Some Thoughts on the First Few Days

Saturday, Feb. 27

Written by Mike Diamond

A quick note about Mike Diamond – Mike was responsible for planning much of the trip, working closely with me to figure out the details and keep everyone updated on any changes or additions to the itinerary.  This trip would not have happened without his leadership and support!

Some personal observations and thoughts on the first few days – Thursday afternoon, Friday and Saturday of our trip to Israel.

A few overall observations

This trip has a different feeling than the previous one.  When I was flying from London to Tel Aviv and approaching the Israel coast it struck me that if the pilot turned the plane left we would be in the middle of horrendous war that is engulfing a good part of the middle east, but by turning a bit South and heading to Israel we would be flying to almost hard to believe what is a place of using an American phrase,” of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (see my comments below on Paul Liptz’s talk).  In the last trip I struggled with trying to understand the good, bad and ugly of Israel to use another common phrase.  In this trip, perhaps because I know more and because of all the terrible events in the Middle East, I have a different perspective on Israel’s struggles, and an appreciation for Israel, as a state, and Israelis as a people as they try to deal with these struggles, their warts as a county, and even with a right wing government like the current one, the attempt to actually address some of these – see my comments on women of the wall and at a least some recognition and support of the progressive and conservative movements.  I believe that this is a view that has been raised and shared by others over our many meal conversations, which are an important element of the learning that is taking place on this trip.

Also, the energy in the last trip we put into trying to understand the issues of developing and maintaining a Jewish democratic state and the ethical use of power has freed up some time for me to think about other issues – most importantly my own relationship to Judaism and to God something I have not really given a lot of intellectual energy into. I have actually come to the conclusion it is possible to wrestle with notion of one’s relationship with God even if one does not believe in God because what one really wrestles with is one’s actions in relation to an overriding ethical standard and values.  Enough of the philosophical stuff.

Finally, before some more details on the trip I would add that having Joel lead the trip is a real positive.  Clearly, all of our Rabbis bring their strengths and weaknesses to trips like this, but I think for this type of trip and with this group Joel adds a special dimension that is just perfect for our group of travelers. The lesson for me here is something I know but sometimes lose track of – things work out for the best and that patience is a virtue! We also have a very good guide, Einav, who has been able to translate his actual experiences as a soldier and an Israeli into the the places we have visited and the discussions we have had.

Some Daily Observations

We started the “official tour” Thursday afternoon with a lecture by Paul Liptz – Israel:  The Start Up Nations -Societal and Contemporary Implications, Paul, as usual was terrific and has much to say.  It is challenging to summarize it but I found a few statistics interesting.

  • Israelis rank number 11 in the world in Happiness – who knew, but when I think more about it this it makes sense. It is not necessarily outward happiness or even smiling – which were my first thoughts about happiness, but I think I have come to appreciate it is the happiness of being part of a place you belong, you have yearned for and is part of your ancestral life that makes Israeli’s happy. So it must be an inward happiness not a “I am a happy go lucky person,” although we really do not know what was behind this question.
  • Israel has the 4th longest living males in the world – perhaps I will just stay here.
  • Economic monopolistic domination in Israel is significant and frightening – between 17 and 19 extremely wealthy families with 5 or 6 individuals in particular dominate Israeli business and wealth – even greater than our 1%.  Combine this with a property rate of 21% and you have a real concentration of wealth issue – can you imagine the fun Bernie would have this.
  • Israel is placed 56 out of 135 countries in terms of gender equality related to pay

He raised all sorts of other observations about the current attitudes of Israeli society including the extreme split of Israeli politics – a lot of this sounded like the US.  Given all this Paul remains optimistic and notes that Israel is the 2nd most educated population in the world and the Israeli military is the 8th most tolerant in the world towards gays in the army – hard to know if that is a good or bad statistics as I don’t now the context – all nations, only nations that allow gays in the military or whatever. Paul’s talk created the context by helping us understand the societal and economic attitudes of Israeli society in the geography in which they live.

Friday

We started with a lecture/discussion with Rabbi Silverman (yes, she is actually the sister of the comedian, Sarah Silverman) about the current state of Women of the Wall.  Since I was last here two years ago were was actually an agreement with government to make major changes in the Plaza by the Western Wall and create or better described as merging an ”equalitarian area along the wall with other parts (called the Southern Wall portion) but in reality the entire wall be unobstructed with the area for men, the current area now reserved for Orthodox women and an equalitarian area.  The most important part of the deal is really the recognition of the rights of women and its spill over affect to the rest of Israeli society.  The bad part of the deal is only God knows how long it will take to really implement.  Interestingly we have heard from some other Rabbis (see my comments from Stacey Blank) there are a number of reform rabbis that do not share the enthusiasm for Women for Wall to the extent I would have thought.

We then went on a tour of the “security barrier” and discussions around the issues related to that wall.  It gives you an idea of how the U.S. Southern border will look if Trump becomes the President – a very scary look into a possible future.  After the obligatory visit to the Machaneh Yehudah market (which is my least favorite activity of the trip) we went to Friday night services at Tzur Hadassah – about a half hour from Jerusalem – really a suburb of Jerusalem.  Tzar Hadassah synagogue is a small (40 families at best) progressive congregation.  The Rabbi is Stacey Blank.   After services we had a home dinner and Joel, Honey and me had dinner with Stacy, her husband and three young children.  Dinner was enjoyable and full of interesting discussions, including Women of The Wall and her ambivalence toward the work of the Women of the Wall.  Her husband is a human rights attorney in Israel.   The have a Shabbat ritual we might want to adopt.  Basically, they took time to say something nice about each of the members of the family – whether it be something they did together, or something that one of them had accomplished.  I think we do forget to take the time to say something nice to each other! Rather, we sometimes take that time to be complain to each other.

Saturday

Spent today in the Old City – probably my 6th or 7th visit, but each time I learn something new and this was certainly the case here.  We had a small payer service at the equalitarian section of the wall by Robinson’s Arch. Probably most importantly was the time we spent with Hana Bendcowskly, the Director the Center for Jewish Christian Relations and the an intensive tour and discussion about Mt Zion.  This building has a long history that mimics the history of Jerusalem and today’s conflicts.  The bottom floor is the supposed tomb of King David (supposed because there a strong evidence that is not the case), the second floor is the supposed room of the Last Supper and the Pentecost (never knew what the Pentecost was or even its relationship to Jewish ritual).  This second floor room or perhaps the entire building – not sure – at one point was converted to a Mosque when the Muslims took over Jerusalem.  The building is now under of the Israeli government.  So throughout its history this building has represented the struggle between all the religions and who controls who.  To make matters more complicated the ultra Orthodox have basically taken control of the bottom floor and with the government not paying attention and exercising their irrational ideas and rules on others – just another example of the struggle for Jewish religious rights in its own country.  All this is hard to explain in a short narrative, but it is was very illuminating, informative and meaningful.  We then when to the Domination Abbey next door when Mary is supposedly laying asleep – evidently the church has never admitted she died.

At the end of long and wonderful day we celebrated Havdallah and went of to dinner and continued the conversations of what transpired during the day with Rabbi Joel, Honey and Norm. At breakfast this morning (Sunday) it was clear that many of our other travelers were still digesting both literally all the good food we have been eating and figuratively the all that learned during the last few days.

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