On Our Way Home

I am somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean as I write this final blog of this experience. It is far too early (and I am far too tired, even though I cannot sleep on the plane) to put the all that I saw and felt into perspective. And even earlier yet to understand how this perspective will frame my relationship with the State of Israel and sense of my own Judaism … as rabbi and as an individual Jew. I do actually have a ‘due date’ for at least a stage of this work, High Holydays 2009 … as I expect to use one of the opportunities for speaking in which I am entrusted by Temple Micah to share some of my stories and reflections. (And if anyone who is reading my blog is curious, consider yourself invited to join us at Temple Micah for that High Holyday service — when I figure out which day of which of the holydays it will happen, I will get the word out!).

Our last hours together in Israel were spent in ‘Siyum’ … a closing celebration. We ended up having some time at the beach in Tel Aviv and enjoying dinner along the beach road as the sun set on our last day and on our trip. Before we arrived at the beach and after we leisurely woke up and made our way from our accommodation in Jerusalem, we were fortunate to make a very worthwhile stop. One of the books that I have been reading during the trip and was one of the books on the suggested reading list for the class is The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan. The book tells the story of the recent history of Israel and Palestine through the story of an unlikely and unusual friendship between a Palestinian man and an Israeli Jewish woman. Bashir el-Kheiri’s father constructed his family’s home in Ramle in the early 20th century. After 1948 when so many Palestinians lost their homes in the war between Israel and the Arab states, Dalia Landau’s family migrated from Bulgaria and took possession of this home. They met when Bashir made the trip from Ramallah after it became a part of Israel in 1967 to Ramle to see his childhood home. It reads like a novel and is a powerful and balanced account of the complexities of the conflict and of this friendship.

This morning on our way out of Jerusalem, Dalia graciously invited us to her home in Jerusalem, to share her story with us. We were all tired – both on body and in spirit – and felt the pull of some time at the beach just to sit, relax and be. For me, some time with Dalia was an important and valuable way for us to spend some of our last hours of the trip. After having spent a good part of the trip with the voices of Dalia and Bashir as part of the conversation in my mind and then to have the opportunity to meet her … was a bit of a brush with greatness kind of moment. I found much more to the meeting than the rock star vibe, too … as much as I can understand, witness and hear the pain in the story of Palestinians, I am not Arab, Muslim or Christian. As much as I can cross the lines of religion, nationality and culture and find brotherhood and sisterhood with others who celebrate and seek justice, peace and freedom, I still find myself wanting to hear and know fellow Jews who struggle and wish to cross the same lines. To sit and listen to Dalia tell her story, to still believe in Israel, to spend her life working towards justice, coexistence and peace … was very important for me.

Dalia struggled and (I think) still struggles with the reality and the complexity of the truth of both people’s narrative… and in her gracious and heartfelt manner did what she could do in her corner of the world. You see, the rest of her story is that Dalia made a decision that she, personally, wanted to do something with her family’s home that reflected and honored its history and the story of the Jews and the Palestinians. She thought to perhaps return it or at least its capital (as it is not legal for Bashir to own or live in the home) to Bashir and his family. He did not want the capital; he wanted a kindergarten for Palestinians in Ramle. So, Dalia honored his request … and now the Open House (the name of the house and the organization housed within it) provides a kindergarten and many other programs toward coexistence and peace.

Dalia’s voices in the book and in person were an important part of my experience on this trip. I have a sense that Dalia’s spirit – also present both in the book and in person – are and will be a dynamic presence moving forward as I struggle to face the realities and truths of this situation as a Jew and as a human being.

O Little Town of Bethlehem …


As it turns out our last full day here is one of our most important and most difficult days, as we spent all of today in the West Bank visiting Bethlehem and the Daihaisha refugee camp. Our day, if you are measuring days by way of the Jewish calendar began yesterday evening with our return to Jerusalem and the onset of the Jewish festival of Shavuot. Shavuot is the Feast of Weeks that celebrates the revelation of Torah at Mt. Sinai in the Jewish story. We hustled back, ate dinner and made our collective way to the Western Wall to take advantage of being in Jerusalem for a major Jewish festival. I say major, because Shavuot was one of the three pilgrimage festivals during Temple times that Jews made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at the Temple. Hundreds of Jerusalem’s Jews began their observance of Shavuot at the wall … many men donned their finest, biggest, blackest and furriest hats in honor of the festival. The areas in front of the wall were brimming with people and energy as some prayed, some sang and some even danced. We stood back and took it all in … and considered that we stood at the same spot where countless Jews had traveled to offer their first fruits to God at the Temple altar during the first and second Temple periods. We tried to grasp yet another facet of the connection that this place holds for people. In the back of my mind, I was preparing myself for our visit to Bethlehem … to experience a dramatically different facet of the Jewish State.

In Bethlehem some things were as we expected and some were not … to begin with we hardly realized that passed through a checkpoint. We had heard stories and had warnings that the checkpoint could take hours and that we might see lines of Palestinians waiting to come to Jerusalem for whatever time their permits would allow. I imagine partly due to the holiday of Shavuot – and Jerusalem being closed for the day – and partly due to the intentionally randomizing of the check point intensity created by the military the checkpoint felt like passing from the United States to Canada. However, it was only in this instance where I could make that comparison.

