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My experience with Yahel continues to inspire and challenge me everyday. When I got to Israel in September, I knew I wanted to learn more about this country, but I’m not sure if I really knew what I was getting into. My eyes have been opened to some problematic parts of living here, but more often I see the bright spots, the hope for a better future. I figured out a few years ago that my future lies within the Jewish community, although I’m still not sure in what capacity that may be. As time goes on and as I learn more, the answer becomes a bit clearer. All I know for sure is that I want to make this world a little bit better, not worse.
In February, the entire Yahel group went on a 5 day seminar to the Negev. While there, we hiked in the desert, stayed on the kibbutz where Ben-Gurion lived (Sde Boker) and learned about some southern development towns. For me, and for many of my fellow Yahelnikim, the most powerful part of our seminar was our time with the Bedouin community. For those who don’t know, the Bedouins are an indigenous Arabic population living throughout the Middle East, including Israel. There are about 150,000 or so Bedouins currently living in Israel, mostly concentrated in the Negev, the southern desert area of Israel. Yes, they were here before the state of Israel was formed, and they are full citizens of the state now. However, their full citizenship does not necessarily mean equality. When we learned about Ben-Gurion and his vision during our seminar, someone asked our tour guide what he thought of the Bedouins. Our tour guide simply answered, “He didn’t see them.” Ben-Gurion had this grand vision for cultivating the desert and making it a hospitable and thriving place because when he first saw it, he saw emptiness. He didn’t see the people who were already living there.
This mentality seems to still exist today. The Israeli government has tried several times to control the Bedouin population and centralize it into cities and population centers. The government established several townships specifically meant for Bedouin population. However, there are still over 50 Bedouin villages. We stayed in one of the seven recognized villages one night, Qasr al-Sir. These villages are recognized by the Israeli government and therefore have basic services such as water, electricity and sewage. However, it is still a far cry from most towns in Israel, even the small town of Gedera. It was a strange juxtaposition to see satellite TV dishes and unpaved roads in the same village. We slept in a tent and enjoyed dinner and breakfast cooked by a local women’s catering company. We then went to an unrecognized village (there are about 43) the next day, and the situation seemed grim. They do not have water, electricity or garbage collection provided by the government, and the unemployment rates are very high. We spoke with one of the leaders of the village who was very frustrated with the Israeli government. They were fighting for recognition, but the community leaders often lack the political savvy, knowledge or experience to successfully navigate the Israeli government’s bureaucracy. The entire experience was very hard to reconcile.
The Bedouin tent experience is a quintessential part of Birthright, but this was no Birthright experience at all. I’m wondering if a Jewish state means a state that is only for Jews. That’s not the reality here, and it’s never going to be; the Jewish state needs to be a state for all its citizens, not just its Jewish ones. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: the best way to support Israel is to be critical and help make change.
I’m reading the book “Mountains Beyond Mountains” about Dr. Paul Farmer. He has dedicated his life to helping the poorest of the poor in Haiti, treating them for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. I’m inspired by his life and work but at the same time very daunted. He has committed all his time to doing good, and he’s actually making a difference and where am I? I don’t have a Harvard Medical School degree, so I can’t cure people of TB. I’m still trying to figure out what I can do to make this world a better place, not a worse one. I think it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed because there is just so much wrong and injustice in this world, but I’m trying to see the bright spots, the good people, that are turning things around. I want to be one of those people. As Paul Farmer said, “I’ve never known despair and I don’t think I ever will.”
So this is my little way of trying to make things better. I don’t know what I can do to make things better in Israel, but at least I can spread some awareness to some people and maybe get the wheels in your mind turning. Our trip was led and organized by a group called Bustan (click the name for more info), and they really did an amazing job of showing us a complete picture of the situation and how they are trying to help (including their women employment development, like the catering company that cooked for us).
