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Israel Trip Days 4-5

By: Scott Gilliland

Sorry for the delayed posting, our wifi was not working at the hotel last night so I had to wait until getting to the Shalom Hartman Institute to post.  I'll be going over the last couple of days in this post and then I'll do a write-up on today later this evening.  Let's begin.

On Wednesday, we woke up, had breakfast, and headed over to the Shalom Hartman Institute for a morning study on the Jewish concept of tikkun olam.  The term is a loaded one that means many things, but essentially it refers to the restoration of creation.  This can be through environmentalism, social justice, legal changes, or personal actions that lead to the betterment of the earth and its peoples.  Our discussion and study led very naturally to a late-morning excursion for our group where we split up and went to area community organizations that engaged in a variety of tikkun olam.

My group of five went to Beit Matanya, a community "inreach" organization that practices a radical notion of community restoration.  We spoke with one of their leaders, "Shlomi" (a nickname for Shlomo), a 30-year-old married father of two who lives in the kibbutz (low-income apartments) that sits across the street from Beit Matanya.

Beit Matanya.  A significant amount of funding for this and other organizations in Jerusalem comes from private donors and organizations from America.
Shlomi spoke with us for about an hour, spending a majority of the time discussing the ideologies and big-picture issues surrounding his work.  He was, as one of my classmates noted, "infinitely quotable."  He spoke with passion, with heart, clearly believing in the work he is doing in the kibbutz.

His story began at 18 when he decided that en lieu of beginning his mandatory 3 years of service in the Israeli army, he chose to perform a "year of service" (understood to mean community service), a less popular option for most young adults in Israel.  His assignment would be with the kibbutz in south Jerusalem.  His father did not understand Shlomi's choice, arguing that "anything you do will not matter when you leave."  Shlomi went.  He began living and serving a community made up almost entirely of single-mother families with three or more children and very little income.  Most mothers worked at least two jobs to make ends meet.  He learned more about Beit Matanya, hearing the story of how twenty years ago, a group of five families living in Jerusalem noticed the kibbutz--notorious for its poverty and looked at in hopelessness and apathy by most--and decided that rather than simply performing charitable acts, they would go and live in and amongst the women and their children.  And so Beit Matanya was born.

Like I said before, Shlomi was infinitely quotable, with many stories and thoughts that made me wish I was recording the entire interview.  A few things stick out in my mind.  First, the moment he knew he would need to continue serving Beit Matanya after his "year-of-service."  He was walking around the neighborhood after the elementary school had let out one day and overheard two 3rd graders standing around chatting.  He heard them arguing over "who is better," expecting to hear them debating the skills of local athletes.  Instead, he was shocked to hear them talking about two local criminals who lived in the affluent area of town.  He realized the boys were already heading down a path towards prison or death, and he wanted to be a part of a change in the community long-term.  He has worked for Beit Matanya (returning his salary to the community, it's a voluntarily communal economic model in the kibbutz) ever since he completed his mandatory military service.

On that note, he mentors students and young adults who choose a year of service as he did.  He was excited to tell us that of his volunteers, over 60 have chosen to return to the kibbutz and continue working after their military service.

The kibbutz of Beit Matanya.  The architecture in Israel is very interesting, at times modular (as seen here) and at times ancient.

Finally, he had thoughts on the Holocaust, and what it meant for Israel's future.  His opinion is that the Holocaust was horrible, representing a "hell on earth."  But it gave him hope at the same time, because "if it is possible to create hell on earth, it must also be possible to create heaven, because evil is not greater than good, they are equal choices that we have."  Powerful words, and ones that have continued to echo in my head since I left.

We spent the remainder of the day in study at Shalom Hartman, and a whole blog could be written on each session, but I'll distill my thoughts down to a few points.  1) Think about how we respond to people who come knocking on our doors.*  2) We spend a lot of time arguing over who in our world is the most destructive, rather than accepting that we all are, at times, part of the problem and can all be part of the solution.  3) The Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and the nuances of Israeli politics) is more complicated than I had ever understood, so I am left with a "I know enough to know that I don't know anything" effect.

The next day we woke up early to take the bus to Yad Vashem, the official Holocaust Museum of Israel, located on the outskirts of Jerusalem, in the Jerusalem hills.  I'll apologize on the outset, you'll find few photos here of the museum as I was asked to check my camera upon entering the campus.  The images I saw in the museum will stick in my memory for life, a few of them I will discuss later on.
The building itself is powerful, as you approach you begin to realize that the triangle/prism shaped building that is the museum itself actually goes through the hillside and exits the other side.  We were told by Ezra that everything, and he did mean everything, in the museum campus is symbolic.

Yad Vashem.  We could have spent a week in this museum and its surrounding campus.
The blog is already getting long, so I'll keep my reflections on Yad Vashem to a few moments that especially touched me.

1) A list created by the Nazi's in Germany before their mass invasion spoke to the obsessive hatred they had for the Jews in Europe.  Populations of Jews were listed by country, all were at least in the thousands, some in the millions.  But there was one subgroup, Italian Armenians, who numbered only 200, a tiny fragment compared to the millions listed among other nations.  But still, they were listed.  The concept of total eradication of Jews was not simply political propaganda for the Nazi's, it was the realistic goal.