To drive into Bethlehem, into Palestine, one would feel as if it is a town … there were cars making their way on the streets, shops and businesses and a handful of people walking around. Upon closer inspection one notices that many of these shops are only shops in name and that there are not that many people walking to and from them to patronize them. Our bus was hailed by an older gentleman who introduced himself as the proprietor of the oldest and largest olivewood store in Bethlehem and dropped a few names of those notables (like First Lady Roslyn Carter) who had been in his shop. In addition to the legendary Arab hospitality (no, he did not offer tea for the bus) it appears that his assertiveness also belied the hunger that Palestinian merchants have for any tourism and commerce that comes their way. Visits by foreigners and tourists are practically minimal and people are starving for business.

We arrived at the Wiam Center which is an organization that teaches conflict resolution to local Palestinians. For me this was one of the surprises, for in sitting and meeting with Zoughby Zoughby (he invited us to call him by either name!) the director of the center, I found and heard a voice that I did not expect. I do not know why I did not expect it, perhaps my stereotype of the Palestinian or my frustration of the entire situation. Nonetheless, he was a pleasant and needed surprise. He spoke of interfaith dialogue, helping families to deal with symptoms of the great pressure under which they find themselves …. domestic abuse, traumatic stress, addiction. One of the most sad and ironic pieces to his work and the work of his center is that he and others in the center must travel internationally to do any interfaith work with Jews – most of the Palestinians involved in this program are not permitted to go to Jerusalem and NO Israelis are permitted to enter into the West Bank. When in attempting to summarize what it is that he hopes for and the work he does, he shook me a bit in quoting the prophet Micah (my synagogue is Temple Micah): Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. It was a moment in which I did not expect to hear the words that Micah used in making his own attempt to boil it all down into the basics.


From Wiam we headed to the Daihaisha Refugee Camp one of many Palestinian refugee camps throughout the entire Middle East. While there are thousands of people living in Bethlehem, there are an additional 12,000 who live in this camp and are under the support of both the Palestinian National Authority and the United Nations. Sixty years after they lost their homes, they live in this camp. We were ushered into a beautiful community center (built with funds from international groups) and greeted by a 2nd and 3rd generation residents of this camp. I had a bit of a surreal moment to sit in this room, walls covered with photographs of Yasser Arafat (meeting with the Pope of all people!) and be here in this place in which people are not free – when just a few kilometers down the road, freedom reigned (at least for the Jews). And yet, the Arab hospitality still dominates … we listened to the stories of these men and listened to them talk about random arrests, limited medical attention, midnight sound raids – just to wake up the Palestinians to let them know who has the power. We never heard any discussion throughout this day of a desire for Israel not to exist or for Jews to leave. We did hear a consistent refrain of a desire to return to ‘our land and our homes’. This was consistent throughout our trip … the right of return; we heard it over and over again. This desire is palpable, real, simple and without malice … it is also not fully appreciative of the demographics of reality, either.


We walked through the camp and experienced a bizarre marriage of the everyday and of oppression (that is the word that comes to mind) … students performing to their parents at the community center and spray painted pictures of ‘martyrs’ on city walls … children playing and being playful with us as we wander and empty lots were demolished homes once stood … people sitting in their homes drinking coffee and empty spaces for fathers, brothers and sons who sit unlawfully in Israeli prisons. In the camp sits another community center, where we meet Ziad. Ziad is most famous for his appearance in an Israeli film entitled, Promises. The film chronicles the meeting of Palestinian and Jewish teenage boys. Ziad is most valued in this community for creating arts and culture programs that bring color, meaning and hope to the lives of the people who are forced to live in this dreary place. Especially given his setting, his accomplishments are remarkable … what affected us more was the passion and conviction we felt in visiting with him for quite a while. He talked of education being the route getting his people out of this situation, tried to explain how this community understands the suicide bombers, Hamas, Zionism and Judaism. He echoed the lack of trust that most Palestinians seem to have in a promise from Israel in land or peace, while still sincerely wanting these things … and wanting to return. As he put it he only asks that Israel recognize his right to return … and then everything will be on the table. He only asks to be recognized … as a human being with the same rights of any other human. Ziad told of his travels around the world on behalf of his work with Palestinian youth and towards peace … of his love of being the United States and being able to drive freely from Vermont to California. It is his simple dream, to do the same here … to drive to Jerusalem as a free person, as a human being.


We are all drained … no matter how we arrived in Israel in terms of the Matzav (the situation) … we have all been deeply affected by what we have heard, what we have seen and what we have felt. I for one was very ready to leave the West Bank, to have the freedom to leave, to get on a plane the next day and go home and hug my wife and my children. I feel as though I have so much to process and consider, and that work will come, but among all that I have thought and felt it is this simple touch of grace that I crave and cherish.

