An alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program (Class 18), Charlie is currently studying in Jerusalem as a third-year rabbinical student at The Jewish Theological Seminary. Previously, he served with distinction in the Nahal Brigade of the IDF. He can be reached at email@example.com
A swift, strong punch to the stomach. That’s how it felt, returning to Israel after my final Wexner Institute as a Fellow. Not long after landing at Ben Gurion Airport, I found the fresh air of unabashed excitement surrounding President Obama’s inauguration suddenly knocked out of me, replaced by a uniquely Middle Eastern scent of stagnation and despair. As the unilateral ceasefire barely holds, the feeling here is less of improved security and more that the countdown till the next eruption of violence has begun once again. Even with Israel’s restored faith in the operational capacity of the IDF, there is growing fear that the destruction and loss of life in Gaza and Israel will not engender any fundamental change. This lack of change extends to the political arena, where the well-manicured Facebook pages [http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/pages/Tzipi-Livni-/37665519437?sid=6878e90c1f3f6961a664840fd42c6ce2&ref=s], Obama-esque websites [http://www.netanyahu.org.il/] and YouTube [http://il.youtube.com/Elections09] enhanced debate platforms of election season represent the same candidates delivering the same uninspired, visionless rhetoric. Yet, in spite of this, I keep returning to stories of hope from our tradition and my own experience that serve as reminders that change is possible, that better times may be within reach.
This fall, I participated in a tour of Bethlehem through Encounter [www.encounterprograms.org/], an organization founded by WGF alumnae Rabbis Melissa Weintraub and Miriam Margles that brings Jewish leaders into direct contact with the Palestinian narrative. Our first stop was an elementary school in an area in which I had been stationed while serving in the IDF. I was stunned to find the guard tower in which I had lived for up to a week at a time removed, the earthen barrier that had blocked the main road into Bethlehem cleared. Even more amazing was being welcomed as a guest into a school I had only seen through the heavy glaze of bullet proof glass. While life in Bethlehem is still difficult, seeing physical barriers to normalcy removed proved to me that the situation is not static, that progress, however small, can indeed be made.
It is this possibility of change that permeates the Book of Exodus. In this week’s Torah portion, we read one of the climaxes of the Exodus story, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. Having shed the physical bonds of slavery, the Israelites arrive at the sea as Pharaoh’s army descends upon them. With seemingly nowhere to go, the fear and despair of the Israelites is palpable in the text. Yet God does part the sea, and as the Israelites emerge through the narrow passage they are truly reborn into freedom. The Israelite’s freedom is not utopian; rather, it encompasses the harsh reality of the desert, the hardships of wandering and ultimately, the gift of the Torah.
My hope is that we, Jews, Israelis, and Palestinians, are like the Israelites standing before the sea. With seemingly nowhere to go, the fear and despair is palpable here as well. Yet my own experience and the lessons of our tradition teach me that we can emerge from these times into new, better realities. As President Obama quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “The arc of history is long but bends towards justice.” Let us work, hope and pray to ensure that it also bends towards peace.