The ARZA mission has begun! It’s a short trip (as another young rabbi on the trip and I have been saying, “we came to Israel between last week’s bat mitzvah and this week’s bat mitzvah!”), so our itinerary wastes no time.
Last night, after some quick introductions, our trip began with two speakers over dinner. Professor Uzi Rabi of Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies gave a fascinating presentation on the evolving Middle East. And Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (the URJ of Israel), made me proud as he described the work that our movement is doing in Israel toward two central goals – engaging secular Israelis in Reform Jewish life, and strengthening Israeli democracy. He couldn’t stay with us too long because he had late-night work to do on that second goal: a final push opposing the candidacy of Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, notorious for his ultra-nationalist encitement against Arabs, as a Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. (Fortunately, the work that Rabbi Kariv and lots of others put in seems to have paid off: Rabbi Eilyahu lost the election this evening.)
But this morning, the real journey began, as we headed south into the Negev to visit communities that were most heavily impacted by the war this summer. We began our morning at Moshav Netiv Ha’asarah, a Jewish agricultural village along Israel’s border with Gaza. The Gaza border is a second home for this Moshav – originally, it was located in the Sinai Peninsula, but when that land was given back to Egypt as part of the peace accords, the moshav was relocated to this spot. And it was quite a spot to be in this summer. When Hamas was firing missiles into Israel this summer, people in Jerusalem typically had 90 seconds to run to a safe room before the missile hit, and people in Tel Aviv had about 70 seconds. But in Netiv Ha’asarah, the missiles often hit several seconds before the siren could register them. And it’s clear that the community’s modest infrastructure has been built to deal with the threats. In the main community room where we sip Nescafe and talk with one of the residents, a window is broken from shrapnel from a shell, and two cement safe rooms have been added as additions off to the side of the main room. A playground nearby used to be twice as big, he shows us, but part of it had to be taken down to make space for a safe room. And a building that used to house the community’s day care sits vacant; its missile-deflecting roof became obsolete when Hamas developed more powerful missiles. So the moshav built a new daycare center whose entire building is, essentially, a safe room.
We drive through the moshav, to the edge closest to the Gaza border, until we find ourselves close to a series of cement walls that protect residents from sniper fire. We are about 200 yards from the Gaza border; we can see Gaza City in the distance. Our guide points out the spot, a short walk from where we stand, where the IDF found and destroyed a tunnel that Hamas had dug into Israel. “The question everybody asked me all summer,” one of the residents explains, “is why don’t we leave this place, and go someplace safe and quiet?! And two or three of the 200 families who live here did leave this summer. But there is no such thing as a quiet place in Israel. At some points in history things have been bad in Tel Aviv, at other times things have been bad on the Northern border. This summer, things were bad here. But this is a community that has already been uprooted once before – and this time, we are in a place that is not disputed territory. This land belongs to Israel – and we want to work our land here.”
Driving south to Beersheva, we stop at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, where final exams were canceled last semester because of the war, and speak with students and faculty there. One group of students volunteer as trainers for puppies who are future seeing eye dogs. “The puppies are scared of the sirens,” they explain, “but over time, they will learn how to lead their owners to the safe room.” Approximately 8% of BGU’s student body is Bedouin, a fact that hangs in our minds as we approach our next destination, the nearby Bedouin city of Rahat, Israel’s second-largest Arab city.
We pile into a small room in the youth center of Rahat, where our hosts have set out fresh fruit and strong Bedouin coffee for us. We are combining several presentations in one in this room. First is the staff team from the youth center itself. Atwa, the founder of the center, describes the center’s work in youth development work, helping Bedouin young people navigate the path to college and develop strategic planning and fundraising skills to lead service projects in their community.
One of his leaders, a young woman named Aya, describes in fluent Hebrew and English how her mother encouraged her to go to college – and the center helped her make that dream a reality. Her project for the center envisioned a park for children in every neighborhood of Rahat – and the first park is already being developed.
We are honored to discover that the mayor of Rahat has come to speak to us, too, and he recalls his close relationship with Yitzchak Rabin during his long career as a member of Zionist political parties. Not since Rabin, he tells us wistfully, has a prime minister devoted as much effort to reducing the substantial economic gap between the Arab and Jewish sectors of Israeli society. But this summer, he says, there was incredible cooperation between the Jewish and Arab municipalities impacted by the war, and the Israeli government divided the emergency assistance funds fairly. The war strengthened our connection with our Jewish neighbors, he explained: the missiles didn’t differentiate between Jewish and Bedouin houses. Until the first missile landed in Rahat, he said, his community had never imagined how terrible it is, how the fear gets at you.
Our last speaker at the Rahat youth center is Yael Karrie, a student rabbi serving some of the secular Jewish communities nearby, in Sha’ar HaNegev. It’s not a coincidence that she is speaking to us here: she and Atwa, the director of the center, have been working together all summer on projects bringing together the Jewish and Bedouin communities in the region. When the traditional Jewish fast day of the 17th of Tammuz overlapped with Ramadan this summer, they organized a communal break-fast. She is buoyant and energetic. How does she maintain hope, we ask her, when things seem so dark? You know, she tells us, when I came to this community, I saw that the people here – the ones who were the most affected by this war, the ones whose children were most at risk – they were the most determined to change society for the better, the most determined to empathize with the other side even in the midst of the war. In Sderot, she tells us, they have a playground which they built so that it is entirely secure during missile attacks, and there is a man who runs that playground. He told me this summer that his dream is that one day children from Gaza will come and play on the playground, too. And if he can have that dream, even when he is supervising this playground in the middle of the war, she asks our group – then how can we not maintain hope?