Posted by Picasa

Facing Reality and Facing Ourselves

Facing Reality and Ourselves

It is Sunday morning and we are riding on our bus towards the Dead Sea and Masada and leaving the town of Ibillin – the place where Mar Elias campus sits and our Arab friends attend school. We leave them with good thoughts and good feelings – they were gracious hosts – befitting the Arab culture of hospitality and warmth. Despite the language barriers – only a few of them spoke English well enough for us to carry on a conversation without a translator (and needless to say our Arabic was VERY rusty) – the two groups developed a familiarity and comfort level with one another. We were welcomed with dinner and a dance – even a mini-simulation of a Bedouin wedding (it seemed like more of the reception than the actual wedding to me). We toured the Galilee with them yesterday – seeing the Golan Heights (perhaps before they become part of Syria again) and spending some time at the Mediterranean just enjoying the beach.

And yet, I do not think that any of us were surprised when we arrived at Mar Elias to find that there would be no Israeli Jews part of this next part of the trip. The lack of surprise did not lessen my disappointment in the absence of these Israeli Jewish voices and the importance of hearing their story from a contemporary (i.e. similar age of our group) perspective. Despite this absence in our experience, the warmth and welcome of our new friends this past day and half was something that we all needed after the experience of the White Night. Between the lack of sleep (as by design) and the nature of the program itself – as a group we had hit our limit with frustration in regard to the limits of our trip and of the situation between Palestinians and Israeli Jews. We all expected a long night of dialogue and fun with a group of Arabs and Jews who would be motivated and focused to be part of this program. The Israeli Jews from Kibbutz Harduf planned the program … and they were present to kick off the evening with some ‘ice breakers’ … and then they were not ‘present’ the rest of the program until a late morning discussion. Some were working on a play for a festival that the kibbutz was putting on. Some went off and went to sleep.

After dinner the plan was to show a very powerful movie called My Terrorist and the director of the movie was there to discuss it with us. It is a documentary for directed by and focusing on an Israeli woman’s experience of surviving a 1978 terrorist attack in London and how she came to know the terrorist who attacked her while he was in prison. She eventually began to fight for his release and the film addresses the reaction to her and how Israelis feel about how they should be responding to violence and how Israel’s actions in the Occupied Territories perpetuate violence. Due to technical difficulties the movie was late, she had to leave and by the time the movie was shown … 90% of the people there were sleeping.

The 4:30 wake-up for the group actually left us and the Arabs in attendance ready to hike and ‘program’ together. We hiked to a small pond that was littered with debris and garbage and proceeded to try doing some group activities led by one of the adult counselors. Among the Arab group were some who did not even try and participate (and none of the others in their group attempted to include them) and many who were simply disrespectful to the person trying to lead. Our group — who were ‘stand-up’ the whole way through – was hungry, tired, frustrated and disheartened by the entire program.

What happened? What was happening? Were the Israeli Jews just tired and not physically or logistically able to be fully present? Were the Arab ways of participating merely cultural differences that hindered our grasp of what was happening? Was it the nature of the program itself and it was simply not working (we have all been a part of these) due to planning, implementation or those random things that can go wrong? I think that all of these elements were in play … and then perhaps something more.

With caution and care I question how much this program and our experience is a microcosm of the nature of the very serious problem between Arabs and Jews in Israel. I do not know all of the reasons why we did not or could not wrangle up a bunch of Israeli Jews to spend some time with us, but part of the reason I think has to do with the motivation of Israelis to do so. We have heard a few times in different ways that many Israelis do not know nor do they want to know what happens in the … yet less actually participate in dialogue with Arab (and Americans, too!). As I mentioned, we have experienced great warmth and hospitality from Arabs we have met, but have not been able to always connect on the level or manner that we have hoped to connect. There have been age differences … perhaps these differenced are not merely age, but maturity and the sense of accountability and earnestness that is part of having a mature world view.

And there is the ‘us’ part of the equation … what are we doing here? What is our role in this situation? Perhaps our expectations were too high … to come for two weeks and have intimate, life changing, world impacting conversations with people we just met? Maybe we need to take things a bit slower … while at the same time sensing an urgency about what is already happen and may happen to so many?

I must say that I have been wrestling with how to process and express the experiences of the last couple of days in this blog form … not knowing quite sure how to honestly share a sense of my experience while not also sending a message that it is miserable and we are all walking around with dark clouds over our heads. (Actually, we did not see cloud one until yesterday at the beach!) There is frustration, but I think it is the frustration and challenge that comes from it that is part and parcel of this country and anyone who cares about this situation. The warmth of the Arabs we have met, the beauty of the place and the magic of the holy sites all are also a part of this picture. For me while I am working hard to find inspiration from Israel itself and the quagmire of the situation, it keeps hitting me on the head in form of the group of teens with whom I am traveling. They are fun and thoughtful, they are compassionate and insightful, and they are agents of change and peace. They model what it is we seek a hint of here … and I hope it does not sound as if I need a positive note on which to end my entry and become too sappy or cheesy … because it is truly my sentiment. In my trip to this place I love and care deeply about and have found so many things which challenge, trouble and frighten me … they have been a balance, a blessing to me.

