Tag Archives: #JCRCinIsrael

Israeli & Palestinian Women Leading the Charge for Peace

I spent last week in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Ramallah as a facilitator for Encounter, following my experience as a participant last year. This time, my role was to support other American Jewish leaders who were there to listen and learn from Palestinians about their lives and experiences. I also had the opportunity to spend a few days touring in Jerusalem, with the ground partners we work with on our civic leader study tours, exploring new (to us) ways to engage.

Three “moments” that I would not have imagined possible only a few years ago have stuck with me as I returned home. They feature extraordinary women representing vastly different communities, but pursuing common goals with relentless determination and unimaginable courage.

With JCRC’s ground partners on Mount Zion, just outside the Old City walls, at the Jerusalem Intercultural Center, I learn about current efforts by Palestinian Jerusalemite women (the vast majority of whom are not citizens of Israel) to organize and agitate for basic municipal services. Since they refuse to recognize Israeli sovereignty, this community has been engaging in a 50-year-long boycott of municipal elections. One result has been their lack of representation at City Hall, leading to, among other things, chronic problems with services like street-light repair and garbage pickup. For decades, these issues were taken up by the clan leaders, the men in their communities – to little effect. But in recent years, the women have taken matters into their own hands, organizing, and even building coalitions with Orthodox and secular women in Jewish communities of the city. Their efforts are bearing fruit, including increases in budgets for services that are improving the quality of life  in their communities. Women, we are told, are getting the job done.

In Geula, a Haredi neighborhood of Jerusalem – a place I knew well when I was a black-hat yeshiva student living in that city in the 1980’s – a Hasidic woman leads us on a professional walking tour. She tells us about her own journey from 18-year-old married mother to a later-in-life college degree and profession. She engages us in an open and profoundly candid conversation – one I would never have imagined having with a woman from this community even 10 years ago – about social change and social issues in her community; women’s health education including birth control, LGBT issues, debates over higher education, etc. My friend asks her if she will have any issues walking on the streets with obviously outsider men (let alone any man other than her husband). “Things are changing. My neighbors understand the importance of what I am doing. This corner is fine,” she replies.

Then in Bethlehem, now having joined the Encounter group, I meet a Muslim woman who is involved in Women Wage Peace – a group of Israeli and Palestinian women working through non-violent means to build grassroots pressure on the political leadership in support of peace. This woman (names are protected because not all the people I met were on the record) tells us about her own journey and her determined efforts to teach her neighbors and youth in her community to see The Other – the Israeli, the Jew – as fully human, and to appreciate the feelings they have, that are common to us all.

She has brought her teenage son with her to this meeting with American Jewish leaders. He sits quietly next to her. At one point, as she tells her story, she talks about the first intifada in the 1980’s, when she was in college and I was a post-high school yeshiva student just down the road in Jerusalem. She did what all her classmates did: threw stones at the Jews. Jews like me, a mile away, I think to myself. And, as she tells this story, she reaches out and gently places her left hand on her son’s knee; only for a moment, while talking about her own violent past. And she doesn’t touch him again for the hour we are together.

I feel the message in that moment and in this boy’s presence in the room: She’s telling this story as a mistake she prays he does not repeat. She’s brought him here to see that her choice, to pursue non-violence as a practice, is a better one, and one that opens up doors of access to her, that brings her voice and vision before us visitors. It is a choice that needs validation and support. And over our time in Palestinian areas, we hear other activists who practice non-violence tell us that they need “wins.” Victories to show their neighbors that their approach works, that violence is not the path to a better future.

I come away appreciating that change is possible and continuing to happen. But that change never happens on its own. It takes bold vision and profound courage. And it needs our support; to amplify the visibility of activists, to celebrate and give strength to those pursuing non-violent social change. I’m proud that Women Wage Peace is one of the initial participants in the Boston Partners for Peace, our effort to amplify and connect with changemakers on the ground who are bridging the Israeli and Palestinian communities and paving the way to a better future.

We can have an impact in supporting the future of this place that continues to evolve before our eyes – only if we take the time to listen, to learn, to be inspired. But we must also act now, for we know that this possibility can be fleeting, and nothing is guaranteed to last forever. The question I ask myself is: What will these neighborhoods and communities will look like in another ten years, and how can our community be a part of cementing their progress long into the future?

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy 

Our Annual Israel Winter Study Tour

A short while ago, I arrived in Israel. Joined by our director of Israel Engagement, Eli Cohn-Postell, and two of our board members, Alex Goldstein and Leah Robbins, I am privileged to be leading our annual winter study tour for Massachusetts legislators.

Two Massachusetts Senators - Joseph Boncore and Patrick O’Connor - and eleven Representatives - Linda Dean Campbell, Evandro Carvalho, Gerard Cassidy, Kenneth Gordon, Danielle Gregoire, David Muradian, Jerald Parisella, Jeffrey Sanchez, Alan Silvia, Chynah Tyler and RoseLee Vincent - will be spending the next nine days experiencing the region and learning about the challenges and hopes of this place that is so near and dear to all of us.

