Sunday, May 15, 2011

Pursuing Peace

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?
-Rabbi Hillel, of the first century BCE

Pursuing peace means that I must incorporate self-criticism into my own identity, yet remain proud to defend who I am. Pursuing peace means that I expect the same from others. This semester, I have seen the Middle East change in ways that is has never before. I have seen the Palestinian Authority building itself up, and building towards the inspiring international recognition of a sovereign state in September. In spite of stunning Hamas-Fateh reconciliation, I have seen Hamas hold on to their deeply misguided hope that future generations of Palestinians could occupy all of Israel. I have seen the Israeli government yearning to defend its people in a dangerous and unstable region. I have seen the Israeli government become too nervous, and violate human rights at checkpoints and borders.

Pursuing peace means that I follow the advice of Rabbi Hillel. If I am for myself, I have to stand behind Israel's right to defend herself, in the face of terrorists who wish for us to disappear. If I am not for myself alone, I have to stand behind Salam Fayyad in his efforts to build a Palestinian state alongside our own. If not now, I fear that this hope drifts only farther away, squeezed to a pulp amidst polarizing societies.

The national memorial days have been a time for reflection and for hope. On the morning of Yom HaZikaron, I stood in silence in a frozen Jerusalem as the capital city remembered the state's fallen soldiers and victims of terror. On Yom Ha'Atzmaut, I celebrated Israel's 63 birthday on one of the youngest Kibbutzim in the country, reflecting on the idealism that built the state. And I asked myself: how can I pursue a peace for a middle east where Israelis are less often - if ever - asked to give their lives in defense of an enduring independence?

The past few weeks have been, as I know they are each year, an emotional roller coaster; Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron, Yom HaAtzmaut, and Nakba memorial day (remembering Palestinian refugees of 1948). I think that everyone else in the region has already turned these days into a defense of their own politics. Rather than explaining my own political platform for a practical peace, I am compelled to share the questions I am asking. I do have my own carefully thought-through, well supported and pragmatic thoughts on the particularities of peace. However, I seek to share where I start the process, not where I end:
How wrong have we been, and how can we make it right? How wrong have our neighbors been, and how can they make it right? How do we weave together our narratives?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Matzah and Falafel: Pesach in Jordan

Doing my best to commemorate the exodus from Egypt on Pesach last week, a group of friends and I chose to make an exodus from Israel during the holiday and visit Jordan. At first glimpse, perhaps it is ironic that I left the Holy Land after commemorating my ancestors’ departure towards it. On second thought, it is a remarkable expression of freedom and progress to safely visit friends in a land alongside our own. Travelling with an accordion-style group of 4-12 friends, I visited the families of two wonderful Jordanian friends and went hunting for the Holy Grail in the footsteps of Indiana Jones.

More than any other motivation, I wanted to accept invitations to visit my friends in their homes. After a three hour bus ride and a tremp to the border crossing, two hours waiting to cross, and a long care ride, we arrived at a friend’s home in Irbid around 10pm. His family welcomed us all (at this point ten of us) with an incredible feast! Gathered around in their living room, my backpacked Matzah made a nice addition to the falafel, hummus, salad, and rice in grape leaves. When we woke up the next morning, the family started our day with a breakfast even more delicious than dinner, fueling us up before a combination of six buses and taxis brought us to Amman.

In Amman, we visited a classmate’s office before dropping our bags off in her home. Relaxing with her family, I brought out the Matzah out again so that we could have an afternoon snack. Her mom fell in love with the stuff! Later that day we walked through Amman and bumped an alumni of our school who lives in Amman, and he treated us to dinner at the best falafel place in the city (where the king and his late father both have visited). Food and hospitality became the reliable highlights of our trip.

After two nights in our friends homes, four of us continued southward and rented cabins at a Bedouin campground for the night. Early the next morning we headed to Petra, where the third episode of Indiana Jones was filmed. There is enough incredible Petra history to write another blog-post twice the length of this one. The Nabateans carved most of the city out of the cliffs, starting over two millenia ago, and the entrance is a beautiful slot canyon 2 or 3 km long. The city was ultimately conquered by the Romans, and after the 1400s it fell into ruins. Petra was unkown to the west until its discovery in 1812. Now it's one of the new seven wonders of the world, and there are many expensive things for tourists to purchase.

Backpack o' Matzah! ...ready to cross the border.

Erev Shabbat (friday night) by our campground.

I completed my pilgrimage to Israel two months ago, in Jerusalem. When I left America, my roommate gave me this hat, which has been with me during all of my travels. On Saturday, it came home to the filming site of Indiana Jones 3, in Petra.

Monday, April 11, 2011

King Havdalah

Delayed update! I wrote this entry just about a week ago, and I still need to find time to post pictures to go with it. I'll do my best to post more regularly, as I'd promised. So please forgive this slowness and enjoy some thoughts from not too long ago:

"Hey Yara, do you want to join us for Havdalah?"
"Do I want to join you and Abdullah?"
"Yeah, we're going to Havdallah right now."
"You're going to meet King Abdullah?! What??"

