Interfaith Trip To Israel_Day Four

There was a time in my life when I was powerfully attracted by the possibility of living on a kibbutz. When I was 16, I spent a summer in Israel working on a kibbutz in the northern part of the country called Beit HaShitah. I fell in love with the place and the way of life. Something about the idea of working as part of a community toward a shared goal, of living outdoors and doing physical work, of breaking free from the individualistic capitalist lifestyle that the socialist-anarchist in me rejected. It felt ego-less, humble and simple; a sort of modern monastic life. I was religious at the time so I imagined my life on a religious kibbutz would be split between praying to my God and tending the earth. What better combo? I also imagined I would probably join one of the kibbutzim by the Dead Sea in the middle of the desert as I always loved being there.

Obviously I never made it happen. It remained an unfulfilled desire that I filed under “Idealistic Aspirations of Youth” in one of the drawers of my life story. Today, as we toured Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu on the bank of the Jordan river a few hundred yards north of the border with Autonomous Palestine, that desire got reactivated. Maybe this time, however, because of the turmoil in our world today, this was more about escapism than idealism. A part of me dreamt again, for a moment, of disconnecting from everything and returning to a simpler way of being. After all, it used to be that if you lived on a kibbutz, all your basic needs were taken care of. You didn’t own anything as everything belonged to the community, but you didn’t have to worry about anything either. In the first few minutes of walking through this kibbutz today that felt really right and enticing. Who needs to go back to “civilization” and why would anyone want to be a part of it? Beni, the Kibbutz member that was assigned to be our guide, showed us how over the last couple of decades, Sde Eliyahu had become the leader in Israel in organic farming through one of their promotional movies. It sounded particularly good and tempting.

I think it is healthy, from time to time, to question the decisions we have made, the life we have chosen. Often it is when we travel, when we are given the opportunity to come into contact with other ways of living and hold those as against our own, that we can step outside of ourselves and look at our own life, that we can play the compare-and-contrast game and imagine what our life might have been if we had made different choices. It is healthy as well because being exposed to other possibilities of defining how a human life may be lived in the short amount of time we are all given on this earth, helps us question the definition our society has given us and by which, consciously and unconsciously, we live. In our case we might still choose the American way of life, yet if we do, we might do it with greater awareness. I wouldn’t choose, today, the life of a kibbutznik. Though I still find many parts of it attractive and a part of me would have no problem with rejecting civilization in order to live as a farmer/meditator recluse, my life path lays elsewhere. I am grateful for the chance today has given me to touch again this part of self that, unless placed in this kind of context, doesn’t get activated. It is good to spend time sitting together with this other part of me, my inner monk.

Tomorrow we climb Masada. And that’s altogether another metaphor for our lives.

Interfaith Trip to Israel_Day Three

How do we heal our world? How do we move past what divides us to create, together, a tomorrow that will be richer because of the pain of yesterday? How do we stand strong for what we believe in without demonizing those others who stand strong for what they believe in? Yes, I am talking about the US Presidential elections and, yes, I am talking about Israel. Because the Israeli-Palestinian experience has something to teach us, Americans, about moving forward. We could go one direction—as Israeli and Palestinian governments have done—that of separation, that of “I’m right, you’re wrong,” and move the two sides of the country further and further apart until all possibility of communication breaks down and all that’s left is violence and death. Or we could go a different direction—as some small minorities within Israel-Palestine still are—and choose healing and reconciliation, understanding and compassion. Today we met those who refuse to accept as fait-accompli the polarization of peoples meant to share the same land. Today we humbly learned at the feet of Jews and Palestinians alike, how to move forward back home. Today, among others working toward peace on the ground, we met Dr. Hassan Agbaria, the principal of a bilingual Arab-Jewish school named “Bridge Over The Wadi,” in the Arab village of Kafar Qaba. He is my new hero (and I never use the word hero lightly).

