I can’t believe we are already coming to the end of our trip. What an amazing experience once again! We have done so much; it is really hard to fathom. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Jana for making it all happen for us, and to Marla, our guide, for making every moment and every place so rich with meaning. This, differently than previous times, was a very special journey for me. Not just because I was blessed to lead the trip with Pastor Tim, but also because, for the first time, I was able to share the land of my youth with my son. This has been the most precious gift of all.

With all that, my key take away from the trip can be summed up in one sentence: who tells the story matters. Let me explain. In the past few weeks, whichever holy or not-so-holy site we have visited, we have found ourselves at the center of competing stories. We have discovered that whomever owns the site, owns the story the site tells and uses that story to convey the message that is important to them. The Independence Hall Museum tells the story of the founding of Israel, the story that is being taught in every school in Israel and that has become the quasi-unquestioned Jewish narrative of the state. Being in the bilingual school in Kafar Qaba, we got that the Arab story of this event is radically different. That school tells both stories and in doing so attempts to create a different story for the future of Israel-Palestine.

In every Church or Christian site we have visited, whomever owns the site tells through shaping this particular space the story of Jesus they want to convey. This was true throughout our trip but was really made clear to us when we visited the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, the alternative site from the Holy Sepulcher, that claims their site as the true post-crucifixion burial place of Jesus. The people in charge of the space would only allow their trained volunteers to guide and teach in that space. When Pastor Tim shared with us—following the official guided and heavily scripted tour—his version of the story while we were still there, the site crew made it clear several times that we were not welcomed to do so.

But this was true as well for the Jewish holy site of the Western Wall. The Wall is “owned” by the religious ultra-orthodox. The tiny, hard to access space given outside of the main esplanade to the progressive egalitarian Jews—though an achievement in its own right—speaks volume to the religious balance of power there and who gets to dictate the story. In fact, the religious ultra-orthodox leadership is not only telling the Jewish story inside Israel, it is setting the tone for the entire Jewish people the world over. They are able to do so because they have been able to claim great political power and influence over the Israeli government, including key cabinet minister positions that allow them to shape the story of the Jewish people from Jerusalem.

Who gets to tell the story is critical. We have watched the religious story falling increasingly into the hands of the most radical orthodox in all three Abrahamic faiths. When the voice of religion could play a defining role in supporting the evolution of global consciousness, what we are seeing is that it is, instead, retracting, recoiling in fear from the advances of the post-modern world. But just as we, progressive Jews, cannot let the ultra-orthodox define who is a real practicing Jew and who isn’t, cannot let this one form of practice among a spectrum of practices be turned into the one gold standard of Jewishness, so can’t we let radical orthodoxy in any of our monotheistic faiths dictate the next chapter of human history. Just like in the bilingual school of Kafar Qaba, there is room for more than one story. We are richer for it when we can take multiple perspectives, include and integrate others’ stories. And so without denying the rightful space that belongs to the orthodox among us, we also need to boldly claim ours and be just as loud and proud as they are.

And loud and proud we certainly are. You should have seen us sing and dance at the Western Wall last night as we welcomed Shabbat together with the thousands of Jews of all traditions and from all places in the world who, as they do each week, gathered there to celebrate the Shabbat Queen with contagious joy. We proudly took our place in the many hora circles that form all over the place, and we loudly joined in song together with them. And that made me really happy.

Shavuah Tov, from Jerusalem.

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