Israel Journal Day 3: Building the Future

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Roni Lior, Israel Trauma Coalition

“We used to say that our work was about helping people bounce back after crisis,” our first speaker of the morning, Roni Lior, of the Israel Trauma Coalition explains, “but then we realized that there’s no such thing as ‘back’ – you are never the same after trauma.  So now we call it resiliency – the ability to move forward after crisis.  And in Israel, we are not really treating people for Post-Trauamatic Stress Disorder because they are not really post-traumatic – some of them are in the middle of ongoing trauma – so we focus on coping skills.”  Her organization, she explains, focuses on three goals: direct psycho-social care, community resiliency, and emergency preparedness.  ITC’s expertise at this work has meant that they often travel abroad to train local professionals after a crisis.  ITC trained  professionals in Boston after the marathon bombing, in the Philippines after the typhoon, and in Japan after the nuclear disaster.  They have served the Jewish community in France after the Toulouse school bombing, and in the Ukraine during this year’s conflict with Russia.  But this summer, their focus was at home in Israel.

Roni’s job is to supervise the four resiliency centers serving the communities within 15 km of the Gaza border – the ones most affected by this summer’s war.  “People who had been living with terror for years,” she explained, “this summer just broke them.  The idea of the tunnels – that a terrorist could just pop up out of the ground – there’s something particularly terrifying about that.”  ITC treated 400 people for acute stress this summer.  Her volunteers operated 24-hour hotlines, and her professionals ran support groups.  They checked in daily with elderly and disabled people whose limited mobility meant that they were terrified to leave the safe room, some spending  days and even weeks without leaving the room.  They provided counseling to people whose acute stress left them disoriented, unable to stop shaking, or unable to stop crying.  They provided care to teenagers who had suddenly begun wetting the bed as 15-year-ods.  They helped children as young as three identify what they need when they are stressed: a hug, a calm explanation of what has happened, perhaps a good cry.  If they are effective in treating acute stress when it occurs, Roni explains, it prevents much of the need for chronic care.

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Meredith Rothbart and Mohammad Joulany, of Kids4Peace

If ITC is helping individuals find a way forward, our next speakers believe that individuals can also help society find a way to move forward.  Their names are Meredith Rothbart and Muhammad Joulany, and they are both on the staff of Kids4Peace, an interfaith youth movement that aims to bring people together, despite their different faith backgrounds, and work to find solutions to conflict.  Their personal histories are telling.  Meredith smiles as she tells me that she is from Pennsylvania, too – she grew up at a Reform synagogue near Allentown, but came to Orthodox Judaism as a young woman and made Aliyah.  A committed Zionist, serving in the IDF in Ramallah also opened her eyes to the reality of Palestinian life in the West Bank, and she decided to devote her career to coexistence work.  Muhammad grew up in East Jerusalem, and the only Israelis he ever met as a boy were soldiers at checkpoints.  After one of his classmates in school was killed by an Israeli soldier, other boys started throwing rocks, but Muhammad’s parents encouraged him to channel his frustration into more productive channels – and he became involved in a local youth movement, and in a youth TV station.  As he speaks, it is clear why he soon became a star on the TV station, and started being asked to speak at conferences internationally.  He received a business degree in London, but decided that there was more important work to do than business – and so he took a job co-directing Kids4Peace’s Jerusalem office.

Kids4Peace is a six-year extracurricular program.  They accept close to one hundred 6th grade students per year – one-third Jewish, one-third Christian, and one-third Muslim – from the greater Jerusalem area.  The curriculum continues until 12th grade, and begins with learning about each other’s faith traditions and building relationships among both children and parents long before they begin to discuss the conflict in high school.  Heavily subsidized summer camp in America is part of the program, which allows them to recruit children from a wide variety of political and socio-economic backgrounds.  This is not a group of self-selecting peaceniks; it includes many families who are skeptical of Kids4Peace’s philosophy but are willing to take a chance for the incredible opportunities the program offers the children.  Their motto is: we embody a culture of peace, and empower a movement for change.