In his school, hundreds of children, pre-K through 12th grade, Jews and Arabs learn together in both languages; Hebrew and Arabic. Instead of simply opting for their local Israeli public school, families from the nearby Jewish village of Katzir, choose every day to drive their children to this Arab village so that they can benefit from a bilingual education and be raised to learn tolerance in an integrated community. Every day, Muslim families of this and other villages around, defy their own society and its norms, and choose to drive their kids to this school as well. Each classroom in every grade has two teachers, one who teaches in Hebrew, one who teaches in Arabic. Teachers are all women. This was a deliberate choice of Principal Hassan in part because he believes women were better conveyers of the school’s vision, in part because having working Arab women also creates change back in their own communities. We arrived at the school right at noon and, as it probably was lunch break, dozens of kids were running around in the courtyard some playing soccer, some playing “marching band” and banging on improvised drums. Girls and boys of all ages, Muslims and Jews playing together. One of the Jewish ten year olds was asked to say a few words to us because he was known to speak some English. His name was Lior. We asked him how many Jews and how many Muslims were in his class. He had no idea. The thought never occurred to him to look at his classmates that he had known since he was three in this kind of way. Next to us, two girls who must have been the same age as Lior, one Jewish one Muslim, were talking to each other as best friends do sitting side by side and interlacing their legs and giggling together. It was so simple, it was so normal, it made me cry. I asked Principal Hussan how they choose their curriculum, especially around teaching history, knowing full well that there is no shared historical narrative between Palestinians and Israelis. Each side sees what has happened over the years in a radically different way than their counterpart. Dr. Agbaria used an apt example since we just had been at the Independence Hall Museum in Tel Aviv, that of Israel’s Independence Day. Each year, May 14th, toward the end of the school year, comes the marking of a day that the Palestinians call “Nekba – The Catastrophe.” Principal Hussan told us that they are not there to try and manufacture a third historical narrative that would retell a modified story and smooth over the difficult parts. Instead they see their mission as being about teaching both opposing narratives, exactly as each side tells it, to all the kids. They teach kids, from the youngest age, to recognize the truth in each competing and contradicting story, to see that each perspective is right however partial and limited to only one side. These kids learn to listen to each other’s story, to appreciate multiple points of view, to hear the pain and recognize the fear behind them from the youngest age; and we, adult citizens of the supposed greatest civilization that ever ruled the earth can’t even do that between Americans who, for the most part, don’t have language and religion as an obstacle.

Principal Hussan holds a vision as his guiding principle. His vision to which he dedicates every minute of every hour of his life, is a vision of peace, mutual recognition and understanding. In an area of the world where the overwhelming majority perceives such a vision as a threat, Principal Hussan is risking his life to give these children the chance to live a different dream. There are now six such bilingual schools in Israel that follow this model. “Bridge over the Wadi,” however, is the only school in a 100% Arab village. Beyond the world-changing model that these centers of education promote, there are dozens of other such programs and organization working on the ground, and in spite of their government, to make peace with their neighbors. Israel is changing, a new dawn of possibility is here. And this is exciting for Israel-Palestine.

But what about us? What is our vision for our country? Can we learn from this experience and stand, with love in our heart and an invitation on our lips, for such a vision without rejecting or demonizing those who think otherwise? Can we act today to manifest our vision for tomorrow? Can we take a firm stand in support of that vision and move from a center of love, understanding and compassion, to counter the forces of exclusion and division?

We have much to learn from this growing grassroots movement toward peace, blossoming in Israel, and, for once, though they may be a thousand setbacks and many dark days ahead, there may be cause for optimism. And I’ll take optimism over bloodshed anytime.

Blessed are the peacemakers…

Interfaith Israel Trip 2016_Day One

Is it possible?