Into the Night


I find myself a couple of days behind in keeping up with my blogging … I often will tell people that the reason I have not started a blog is that I do not have that much to say all of the time. Being in Israel and on this particular trip, I do not have this problem. I find it a challenge to take the time to get out from inside onto ‘paper’ some valuable expressions of what I am processing from place to place, from experience to experience. And then to do so in the context of moving from place to place, reawakening the sleeping Hebrew lexicon in my brain and being a part of moving a group of sixteen teens around a foreign country sometimes leaves me without enough time or energy to actually filter all that I have to say.

At the moment it is 2:45 in the morning and I find it difficult to describe the scene to capture its surrealistic feel. We are at a spot near Haifa between a kibbutz and an Arab village. It is a makeshift campsite, but not really, more like a makeshift mini-convention center amongst a Galilean forest. I am sitting at my computer (yes here in the forest/campsite/convention center) while (I am pretty sure) the rest of my group sleeps. Among us are Israeli Arab, Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jewish youth. Most of them are not asleep, but thankfully pretty mellow. We are here to participate in (or at least observe) this night-long dialogue/program called White Night. The idea is for youth of Arab and Jewish communities to spend the entire night together … talking, playing and building connections with one another. the idea being that after getting to that point of being so tired and out of it, a more raw and real dialogue can occur.

We are taking a ‘break’ after food, ice breakers (not what they are called here, but an ice breaker is an ice breaker) and a very powerful movie called ‘My Terrorist.’ We awake at 4:30am for a walk/hike and then more dialogue and workshops that carry one through the late morning. This weird and unusual setting – filled with its absurdity and diversity is quite the appropriate place to reflect more on this place and the intensity of emotion it evokes as we confront its absurdity and diversity. We can move from a place like Yad Vashem that tells the tragic story of the systematic persecution and dehumanization of the Jewish people to a tour along the Separation Barrier that seems to represent a persecution and dehumanization by Jews of the Palestinian people and then to this setting from which I write in which Jews and Arabs sit a few feet away from meeting stoking the fire, shucking corn and drinking tea.

How can I begin to address the experience of Yad Vashem? I would like to think that in my world – that many of us have been to a museum of the Holocaust, seen one of the many powerful movies made about it or even studied it in school or on our own … and I can say this of our group. Still, to visit THIS museum in THIS place and encounter the story with THIS group as part of trying to understand the stories of the situation is something else … as I discovered for myself.

When we arrived at Yad Vashem we sat down together to prepare for some time in the museum, as we all would have the time to go through in small groups or on our own. I expected to suggest the highlights and send them on their way while I would walk though and check things out on my own – without any drama or intensity for me. As I suggested to the group that everyone make sure they visit the Children’s Memorial and then the Avenue of the Righteous (where trees are planted for each Righteous Gentile who helped to save Jews during the Holocaust), I was blindsided by the emotion that welled up inside me and at my need to stop and gain my composure. Where did it come from, anyways? We had not even entered the museum or seen exhibit #1! I think there was something very profound for me in that moment, for me as a Jew, to be inviting this group to share this story with me and my people. And even more, to think of that avenue of the Righteous Gentiles – those brave souls who had the courage to see beyond themselves and their own fears and limitations to listen to and respond with life giving action to the painful story of the other – at that moment was just something that touched me in a manner that I could not and did not expect. Each of us – as we gathered from our discussions after the experience – were affected and moved by the experience of Yad Vashem in ways that we expected and in ways that we could not expect: the one recorded survivor account that broke through our defenses; the actual journal that made it seem so real; the artifact or photo that reminded us of a loved one or moment in our own lives. It was an important trip for each of us as individuals and for us and the work of our group.


This morning we heard a different story that sadly and frustratingly seemed to shadow all too similar themes. We were given a tour by a guide from the Geneva Initiative. This Initiative is the result of the work of high level Palestinian and Jewish civic leaders to create a plan for peace … to show that there is a plan and a partner for peace here. The tour around Jerusalem gave us the chance to examine the development of the Separation Barrier and its associated politics, the settlement movement and its affect on both the prospect for peace and the relationship between the Palestinians and Israel.


Our guide was a Jewish woman who is the 14th generation of her family to live on this land … and that added an important element to her perspective and her work toward giving Palestinians their fair share of Jerusalem and stopping the inhuman treatment of Palestinians on both sides of the barrier. It is painful for me to hear stories and see evidence of the immoral and unethical decisions and actions of fellow Jews … in the name of ‘security’ and respodning to fear. I hope that I am ready to witness what awaits us when we visit Bethlehem and the West Bank in a couple of days.


I am still awake and my group (at least) is still sleeping … our 4:30 hike is only a few minutes away. The warmth of the fire and the intermingling sounds of Hebrew and Arabic voices offer a comforting counter to some of the realities of the country that surrounds us.

Holy Holy Sites!

I think that it is safe to say that among the group there was a palpable yearning to get to Jerusalem … whether it was those who did not care for the desert or those who felt the imbalance of not having the Jewish Israelis with us in the Negev or those were still trying to transform their intellectual understanding of this place into their kishkes (guts) … we anxiously awoke Tuesday morning to head to the Old City of Jerusalem. For me (as I already told my wife when I spoke with her the night before) I felt a bit as if I was going to visit and old love or flame … I was a little bit nervous, wondering how she would look and how she would look at me, too! Also, as I shared with the group and some of you before I left on the trip … the time in Jerusalem visiting holy sites for Jews, Muslims and Christians WITH Jews, Muslims and Christians was an experience I greatly anticipated.

