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Clergy Trip to Israel 2008

10/31/2008 09:14:20 PM


Rabbi Jaffe


A Trip to Israel... Relationships with the Land and the People.
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A few years ago, during a meeting of the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association, the discussion turned to Israel . Our group is a fairly close one, and we have learned, over the years, how to engage in challenging and difficult conversations with respect and care. This was one of those conversations. It became apparent to me that my colleagues were speaking about Israel without having had the experience of seeing it or experiencing it firsthand. One or two had been to Israel many years earlier, but none were speaking of modern-day Israel in the way that anyone who had been there and spent time there would speak. I asked the group if they would be interested in traveling to Israel with me. While there was an enthusiastic response, there was an immediate expression of how unrealistic this was: it would just be too expensive for those living on a Christian or Unitarian minister's salary. I asked, if I was able to fund raise to subsidize the trip, if that would make a difference, and the answer was akin to a 12-year-old saying "duh".

It took a few years, but I was able to concretize that plan. With the partnership of several Temple Isaiah households (and an additional gift from another couple from the larger Jewish community), on Wednesday, October 22, a group of 17 local priests, ministers, para-clergy, and one professional facilitator joined me as we boarded a plane to Kennedy Airport in New York, where we boarded an El Al flight to Tel Aviv. We were quite a mix: Baptist, Evangelical (including two that do not want to be labeled as Evangelical, as they prefer not to be associated with that for which the larger Evangelical community often appears to stand), United Church of Christ, Roman Catholic, and Unitarian.

The first time we needed to get on the bus as a group was the morning after we arrived. I asked everyone to be on the bus by 8:30 AM, and when I arrived at 8:32 AM, I was the last one there. I told them, "This is clearly not a Jewish group".

Our trip was book ended by two dinners: one in New York, just outside of Kennedy Airport , as we had enough time between flights to go out for a decent meal, and a closing dinner in Jaffa eight nights later. The contrast between the two dinners and the level of connection and relationship amongst us could hardly have been greater. I knew that this trip would be different than any other I have ever taken to Israel , but had no idea just how different it would turn out to be.

I called my wife on Saturday night and told her that I had done something surprising: I rolled up my pants legs, and wearing my waterproof sandals, waded into the Jordan River. There was silence on the other end of the phone. I told her not to worry, I was not becoming Christian. But as we stood there, and a number of those in our group took off their shoes and stood in the water in what was for them a profoundly moving moment, I found myself wanting to share it with my friends, just as they had come with me the night before to Or Hadash, our sister congregation in Haifa. They attended Shabbat services, and participated in Shabbat dinner, meeting members of the congregation and hearing their stories. I had been privileged to be invited to offer the d'var Torah, and they all joined with me at that service and in celebration of Shabbat. In that same spirit, I found myself strongly desiring to share this experience with them.

One of the participants pointed out that no matter where we went, we were the only group that was laughing! We wound up being shushed a few times, most notably during our visit to the Church of the Nativity. It was a meaningful place for most of the members of our group, but that did not detract from the spirit of joy and even levity that often characterized the mood that was present almost everywhere we went. At one point, while we were traveling up north, we saw an expansive rainbow, one of the biggest I've ever seen. I turned to the group and said, "you know, that's the original one." And the biggest laugh of the trip proved to me just how connected we had all become: during our closing dinner on the last night, I acknowledged how our group was officially registered as the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association, even though not everyone was from Lexington . Since that was our official name, that is how we were known. Everywhere we went, we were referred to as the group from Lexington , and signs pointing out meeting rooms in our hotels all read " Lexington ". I spoke at our closing dinner of how I understood that not everyone was from Lexington, and that as a Jew who has lived his whole life in America I want to say.…….… now you know what it feels like! The howls of laughter that filled the room punctuated the experience we shared.

Indeed, it was all about relationships: relationships with each other, with the land, and with the people.

We visited the Golan Heights, and stood by an abandoned Syrian bunker, overlooking Kibbutz Gadot, just across the Jordan River , a few hundred yards away. Several of the group expressed sentiments similar to what one person in particular shared, who said "you don't know this about me, but my father was a big-city newspaper editor. I grew up reading three newspapers a day, and still do. I was never able to completely understand this, the Golan Heights and the Galilee and the whole situation. Now I get it."

Yes, I've been to Israel many times before, but this time was different indeed. I expected it to be different, but I expected that it would be different mostly because of all of the Christian sites we would be visiting which I had never visited before. In fact, visiting those sites proved to have less impact than experiencing Israel through the eyes of those in our group. Almost every other time I've been in Israel, I spent time with people that I know, almost all Jewish Israelis, who want to see a real peace agreement, but who are largely disconnected from the lives of the Arab residents of Israel. This trip, we intentionally spent time with members of different communities, and especially Arabs.

I found it especially noteworthy that this time, even Arabs with Israeli citizenship referred to themselves as Palestinians, clearly signaling how much a national consciousness has begun to take shape. Most Israelis with whom I had interacted in the past seemed to have an attitude similar to my own: yes, there needs to be a Palestinian state, but in the meantime, we treat the Arabs well, better than they were ever treated under Arab rule, and that ought to mean something. There ought to be more willingness on the part of the Arabs who live under Israeli dominion to acknowledge how good they have it, and to work harder towards peace. This time, it was harder to maintain that sense, and I became more acutely aware of what it means for Israel to be a democratic state.