After spending time in Tel Aviv this morning both at the Independence Hall where David Ben Gurion declared the State of Israel’s existence, and walking through the artists’ market of Nachalat Binyamin and the Carmel Suk; we drove north to the Galilee and spent time visiting a couple churches in Nazareth each claiming to be the spot of the Annunciation where Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she soon would become pregnant. We learned that there are two churches because of two competing stories. One had Mary at her home, the other at the village’s well drawing water when Gabriel appeared. Both churches, in their own way, are magnificent designs of inspired sacred space. Time and again I find myself drawn into the silence that places such as these are able to evoke in me.

Nazareth is known to be the capital of the Galilee. Eight percent of this region of Israel is Arab-populated and predominantly Muslim but with a strong Christian minority as well. Nazareth itself is one hundred percent Arab-Israeli with roughly 60,000 Muslims and 20, 000 Christians. Some years ago, Israeli Jews started building a little village the next hill over that they named Upper Nazareth. Attracted by the modernity of the new constructions, Arab-Israelis from Nazareth started buying homes in Upper Nazareth and constitute now 20-30% of the new village’s population. It is predicted that, within a generation, it will soon become an Arab-majority village with Arabs living side by side with Jews.

So I asked myself, is it possible? One of the main arguments that I have heard from the political right in Israel that opposes the peace process is the fear that Palestinians’ only goal—despite their claim to the contrary—is, ultimately, the destruction of Israel. That we can’t trust them with a peace agreement they will never honor; that Israel needs to fortify its defenses, keep building a separation wall, impose strict checkpoints to prevent terrorists from entering Israel, and maintain a military presence inside Palestinian towns, villages and territories. But these 80,000 Muslims and Christians of Nazareth don’t have a security wall surrounding them, don’t have checkpoints that restricts their movement in Israel whatsoever, and have no Israeli military presence in their streets. Yet with complete and unrestricted access to any place in Israel, I can’t remember a time when any Arab resident of Nazareth ever perpetrated a terrorist act against Jews. Even though, as full-fledged citizens of the state of Israel, they are still a discriminated-against minority (as minorities seem to be the world over) which could justify them having a bone of contention against Israeli Jews; without mentioning the legitimate anger and resentment toward Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza.

It seems to me that the example of decades of peaceful cohabitation within Israel between Israeli-Jews and Arab-Israeli could serve as a tangible example of success and something to point to as a more probable outcome of a negotiated peace agreement between the two people. I understand that there are many complex layers of this conflict that a short blog post that is necessarily limited cannot address. There are legitimate concerns coming from all sides of the political spectrum both in Israel and in Palestine. Yet, to me, the security fear-based argument from Israel’s political right I mentioned above, though understandable, may not be as iron-clad that it purports to be. I don’t think that Israel is really afraid of what a potential fledgling Palestinian State could do. The balance of military power is overwhelmingly on Israel’s side, and a disarmed Palestinian State could be a negotiated condition for independence. Looking at the Nazareth example; given the chance to live peacefully and freely in a democratic context, it appears as though—like other peoples the world over—that the Palestinians would chose to contribute, respect and be part of such democratic nation-building. The narrative one chooses, the example one points to, affects one’s vision about what could be. After today, I am growing more convinced that Nazareth more than Gaza, is a true representation of the future of Israel/Palestine where Jews and non-Jews have already lived together in peace side by side for decades. And as it has happened within the Israeli State borders, so could it happen within the boundaries of a Palestinian State as well. And though I reject Gaza and the violent aftermath of Israel’s withdrawal, I choose Nazareth. Like we heard this morning at Independence Hall: “If you will it, it is no dream.” But that is the problem, isn’t it?

Interfaith Israel Trip 2016 _Arrival Day

Tel Aviv, Israel; November 17, 2016

What a miracle! I am re-reading these first few words—the date and the place where I am writing from—and I am moved by a sense of awe. Don’t get me wrong, my zealous Zionist years are far behind me. As an Israeli citizen, I have found myself highly critical of Israel’s current government and, at the same time, concerned with the world’s criticizing of Israel indiscriminately, as if all Israelis supported this government’s policies and actions. What would we say if other people painted Americans as being all Obama-supporters or, starting January 20th all Trump-policies supporters? But disagreeing with one’s government doesn’t make one a traitor or an anti-American/Israel; doesn’t cause one to go burn the flag tomorrow. Often the opposite is true. We are highly critical and work to hold our government accountable to fulfilling our country’s vision because we care; because we know ourselves to be part of a human evolution project bigger than ourselves; bigger than any one nation.