The actual experience of sharing those sites with the group realized part of that expectation as we faced the actual logistics of making it done. First, I must admit that I was a bit wary of the tour guide who would greet us to show us these sites and guide us through an important day of our trip. With the first few words of introduction that graced out of his heart, my concerns were put to rest. This Christian Arab welcome our group and what were about being here and how he prayed for the peace and cooperation of all three religions and lamented the lack of it in the current situation. So, with that hurdle cleared we headed on…


We needed to make the site of the Mosques by a certain time in order for the Muslims in our group to be able to enter and see and possibly pray. Given the layout of the Old City and the schedule of the day, we ended up going to the Western wall first … which, because of the timing and geography made it a good, but short visit. I had never been to the wall with people who were not Jewish — sounds crazy, but it is true — so to have the opportunity to help them get their heads and hearts around what they were seeing was refreshing. So as walked I tried to set the scene and answer some logistical questions: write a note or not write a note – what to say – what language to say it in – Hebrew, Arabic, English? The girls and the guys split up to go to their respective sides of the wall. We did not really have time to react and share our experience as we needed to make our way and through security (again) to the area of the Mosques.


We were fairly sure, but not certain that most of us would not be able to enter the Mosques – only the four Muslims among us if they could successfully make the correct Arabic declaration of faith. Unfortunately, for the rest of us … we were not able to enter. So, three of the four of them who were able to pass muster were able to enter, see and pray in these sacred places. For a Muslim there is a short list of things one must do in his lifetime … one of them was to come to Jerusalem and pray in the Mosque. Even though we were not able to go in and see for ourselves — I felt that simply the privilege of being near our friends as they fulfilled this obligation was something special. We actually spent almost an hour waiting in the courtyards of the Mosque, hiding from the sun and then beginning our processing of the experience at the Wall. We continued as we left the courtyard and stopped for drinks and coffee before moving on to the Via Delarosa.


As much as actually being at the sites was something, sitting in this cramped little snack/drink stores as the hubbub of the Arab Quarter bustled around us, the experience of talking about what just happened for some of us provided valuable insight, dramatic emotions and some surprises. For us Jews — and I laugh at this because it seems so Jewish — it was good and not so good — too short and too frazzled to really have the experience of the wall — put off by the unnecessary separation of men and women (yours truly) — unsure of what to feel or react at actually being at this place. And yet, a few of those in our group who are not Jewish were surprisingly and dramatically moved by being at the wall, by touching and becoming wrapped up in the Moment of the place.

Since only three of us actually were permitted to go into the Mosques we all were dependent on these three to capture what it was about for them … and they did tenfold. The words they used were joy – calm peace – best day of my life … but it was in their eyes in the way they shared these words that truly communicated the power of the experience for them. The experience of awe filled me with awe. To go beyond the intellectual of ‘knowing’ that these three faiths have connections to this place, but for me to get it in my kishkes (there are those guts again), to feel it and to ‘get it’ in this way will be one the most precious gifts I take home with me from this trip.


Off to the Via Delarosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher … a very different experience from my perspective for the group. Partly, because of the timing and flow of the day and our schedule we did not process the Christians members’ of our group experience at this Holy Site. Partly, because the nature of visiting this path that Jesus took toward his crucifixion on the cross weaves in and around the shuk (the mark) and through a labyrinth of a church. The Kotel (the Wall) and the Mosques (even if we did not go in) were set in open spaces, with distinct places to go to or be in. It was not until the end of the path, that we came to the tomb of Jesus that we had that sense of place – in some kind of sacred setting – to focus our intention and attention. And ever there, for me, amidst the line to get in and all of the myriads of people taking and pushing … I felt bad that I could not touch the sacredness of this series of sites. I look forward to hearing from our Christian group members when it is their turn to process.

After this busy and intense morning and a late lunch in the Arab Quarter we made our way to our hotel to have some time with Shaul Amir — former Israel Consulate to Denver and a veteran of three wars, including (appropriately for our day) 1967 when he was a part of the force that fought for Jerusalem and made it a part of the State of Israel. Our group asked good questions after hearing his story and his take on the Matzav (The Situation) … I think we all enjoyed having an Israeli Jewish voice as part of the stories we are trying to pay attention to on our trip. He expressed well his desire for peace, his impatience with the Jewish right and his own ambivalence (he may use a stronger or different word) for what he and Israel have had to do to be Israel. He would not change what we did – he felt he and Israel had to do it – but it does not mean that it sits well with him. Shaul shared with us a lot of interesting things … among them he shared with us the experience of finding the Western Wall … being among the first Jews to see it in so many years. Even so, on this day that seeing the wall was such an important part of our trip and our journey, when we saw it he had to be told what it was that he was seeing … it was not an image or even a desire that he had in his internal hard drive.

