Shalom from Jerusalem! Late last night I finished a rather intense week of touring, meeting and learning with a group of 17 other Reform rabbinic colleagues from the Central Conference of American Rabbis on a “Social Justice and Solidarity Mission.” Starting with my arrival Monday afternoon, straight through to the end of Shabbat our days were filled with mifgashim(encounters with other people); visits to sites which, for the most part were new to us; visits to show solidarity in various communities, especially with our colleagues in the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (the Israeli Reform movement); actions (such as our freedom ride on Jerusalem’s buses to protest and fight against segregation and discrimination against women; and more.
There’s so much to share, but for now I’ll confine myself to just one piece of our journey. On Wednesday evening, we visited the community of Eshelim, outside of Beersheba. Alongside of Eshelim, a community of some 100 families, sits a “village” associated with the Ayalim movement. I first encountered Ayalim in the summer of 2010 on a day-long tour entitled “Start-Up Nation” (led by Saul Singer, one of the authors of the book by the same name.) during my studies at the Shalom Hartman Institute. “The Ayalim Association was founded in 2002 with the goal to strengthen existing communities and social involvement in the Negev and Galilee. TheAssociation’s role is to revive and renew the Zionist idea in the 21st century. Ayalim achieves this goal through the establishment of student and entrepreneur villages. This is young social entrepreneurship fosters the connection between people and land, and between the individual and society.” (from the Ayalim website)
The young people of Ayalim whom I met in 2010 were literally building their new community, Yachini (near the Gaza Strip) from the ground up. They were building their future homes, their community meeting center, studying at universities, and devoting 500 hours of annual community or social service in one of a number of
ways to the communities around them. At the end of that visit toYachini, I remember remarking to my dear friend and colleague, Arnie Gluck, “This is the Israel I fell in love with back in 1976!”
During last Wednesday’s visit to Adiel, the first Ayalim village (now 10 years old), I found myself inspired yet again. We toured the village, met with Ayalim students and leadership, and learned of some of the vision this remarkable program is trying to realize:
1. Creating new communities in Israel to help settle parts of Israel (within the Green Line) which are as yet uninhabited.
2. Creating student villages in difficult neighborhoods in cities wherein the students can help address difficult social problems (such as in Kiriyat Shemona where theAyalim community has helped clean up a derelict neighborhood, driving our drug dealers, crime and other challenges to the community while creating a youth center for children where they can engage in productive after-school activities.)
Ten years into the program, there are some 1000 Ayalim participants in 14 villages with the vision of adding at least two more sites per year. At the outset, students at Ben Gurion University distributed flyers hoping that maybe 25-50 students would come to hear about their dream. Over 500 turned up, and now, there are 5000 applicants each year for the approximately 800 spots available.
However, what inspires me is more than the statistics, which by themselves are impressive. What truly inspires is the passion of the Ayalim participants. These are the new chalutzim, the new pioneers, who are taking up David Ben Gurion’s call to settle the Land of Israel and build the Jewish State, based on Jewish values, concern for the other, and a commitment to social justice. Ayalim is an apolitical organization, and it sets its sights only on communities and sites within Israel. In a time when we are so often challenged by the political and geo-political challenges faced by Israel and within Israel, these young people are the living embodiment of what I believe is the true dream of Israel’s founders, and the values enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence:
“THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
The young visionaries/activists I have met in my two Ayalim visits are committed to the Israel of which so many of us dream. And they are building it, brick by brick, and relation ship by relationship. Their commitment and tenacity is infectious. And, theirs is a story which must be told! Surely Israel faces numerous challenges, both from within and beyond her borders. This week’s elections, while surprising, do not indicate any certainty about Israel’s directions in the months and years-to-come.
During the past week I was reminded, both by the elections and more importantly by the various people I met, both Jews and Arabs, that Israel is a place which continues to surprise me. The students of Adiel — the Ayalim village near Beersheba, along with the many other people and places I visited, rekindled that spark which was lit so powerfully when I lived here in 1976-77. The Israel of which we dream is completely possible in the eyes of the Ayalim students. They are not starry-eyed. They are tenacious and they are committed to a better tomorrow for Israel and all who live here. May they continue to go “from strength to strength!”
More to come . . .
Shalom from Jerusalem!
Rabbi Eric Gurvis
Rabbi Eric Gurvis the Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Newton, MA.