Walking with our group through the streets of Tel Aviv to and from our first group dinner at Magenda, a local and oh-so-delicious Israeli restaurant, I was moved by seeing the Israeli flag wave in the wind. That reaction surprised me. I pointed out to my son Lior who was walking by my side of the miracle that such a flag existed, that Tel Aviv existed, that Israel existed. That a flag with a Jewish star painted on it could symbolize the existence of a place of refuge for all Jews of the world—a safe haven from the dangers of living at the mercy of the next rise of an anti-Semitic wave in whatever country we currently find ourselves—is an absolute miracle.

And though we might disagree with the current Israeli government policies, though we may be aware that for too many non-Jewish minorities in this land this flag represents oppression and evil, we simply cannot abandon Israel and what it was founded to stand for. When it comes to the Israeli project, still in its infancy when compared to America’s or the European nations’ for example, the phrase from the Talmud’s Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers,” comes to mind: “Lo Aleicha HaM’lacha Ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibatel mimenah – It is not incumbent upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from contributing to it altogether.”

Perhaps this interfaith tour of Israel might give us a new way to think not only about the unfolding of the Israeli narrative and project but give us clues as to how we can move forward together as an American nation as well. I am looking forward to the journey ahead.

Journey Through Israel 2012 – Our Last Shabbat

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.

Journey Through Israel 2012 – A Bedouin Living Room

Do you know why Jana called her tour company “Kesem”? That’s because Kesem means “magic” in Hebrew, and she wanted to set the Kavanah—the intention—for the trips to Israel to be magical. This has been my third trip to Israel with Jana, and each one has been more magical than the other.

There is one major reason why these trips are magical though: Jana herself. And here is why. Midway through our travels we had to change our bus driver. Moti, our Jewish driver, was called south to a different group but arranged for another driver to replace him. He arranged for someone he trusted deeply, a Bedouin Muslim driver named Nasour. Our first day with Nasour was wonderful. The group immediately befriended him. Jana told us that she had learned his father had an accident and was undergoing surgery the very evening he spent with us touring the Druze village. All of us offered prayers of healing to him and his father, chanting “El Na Refa Na La” at dinner, and Nasour was deeply touched by our gesture. But this couldn’t have taken place without Jana. In just a couple of hours of meeting Nasour, Jana had worked her magic and had made him part of our group, one of us. Even if you didn’t understand Hebrew to know what she and him were talking about as the bus took us from one spot to the next, the laughter and the joy that you could witness between them in the front seats told you the whole story.

This immediate connection and bonding that Jana facilitated between us all and Nasour, led to the most magical event—and probably one of the greatest highlights of the trip: Nasour invited us all for lunch in his village the next day. Now you might not “get” how amazing this is. Let’s put it this way; there is no organized tour of Israel that would ever include something like this. Furthermore, there is no Jewish Israeli citizen, that I know of, that ever gets to do something like this either. That a Jew in Israel could befriend a Muslim Bedouin is almost unheard of. But for anyone to be invited to the home of a Bedouin for lunch, that’s near impossible. At least it was until Jana. He didn’t just invite Jana or Marla (our guide) or me; he invited all 12 of us in the home of his cousin, in his village of upper Galilee. I am not telling you how fabulous the food was—it would be unfair—so I am just going to mention the baklava and other honey pastries we had for desert with the most delicious mint tea you’ve ever had.