I’ve said it before, but with six consecutive December trips for public officials (some one-third of the current sitting members of the Massachusetts legislature have come with us during this period!) and several other delegations in between, one might think that I’d get a bit jaded. Hardly! Every trip is a unique experience for me, on three levels:

First is that, with each group, I get to experience this place I care so deeply about through fresh eyes. It’s amazing to encounter Israel and my own deep connection to our roots through the lens of someone who is seeing it for the first time. And, I get to witness as our participants fall in love with the leaders and activists who’ve inspired and energized me for years.

Second, I am confident that - as on every trip - this week, I will meet at least one interesting person here for the first time. Maybe he will excite me or, just as likely, she will challenge my thinking and understanding. But one way or another, I’ll come away with another layer, another story, another example of how – after thirty-one years since I first lived here and after visiting countless times since – I still have so much to learn about this place.

Finally, while every trip examines long-existing challenges and the layers of this region, each also presents the opportunity to come face-to-face with a unique moment and get a fresh perspective on how people here are grappling with and talking about the latest developments. This week, it goes without saying, that news is Jerusalem and the United States government’s view of this most ancient city and Israel’s capital.

Those “in the news” moments will inevitably bring us back to the enduring conversations we’ve been having for years. How do different people and stakeholders define “Jerusalem?” What does this place mean to us, and to others? How is Jerusalem an issue and where does it sit relative to other matters that come up as part of the discussion about achieving peace and a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians?

Which is to say that for folks who are here for the first time and challenging their understanding of this place in a new way, the conversation will transcend the current moment and news cycle. We will begin a broader conversation that will hopefully be an enduring one, as they continue to follow events and deepen their understanding in six months or six years.

So yes, it has been JCRC’s incredible privilege to bring so many members of the Massachusetts legislature - as well as dozens of clergy and other civic leaders - to Israel over the years. I am profoundly grateful to have the opportunity and the donor support that allows us to be here. This experience never fails to energize and inspire me. It will, I am confident, renew and strengthen my own commitment to all that we do back home in Boston to engage with Israel and to work in support of those here whose hopes and aspirations we share - for two people, Israelis and Palestinians, living in peace in two states sharing one homeland.

I hope over the coming weeks you’ll follow our journey on social media and I look forward to sharing more about our impressions when we return.

Shabbat shalom,

Jeremy

Encountering Complexity

Three weeks ago, JCRC’s latest Christian Clergy Study Tour set out on our journey to Israel. The group comprised thirteen Protestant clergy members from across racial, socioeconomic, denominational and theological lines. Co-chaired by Rabbi Elaine Zecher of Temple Israel of Boston and JCRC trip alum Reverend Kent French of United Parish of Brookline, our group members were African American, West Indian, Latino, and White; Presbyterian, African Methodist Episcopal, Baptist, Lutheran, Pentecostal, and from the United Church of Christ. Our ages spanned from 20’s to 60's. Most had never been to Israel, and the few who had were there many years earlier, generally with little exposure to the Jewish-Israeli narrative. The group was united by a passion for an encounter with the land of their Scriptures, a thirst for engaging with complex realities and conflicting narratives, and, perhaps most of all, a deep desire to emerge with a sense of hope for the region’s future.

On our first morning, we set aside our jet lag to hear a presentation by veteran journalist Nathan Jeffay, who shared his experience covering Israel for multiple media outlets, including New York’s Jewish Week and London’s Jewish Chronicle. Jeffay told us that over his years of reporting, his editors’ directives had been consistent: stories of conflict and violence were always of most interest to readers, and each piece should include no more than two or three ideas at most. He cautioned the group to keep that in mind when consuming media pieces about Israel. Reading stories from afar would never result in the kind of multi-textured and nuanced understanding that is possible through direct encounters. Jeffay’s message rang with wisdom and truth throughout our trip, as we were exposed daily to a multiplicity of ideas and perspectives and learned of exciting initiatives on the ground to build a better future for Israelis and Palestinians.

A few scenes from our journey:


Sarit Zehavi and Reverend Paul Ford

A moment early on in our trip continued to resonate powerfully throughout. We visited the Lebanon border with IDF Major (Ret.) Sarit Zehavi, a former senior intelligence officer responsible for preventing collateral damage to Lebanese civilians. We peered into nearby Lebanon and noticed a large Hezbollah flag in full view. Our veteran Israeli tour guide who visits this site regularly shared his unease at this new addition. Major Zehavi offered her no-nonsense Israeli perspective; that the only way to achieve peace is through demonstrating military strength and readiness for aggression when necessary. One of our pastors engaged her in a robust debate, respectfully challenging her assertion. But before we left, he asked whether she would permit him to offer a prayer on her behalf, so we joined hands as he led us in a fervent prayer, asking for peace and security for her, her family living just miles from this place, for the people in Galilee and those on the other side of the border.