I think after bathing in the heavy glow of the Old City and carrying around its sacred baggage – we needed a different kind of light and to leave baggage behind for just a bit. We cabbed over to Ben Yehuda Street — an outdoor pedestrian mall where at least when I lived here was the place to be and be seen on warm summer nights. Ben Yehuda was just what the doctor ordered … time to walk, watch people, shop, grab a gelato … and DANCE! Some random Jewish/Bob Marley/Youth van pulled up at the end of the mall and started blaring dance music into the night. It attracted all of the Israelis there and our group as well. Dancing seemed like just the right thing after all of the internal dancing of the day (and rest of the trip, too). We got let some steam out and also balance the old, serious and intense nature of the Old City and the beginning of our day with the young, fun and playful nature of young men and women dancing because that is what young men and women do to celebrate the holy-ness of being alive.

Posted by Picasa

Some Jarring Encounters in Jaffa

The highlight, er, well experience of the day that will dominate most of today’s blogfest is our tour this afternoon to see the old city of Jaffa – one of the few cities in Israel with a mixed Arab and Jewish population. We left the Bedouin tent early this morning to collect our gear and head towards Neve Shalom, this evening’s accommodation. We shared a ride with the Arab group with whom we had shared the first few days of our time here. Amidst all of the complexity and fullness of our initial encounters, we left on a great note with them … and danced to those notes, too. As our bus ride together came to an end the bus ride became a little dance fest – first on the bus and then trailing off the bus as we arrived. It was a fun and positive note on which to leave this group until we see them later this week in the Galilee. With this spirit we headed to Jaffa …

The tour in Jaffa seemed for me to capture some of the challenges for so many in trying to get our heads and hearts around the real issues and honoring the stories of all sides of this ‘matzav’ – ‘situation.’ Our guide was an Arab historian who – beyond his apparent lack of tour guiding skills – decided that instead of presenting us with information and knowledge of the city and its history and idiosyncrasies – he needed to share his political views with us on an overzealous array of topics from globalization, gentrification and eventually occupation.


In dialogue it is appropriate and expected to hear difficult things from one’s counterpart, to listen to their story, even when their perspective does not fit one’s own understanding of truth. In this setting, when one is looking toward learning, it was pure propaganda … and it was delivered without respect, with disdain and impatience. We were all tired and hot as the tour occurred in the late afternoon and perhaps that added to our lack of patience and focus. Still, listening to this presentation and trying to process it captured some of the challenges for me personally in seeing Israel in this way. Those of you, who know me, know that I do not have any issue with holding Israel to a high standard of behavior and action toward the Palestinians. To listen to this man, to hear his tone … put me on the defensive. I had to ask myself … why am I hearing him in this manner? Do I actually hear the tone of poison in his voice each time that he says the word ‘Zionist’? Or am I merely projecting my anxiety about hearing a how an Arab person feels about a Jewish person treated him and his family? My companions informed me that in this case it was indeed the former – he was over the top, crossing the line, simply inappropriate. It still leaves the question of how to be honest, self-aware when trying to truly hear the story of someone whose story so dissonates with my own. This is the difficulty of getting to the actual solutions of this situation – getting past needing our stories or their stories to feel good, right and fit towards making new stories – most probably unimagined by either side .


(If you believe in God then you might say the next part is from she/he/it, if not it was a nice counterpoint to the experience of this tour.) Our bus driver joined us for the tour… he is Arab and his English is not so great … so he was not so in tune with the text of the tour. Yet, throughout the tour he was talking and enjoying with our group and visiting with other tours and tourists along the way … even at the end speaking in Hebrew with a group of orthodox Jews who were having their own tour in Jaffa (with a better guide I am sure!). As we are finally wrapping up I watch him finish a spirited conversation with his these Jews and complement him on making some new friends. In his joyous and affable manner – that have become a staple of our trip – he says to me in Hebrew: “I see people and I see friends. Life is good to meet, to talk, to eat … why should he be afraid or I be afraid … this is life, to meet, to talk, to eat together. ” Wherever he came from and however that particular encounter with him found me … I am grateful for it.

Tonight my bed beckons – no stars to sleep under this evening 🙁 — tomorrow brings us to Jerusalem and all that it has to offer. We are all excited to experience it togther.

Letting the Desert Get Under Our Skin

This morning’s pre-sunrise wake-up was not jet lag related, but by design as we planned a morning hike through the Machtesh (the crater) to enjoy the sunrise and beat the mid morning heat. Besides the early wake-up (all our Denver body clocks are still a bit out of whack, anyways) among the group were some musings and mumblings about spending time on hikes and focusing on geological or ecological issues … we are here to dialogue. Ziv, our host at the Desert Shade eco lodge, seemed very intentional about his program and its course and on we went. The hike, the machtesh is striking and one of five in Israel and one of five in the world. Its formations, geology are unique in the world. It is the heart of desert, so as Ziv explained; any creature or life that has managed to survive here is of the evolutionary elite. It seems that the urgency of the desert – how it forces its inhabitants to radically remove any excess or extreme in working toward survival – is just what Ziv would want for out group. Dialogue, whatever that means, would come and only could come once we as individuals and as groups when we could cut away the excess from our hearts and minds and then face one another. If you ever walked in थे D desert for any period of time … you understand its power as such an instrument.