2) A story told through a quote about one of the death camps made me pause.  There was a rabbi, along with a throng of Jews, entering a gas chamber, and he asked the guards, "Do you really think you will erase the Jewish people?"  When the gas began to pump, he yelled "Shema, Israel," to which the entire chamber of Jews responded, "Shema, Israel!"  "Shema, Israel" means "Hear, Israel" which references the common Jewish prayer "Hear, Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One."  In Old Testament class, Dr. Heller has emphasized the importance of "remembering" in the Hebrew scriptures, remembering the covenants, remembering the prophets, and most importantly, remembering God.  I cannot think of a more tragic, yet poignant and powerful image of remembering God than the scene of "Shema, Israel" being yelled within a gas chamber of a Nazi death camp.

3) The memorial for the children who were killed in the Holocaust was the most visually moving memorial I have ever seen.  A quote from the Psalms, "The candle of God is the soul of man," graced the entrance to the memorial.  Remember, everything is for a reason.  When we walked inside, the hallway was dark and silent, except for one lone voice reading the names and ages of children who had died.  Then we walked into the main memorial, still hearing the voice, but no longer seeing darkness.  Through the use of five candles and carefully place mirrors, the room was transformed into an infinitely large room filled with candles, meant to represent the approximately 1.5 million children who perished in the Holocaust.  That image is etched in my mind.

 We left Yad Vashem with a solemn spirit on the bus; it took our tour guide, Ezra, and a few lighthearted anecdotes to lift the silence.  We were headed to Tel Aviv, the capitol city on the Mediterranean coast.  If Jerusalem represents the ancient, the tension-filled, and the intensely religious side of Israel, Tel Aviv is the polar opposite.  Self-proclaimed as Israel's own "New York City," it is the modern, secular center for Israelis.  In Jerusalem, I saw soldiers everywhere; in Tel Aviv, I saw only one, sitting in a coffee shop looking at her family photo album.  In Jerusalem, old stone buildings sit built into the hillsides themselves, weathering the centuries of shifting cultures and colonizers; in Tel Aviv, metal and glass skyscrapers erupt from the ground as symbols of modern Israel's strength and prowess.  In Jerusalem, practically everyone makes their religious allegiances known through dress, custom, and decor; in Tel Aviv, you could mistake yourself for being in any city, Dallas even, if it were not for the hebrew letters spotted on street signs and store fronts.
Rachel (pronounced Rock-hel), our Holocaust scholar.
She will be teaching at Temple Emmanuel in Dallas on
March 6-7, 2014.  I recommend you find out a way to
attend one of her sessions if possible.  Fascinating woman.

We met with a woman named Rachel, a Holocaust scholar, to debrief from Yad Vashem and to hear a narrative of how the Holocaust specifically affected the Jewish people after the war had ended.  I was completely engrossed in her lesson, as she mixed personal stories from her and her husband's families with role playing as she helped us understand the diversity of thought surrounding not only the Holocaust itself, but also the creation of the Israeli State.  By placing in the pre-WW2 mindsets of both progressive, affluent and the ultra-orthodox, lower-class Jews, she helped us understand the internal challenges of the Zionist movement in Judaism.  Highlight for me was realizing that secular/progressive and conservative/ultra-orthodox mean very different things here than back home.  The Zionist movement (which led to the establishment of modern-day Israel) was born from secular Jews who desired a Jewish (ethnic) nation that could serve as a defense for Jewish people.  The hyper religious, ultra-Orthodox Jews rejected and many still oppose the "sovereignty" of Israel because they see it as lack of trust in God to deliver the Jewish people; in other words, it's taking too much into their own hands.  Again, and I cannot stress this enough, the complexity of Israeli politics (because it mixes in so much with religion, ethnicity, culture, history, etc) is much deeper than I think most anyone outside Israel understands.

This happened.
We spent the late-afternoon/evening touring Tel Aviv briefly and then spending a night resting and eating on the port of Tel Aviv. The shopping district reminded me how similar Tel Aviv is to any city I've ever been to.  Nike Store, Diesel, Ace Hardware, it's all there.  Raegan kind of hated it (she likes the old historic districts much much more).  But, the evening ended in the most perfect possible way, after a day of heavy, tragic topics and heady, confusing political education... we were treated to the one, the only, IsraElvis!

We laughed, clapped, and sang along, forgetting for a moment about the conflict, the tragedy, the murky future of a nation and a region of people, instead singing "Blue Suede Shoes" with an Elvis crooning in his heavy Israeli accent.

If you have read this far, thank you, and I hope this blog had even one nugget that resonated with you.  Feel free to message me on Facebook with any questions you may have.


*P.S.  Funny side-note story.  When an intoxicated Israeli man comes to your room at 3 a.m. and knocks on your door, don't open it.  If you do, and he slurs, "Beshet!" he's telling you to take off your clothes.  Now you know.  (Luckily no harm was done to the four rooms he woke up two nights ago.)


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