Lessons from a trip to Israel
Rabbi Amanda Shwartz
For Chanukah this year, I gave my mom a photo book commemorating our trip this summer to Israel. As I meticulously organized the photos in the album, I was transported back to our time there and to a very important lesson I was reminded of during that trip – how we all have far more in common than we have different and how wonderful the world could be if we were to remove the boundaries separating “us” from “them.”
It may seem surprising that I had this revelation in Israel of all places, especially in light of the horrible, ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. Even prior to this war, Israel was presented as being extremely divided between Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians. The main topic when we were in Israel was the division between Ultra-Orthodox Jews and, seemingly, everyone else. Perhaps it took learning new commonalities between these groups, specifically in a contentious place, that was so eye and heart opening for me.
Most of our trip was spent studying at Pardes “an open, inclusive, diverse and intellectually challenging Jewish learning community based in Jerusalem,” where I studied in 2008-2009 and which truly changed my life. The nearly 100 participants in our learning seminar came from all over the world and from all different backgrounds. Though it wouldn’t have occurred to me before returning to Pardes this summer, I realized that one important commonality between Pardes and Judaism Your Way is the commitment to creating a Jewish space where all feel welcome. While everyone at the seminar identified as Jewish, we represented a wide range of Jewish knowledge and practice. For example, one man who lives on the Marianna Islands, was drawn to the seminar looking to reconnect with Judaism. Whereas another man who grew up Orthodox, was excited to have the opportunity to study Torah in an egalitarian setting, something he had never done before. The backgrounds and practices of these two men could have served as barriers for connection but, instead, Pardes lifts up the desire to learn to bring people together.
Outside of our time at Pardes, I was also reminded of the commonalities between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. It just so happened that our trip occurred over a multi-day Muslim holiday known as Eid al Adha, the “feast of the sacrifice.” The holiday commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael. This story may sound familiar, as Jews tell a similar story in the Torah about Abraham and his son, Isaac. During the first day of this festival we were in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, and we asked a man to tell us about the holiday. In limited English, he explained that it’s a holiday when “we eat meat.” Through other conversations (and some Googling) we learned that there are additional prayers said in the mosque, but the unifying way that both more secular and religious Muslims celebrate the holiday is by getting together with family, especially family who live farther away, for a symbolic meal consisting of lamb.
Listening to our new friends describe this holiday reminded me so much of Jewish holiday celebrations, in particular, Passover. Back when the Temple stood, Passover was celebrated by gathering with family and friends to consume a lamb, which was sacrificed at the Temple. While the Temple has not existed for thousands of years, we still gather on Passover and eat a communal meal. In fact, Passover is the most celebrated Jewish holiday. Being surrounded by people celebrating Eid al Adha, was a powerful reminder that regardless of what our religions are, or what stories we tell, generally speaking, we all derive profound meaning from coming together with friends and family over a meal.
We spent the last few days of our trip along the coast in the city of Akko. For those of you who are not familiar with Akko, it’s praised as one of the cities in Israel where Jews, Christians, and Muslims live without separation. Akko is one of the oldest port cities in the world and was shaped by those who conquered it including the Romans, Ottomans, Crusaders, Mamluks, Byzantines, and British. On a tour of the Crusader town, I learned that in the 13th century, Akko was home to a scriptorium, a place where Christian scribes would write, copy, and illuminate biblical manuscripts. Next to one of the remaining illuminated manuscripts was a description stating that the “scribes prayed before writing and were taught to feel that their writing was like standing before God.” Prior to this tour, I had no idea that there were Christian scribes and certainly not that there might be a spiritual dimension to being one of them. The little that I knew about scribes came from my knowledge of the soferim (scribes) who write Torah scrolls, who are expected to be pious, to say a blessing before writing, and to immerse in a ritual bath as well before beginning. This illuminated for me (pun intended!) that not only do our traditions share texts in common, but we share a reverence for how these texts are (or were) created.
Recently in my Re & Be Mitzvah class for adult learners, one of the students asked how Judaism imagines a “messianic era.” I explained that just like everything in Judaism, there are many ideas of what might happen in the messianic era but that there is agreement that when a messianic era occurs, we won’t miss it because the world will be so different. In light of remembering the important lesson I learned on my Israel trip about how much more unites us than divides us, my new image of the messianic era is a time when our commonalities are our focus and, when we don’t ignore our differences, but instead approach them with curiosity and reverence.
As we say in Hebrew – Ken Yehi Ratzon – may it be so.
Wishing you all a wonderful 2024.