The idea of pursuing social change can be scary. I didn’t realize that until this year, but I also didn’t realize that that was exactly what I want and need to do. In what capacity, I’m not sure yet, but I’m figuring it out. There’s a Hebrew song that I’ve known since I was a kid, but the words have finally kicked in:
כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאוד, והעיקר – לא לפחד כלל
The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to despair at all.
It’s actually a pretty catchy song with a great message–the Jews really knew how to do it back in the day. I’m also learning the song in Amharic!
I’ll end by recalling the Exodus story that Jews just recently retold at the Passover Seder. I believe the story resonates with Jews in many ways. Some can take away from it that we retell the story every year to remind ourselves of the bitterness of our enslavement and to prevent it from ever happening to us again. We as a Jewish people must remain strong and having a Jewish state to call our own is important in ensuring our freedom. On the other hand, we can also realize that this bondage is not something that any people would want to endure. Exodus 23:9 reads, “You shall not oppress a stranger for you know the feeling of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” I think for a long time, the fear of being the “stranger” once again has influenced the actions and reactions of the Jewish people and state. I hope that now, Jews can lead the way in preventing injustice throughout the world, to Jews and non-Jews alike.
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Parshat Bo contains the heart of the Passover story: the recounting of the final plague of the first born, and what appears to be the final decision of the Pharaoh to allow the people of Israel to leave Egypt. Actually, “allow” might not be the best word to describe what really happens. Pharaoh tells Moshe and Aharon in Shemot 12:31:
קוּמוּ צְּאוּ מִתּוֹךְ עַמִּי
Get up, leave from the midst of my people!
And, after this incident, it seems that we’ve finally won, that we’re finally going to be free. We’re even told that God intervenes with the Egyptians to insure that we don’t leave empty handed, causing them to lend us silver and gold vessels and clothing. If this were a movie, or at least a cheesy one, the closing credits might even run here, with a frozen shot of Moses and Aaron grinning ear-to-ear, mid-jump, with the entire community of Israel behind them, unable to contain their excitement. But this isn’t a movie, and the story doesn’t end here.
Those of us who know the story know that Pharaoh changes his mind; the Sea of Reeds has yet to part, Moshe has yet to sing, Miryam has yet to take up her timbrel. However, with or without prior knowledge, after we begin to bake our first matzot, the following verse, Shemot 12:42 is, without a doubt, strange:
לֵיל שִׁמֻּרִים הוּא לַיהוָה, לְהוֹצִיאָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: הוּא-הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה לַיהוָה, שִׁמֻּרִים לְכָל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְדֹרֹתָם
A night of vigil it is for Hashem, to bring them out from the land of Egypt; this night is Hashem’s, a vigil for all the children of Israel for all of their generations.
Although I’m drawn into the beauty of this verse, envisioning God as a father or mother awake all night, caring for their feverish child until daybreak, until the illness passes, I’m also struck by the verse’s present tense and parallelism of the actions of God and our own. It is a night of vigil: the vigil never stops, the need for freedom from oppression even when it appears in our own world that everything is fine. And though this night belongs to God, the vigil is for us as well, and for all generations.
As we approach major decisions both in the state of Israel and a year of continuing decisions in the United States which have strong effects on the rights of many, to me, these words are a reminder of our responsibility to be watchful. Reading this verse in context without reference to the ongoing hardships we endured after the Exodus, I discern a call for our ongoing awareness. Even though we likely felt as though we were free, God is still on guard. And we’re told that we too should be on guard, forever. As much as God is keeping vigil against the metaphorical Egypts which continue to exist, we too are to be aware and on guard, not only for ourselves, but for all peoples, as freedom is a fragile gift and needs our constant attention.
Michael Summa is a first year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR currently studying in Jerusalem. He studied composition and vocal performance at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, and is active as a composer of Jewish music.
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Life in Israel is by no means simple and my engagement in this country is layered with ever expanding layers of complexity. Living here, I consider what is Israel to me? On Hanuka what is the light I wish to transmit to the world?
