is involved with Seeds of Peace, an international summer camp that brings together American, Israeli, and Palestinian children to open dialogue between the groups. Most, if not all, of the children who attend the camp have never spoken with members of the other groups. The group's philosophy supports creating dialogue and breaking down stereotypes of the Other in order to create social change. Many Palestinians feel that this form of normalization is wrong, so the organization is somewhat controversial.

The other woman we met runs the Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans cooperative. She spoke about her experience as a Christian Palestinian and how she felt that outsiders try to create a division between Palestinian groups - Muslim, Christian, and Bedouin. Her organization helps to create opportunities for local artists, and as a free-trade organization, the profit from sales go back to the artists who can make a livelihood from their work.

The day brought up a lot of thoughts for me. It seemed to me that most of the speakers were pessimistic about macro change, but very positive about micro change. One did not see a solution at the macro level, whereas the others tended to support a two-state solution. It was encouraging to see how a few people were engaged in work at the grassroots level. At the same time, I recognize that we spoke with only four people and that there are many more people, both Israeli and Palestinian, who hold completely different views on what the solution should be. Even amongst the four speakers, they had varying views on how they want the Conflict solved.

At the end of the day, upon our return to Jerusalem and then Gedera, I thought about how easy it is to forget about the Conflict. We live in an almost completely Jewish community. We have our own lives and problems and social issues to deal with in Gedera. The only time most people I've spoken to in Gedera really think about the Conflict is when there are rockets coming from Gaza. Even so, I've spoken with a few social justice activists, my shabab, my host family, and friends, and I am hopeful that there will eventually be a solution and that great minds are working on the issue both at macro and micro levels.