We visited the dusty tent of a fledgling NGO called “Roots” in Gush Etzion (above). There we met with Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger (third from right), who co-leads this organization, promoting Israeli-Palestinian understanding and mutual recognition, along with his Palestinian partner, Ali Abu Awad (far left). Rabbi Schlesinger identifies as a Zionist and settler, and believes that the Jewish people is fulfilling God’s promise by renewing its age-old tie to the Biblical land of Israel. But he shamefully acknowledged that the truth and righteousness of his story had blinded him most of his life to another story and another truth. With great passion, he described the transformation he experienced once he got to know his Palestinian neighbors, and he began to understand their experience of living in the same land, but under occupation. Ali described the multiple traumas that he and his family suffered, including the death of his brother, who was fatally shot in an argument with an Israeli soldier. When Jewish members of the Parents Circle reached out to his bereaved family and came to pay their respects, for the first time Ali saw Israelis not as his enemy, but as people whose tears of grief were no different than his own. He committed to a life of non-violence and to working with those whose partnership would be most essential for peace; not liberals drinking lattes in Tel Aviv, but the settlers who were his neighbors. The courageous leadership and stubborn optimism of Hanan and Ali left lasting impressions on our group.

Finally, we traveled south to Moshav Netiv Ha’asarah (above), right along the Gaza Border. We heard from Susan, a veteran community member who moved there decades ago, motivated by her idealistic vision of working the land in a close knit Jewish community. Since the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the subsequent Hamas takeover, her community has found themselves subject to frequent attacks. Now, along with trying to sustain a thriving farming community, they have had to prioritize security concerns, constructing ever more sophisticated shelters and rerouting their school bus to avoid being targeted by rocket and mortar fire. And yet, the change that they lament perhaps the most is the disconnect from their neighbors in Gaza with whom they once had frequent contact. When one of our ministers asked whether they were still in touch, Susan said that they were, through periodic phone conversations. Though they are careful about the information they transmit, they still care about each other and know that the connection they share is much more powerful than all that divides them; the universal human desire to provide good lives for their families and live in peace.

The mantra repeated throughout all of our study tours is that participants can expect to go home with even more questions than they came with. Once again, that was the experience of this cohort, as they acknowledged the complexity they encountered, one that defied black-and-white thinking and oversimplification. As Jeffay predicted, our engaging directly with the land and its people offered far more than the ideas available in the press, or a picture limited to conflict and violence. And yet, despite the diversity of our encounters and the vast differences in background and ideology among those we met, binding them together was their shared humanity and collective aspiration to live in peace. These Israeli and Palestinian change-makers now have thirteen American faith leaders who will be praying passionately for that to be so.

Shabbat Shalom,

Nahma Nadich
Deputy Director

#JCRCinIsrael 2016

A short while ago, I arrived in Israel. Joined by our trip chair Representative Lori Ehrlich of Marblehead, and by JCRC board members Beth Badik and Ben Pearlman, I am privileged to be leading our annual winter study tour for Massachusetts legislators. Twelve state representatives will be spending the next nine days experiencing Israel and the region while learning about the challenges and hopes of this place that is so near and dear to all of us.

After five winters leading these trips, and having accompanied almost one third of the Massachusetts legislature to Israel during this time, you might think I’d get a bit jaded. And it’s true, I’ve spent more time in churches in Jerusalem than I ever expected to when I lived there as a yeshiva boy. I’ve visited the Dead Sea far more than this ‘once in a lifetime’ experience requires.

Regardless, every trip is unique and special for me on two counts:

First, with each group, I get a fresh chance to see a place I care about so deeply. It’s amazing to encounter Tel Aviv through the lens of someone who is seeing it for the first time. It is always a privilege for me to deepen my own connection to our history when travelling with someone who has never been there before. And, I get to watch firsthand as our participants fall in love with the leaders and activists who’ve inspired and energized me for years.

Second, while every trip examines long-existing challenges and the layers of history in this region, each also presents the opportunity to come face-to-face with a unique moment and get a fresh perspective on how people here are grappling with and talking about the latest developments.

We’ve all been following the terrible fires this past week, especially as they’ve impacted our beloved sister community in Haifa (and if you haven’t already, please join me in supporting CJP’s emergency relief campaign). I’m looking forward to getting back there next week to see and support our friends and to connect our travelers with our long-term partners.

We’re also coming here for the first time since our own elections. And, while I’ve said a lot these past few weeks about what this election means for our domestic priorities, here is the opportunity for all of us on this bus to learn how Israelis and Palestinians are reacting to our outcome. We’ll hear from strategic thinkers with their views on U.S. engagement both in our role as ally to Israel and also as a larger actor in the region. We’ll want to know their take on the shifting U.S.- Russia relationship, their insight regarding Russia’s client regime in Syria – which is also backed by Iran’s regime; and what this all means for Israel just days after an IDF encounter with ISIS in the Golan Heights.

So yes, it has been JCRC’s incredible privilege to bring so many members of the Massachusetts legislature - as well as dozens of other clergy and civic leaders - to Israel over the past five years. I am profoundly grateful to have the opportunity and the donor support that allows us to be here. This experience never fails to energize and inspire me. It will, I am confident, renew and strengthen my own commitment to all that we do both on the ground in Israel and back home in Boston.

I hope over the coming weeks you’ll follow our journey on social media and I look forward to sharing more about our impressions when we return.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy