Our last Friday in Israel might have been the cherry on top of our traveling cake. That morning, a few of us made our way to the Hebrew University atop Mount Scopus where I studied for a few years in the early 90’s. Our little group went to the Hecht Synagogue on campus which is one of my favorite places there. The Synagogue itself isn’t anything special; but the view from it is unbelievable. Instead of a bimah and an Ark, in front of the sanctuary is a very large window. The Ark itself is to the left side of that window. The view is that of the Temple Mount, the golden Dome of the Rocks mosque, and the old city. We prayed there, we meditated (with our eyes wide open); mostly we remained silent in the face of such incredible vista.
We then made our way to the Western Wall in the old city to join another group for a global peace ceremony. Our friend, Rabbi Eliyahu McLain and the Jerusalem Peacemakers had organized a worldwide moment of interfaith prayer for that day. As we, at 1PM Jerusalem time, held a circle at the Wall and prayed and chanted for Shalom, a group of Muslims by the Mosque atop the Temple Mount and of Christians inside the Holy Sepulcher did the same. Nearly half a million people, the world over, had signed up on the Peacemakers’ website in solidarity with the event and joined our prayers at that time. It was a true blessing, for all of us, to take part of this circle; the perfect way to usher-in Shabbat.
And what a Shabbat this was! After dinning in a Druze village a few days earlier, being invited for lunch in a Bedouin home after that, Jana re-connected with Rabbi Yehoshua—whom she had met on another Israel trip years ago—who invited us in his home for Shabbat dinner. Rabbi Yehoshuah and his family live in Efrat, a huge (mostly) religious Jewish settlement in the West Bank, minutes from downtown Jerusalem. It was an incredible opportunity for us to experience the other side of the political conflict.
And experience we did! Because Jews stop working early Friday morning to prepare for Shabbat, our three cab drivers were Muslims from the nearby Arab villages. Fully present to my own discomfort in having a Palestinian man drive us to what I could only assume was, for him, the symbol of Israeli occupation, I opted to openly share with him my feelings and started a conversation. More than the settlement itself, what he most resented was the security barrier that Israel had built to, supposedly, protect itself from Palestinian terrorist intrusions and suicide bombers. To him, the barrier broke down the Israeli-Arab relationships on the ground that common people enjoyed prior to the peace process. He reminisced about how, up until a couple of decades ago, Jews and Arabs could visit and knew each other. Non-religious Jews would travel on Shabbat to Arab villages to eat at the local restaurants and to shop, and Arabs would work in Israel and be friends with Israeli families. Nowadays he lamented, the only Israelis most Palestinian children ever meet are the soldiers at the checkpoints or worse. Not a healthy basis to build relationships and work toward peace and mutual understanding.
Rabbi Yehoshuah met us at the entrance of his synagogue. His is an orthodox Chasidic synagogue where men and women are separated, and everyone dances and sings with incredible soul energy, love, and joy. The guys in our group who had never been in a Chasidic synagogue before and knew none of the prayers, were enthralled, and eagerly joined in the dances and the ya-dai-dai parts of the Shabbat songs. The mechizah/separating fence between men and women, drew some mixed reactions on the women side, causing our group to wrestle—with an open mind—with their own feelings about this foreign way of worshipping. After services was a short walk to Rabbi Yehoshuah’s orthodox kosher home. There, we met his religious wife Anette and four of his five children (one being in the army). Dinner was absolutely delicious and the many beautiful personal sharings were only interrupted by more beautiful singing and teachings from Yehoshuah. A member in our group later noted that he had never been to a dinner where you eat a little, stop, sing, talk and study, then eat some more, and repeat this four or five times until the final blessings. It was an amazing experience! I was thrilled that our group could live Shabbat the way I lived it being in Israel, and see that there are other ways of celebrating just as beautiful and powerful as what they know from Bet Alef. My favorite part of the evening remains, nonetheless, the moment when—completely unannounced and without even knocking on the door—one of their neighbors waltzed into their home, said “Shabbat Shalom” and sat down with us for dinner. I thanked him for doing that from across the table for he, in that moment, exemplified what I love and miss the most about Israel; this open-door way of life where people are like family and your home is their home as much as theirs is yours.
We loved Yehosuah, we loved his family, and we loved dancing and singing at his synagogue. Imagine how much more torn we were, at the end of the night, when our Palestinian cab drivers came to pick us up to drive us back to the hotel. But this is the reality of Israel; this is the complexity and multidimensionality of this little country. You pray in the morning facing the Temple Mount. By lunch you participate in a global interfaith Peace event at the Western Wall. Your Shabbat dinner is with a Chasidic community in a West Bank settlement. And, finally, you are driven back to your hotel at night by Palestinian drivers. Dizzy yet? If anything else, our group got to experience the many faces of Israel first-hand. And that is priceless.