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Rabbi Stiefel's Monthly Article

Reflections from Time Spent in Israel


As part of my six week sabbatical, I travelled to Israel for two weeks this past July. My goal was to stretch myself in relation to Israel and its complexities. For ten days, I was one of two hundred rabbis and cantors at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Our topic was “Nationalism and Tribalism in a Global Era.” We immersed ourselves in the study of Jewish nationalism, how it has historically manifested itself and is currently being shaped. To share the words of our teacher Rabbi Donniel Hartman, “Jewish nationalism at its core entails the dance between two commitments: to be separate and to be a blessing to the world.” 


Beyond my ten days of intense text study and lectures, I chose to delve into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in other ways as well. I took a trip with other rabbis through T’ruah: The Rabbinical Call for Human Rights, and had a guide from Breaking the Silence. (Breaking the Silence is an organization of Israeli veterans who served in the Israel Defense Forces since 2000 and aims to raise public awareness about the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories.)  We learned about the history and realities of the Occupation while touring in the Ramallah area in the central West Bank. We explored how the Occupation has impacted the lives of Palestinians through land, planning and civil policy, and witnessed the consequences of settlement encroachment and the precarious future of many Arab villages. 


On a different day, again with a group of rabbis, I travelled with human rights activist Rabbi Arik Ascherman to visit one Palestinian family who had been evicted and another in danger of eviction in East Jerusalem.


In the midst of these heart-wrenching situations, I saw glimmers of hope.  I attended a Sulha (Sulha derives from the word “Sulh,” meaning “to make peace” or “reconciliation” in Arabic), where Israelis and Palestinians come together for people-to-people contact and to share their common humanity. There I met Itay, an Israeli who works for Kids for Peace, a program that brings Israeli and Palestinian teens together for after school activities. I also met a Palestinian cardiologist who works in Tel Aviv and is part of Save a Child’s Heart, an Israel-based international non-profit organization whose mission is to improve the quality of pediatric cardiac care for children regardless of religion, gender or nationality. 

On another day I went with rabbis to Hadassah Hospital and learned of the coexistence and cooperation between medical professionals, be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim. We heard about Syrian patients who are secretly treated at Hadassah and how they cannot let it be known they are in Israel.

And we met with Zaki, a young entrepreneur who started Kulna Yerushalayim — Arabic for “We are all Jerusalem” --- which brings Jews and Arabs together though backgammon tournaments, because through play, boundaries dissolve. 

Israel is complex, and I had multiple feelings this summer as I experienced a country that has dreams that are both fulfilled and shattered.  One of my favorite moments was on Shabbat. On Friday night, with the windows of my room wide open, I fell asleep to the neighbors’ singing Shabbat songs. 

I am grateful to Mayim Rabim for allowing me this summer sabbatical. I look forward to sharing more reflections in the weeks to come.