Shanah tovah and Eid mubarak!
This week's portion: this poem

Beneath a modern tent of Abraham

Three congregants spoke from the bimah of my shul on erev Rosh Hashanah. The theme of this year's congregational learning will be Israel, so that was the subject of the mini-sermonettes. Maybe since I spent the summer in Jerusalem, my rabbi asked me to be one of the three who spoke.

I chose to tell a story about one experience I had toward the end of my stay. (If you were reading me over the summer, you'll recognize the story from this post.) If you'd like to read it, you're in luck; here it is.

Happy new year to all! May we be inscribed in the book of life for a sweet year to come.

Shanah tovah! Many of you know that I spent the summer in Jerusalem. I went with two goals in mind: to improve my Hebrew, and to get to know Israel in a deeper way.

Bidiyuk, ha-ivrit sheli, zeh mamash yoter tov -- my Hebrew is certainly better than it was when I went! And my relationship with Israel is deeper and more complex. Tonight I want to tell you a story about one adventure I had, about six weeks in to my journey.

It was a Tuesday afternoon when I caught a lift with an Israeli woman named Daphna. She's one of the co-founders of Nava Tehila, the monthly Jewish Renewal minyan in Jerusalem. We picked up a Romanian Christian woman named Simone, along with her baby son, and together we drove through a part of Jerusalem I had never seen. We passed the municipal zoo and the train tracks, and went through the Ein Yael checkpoint, where soldiers peered into our car, heard Daphna’s Israeli Hebrew, and waved us on.

We made a sharp turn after the checkpoint onto a rutted dirt road. The land there is beautiful: steep and rocky, speckled with scrub. We drove up and around until we reached the top of a hill, and parked our car. In the valley below, we could see the very edge of Jerusalem.

We walked down a steep path, through a tidy garden festooned with tin cans, to a homemade tent attached to a small dwelling made of stone. Beneath the tent, people were clustered, sitting on chairs and mattresses, talking.

Our host, Abed abd Raba, greeted me and brought me strong sweet coffee made over an open fire. I met two Englishmen, a journalist and a retired opthalmologist. I met a man of Russian descent named Dhyan, who serves on the board of the Jerusalem Peace Academy and is one of the Israeli organizers of the gathering I was attending.

I met Hamdan, a Palestinian man who runs an arts program for disadvantaged children. I met Ibrahim, a distinguished and slightly portly gentleman with a bushy moustache; he wore a white dishdasha and red checkered kefiyyah, and told me that he is a citizen of no land and that his family has lived on the Mount of Olives for generations.

Someone brought out a small drum called a doumbek and a stringed instrument called an oud, and people started singing.

Then Daphna suggested we go around the circle and each share a word about who we are and what we were feeling. Though someone groused that music is the true universal language, we set the instruments aside and went around the tent.

Some of us spoke in Arabic; some spoke in Hebrew; some spoke in English. Throughout, people graciously translated for one another. Some of the Israelis and Palestinians rendered their remarks in all three languages. One man recited a poem in Arabic. Someone else quoted a psalm.

When it came to be my turn to speak, I introduced myself and said who I am and where I'm from. I thanked them for including me, and I told them how much I looked forward to being able to return home and tell people about this experience of Israelis, Palestinians, and internationals sitting together and connecting.

I was attending a meeting of the All Nations Café.

The All Nations Café is a group of Israelis, Palestinians, and internationals who see themselves as part of one family. They’ve made a conscious choice to be in community with one another. They visit one another’s homes, celebrate births and weddings together, and meet every week to connect.

The All Nations Café is also a physical place on the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. It's located in a buffer zone between the Israeli Army checkpoint at Ein Yael and the edge of the Palestinian Authority, so it's accessible for Israelis from Jerusalem, the Galilee, and the West Bank settlement of Gush Etzion... and Palestinians from East Jerusalem, Hebron, Bethlehem, and the villages and refugee camps that surround them.

And it takes work to get there. It took effort to figure out how to reach this part of town I'd never seen, and it took effort to open my heart to the experience.

If that's true for me, how much more so for them. Israelis and Palestinians live on top of one another, but they speak different languages -- literally and metaphorically. It's easy for them to see one another only as terrorists or as oppressors. The fear and anger are so entrenched that peace seems impossible. There were times when I felt that the matzav -- the "situation" between Israelis and Palestinians -- was hopeless. My experience at the All Nations Café gives me a reason to hope otherwise.

Tomorrow morning we'll read about how Abraham cast his concubine Hagar, and their son Ishmael, into the desert. In our story as we understand it, this is the beginning of the history of animosity between the children of Ishmael and the children of Yitzchak. Though we share a grandfather, our relationship has been a difficult one... maybe especially over the last sixty years.

Abraham is known in our tradition for his hospitality. The rabbis teach that he saw the face of God in everyone who came to his door. We often mention at weddings that the chuppah beneath which the couple stands is open on all sides like the tent of Abraham.

That night at the All Nations Café, I sat beneath an open-sided tent in the hills outside Jerusalem. I drank strong coffee and breathed in the scent of woodsmoke. I marveled at the stars. I clapped along with the doumbek and the oud, and rejoiced as my Israeli friends danced with their Palestinian counterparts. And I thought: I am so lucky to be right here, right now.

This is a reality of Israel that we don’t hear much about in the news. It’s a reality we may not read about in the paper, or in the blogs we follow from the Middle East. But it gives me great hope, and it's something I'm proud to be a part of in my small way.

In the year to come, may we all have the experience of encountering others in a way that doesn’t ignore our differences, but honors them, and encourages us to find common ground. May we, like Abraham, truly see the face of God in all of our neighbors. And may that vision strengthen us to work toward peace: for Israel and Palestine, and in our own hearts. And together we say: amen.

Technorati tags: , , , , .