This whole village of now sedentary Bedouins of several thousand residents, Nasour explained, is one large family, one large clan dating back thousands of years. We got to meet his wife and two grown boys, his cousin in who’s living room we were hosted, and his cousin’s daughter (soon to be married to Nasour’s son), as well as Nasour’s brother the dentist. The inhabitants of their village are completely integrated in Israel. They serve in the Israeli army, many of them are policemen, and if they are not working the beautiful land around their village, they have jobs in the many industries of Israel. Many are highly educated and work as doctors, dentists, teachers or other liberal professions. Besides having near-perfect teeth (we wondered how they did that after eating so many sweet deserts) many of them also had blue eyes, which caused us to ask of their tribal origins. Their nomadic clan, we learned, originated in Eastern Europe (perhaps as far as Russia) and traveled south several thousand years ago to the Arabic peninsula (today’s Saudi Arabia). How incredible is that!!

Like I wrote earlier, you cannot put a price tag on this experience, on this gift that our group was gifted. As I sit in my hotel room in Jerusalem, watching the rain fall outside my window on this Friday morning, December 21st, 2012, I am praying. I am praying that if today is the end of the world, that the world that is ending be the one that keeps us separated from one another; and that in the world about to be, in the world to come, we may find each other invited for lunch in each other’s living rooms. For on that day, like we say in the Aleynu, I believe with all my soul that “the Unity of Being shall be celebrated by all.”

Journey Through Israel 2012 – The Last Jew of Peki’in

Our plan was simple. We were going to stop in the Druze village of Peki’in mostly because it is connected to Kabbalistic mythology and because Jana had arranged for our group to experience Druze hospitality at a dinner that evening. Peki’in is connected to Kabbalah because Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in the first century CE, hid there from the Romans in a cave with his son for 13 years. As the myth goes, during this 13 year forced meditation retreat, Bar Yochai wrote the Book of the Zohar, the central text of Kabbalah.

Before walking down the steep slope in Peki’in to find the cave, our group stopped for a little chumus at Rayah’s, a local hole-in-the-wall little eatery. You can see that we have our priorities straight. Once restored a few of us began our descent. Beyond the cave itself our guide, Marla, mentioned that this Druze village also harbored and ancient synagogue—renovated many times over the centuries—that was still in use. We decided to pay it a visit.

When we finally got there, the door was locked. Undeterred, Marla walked into a little house next door to ask if the people there knew the person who could open the synagogue to us. Two Druze women sitting around an office desk by their computer told her that the woman caretaker of the synagogue had the key, but wasn’t there at this time. As we regrouped to decide our next move a little old lady, four feet tall, wearing rags from the last world-war, looking like she was a thousand years old and carrying a couple of full plastic bags, walked right by us, muttering to herself. Jana asked out loud if, by any chance, she knew the synagogue’s caretaker. And the women, in an angry and short tone, mumbled back to her very fast: “Yes, of course! It’s me, but I’m not ready for you!!” In shock, and thinking this old woman no longer had all her mental capacities, we followed her to this office space Marla had just emerged back from.

This little office space was no place to bring tourists into. It was old and decrepit, with the paint peeling off the walls. Waiting for the old woman to open the synagogue, a few of us ventured into the two adjacent rooms only to discover a series of ancient objects which, at best, belonged to a flea market. The old lady ignored us altogether for a good 15 minutes casually drinking a glass of Sprite with her two Druze buddies. Eventually, after I pressed her again to please open the synagogue for us, she yelled at me saying that we should first see all the artifacts in the other rooms and only after that would she open the synagogue.

