Friday, January 16, 2009

I care, now what?

The good news about the Israel and Palestinian conflict is that there are answers everywhere!

Ask two Jews, you get three answers. Go to Israel and ask the Israelis, which is what I just was able to do with PLP, and you get even more. While in Israel with PLP's academic fellows, I had the opportunity to meet with community organizers, city planners, government officials and Jewish educators. And everyone we talked to had an opinion to share, often several of them.

During times of war in Israel, the public lines up behind the government in support of the troops. This is a country where everyone is connected to the soldiers and the support is tangible. For the most part, though, life in Israel goes on. The country is so resilient. People populate the boulevards of Tel Aviv, go to the coffee houses in Jerusalem and eat on the side walks in Haifa. In a place smaller than New Jersey, it was incredible to see Israelis living their lives with a war zone so close by.

I was in Israel for nearly the whole war. While I was there, I learned about the conflict, but also went to the cafes, clubs and boulevards. Once I got back though, the conflict seemed much closer to me. Walking around Boston, the images of the war were in my face. On the cover of Newsweek, Time Magazine, the New York Times and the Boston Globe there were references to the war. Even on Facebook, the war was raging in peoples' status updates and notes posted.

After a full semester as a graduate student earning my MA in Jewish Professional Leadership and having taken a semester of the Philosophy of Israel, I am very sensitive to how complex Israel is (even without taking the Palestinian-Israeli conflict into account).

On our trip, PLP explored this complexity and the group pushed itself to rethink what we knew. For example, I had always spent most of my time in Israel in Jerusalem. This time I really got to know Tel Aviv, and I came away feeling that Tel Aviv was almost more of a Jewish City than Jerusalem. Everything in Tel Aviv from the street names to the use of public space for parks was all planned out by and for Jews. From the original five streets of Tel Aviv, to the late night club scene there is something distinctively Jewish going on.

Throughout the country, this is what we started to see. That even in the most mundane details there is a certain depth, a quality that is Jewish, and this is what keeps the country together.

Since Zionism's beginnings in the 1800s, the Jewish people have been arguing over what Israel should be. Even Zionism was not one clear answer. There was religious Zionism, political Zionism, labor Zionism and other branches. All wanting something different out of the land.

The same holds true today. There are so many different opinions in Israel about what it should be. Differences among Jews in Israel and out of Israel. Differences among religious and non-observant, modern and traditional, black and white, young and old, Arab and Christian and Muslim and Jew and atheist and secular.

At the end of the day it does not seem like it would ever work, but some how it does.

And then, there is the conflict.

Facebook statuses, gchat updates, and profile pictures all were charged with different facts and figures such as Quassam hits, deathtolls, buildings smashed, but not one or even 19 facts can tell the whole story. To reduce the conflict into quick one liners like facebook and the media really cheapens the experience of what is happening.

The humanity on both sides exists and needs to be respected and at the root of it all I don't think that is happening.

It is a hard discussion to have in which a full debate can be held. People experience things emotionally and intellectually and we as Jews and as humans need the opportunity to do both and do so in a way that we feel safe. I do not mean comfortable. Sometimes when you love something or someone you have to be uncomfortable. You realize that its ok to feel uneasy, but you are willing to feel that way because you want to understand, and you want to help others know how you feel.

I feel that this is lacking in our, the Jewish people's, understanding of one another.

There is a gap between Jews in Israel and Jews in America. Both populations want to claim Judaism and what they are doing is right. Sometimes it seems that the only ones that recognize that we both come from the same people are our detractors, those that will attack a synagogue in Chicago in response to a conflict thousands of miles away.

In Judaism there is the concept that time is a spiral.

In a cosmic twist, as the Jewish people have been fighting for its survival and protection of late, Jews around the world are remembering first becoming a people in the story of Exodus.

From slavery to the desert to entering the land it was a long and trying journey for the Hebrews. And, even then everyone had an opinion. Its important to remember that our affinity for disagreement is as old as we are.

I wonder then how we can call ourselves a People. What does one Jews really have in common with another.

As a future professional in the American Jewish community, I think I have a lot to learn from the Jews in Israel. Really. At the end of the day in Israel, no matter how much everyone disagrees with one another, they all still have a love for their country. The civil religion in Israel is very strong and it has been constructed in such a way that everyone can grasp on to it in one or more ways.

Jonathan Woocher, wrote twenty years ago about the civil religion of American Judaism, and recently updated his thoughts on the concept. In a time in which Jewish creativity is at an all time best, with the advent of Jewish rappers, musicians, magazines, new ways to pray, new ways to commune, new mikvahs even, it seems that everyone in America has a chance to develop a very personalized Jewish connection.

I think this is great, the more ways for us to connect to "Judaism" the better. What I wonder though is what then is Judaism and who is the authentic.

The beauty of Israel though is that while everyone can debate and argue what is a real Israeli or a real Jew, at the end of the day this conversation is only intellecutal. The people there are already living and connecting together. Religious and secular both call Israel home.

This is what I hope to bring to the Jewish community as a leader. A feeling that at the end of the day no matter how much we disagree we are all in this together. This is where the civil religion plays a big role. Maybe it needs to be updated from the 1980s, but there is something that we all agree on. The fact that we all care enough to disagree, that is something that I think we can build on.

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