This is not to say that the groups and individuals have not been talking to one another and that they have not been talking about ‘ultimate’ issues. It has gone on, but more informally or one-on-one … the group has not sat down together to talk about ‘it’ – the reason that we are here. That perceived need and desire to do so would be an undercurrent for the rest of the day …

Time after breakfast provided a chance for a couple of workshops. Half the group took sometime to sit with some students from the Arava Institute, an international environmental studies program here in the Negev and then the other half took to designing houses for the desert. Split in to small mixed groups of Americans and Arabs, each was given the task of designing a desert dwelling fit for a family of four that would be suited to the desert and reflective of both Arab and American culture. The activity of sitting down and actually trying to complete a task, needing to express oneself was some of the best ‘dialogue’ since we arrived. It got even better when the each group had to roll up their sleeves and make ‘bricks’ from the Negev desert soil and make models of their creations. We were not talking about peace, occupation, violence … but there was something good happening.

Although by the time the groups switches and had the chance to meet with the students from the Arava Institute, that aforementioned mumblings were present again. As one of the Arab students put when asked what she thinks about the importance of the environment, she said this she studies at her school … we have not come here to talk about this!

Late afternoon we hopped on our bus and were taken down the road for about 10 minutes, de-bussed and began our 15 minute hike into the desert toward our accommodation for the evening… a unrecognized Bedouin village, hosed by Suleiman and his family। The 40 or so of us arrived took a walk around the village and then parked ourselves in the massive tent for our second Bedouin meal of the trip already.

As the sun set and darkness descended upon us, both groups found ourselves left to the tent and the solar generated lights that hung from the ceiling of the tent. There was no where to go and in the radical emptiness of the desert, we were given our first opportunity for ‘dialogue’ as a group. With Omar, one of our group and a Lebanese Muslim, serving as translator we sat down in a circle and intentionally began to talk about why we were there – to listen, learn and understand the stories of all involved. The discussion was uneven, rough. Our Arab friends had a lot to say and question about the United States, its leaders, its relationship to the State of Israel. Our group attempted to listen, respond and explain. As I watched I wondered if this is what we all imagined for the exchange … there was a significant part of the discussion missing, Israeli Jewish students and their perspective; we heard a significant focus and frustration on American policy, actions and influence; and the challenges of language and simple logistics (how exactly do you have an inclusive discussion with almost 40 people, who speak various levels of three languages, with dramatically different cultural understandings about how to ‘discuss’ a matter?). All in all it was a discussion … and no matter how things end (on this trip or beyond) it had to begin here, and it did. I sense that we will also look upon this trip and our time in the Negev with a different perspective in a few days and by the end of our trip. Our next day will bring us to Neve Shalom – a cooperative community of Arabs and Jews and then onto Jerusalem – which we all seem to be anticipating with a palpable expectation of something special. As we move on, wherever the trip takes us physically or spiritually we must recognize the experience of the desert for preparing us. Abraham and Sarah fled to the desert when they began their journey, Moses fled Egypt to the desert to find God, Jesus ministry evolved on the road to Damascus … we, too, have begun this journey of ours in the radical emptiness of the desert, too. Perhaps we will realize a portion of the heights of those who precede us.


Checking Out the Scene

It is late at night and the lot of us are wiped out from jet lag and eating when our bodies are not hungry and not sleeping when our bodies are tired and yet none of us are asleep in bed just yet. Our Israeli Arab friends are putting on a mock Bedouin wedding for us … looks a little like the hora – lots of people trying to dance but not really knowing what they are doing – but with a slightly different musical accompaniment. It is an end to an interesting first full day.

We are staying at an eco lodge in Mitzpei Ramon that sits on the edge of Machtesh Ramon – a gorgeous ‘inverted mountain’ – okay a huge crater found below ground level. While it is not the Front Range, it is still pretty spectacular. The Eco Lodge is run by an Israeli named Ziv who uses environmental education to teach leadership and stewardship for the land to those communities in the Negev region of Israel who may or may not have the financial resources of simply the awareness of the need to spend time doing such things. The place and Ziv are great examples of Israelis who envision an Israel that embraces all of the diverse communities and cultures. Ziv spends his time giving such opportunities and education to those in Israel who may not have access to them.

A few of us fell asleep (well at least we tried) under the spectacular starry sky and woke up (much to our chagrin) to an equally spectacular sunset over the crater, the Machtesh. Our first day in the Negev, Israel’s desert, we spent trying to stay cool in the desert heat and on the bus traveling around the desert’s different spots. We actually began the day with a local Israeli leading a session of hand in fist tai chi – part of the eco lodge’s mission of opening hearts and minds to different ways of thinking about the world. And then off to a local climbing wall with the Arab group sharing the lodge with us. Unfortunately, our entire group as of yet does not include contemporary Israeli Jews (they will join us next week in Mar Elias) … so we spent a bit of our afternoon at the historic Sde Boker kibbutz at Ben Gurion Environmental School meeting a few of its Jewish students. The time that we and the group of Israel Arabs spent with them was short, but provided a little taste of the kind of encounter we may expect next week. We met Israeli students who presented the extremes of attitudes towards their country and their impending military service – some were eager and some expressed (well, let’s call it) reticence about what lay ahead for them.

