With the recent violence and escalation in the Middle East, my mind is on Israel. With every report of a rocket falling or a siren blaring, my heart skips a beat. It’s so close to home.
I spent last year studying at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, while living in Jerusalem. I have close friends and family in Israel right now, and feel a deep sense of sadness and worry for what they are living through.
And my friends are not all Israeli.
While in Israel, I volunteered with organizations such as Rabbis for Human Rights and Encounter. These experiences led me to make meaningful connections with young Palestinians living in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. I want to tell you about one of my friends. I want to share her story, because I believe that it’s important to make room for voices to be heard.
Haya and I met about six months ago, when I participated in an Encounter trip to the West Bank. She was speaking on a panel, and talked about the politics of being a young woman living in Hebron. We chatted for a while after the panel, a little about politics but mostly about college and Miley Cyrus. Haya is currently studying English literature at the University of Hebron.
I visited Haya a few times after we met. She showed me around Hebron, and her University. I met her friends and she took me to her favorite shops in town. When I heard news that the IDF was looking for the men that abducted and killed three young yeshiva students in and around Hebron, I reached out to her. I heard several reports of house demolitions, road blocks, curfews, and so on, but I wasn’t really certain what was happening on the ground.
She lives in a suburb of Hebron, so I didn’t really think anything would be bad in her immediate proximity. Her family is middle-class, and they are all peace activists. Her parents came to the same discussion I met Haya at, and stayed for dinner after. Her father, a small and joyful man, asked me if I had any Palestinian friends in Jerusalem. I told him no. Immediately, brimming with excitement, he responded, “Now you have one!”
So as this latest escalation of tensions began, I texted Haya: “Are you okay?”
All she responded, after moments of typing back was, “Not really.”
I pushed her: “What’s going on?”
“There are settlers and soldiers everywhere. They closed all the entrances and exits.” She was confined to her house. Then after moments of silence, she added, “It’s going to be a tough night.”
She continued to tell me about how the soldiers searched her neighbor’s house, that they were searching all the houses in the neighborhood, that hers was probably next. That she was afraid. Then the tear gas came and she described the smell to me, and how even though she was inside the smell was so strong. She said, “I hate it.”
I tried to imagine smelling tear gas in my own home. I cringed. I couldn’t really imagine it.
Haya and I are a similar age, have the same taste in music, watch the same TV shows, have friends in common. Yet we are worlds apart. I listened as she told me about the soldiers that would forcefully enter her house and ransack it. I tried to imagine what that would feel like. As we work towards a better future, one filled with peace and lovingkindness, we must reach out to those unknown to us and listen to their stories attentively. We must share our own in return. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “Could a greater miracle take place than or us to look through each other’s eye for an instant?”
This notion is a Jewish one, too. Pirkei Avot 6:5 teaches us “Torah is acquired by means of 48 qualities [including] attentive listening, articulate speech, intuitive understanding…deliberation… asking and answering, listening, and contributing to the discussion.” As we continue to pray for the safety of friends and family in Israel, it’s important to remain open to hearing personal narratives. These stories are what help make the events “real,” and allow us to see the real life people impacted by conflict on a daily basis.
Let us listen to these narratives, value these friendships, and pray for peace for everyone. Everyone.
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This month I made a big move. After a year spent in Jerusalem, I moved to Jackson, Mississippi to serve as the first ISJL Community Engagement Fellow. It’s a two year commitment, and a big adventure. The timing of my move also coincides with the anniversary of a pretty momentous event in Mississippi’s history: this year marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.
In reading more about the courageous volunteers that traveled to Mississippi that summer, I am struck by the similarities I’ve felt traveling to Mississippi this year. I grew up in Arizona, and moved to Portland for college. A week ago, I drove from Arizona to Mississippi. It was the first time I set foot on Southern soil. I knew relatively little about the history of the South, and even less about the culture. I am grappling to understand the complexities of race and class relations and issues in Jackson. As a young, white, middle-class Jewish woman, I felt strange taking a community engagement position in a community that was not my own. Throughout my life, I’ve felt a passion to address inequalities in my own communities. I kept asking myself “why move to Mississippi to continue this work?”
I fear that in community engagement work, good intentions can easily be misconstrued as a foreigner entering a community, and helping, because he or she knows what’s best for that community. I know that I don’t know what’s best for people I will be in contact with in the future, and want to be vocal about that. I’m not coming to save the day, privilege in tow. I’m here to become part of a team, to listen, and to learn.
Fifty years ago, over 1,000 Northern volunteers traveled to Mississippi. The majority of them were young and white (and a significant amount were Jewish). There are a lot of difficult, and amazing, things wrapped up in this fact- a large amount of young, white Northerners coming to the South to help register and empower African Americans. People coming to serve a community that was not theirs. Even with the best intentions, I fear that in such a situation sometimes we have expectations and assumptions regarding the people we are serving. Sometimes the world that we want to help doesn’t greet us the way we expect. When we do work that we are passionate about, it’s amazing to be validated by those whom we help. But sometimes it isn’t easy to give that validation, and the hardest part is asking why.
I am in no way trying to lessen the incredible thing that these brave young men and women did. Quite the contrary, the memory of these volunteers inspires me moving forward with my job. I am humbled by the Jewish history and heritage of service.
As a stranger coming to this place, I am reminded of the mitzvah to love the stranger, to welcome the stranger into our midst. I don’t want to do that—not in this instance. I am the stranger, right now, but I don’t want the community I live and work in to be a strange one. I don’t want to view the work that young men and women did 50 years ago as welcoming the stranger into their world. My goal is to serve this community as an insider, to find commonalities, to love it as my own.
I want to give gratitude to the volunteers that traveled South 50 years ago. When serving, I think it’s important to reflect upon what we bring with us, the good and the not so good. I am grateful that their memory pushes me to do so.