Rabbi Amy Bardack returned to the States in mid-June after spending time in Israel, including visits to East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The rabbi was joined by several other Pittsburghers for the trip, as well as members of a Reconstructionist synagogue in Detroit.
Organized by Shleimut, the nine-day excursion included stops in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, Kibbutz Ein HaShofet, Jerusalem, including a visit to East Jerusalem and a visit to the West Bank,including Bethlehem, Hebron and Ramallah.
According to a June 27 article in the JTA, “Shleimut’s focus is on Israeli and Palestinian human rights activists and progressive groups, and has little engagement with right-wing or pro-settler Israeli organizations.” The organization’s website states that “Shleimut’s Israel/Palestine program supports communities and leaders to approach Israel/Palestine through their spiritual and social justice values.”
Bardack, who is the spiritual leader of Congregation Dor Hadash, had visited the country eight times. This trip, though, was unique.
“I had never visited those areas or learned from a Palestinian guide. We were nine participants in a van,” she said.
The trip wasn’t simply a sightseeing tour. Bardack said that Shleimut had several pre-travel meetings meant to focus participants on the excursion’s mission. Questions included: Who are you, where did you come from, what does Israel mean to you and what are your fears.
The trip wasn’t political in nature, she said.
“We were going to show up as Jews not as people with political persuasions.”
The group attended the Tel Aviv Pride Parade and joined in protests against proposed changes to the judiciary in Jerusalem, spent time in an Arab village and at the Kotel, visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, shared Shabbat in East Jerusalem, visited checkpoints and the separation wall, called on a 100-acre farm surrounded by Jewish settlements, went to a center for nonviolence in Hebron, and explored Ramallah.
Along the way, Bardack said they met with a fourth-generation non-violent peace activist living on a kibbutz, learned about Palestinian art and toured Hebron with Breaking the Silence — a group of soldiers who left the military after being troubled with orders they were given.
The trip, she said, was a revelation, illustrating that behind the television images of rocks being thrown and burning tires, there is a culture that includes people holding jobs, facing socio-economic issues, going to university and dealing with the pressures of modern life.
“It’s so much more varied than we think in our often removed way of what these places are like.”
Bardack said it was important for her to be seen as a rabbi rather than political activist during the trip.
“The only Jews, or certainly rabbi, some of these Palestinians met were settlers who were lighting their fields on fire or uprooting their fruit trees,” she said.
She recounted what was for her a powerful moment — meeting a man who was suffering and saying the Mi Shebeirach.
“I told him I was a rabbi because I knew that the only rabbis he had ever met didn’t treat him with dignity, and I wanted him to experience a rabbi who saw his humanity,” she said.
Bardack is under no illusion about who the trip allowed them to meet.
“We met with non-violent activists,” Bardack said.
“We met with intellectual thought leaders, people with Ph.D.’s. We met with Israeli Jews who were committed to their own activism. We didn’t meet with people who were more extreme, and that was very explicit.”
Wendy Kobee lived in Israel for almost three years in the mid-80s. She was interested in going back to the country and having conversations with Jews and non-Jews about Israel and Palestine and to get more current information.
She said that she still has friends in the country with whom she speaks.
“I received photographs of their terrified faces when they had to be in a bomb shelter with gas masks on when they were shelling,” she said. “I wanted to see what it seemed like now because of what the conversation in the United States is now about Israel.”
Kobee was encouraged, she said, to meet with some Palestinians whose approach to ending the conflict is civil disobedience. It remains her hope that that approach can become the majority approach.
The Pittsburgher was emphatic, “I am not an anti-Zionist and I am not anti-Israel.”
She said the trip gave her information that will allow her to have more nuanced conversations about the realities in the country within her social group.
It was beneficial, she said, to take the journey with rabbis.
“Every day they put a Jewish values and Jewish learning structure around our experience. It was very grounding to take this trip in the context of Jewish culture, teaching, learnings and spirituality,” she said.
The trip was Richard Weinberg’s first to Israel. He said he has a lifelong interest in the issues of the relationships between Jews and Arabs and Jews and Palestinians.
“It was an opportunity for me to hear the perspectives of many different people,” he said. “It was important for me to be able to go to Israel and see the actual experiences of Arabs and people in the occupied territories. That was important to me.”
A powerful experience for Weinberg was a guided tour in Hebron that included a stop in what had been a bustling marketplace but was cordoned off after a 1994 attack by Jewish Israeli Baruch Goldstein, preventing Palestinians from going there.
“It’s basically a ghost town now,” he said.
He said they visited both the gravesite of Goldstein and the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
He was bothered to see Goldstein’s tombstone venerate him as someone “described as a Jewish martyr with clean hands and pure heart.”
Despite the troubling nature of much of what he saw, Weinberg said the trip reconnected him with Israel.
“I’m much more attentive. I’ve got a subscription to Haaretz. I’m reading the news regularly,” he said. “It’s also reconnected me to all of the progressive Jews attempting to figure out ways to move towards a more multiethnic place where Jews and Palestinians can live with mutual respect and allow everyone to thrive.”
Ilana Sumka, the founding director of Shleimut, said the program split time evenly between Israelis and Palestinians, tracing the region from the 1940s, including the Shoah, founding of the state of Israel, alongside what Palestinians call “the Nakba/Catastrophe for Palestinians, through to the present day.”
“Nakba” is an Arabic term referring to the events of 1948 and the founding of the state of Israel.
During the trip, participants met with leading Israeli and Palestinian civil and human rights activists working for equity, safety, dignity and self-determination for all.
Sumka said trips like these provide an opportunity for rabbis and Jewish community members to decide for themselves how they want to be involved in the region.
“Visiting Israel on a hasbara program like Birthright is political in that reinforces the status quo of Israeli state oppression of Palestinians by failing to acknowledge half the population living under Israeli state control. The Shleimut program offers an authentic way to engage with the political realities on the ground by offering a balanced educational experience with both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians,” she said.
Bardack said that often, there’s a fear that if people experience a tour like they will become anti-Israel or disengaged from their Judaism. That’s the opposite of what she felt.
“There were a number of Jews in our group who were in their 30s visiting Israel for the first time,” she said. “They witnessed violence, some very disturbing things from a human rights and humanitarian level and they came away more committed to Judaism, or said, ‘I’m going to get my master’s in Jewish studies.’”PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org