From Sde Boker we came to Arad the largest Bedouin city in Israel (and possibly the world – you may have to Google that one and check my facts). Ziv brought to the house of some friends of his who had the ENTIRE group of us in their home (some 40 people whom they have never met). As I mentioned I do not think any of us were really hungry, but the plates of eshtanor (bread), rice and roasted chickens that were placed on the floor before us were too good to pass up. Besides, Bedouins are famous for their hospitality and we would have certainly been rude and not in the spirit of our trip not to indulge – so we did.

We continue to try and get to know our Arab counterparts … struggling with the language barrier, cultural differences and our groups’ desire to both get to know these individuals as people AND get in their heads and hear how they think about this place and their relationship to it. Some are wary to talk politics, others are not so confident with their English (and with the exception of one of us, our Arabic is less than stellar) and hey, we have only been here ONE day. We are trying to pace ourselves and understand not simply the challenges of dialogue in this situation, but of dialogue in general. Speaking of pacing ourselves – who knows what time it is – but the starry sky is calling me … Lilah Tov!

Posted by Picasa

Welcome to Israel

There was no easing into the experience that we were all looking for … we all arrived safe and sound at Ben Gurion airport, but Israel greeted us with her fullness and complexity. Fifteen of us walked off the plane and through customs without any much of a second look from Israeli security, while four of us – those with Muslim names and/or non-Caucasian features garnered a little more attention from Israeli security. Almost two hours after we arrived at the airport, the group saw second and first hand the reality on the ground in Israel. The group – particularly the four who drew all of the attention – was angry, frustrated, tired and wishing for a smoother arrival into the Holy Land. It is the reality of being here and of those who live here … everyone must deal with the long standing wariness of those who may or may not have connections to others with a nefarious agenda. It was one of those educational moments that cannot be found within the walls of a classroom, and yet one of those moments for which one does not wish.

We boarded a bus at the airport waiting to take us on the two and half hour trip to the Desert Shade Eco Lodge at Mitzpei Ramon. Not only was the bus waiting, but about ten Arab students who will part of our group these first few days. Hello, Arab students … I would like you to meet this group of bleary-eyed, unkempt and a bit smelly Americans. Hello, American students … I would like you to meet this group of energetic, mostly female, dancing, singing and eager Arab students. Fortunately, the international teen language of goofiness prevailed … as all it took was one of us to enthusiastically shotgun a can of the Israeli version of Red Bull to break the ice and send us off to the Negev desert.

Arriving on Friday night in Israel … on any other trip I have been a part … would have included some measure of Shabbat. After all, Israel is one of the two places (with camp being the other) where I experiences the fullness and completeness of Shabbat. This trip is another animal, however. I sat in the bus and watched the landscape and soaked all of it in … muttering to myself, I am back, I am here and trying to feel whatever it was I was feeling. As the sun set – and what a spectacular sun set it was – I palpably felt the call of Shabbat in this place. As our new bus mates serenaded us with Arabic pop songs (as least that is what they sounded like to me) … I was reminded, once again, that I am about to encounter an Israel that I have not experienced before. And so while I lamented the missed opportunity for a Shabbat in Israel – at least of the ones that I have come to know – I worked to open my mind and heart to seeing this place, that even after sixteen years still touches me, in a different light. So, I gazed at the sunset … setting over a large Bedouin town that the bus was passing, and nudged one of those four who got to spend some extra time answering some questions from Israeli security. He looked out the window and thought it was the most beautiful sunset he had seen in his entire life. Perhaps the light of that sunset, will part of the new light with which I get to look at this magical, frustrating and complex place.

Airport Musings

In a way it is not a new scene for me, making my way through airports with a group of teens heading somewhere. While I am just getting to know this group, the familiarity of the setting is both comforting and invigorating. And yet, there is a sense of something different … awaiting the group this morning at DIA was a professional photographer who was, well, uh ‘donated’ to the trip, and will be traveling with us and documenting what we do and where we go. He assures me that it will take no time for us to forget he is there snapping photos or taking video of us. Then there is the phone call to my co-chaperone from a news anchor from Channel 1 IN Israel who would like to do a story about the group and the trip after we arrive. So, beyond the familiarity there is a sense of something unique and possibly even extraordinary.

I sense the group, too, is a bit unsure about what will transpire in the next 13 days. They have been studying, analyzing and discussion the situation in Israel for the past school year. They are familiar with one another, some more than others, but perhaps more in the way of sharing a ‘class’ and less so in the way of sharing ‘experience.’ So, between being on the cusp of sharing an ‘experience’ AND then taking the theoretical, abstract, intellectual and even emotional discourse that they have shared in the past year about Israel, Palestine, Jews, Arabs and Christians and putting themselves WITHIN all of it … is an unknown, but provocative variable.

I think we are all excited to see what encounters and experiences the trip holds for us.