The last two days have been border-filled, nothing surprising of course when traveling in Israel. After a short tiyul in Jerusalem yesterday morning, starting at the City of David excavations and ending up at the Robinson’s Arch area and the Southern Wall excavations, we got on the bus and headed south, to the area near the Gaza border.
Our first stop was at Moshav Netiv HaAsarah, where we met with Raz. He is a second generation moshavnik who grows tomatoes and works in genetic engineering of vegetables – in his free time he is also a guide with ARZA/Da’at. We toured the moshav, which is right up against the Gaza border near the Erez Checkpoint. We stood on a hill overlooking the border and looked into Gaza. Raz spoke of the hardships the moshav has suffered in the long drawn-out “situation” that so many of the communities in the south have faced, in which they never know when a missile is going to come down from the sky. He showed us how they have reinforced the roofs and walls of the preschool, and pointed out the many bomb shelters and safe rooms that dot the otherwise pastoral landscape.
He spoke of growing up knowing people in Gaza, and spending time there, explaining that when he was a child, it was the nearest big city, a place that they often went for a meal or to go to the sea. We ended our visit there by helping him weed in one of his greenhouses – because of the barrage of missiles over the last weeks, he and his workers have not been able to go into the greenhouses and are very behind schedule with their work. So there we were, a group of CCAR rabbis, on our knees picking weeds among the rows of tomato vines.
From there we traveled to Kibbutz Kfar Aza, also on the border, where we met with Chen, a second generation kibbutz member who works in the IMPJ in Jerusalem. We toured the kibbutz as Chen spoke about the emotional and psychological toll of living in that area with the constant trauma of missiles, especially on the children. She described a life for children in which getting to play outside is too often a rare event, because of the fear of missiles. She spoke too about living a split existence, in which most of the country goes about their normal daily lives while on the kibbutz they live with constant fear, running in and out of the bomb shelters. Yet she ended the conversation speaking about hope for a better future some day.
After that we went to Shaar HaNegev Regional High School to meet with Shem and Nati, two members of the newly formed Reform congregation that meets in the school there, where Shem is a teacher. They spoke about their connection to Reform Judaism – Shem encountered it first while living for several years in Sydney, Australia, where his son became bar mitzvah, and Nati encountered it in her native Argentina, from which she made aliyah 14 years ago. They are working hard to establish a Reform presence in that area and have great enthusiasm if not tremendous resources. They spoke of their need for a rabbi even as they try to grow their community and do outreach in the area. They also spoke about living under constant siege, and how the school in which we were sitting was designed to give the students a sense of emotional safety and security, as well as of course building for physical safety and security, including a bus drop off area which is part communal bomb shelter, should missiles come down as children are getting off the bus on their way to school. It was, as he explained, “the safest school in the world.”
It was a very long day, but for most of the group it was the first time that we’d really engaged with the communities in the south that have been on the front lines of rocketfire from Gaza. It was profoundly moving and enabled us to put a human face and real-life experiences to the newspaper headlines.
We began today with a meeting with Anat Hoffman of the IRAC, the Israel Religious Action Center. She described their current court battles and all the ways that they use the legal system in Israel to fight religious and ethnic discrimination for Reform and Conservative Jews, women, converts, and Arabs, to mention only some of their important work. She also spoke about her work with Women of the Wall. In Anat’s own words, “Our mandate is to kick ass in our movement.”
Next we joined HUC students for t’filah, which was a special treat as the students from the Israeli program and the American program were praying together. We saw some old friends and many of our future leaders.
We took off after that, leaving Jerusalem and driving along the Jordanian border as we made our way toward the Golan. Along the way we stop to visit the poet Rahel’s grave at the Kinneret cemetery, and discussed the struggles and aspirations of the early Zionist settlers. As we continued to climb north, we learned more about the history of the wars in 1967 and 1973, stopping at several key lookout points toward Syria and having a bumpy but exhilarating jeep ride through Golan cattle country. We ended the day at Kibbutz Kfar Blum in the Galilee, where we had a provocative conversation with Dubi, a member of the kibbutz, about the enormous changes that are transforming the kibbutz movement.
Most of the group is exhausted but excited about our learning and experiences, trying to take it all in as we write blogs, tweet, facebook and email to friends, family and congregations back home. There is something truly unique and powerful about experiencing Israel with colleagues. Time for sleep, as tomorrow is another day of learning….
For another perspective, see Rabbi Danny Burkeman’s blog post about the trip: http://t.co/XGvar9js