As she walked us through the other two rooms she uncovered for us the most incredible treasure-trove. These artifacts we originally dismissed as the refuse of a hoarding old lady, who was no longer coherent, were actually historical articles she had saved and organized in a way, as her version of a little museum. Her name was Margalit. She was 81 years old. On the walls were pictures of her father and grandfather from early 20th century, although her family had been in Peki’in for over 2000 years and the time of the Second Temple, way before there even was a Druze people. There, on the wall, her grandfather pausing with Yitzchak Ben Zvi, one of the founders of the Jewish state many years before the declaration of independence. Next to it, a photo of the Jewish kids of the 1936-37 school year, with their teacher and their little school behind them. On the side another photo of the attendance record with the name of each kid in the picture written in Hebrew. Walk a little further into the room and in front of you, the old Torah reading table of the old synagogue she had saved, the decorated curtain that covered the old Ark and a few other ritual objects of the very ancient synagogue she was able to salvage from the last few remodelings. I kept asking questions about all these objects, she kept yelling at me each time she answered, as if I should have already known and all my questions were truly idiotic. I was totally in love with her. As we were almost done, she pointed to a book that was open behind a glass case. On the first page a few words were hand written, dedicated to her grandfather: “To the oldest family in our native land; thank you for…” I couldn’t read the rest. Signed: David Ben Gurion. Amazing!! Next to the display case, a large picture of her receiving state honors from Shimon Perez, Israel’s president. Unbelievable!! We clearly had stumbled upon Israel’s grandmother.

After a good half hour of touring her two-room museum, I reminded Margalit that we really wanted to see the synagogue. “Wait!” she angrily muttered, “You have to eat something before and have a little drink!” Of course! We wouldn’t dare crossing the street to visit the synagogue on an empty stomach. I told her we had just eaten a little chumus at the shop on top of the hill. She yelled at me, again, hoping we had eaten at Rayah’s place and not anywhere else. As a matter of fact, I said, that’s exactly where we had eaten and asked why that mattered so much to her? She proceeded to tell us that Rayah’s father saved her father from a handful of terrorists that were about to burn him alive during an attack in the years before the creation of the State of Israel. Sometimes the Universe sends you to eat your chumus in the right hole-in-the-wall place.

It had now been a good 45 minutes Margalit had managed to spend with us and we hadn’t gotten anywhere near the synagogue yet. Finally, now that we had all eaten and drunk a little Sprite, we qualified for a synagogue tour. It took her a few minutes to open the gate of the courtyard and another few minutes to find the key to the synagogue’s front door. I asked her how many Jewish families still lived in Peki’in and used the synagogue? She barked back at me saying she was the only one left in the village. Everyone else was either dead or had moved away. But because Peki’in is a holy place for many Jews (mostly because of Shimon Bar Yochai’s cave), Bar Mitzvahs often still take place at the synagogue. Just before we could enter she grabbed a few twigs put together in the shape of a broom to clear the entry way from all the leaves that had fallen from the magnificent mulberry tree that shaded the courtyard. I graciously told her that she certainly didn’t have to clean on our behalf; that we would be happy to just walk into the synagogue without the front door being leaf-free. What did I just say?!? Here she went again, yelling at me that she wasn’t clearing the front door for us! Was I kidding?!? She was clearing the dead leaves away so that we wouldn’t bring them into the synagogue as we stepped in!! I knew then that she had a thing for me. Why else would she keep on responding so indignantly at everything I asked? She gave us the most incredible tour of this little synagogue, always muttering and mumbling, always angrily responding to all our questions. We all totally fell in love with her. When the tour was over and we reluctantly started to walk toward our next destination, Margalit ordered us back into the courtyard. And as we all sheepishly complied and gathered in front of her, she began to bless us with words from the Torah, words that rabbis pray for healing and success; she blessed us with health and wealth, she blessed our families and our children’s children. Our hearts melted. Then and only then, were we allowed to leave, to get back to our lives. But there is no way for us to do that Margalit. You have changed us forever. Life will never be the same now that we have spent this couple of hours with you. We have truly been blessed by your presence. You are the last Jew of Peki’in and the most incredible person I have ever met. You are a being of light and you will shine in our hearts for the rest of our days. Thank you for teaching us patience, thank you for teaching us to stay open to life’s surprises. Had we not, we would have missed you; and that would have been unbearably sad.

PS: Learn more about Margalit in this article published in HaAretz, Israel’s major newspaper.