My teacher Noam Zion tells a story of his father, Rabbi Moses Sachs, who represented the Conservative Movement and travelled to Birmingham, Alabama, USA in 1963 to march with protesters from the civil rights movement among them Martin Luther King. Rabbi Sachs approached a woman in the street selling pins that read: ‘I believe in human dignity’. He asked her: “Can I buy a pin?” She responded: “Do you believe in human dignity?” He came back: “Well, I am not sure”.
When we light the Hanukia we are fulfilling the Mitzva, commandment of sharing the light of Hanuka. Hanuka is a public festival and as such many of the Hanuka lights lit around the world look out into the public sphere. The story of Rabbi Zion contemplating the purchase of a badge, demonstrates the necessity of carefully choosing which message we decide to send out into the world. Placing a Hanukia on your windowsill is the transmission of a message. What is the message?
Hanuka is the story of religious freedom. The story is of the Macabees defeating the Greeks in armed struggle and retaking the holy Temple to resume Jewish ritual worship. Mattathias Macabee is the archetypal strong Jew, upon whose image modern Zionism has reestablished the festival of Hanuka as a festival for Israel and its achievement of independence. The image becomes one of Jewish strength and victory.
But between the flickering shades of color encapsulated in the flame of the Hanukah light there is another message – one of the belief in religious freedom and practice, one of human dignity and power of the human spirit. Inside the word Macabee, the Hebrew letters mem, caff, bet, yud, spell out the first letters from the verse from Exodus: ‘mi camocha, ba’’aylim, Adonai’, ’Who is like you, God, among the mighty?’ Within the very fabric of our festival of human strength and self-accomplishment is an underlying message of the spirit of humanity.
It is upon all of us to decide which message we choose to send out into the world. My hope is that in these dark months of the year, the Hanuka light reinvigorates us all in our work, both in Israel and abroad. There are many struggles to be fought whether against discrimination, intolerance and racism or against poverty and social injustice or against a consumer culture which cares not for the world and our precious environment. We get to decide which struggle to engage in. It is not upon us to finish the job but it is upon us to make a start.
David Hartman says that the miracle of Hanuka was not in the oil that lasted eight days but that the Jews of the Temple lit the lamp at all when they knew not if the light would stay alight.
Let us light Hanukiot this year in all corners of the world. Let us each decide the meaning of the light we bring to the world and let us follow up with words and with actions and who knows where it might lead.
Dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Moses Sachs (ז”ל) and with eternal thanks to his son, my teacher Noam Zion.
Oliver Joseph is a Ziegler rabbinical student living and studying in Israel. He is a graduate from the Shalom Hartman Institute and is currently completing his masters at the Tel Aviv University while studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
Originally from the UK he grew up in NOAM and the Masorti Movement. During his time in Israel Oliver has been active with Encounter, an organisation which brings Jewish community leaders to meet with Palestinians in the West Bank.
Filed under: Beit Midrash, community, Immersion, Impact, Jewish Learning, Jewish Text, life-changing, stereotypes, volunteering | Tags: Big questions, Community, Israel, Jewish, Jewish diversity, Jewish text, Judaism, Learning, Volunteer, Yahel Social Change Program | No Comments »
Every Thursday between 9:30 am and 11:30 am, you can find the Yahelnikim sitting around a table in the Shapira neighborhood with a Rabbi.
“But I thought this wasn’t a religious program?” “He is just trying to make you more religious so you will move to Israel.”
These are two responses I have gotten when I explain our weekly Beit Midrash (Jewish Text Study). To these questions I say: It isn’t particularly religious and by engaging in Jewish text study, he isn’t trying to convince us to move to Israel.
Even before I met our Rabbi, I loved the idea of Beit Midrash. I wanted to explore the work I am doing in a Jewish context and each of us are, after all, Jewish. And, even if we aren’t religious, we did choose to come to Israel – not Kenya, Zimbabwe or Harlem.
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