The goals are idyllic, but the experience sounds incredibly challenging, for the two of them as much as for the children and parents.  “This summer was almost impossible,” they tell us. Meredith’s mentor is Rachel Fraenkel, the mother of Naftali Fraenkel, one of the Israeli boys who were kidnapped and murdered this summer, and Muhammad comes from the same community as Muhammad ibn-Khdeir, the Palestinian boy who was kidnapped and murdered.  “For much of the summer, I was terrified even to leave my home in Jerusalem,” Meredith explained, and Muhammad was unable to leave his village.   “And then,” she says, “when we come to work, I know that my brother is serving in the IDF in Gaza … and I’m sitting here talking with Muhammad?!”  Among participants, the arguments grew intense over social media. Between the logistical and the emotional challenges, the staff wondered if they would simply have to cancel their programming for the summer. And yet somehow, they brought 70 Jews, Muslims and Christians together for an interfaith Ramadan dinner.  They were able to get all of their students on airplanes to go to summer camp together.  And the two teenage boys leading the most passionate arguments on Facebook explained that even though they may fiercely disagree, they still consider each other brothers.

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Rabbi Michael Melchior

Next, we talked with Rabbi Michael Melchior, former Member of Knesset and the current Chief Rabbi of Norway, who came to us after speaking at an interfaith environmental conference in Jerusalem. In a country with so many divisions, he is known as a rare leader who can and does talk to everyone, including some of the most radical Palestinian religious leaders.  Even in a country known for its culture of bluntness, he is strikingly candid with us. And in the midst of a conflict that seems so dark and so intractable, Rabbi Melchior is matter-of-fact, if not quite optimistic.  The conflict with the Palestinians can be solved, he tells us, but our leaders need to start laying the ground work.  Israel’s settlement-building is not only an obstacle to peace, but it makes it look as if we are not serious about anything we say – we need to stop.  The polarization between segments of Israeli Jewish society is growing deeper and deeper – but at the same time, so is a movement among the younger generation who want to cross these boundaries and build peace within the Jewish community and with its neighbors.  He gets 700 applicants a year for the 50 spots in a study program that brings together religious and secular Israeli students to study Torah.  These students, he says, are the future leadership of the State of Israel – and there are tens of thousands of them.

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A busy day, but there’s always time for shwarma

At this point, our minds are spinning, with so much to process and discuss, but our bodies are ready to get up and walk.  For lunch, I make a quick shwarma run, and then we head to Mt. Zion, the hilltop just outside the Old City where we spend 3 fascinating hours on a walking tour with Yisca Harani, a scholar who shows us the medieval layers of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sacred sites there.

Praying at King David's Tomb

Praying at King David’s Tomb

We see Jews praying fervently at the site said to be King David’s tomb.  We see Christian pilgrims – Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox – who have come to visit the site where they believe the Holy Spirit descended and Mary slept before ascending to heaven.   In the same room where Christian tour guides explain to their groups that Jesus ate the last supper, we photograph beautiful Arabic calligraphy; Mt. Zion is also holy to Muslims as the Nabi Daud mosque, honoring David, who is a prophet in Islam.  This site is holy to so many people, Yisca emphasizes – and it can be a symbol of our coexistence rather than our conflict.

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Students in NFTY-EIE High School in Israel

In the evening, we have the treat of dinner with students participating in NFTY-EIE High School in Israel, a study abroad program for high school students that the Reform Movement has operated near Jerusalem since 1961.  The program is smaller this semester because of the summer’s war – in the spring, more than 70 Reform Jewish teens will participate in the program, but we have dinner with a more intimate group of 25 remarkable teenagers.  All of them are taking a full high school course load (including classes like AP US History and Mandarin Chinese!) on top of a Hebrew ulpan and a class in Jewish history – not to mention field trips around the country every week.  Oh, and some of them are also keeping up their varsity athletics training at the same time.  They ask us tough questions about Reform Judaism in Israel and in the United States.  It’s exciting to see the passion of this next generation of Reform Jewish leaders!

I’m a day behind in my blogging – so now I’m back in the United States and getting ready for Shabbat at Beth David.  More about the last day of our trip after Shabbat!

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