Journey Through Israel 2012 – A Day as a Prayer

Following our magical encounters yesterday, I wanted to continue practicing awe and letting myself be surprised by whatever was to arise for me today. In fact, I had made it part of my guiding through our morning meditation. It is amazing what can happen when we simply say “yes!” to what life offers us in every moment.

Today on our itinerary was the seam line tour of Jerusalem. We started the day visiting the tomb of the prophet Samuel, right outside of and overlooking Jerusalem from the north. As we entered the building which serves both as a mosque and a synagogue (both recognize Samuel as a major prophet) our steps took us to the Jewish side where many ultra-orthodox families (men and women separately) were praying near to the tomb. In a common area, a Chasidic family had gathered together to celebrate the first haircut of their three year old twin boys. It is traditional for Chasidic families to either wait for Lag BaOmer in the spring, or to have the ceremony at an especially holy site soon after the kids’ third birthday. As we watched, the proud father was gifting his two boys their first Talit Katan (small Talit), and the whole family sang and clapped. Seeing that I was clearly enjoying the scene (these two little boys with their long curly hair were unbearably cute) the father invited me to participate wanting to give me the incredible honor to cut a piece of his kids’ hair. After saying “no” initially, I remembered that today I was supposed to say “Yes!” to whatever life was to surprise me with. And this young father was offering me the opportunity to practice. And so I did. I grabbed the scissors, one of the gorgeous curls of the little boy in front of me and, shaking with emotion, took part in this incredible Mitzvah. Unforgettable! (see the short video here).

Though we started at the northernmost viewpoint of Jerusalem, our tour brought us eventually to the southernmost historical site; the Herodion Fortress; southeast of Bethlehem. In order for us to get there, however, we needed to drive for a few minutes through parts of the West Bank. Now I don’t mean to romanticize my experience of the landscape we discovered—I will never be one of the shepherds we saw guiding flocks of sheep through the barren hills of Judea, nor could I live in a place with so few of the modern conveniences and basic comforts I take for granted—but I must admit that I fell in love with those hills, with the little Arab villages we drove by that seemed so calm and peaceful just a few miles from the chaos of overcrowded Jerusalem. I thought to myself that the worst thing that could happen to the Palestinian people is western civilization. Their way of life, which appeared to me to be in perfect osmosis with their surroundings, needed in my eyes to be not just preserved but, indeed, celebrated. I wanted to get off the bus, walk down the dirt road that led to one of the homes there, knock on the door and sit down over a cup of Turkish coffee with whomever I would meet, and ask them to teach me how to live in this land the way they have for generations. I didn’t expect to have this kind of reaction. I didn’t plan on having such an heart opening experience driving through these parts of the West Bank. I guess the Universe provided in spades opportunities for me to be surprised at my own reactions faced with the awe of these truly sacred moments.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.” This entire day was, for me, one heart-opening unfolding prayer.

Journey Through Israel 2012 – Falling in Love With What Is

We spent part of the day at the beach in Tel Aviv today. It was good, on this second day, to be able to bathe in the sun, get our feet buried in the sand and dip our toes in the Mediterranean Sea. To me, these moments are a doorway to a deeper presence, to a relaxed place in my body.

But just before we walked the beach, Jana brought us to this little corner of the Tel Aviv beachfront promenade, where every Saturday, early afternoon, Israelis come together to dance what is called here: “Rikudei Am,” or traditional “People Dances” in English. A DJ sets up in that little square and people just show up to dance together. Most of us think of the “Hora” when we think of traditional Jewish dance, but there is so much more to it than that. Traditional Israeli music includes influences from the Yemenite, Middle Eastern, Spanish and African traditions as much as—and, in fact, much more than—the Klezmer and Eastern European musical styles that we mostly encounter in North America. For close to two hours we watched Israelis from all walks of life, young and old, men and women, dance and sing together around that little square by the beach. It was incredible!