This was driven home to us most powerfully when we visited Bethlehem , which is, of course, on the other side of the security barrier. Before the barrier's construction, Bethlehem was a thriving town, a very short ride for most residents of Jerusalem . In fact, as Jerusalem has spread southward, the two cities now abut one another. Today, almost every tourist who enters Bethlehem makes his or her way directly to the Church of the Nativity, where Christian tradition says that Jesus was born. The streets along the way were nearly deserted, and there appeared to be little commerce of which to speak. Israeli citizens are not allowed to cross over to the territories, so we were dropped off at the checkpoint, walked through, and met a Palestinian guide who was waiting for us on the other side with a minibus. One of the more depressing sights was the dozen or so taxi drivers, waiting in vain for a fare to come along. We went with our guide to the church, and then stopped in to the store owned by the local resident who arranged for our guide and bus. Our payment for their services was a visit to his substantial shop. Our group left a considerable amount of money there, but it was apparent that he was amongst the few who had figured out how to thrive in these very difficult circumstances. Our guide simply spoke of his hope that one day soon, his application to be certified as an official Israeli tour guide would be approved. Until then, he was content to earn the little bit of money he could accompanying groups like ours to the church, to the shop, and then back to the checkpoint. The place where foreign tourists cross is a spare, colorless concrete block of large proportion. It is part of a very high wall that surrounds much of Bethlehem . Unfortunately, the foreign press has characterized the entire security barrier as a wall, when in fact, only 5% of it is a wall. The remaining 95% is a fence, fitted with highly sensitive sensors that allow the Israeli army to arrive at any spot where the fence has been breached within four minutes. Still, that 5% of wall is quite depressing, made even more so by some of the painful, yet completely understandable, English language graffiti on the inside.

I believe in the need for the security barrier, and I believe that many, if not most in our group came to that same conclusion by the end of the tour we were given by a retired Israeli army colonel, Dani Terza , who, it turned out, was responsible for designing and implementing the entire barrier. What was particularly moving throughout this particular tour was to hear him speak of the challenges that he faced in designing the wall so that it would cause as little pain and disruption as humanly possible. Frankly, I expected a hardened career Israeli army officer, who would speak of the need to defend this country at all costs. Instead, we heard from a man who is absolutely convinced that the security barrier is temporary, and that peace is within our grasp. These were not the words of a peace activist demonstrating on the street. These were the words of a man who participated in the Camp David Accords, and who Yasser Arafat knew by name.

He brought us to the very edge of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, a few thousand feet from where the barrier starts at the edge of Bethlehem . Other than the barrier, there is almost no demarcation between these two cities. Col. Terza pointed out a collection of what appeared to be town homes just on the other side of the barrier, inside Bethlehem . He explained to us that this was, in fact, a refugee camp, and was more characteristic of the majority of Palestinian refugee camps than the images of the ones that we usually see. He pointed out the expanse between the wall and the actual start of the neighborhood, which, as I mentioned, was just a few thousand feet. He told us how two individuals to whom he had recently given this same tour at different times, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, had both asked why the barrier was built right up against the edge of Bethlehem , leaving the empty space beyond the Jewish neighborhood, and not the other way around. He explained how the distance allowed the Army sufficient time to catch anyone who breached the fence before they entered the neighborhood, and disappear into the population before being caught. He went on to explain how before the barrier was established, snipers took up positions inside that refugee camp and shot at the apartments that were in such close range. He told us how there were regular stories of kitchen lights being kept off, and how husbands and fathers would be sent into the kitchen for a cold drink at night. As soon as the refrigerator light went on, you would hear the sound of the gunshot being fired. He then pointed out the green tinted windows facing Bethlehem : bulletproof glass.

Towards the conclusion of our tour, Col. Terza shared with us his experience of visiting Berlin , and spending a half day at The Museum of the Berlin Wall. He spoke of how moved he was to read about how that wall came down, despite the fact that nearly two generations had come to accept it as reality, and expected it to stand forever. It was in that spirit that he spoke of the wall that stood before us as he concluded.

On our last day, we begin by visiting Yad Vashem, the Israeli national Holocaust Museum . I had been there many times before, but never, of course, with a group of Christians and Unitarians. They were all deeply and profoundly moved, more than I realized any of them would be. What struck me the most, however, was how members of the group repeatedly checked in with me and with our tour guide to see if we were alright. As a Jew growing up in a post-Holocaust world, I found the presentation at the new state-of-the-art museum to be moving and meaningful, but not nearly as powerful as did the rest of the group, who were learning some of the details of the Holocaust for the first time. Historical realities which I take for granted and which form the backdrop of my life appeared as new images to many of my travel mates. It never dawned on me that there would be so many adults living right here in greater Boston for whom the idea of meeting a Holocaust survivor would be a unique experience, and who expressed an interest in doing so once we retuned home.

Being with so many Christians contributed to the sense of hope that pervaded our travels. One speaker reminded us of the difference between hope and optimism, and how even in times when it is hard to be optimistic, we can and should still hope. In that spirit, reflecting upon the difficult challenges to which we had been repeatedly exposed, I reminded everyone of David Ben-Gurion's famous line: "In Israel , in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles."

There are two particular comments which came at the end of the trip that I want to share.

The first was from one of the evangelical ministers, as we disembarked from our El Al flight at JFK. I asked him how the flight was, and he said that it was amazing. He sat with three black hat Jews who spent the entire trip arguing about the law. He told me that he would never view the New Testament the same way again.

The other was shared at our closing dinner by another of the ministers who said "I am 27 years old, and I am so grateful to have had this experience in my third year of ministry. I will never look at the Bible, preach, or look at Israel the same way for the rest of my career."

Our funding partners who made this trip happen will never, of course, see a dime of those funds. I would submit, however, that they could not have made a better investment.

Sat, December 4 2021 30 Kislev 5782