Reflections on the World Zionist Congress
It’s been two weeks already since I returned from Israel where I was a delegate to the 37th World Zionist Congress. Everyone asks, “Did you have a good trip?” They are excited to hear about my adventures and I desperately want to give them an uplifting and life-affirming response. But the truth is that it’s taken me a while to process everything I experienced. And it’s difficult to answer with the expected, “yes! What an amazing experience…I had such a good time!” My answer is more like, “well, things are crazy right now. The situation is upsetting. The congress was nuts. Yes, I was there when Bibi spoke. No, it didn’t really stand out to me at the time as all that crazy in the context of all the other crazy sounding things he said.”
So much happened in such a short time. I will try to share a few moments that start to create a picture of what it was like.
I arrived on the same flight with a few other “youth” delegates and we took the nesher together to Beit Shmuel, part of the HUC campus in Jerusalem. We stayed there on my NFTY in Israel trip in 1997 and I have vivid memories of the place from that experience. I felt very nostalgic being there. Though that trip in high school wasn’t my first Israel experience it was extremely impactful for me. It’s when I fell in love with Israel. It was that summer that I attended Kol HaNeshama, a Reform congregation in Jerusalem, for the first time for a Shabbat service. I was moved to tears—maybe because I was emotional teenager or maybe because it represented some sort of ideal worship experience in my mind. I loved the feeling of being in a room filled with Reform Jews who were singing their hearts out, not a word of it in English, it just flowed and it was beautiful.
Ever since I have made it a point to try to spend at least one kabbalat Shabbat at Kol HaNeshama when I visit. This time, as per usual, I got to attend with my longtime friend who grew up in the congregation. She had warned me that it might be a difficult service because a beloved member of the congregation had been critically injured in an attack on a bus only a few days earlier. Misheberach was a difficult moment in the service, certainly. But it wasn’t until the very end of the service that I broke down. The tradition as long as I have known is for the congregation to end with the words of psalm 150: “Kol HaNeshama t’haleil ya– Let all that breathes praise God.” But this night they added an additional song with the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav: “Kol Ha’olam kulo Gesher Tsar me’od, v’haikar lo l’fached klal – All the world is a narrow bridge and the most important thing is not to be afraid at all.” A tall order at that particular moment.
The next morning a Palestinian was gunned down right in front of my friend’s home while her parents were having breakfast and where we had enjoyed a beautiful Shabbat meal the night before. Details were sketchy but the story we pieced together is that he was near the border acting suspiciously (smiling, apparently) and when confronted by border patrol he reveled that he was carrying a knife. There was some sort of chase, which ended with his death just outside their home.
That same morning, almost at the same time, we were at Kibbutz Tzuba which houses the Reform movement’s high school exchange program, EIE. We enjoyed a lively Shabbat morning service where instead of a traditional dvar torah we led an activity about what it means to be righteous. Is it ok for us to be righteous in our own generation like Noah? Or are we held to a higher standard? What about Israel? Some of the example questions for discussion were the following: Should terrorists be put to death? Should Arab attackers be treated differently than Jewish attackers? Do Israeli military and police have the right to use deadly force once the threat has been neutralized? More timely than we realized.
That evening, a few of our friends got together for dinner at the tachana, the revitalized train station that has become a hub of activity over the past couple years. There we saw people enjoying a meal or ice cream outside, listening to music, a typical scene, except that about half the men there were carrying a pistol, rifle or machine gun. Earlier in the week, the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, called on [Jewish] residents of Jerusalem to carry their firearms at all times in response to the security situation. Being from Chicago where there is constant discussion of gun violence this felt jarring to me. Now, if you’ve ever spent time in Israel, you become accustomed to the soldiers who are ever-present. But we’re talking regular dudes, out on dates and having dinner with friends, with their guns hanging out of their pants or strapped across their chests.
We heard the mayor speak during the congress. I was baffled hearing him talk about how the Palestinians of Jerusalem are happy! It seemed like such a strange thing to brag about! I asked my friend who lives in Jerusalem and she said, sure it’s true! Generally, people are happy! He’s being doing a good job and improving services for East Jerusalem residents. I guess it really drives home the point that it’s all relative.
Later in the week, we had an amazing afternoon excursion to Abdullah Ibn Hussein School, a Palestinian (not Israeli-Arab) girls school, organized by leaders of the Israel Religious Action Center, Anat Hoffman and Rabbi Noa Sattath. We had a brief interaction with the girls and were warned that Jewish symbols or even speaking Hebrew might be considered offensive so we were very careful to try to establish a relationship on neutral terms. While conversation was difficult, it was a fascinating glimpse at their lives. There was a plan to do a text study of the “I have a dream” speech, but we learned that they had no knowledge of who Martin Luther King Jr was or even who Barak Obama is. The cultural differences are profound. I believe we learned so much from each other just in that short interaction. While were there, the principal referenced an incident involving a student of theirs who was shot in the arm after a confrontation with an Israeli soldier just outside her school. We were told that her parents are not allowed to visit her. We were all shocked and concerned by this story. Anat graciously offered to follow up and provide more information about the situation and this is what she was able to share:
“Marrach Bakeer is charged with attacking a soldier with a knife near the school. Her family and lawyer acknowledge that she was carrying a knife (for protection) that was found at the scene. They are convinced that she didn’t attack the soldier but may have pulled it out as she felt threatened by the soldier who tried to stop her for questioning. Her arm was seriously injured and she went through two major surgeries. Physicians for Human Rights have been in touch with her and have visited her.”
And shortly after I returned, Richard Lakin, the beloved member of Kol HaNeshama died from the injuries he sustained when two Palestinian terrorists boarded his bus and attacked the passengers with knives and a gun.
So, like I said, crazy. A mess. I still don’t know how to feel about all of it. Am I really supposed to not be afraid? At all? I am afraid for all sorts of reasons. I am afraid for the safety of ordinary citizens. I am afraid that less people will make the decision to visit Israel this year. I am afraid that those who do visit will have a bad experience because it will be in the middle of all this craziness. I am afraid that the liberal progressive voice will struggle to be heard in a time when people are afraid and it’s difficult to preach coexistence given the current environment.
But there are people who give me hope. Anat Hoffman and Noa Sattath are not afraid. When some of our group felt nervous to have an egalitarian prayer service in front of the wall, Anat lead us right up to the front. She would not be silenced. Richard Lakin was himself a symbol of hope. He dedicated his life to teaching kindness and coexistence. His family honors his memory with an “Act of Kindness Challenge.”
My friends who live in Jerusalem continue to get up each morning and go to work and school and somehow maintain their liberal views in the face of all of this. They are dismayed by a seeming lack of justice. Upset by the unequal treatment of all the residents of Jerusalem.
Events like those of the past few weeks make it easy for us to get angry and to give up on the idea of peace. Maybe if we can try to keep the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav in mind—All the world is a narrow bridge and the most important thing is not to be afraid at all—then we can try to find a way forward and continue to pursue peace, even when it seems scary.
Kendra Gerstein is the Director of Curriculum and B’nai Mitzvah. She represented Temple Sholom and ARZA at the World Zionist Congress in October.