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Seeing Israel Again, for the First Time

There are many ways to experience Israel. Having now been in Israel for almost four months, I continue to get exposure to different aspects of Israeli culture, society, landmarks, and demographics. All of which are informing, challenging, and broadening my relationship to the Jewish State. I first came to Israel in high school, and have traveled here a total of four times prior to living here this year. In addition to my experiences in Israel, I have had the pleasure of witnessing others whom I care deeply about, experiencing Israel for the first time; naturally, I have developed my own reactions to their reactions. I will now share some of these experiences and reactions.

Last weekend, my cohort from RRC (The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College) traveled north for a Shabbaton. Our trip began in Acco, a mixed Arab and Jewish city. There, in addition to taking in some of the scenery and eating hummus at the top rated hummus restaurant in Israel, we sat with an Israeli-Arab activist, heard his story, and asked him questions. This discussion took place in a store that sells the creations of developmentally disabled young people from the area, where they receive job training and support. The organization and store cater both to Jews and Arabs. The gentleman we spoke with shared how Arab neighborhoods and schools receive less funding than Jewish neighborhoods and schools. He shared how land appropriation works: through a process similar to eminent domain, the state often appropriates land used by Arabs for Israeli army use, lets it lie fallow, and then after a number of years in disuse, apportions it and sells it, mostly to Jews. For these issues I find myself very sympathetic, and wishing for more equitable treatment under the law. He also spoke of his feelings about the summer Gaza war, how while he does not condone violence or Hamas in general, he feels that an occupied people can use violence to achieve their goals, and explained that violence is an effective tool for getting the issue into the international discussion. I felt that he was speaking out of both sides of his mouth. I was very upset by this, and had a hard time continuing to listen with an open mind, given what I saw as support for indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Israel. This is an Israel that I had never encountered; it was as though I was experiencing Israel for the first time.

We also traveled to, and stayed at, a kibbutz mitchadesh (a new form of kibbutz) called Kibbutz Hanaton. This kibbutz was originally founded by the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel, and was by all accounts a failure. It has experienced regrowth and revitalization in recent years. The most remarkable aspect of the kibbutz is its Mikvah; the only non-Orthodox mikvah in the entirety of Israel. It was very interesting to see how progressive Judaism is being expanded and expressed here.

Another poignant experience for me was on a day in which I had some extra time in Jerusalem. I decided to explore Mea Shearim, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. I was looking essentially to shop for Judaica and Jewish texts. I found a small store with great prices and bought a lot of Judaica. The shopkeeper did not speak English. In the store, I found a challah board that I fell in love with, and shortly after, found a kiddush cup set that was beautiful and seemed to match the challah board. In Hebrew, I asked ,“Is this the same?” He responded, “No. This one is for bread and that one is for wine.” I answered, “Clearly. I was asking if they are the same style…”

I also had the pleasure of being with our confirmation students for some of their trip. They had a wonderful time, and I very much enjoyed hearing their stories, seeing their wide eyes upon experiencing new things, and spending time with them. In addition, I had an opportunity to spend time with my parents who were on their first trip to Israel as well. It was beautiful to see how both the students and my parents have deepened their relationship to this beautiful, challenging, wonderful place. Soon, I will head out to visit Arielle Bernstein who is here on Birthright Israel. The experiences keep on coming!

Rabbi Nathan