It was incredible because most of us see Israel through the prism of the news media. We create in our minds a certain image of the Israelis. We generalize. But here, we were confronted with the disarming simple reality of a people that is deeply united by a powerful sense of a shared experience, a people that loves to dance in the streets of its cities, very much alive and vibrant. Watching this group dance helped me remember the human side of Israel, with all its flaws and all its problems, still clinging to a semblance of normalcy, still wanting to celebrate the light of its being. I looked at all these people and I found them beautiful.

We closed the day driving back up to Jerusalem to witness the kindling of the eighth candle of Chanukah. We walked the streets of Nachlaot, an old neighborhood right at the center of the city just as people began to light their Chanukiot. A few orthodox guys suddenly appeared at the window of their street level apartment, and as they were pouring olive oil in their eight little cups, not just our group but perhaps 30 Israelis wandering the streets with us, stopped to watch them too. They lit their Chanukiah while all 40 of us in the street joined them in chanting the blessings and singing the traditional Chanukah songs. I looked at all these people and I found them beautiful too.

Israel has that power; the power to remind us to stop running and pause to pay attention to this life as it is fast unfolding in front of our eyes. People are beautiful if we only take the time to look at them without letting our vision be blurred by the stories we have made up about who they are. Israel teaches us to let ourselves be surprised, to approach each moment with a sense of awe, an eagerness to discover, and to be comfortable with not knowing what’s next. It is a state of being that is very freeing even if scary for some of us who like to live more predictable lives; but it holds the keys to falling deeply in love with what is, and that is priceless.

Journey Through Israel 2012 – The Measure of Time

How do you measure time? Is it by watching your kids growing up, your parents growing old, or the wrinkles on your face growing deep? Our tradition measures time from one Shabbat to the next and from one Torah reading cycle to the next. Some measure time by following the agricultural seasons, others the geological periods. This, to us, is really “time.” The time that our watches and digital clocks measure is not as real. The hours and the minutes only exist because we have appointments and deadlines. Without appointments we wouldn’t need them. The cab I took from the airport to Jerusalem doesn’t need a clock for example. It doesn’t leave the airport at the top of the hour or the bottom of the hour. Each cab can take ten passengers at a time and only leaves the airport when it is full. Don’t ask the cab driver at what time he will be leaving. You sit in the cab and you wait. Imagine doing that to catch a plane. You go to the airport when you need to fly, get on the plane that will eventually fly to where you want to go and wait for every seat to be filled so that the plane can take off. Running an airline might become a profitable business again and, we, we would be able to throw away our watches. No appointments, no clocks. That’s why we like vacations so much.

I became deeply aware of this construct, this idea, this concept we call “time,” walking through the Avshalom Caves this morning in Israel. The sheer beauty of the stalactite and stalagmite structures there was in and of itself breathtaking, but to be faced with trying to grasp the time it took for these incredible structures to take shape remains beyond our understanding. When a stalactite protruding from the ceiling 30 feet about you meets a stalagmite rising from the ground, their two-ness becoming one creates a pillar or a column within the cave. One such enormous pillar was dated by scientists to be 5 million years old. When one knows that both stalagmites and stalactites are formed one slow-dripping rain drop splashing at a time, one can’t help but feel overwhelmed in front of that pillar trying to contemplate what its existence entails in terms of time. Through the eyes of this pillar time feels very different. If the pillar could see us, we would appear to him as blurry figures traveling at lightning fast speed. Our own life span would be measured by the pillar as an expression of a few hundred rain drops and then we would be gone.

This pillar was an inspiration. It taught me to slow down, to appreciate time differently; to place what seems so important to me in the context of a few hundred rain drops falling in this cave. It helped me gain perspective as it expanded my heart and mind. I remembered that time is completely subjective and needs not be our master. Perhaps these Israeli cab drivers understand something we don’t after all. Perhaps we would be better off taking a page out of their book and use our “real” time more wisely. It is one of the most precious commodities we possess.