16 April 2013

Jerusalem Day Two

I look back over our second day in Jerusalem on this UJA Rosenwald Mission through the complex lens of having traveled the emotional journey with Israelis yesterday--the journey from Yom HaZikaron to Yom HaAtzmaut made even more complex by the horrible and tragic news from Boston about the bombings at the Boston Marathon.

This morning, as I write, before hearing from the head of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, we gathered for silence in solidarity with Boston, the many victims of this senseless and evil act, and with the families who have lost loved ones.  Hopefully, law enforcement will quickly find the perpetrators of this cowardly act and bring them to justice.

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Our Monday morning began with an extraordinary presentation from the JDC--the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish community's long-standing humanitarian aid agency.  Three compelling stories from an Ethiopian woman who has benefited from a JDC education and integration program; a young Haredi man who has joined the IDF and is getting a valuable education that is an example of the kind of necessary integration that thousands of Israeli Haredim will need to experience in order to transform this country's economic and religious landscape; and finally, an incredibly inspiring young woman who made aliyah, was one of the first females to serve in a combat unit, was injured and paralyzed in a random car accident, and is now a leader in the crusade for equality and access for the disabled in this country.

Soon we were off to the Israel Supreme Court for an all too brief presentation by Noa Sattath, head of the Israel Religious Action Center, the Reform movement's social justice arm here in the country that advocates for justice and religious equality, fights racism, sexism and homophobia, and has played an integral role keeping Israel's Declaration of Independence true to its intention of rooting this country in justice and freedom for all its citizens.

We also heard from Tamar Herman, a sociologist at the Open University and the Israel Democracy Institute.  Tamar echoed Noa's message and also underscored the necessity of shedding light on the great discrepancies that remain in Israeli society--both social and economic--that on such an important and somber day of Remembrance and preparing to celebrate Independence reminds us of the long and vibrant road ahead.

A lunch at the Botanic Garden with several entrepreneurs who have benefited from some interesting new loan programs was enlightening and it was soon followed by a security tour of East Jerusalem with a retired army intelligence officer named Avi Melamed, which was then complemented by a sobering talk from Danny Seidmann, who, fortuitously featured in the Daily Beast yesterday.  Danny has been mapping Jerusalem for his entire career and his message about the necessity for compromise in this complex and beautiful city is a message that is not always easy to hear but is even more necessary to hear--especially now.  Our shul always avails itself of Danny's tours when we are in Jerusalem and it was good to see him again!

I had some time between returning to the hotel and dinner, so took an hour long run out along the Jerusalem Rail Road path that now is one of Jerusalem's great new public parks.  Along the route families and individuals were preparing for the transition from Remembrance to Independence and along the route were Israelis and Palestinians from all walks of life.  The path was rich and redolent with springtime, history, and tenuous coexistence.  Religious and secular Jews bumped against one another in celebration and Palestinians mingled comfortably as well.  The sky was mercy-filled with this amity.  The soccer fields of Beit Safafa were busy, mosques silhouetted against this canvas of hope.

After dinner I walked into the Old City to watch celebrations along the paths leading to Jaffa Gate and then inside at David's Tower.  The strength of pride in this young state's accomplishments so evident.  While security was surely tight at the perimeters of the city, the young Palestinians mingling among the young Israelis was a tiny, fleeting glimmer of hope for what future celebrations may one day be.

I thought of this idea as fireworks blasted in the celebratory sky, thinking back to dinner as Micah Feldman, the "Abba" of saving Ethiopian Jewry, addressed our group before introducing Yityash Aynaw, the country's first Ethiopian Miss Israel.  When the young woman took the microphone after Micah's jaw-dropping description of the tens of thousands of lives saved, the hotel's Palestinian wait staff came out to see this newest pop culture icon.  The smiles on the faces of these young men were radiant and I couldn't discern if they were so happy to see a celebrity (and their reactions were certainly no different from all the yuck-yuck Catskills comments from the Jewish men in the room about the tall beauty) or if, in some way, they saw in Yityash Aynaw's ascent as a minority as a symbol of hope for themselves.

Maybe it's just another case of Jerusalem Syndrome--I'm forever looking for glimmers of hope during my visits.  Nevertheless, I maintain this view that there are far more people than we ordinarily hear about, hungry for peace in this city.

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Today I am off to Sederot near the Gaza border.  More reports later tonight.

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