When we get lost in translation here, some moments are funnier than others. Last week I invited my friend Yara, who's from Amman, Jordan, to join us for the Havdalah ceremony that marks the end of Shabbat and beginning of the new week. She thought I was asking if she wanted to come with me to meet King Abdullah, the Jordanian monarch. Unfortunately, I'm not that good at networking!

As the immediate region became increasingly fragile, with saddenning cycles of violence on the Gazan border, we redoubled our dedication to learning together, and to working together. As Shabbat closed with coming of evening, I hoped that this week would bring more peace than the last. I am hopeful that the ceasefire established yesterday will last, and my friends and we will share together more moments of joy and togetherness that mirror calmness in the region.
Last week we all boarded a bus for our first group trip, for a three-day adventure engaging issues of water management; the bus was full constant drumming, singing, and group games, between planned stops that kept changing due to rain. On our first day we learned about sinkholes near the Dead Sea, and had a picnic lunch by a public beach. As soon as the tables were set, the skies let loose torrential bucketloads. By that afternoon, our schedule had already reached plan D, which turned out to be the beautiful nature reserve at Ein Feshka. Even with cancelled hikes and soggy sandwiches, our group was generally as upbeat as our bus was musty!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Adamah v'Adam Corps: Bridging Communities, Building Justice

I am now deep into my semester in southern Israel, studying environmental peace-building. Here, diverse students come together around a common commitment to environment and justice: Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and internationals. The core of the program is a required Peace-building and Evironmental Leadership Seminar, meeting an average of 5-6 hours/week. As I finish my first month at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, I am excited to formalize plans that will turn my education abroad into action at home.

As I was getting ready to leave Oberlin this past December, I did not realize that I was going to be packing the seed of entrepreneurial aspirations in my bag as well. When I return to America in June, I will begin to build the Adamah v’Adam Corps (Hebrew for Earth and Humanity Corps). The A.A.C. is a new Jewish and interfaith service corps that will organize volunteer opportunities for youth to serve in Appalachia. On my last day at college this past winter, my mentor and adoptive “Oberlin-mom,” Beth, handed me a grant application to turn in before I left America. With help from her and others, I have secured generous seed-funding from the Davis Projects for Peace, and look forward to putting my entrepreneurial yearnings to good use.

The Appalachia region has a rich cultural heritage, sustained amidst political and ecological challenges. The long coal mining history has inspired its own music, novels, poetry, films and more. Recently, a shift toward mechanization and mountaintop removal mining (MTR) has decreased the number of jobs available while increasing the local ecological impact of mining operations. Coal is a powerful industry which offers some employment, but the region remains one of the most impoverished in America. Furthermore, coal poses problems of environmental justice at each stage of its lifecycle: from the communities where it is mined, to the plants where it is burned, to the carbon emissions that it contributes to the greenhouse effect. These dueling economic and environmental forces divide communities of the region, calling for a renewed dedication to peace-making and direct aid.

The complexity of the challenges facing Appalachia became clear to me when I facilitated an alternative break program there this past October. Our group was the first delegation of Oberlin volunteers to work with Heritage Ministries of Lynch, Kentucky; we distributed food, weatherized homes, painted a house, installed siding, and helped to build a roof. Students and community members found deep satisfaction in working across cultural differences, energizing everyone’s dedication to the work at hand. Students also gained a deeper understanding of the connections amongst environmental and economic conditions that divide the community, coming to see direct material aid as a promotion of peace and fellowship.

The A.A.C. has a three-part mission that aims to create deep impacts for both participants and the communities they visit: offering material assistance, fostering pluralism, and teaching ecological awareness. This mission is a response to the challenges identified by Heritage Ministries, including aging infrastructure, few jobs, inadequate health care, and an absence of government assistance. While these difficulties demand long term, system-level solutions, the director of Heritage Ministries explains that direct service is absolutely necessary to immediately relieve stress.

With seed-funding this summer, I will continue to build the foundation for future volunteer service trips, bringing more participants to the Appalachia region. Immediately after landing in Boston in late June, I will make a four-day trip to Appalachia for preliminary planning. Through mid-July, I will meet with leaders and teachers of Jewish and interfaith communities in the northeast, building connections with potential participant organizers (e.g. high school principals, Rabbis, ministers, etc.) and hiring experts for assistance in writing a curriculum for later service trips. When I return to Appalachia for four weeks, I will volunteer with at least four organizations (identified with assistance from Heritage Ministries and other partners in Kentucky and West Virginia), in order to establish lasting partnerships.

I will be one of one hundred students/teams executing Projects for Peace across the planet, and am designing the A.A.C. as a local response to the world-wide challenges of our time. In an era of global climate change, geographical and temporal distance masks the impact of energy use and consumer decisions on not only the environment, but also the human beings who occupy it. Bridging the physical distance between host and participant communities fosters compassion, helping individuals to navigate a complex world where daily choices have deep ethical implications. As climate change and rising seas threaten global stability, the A.A.C. seeks to train civic leaders who engage with diverse communities to help bring about a more compassionate world. Economic conditions in Appalachia call for a humanitarian response, and the region’s ecology teaches global environmental lessons.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Circuits, Jogs, Yoga, Soccer, Volleyball: Energy

I am a proud member of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies Sports Committee, an overly-beaurocratic name for one of the most powerful sources of my energy here. In between classes and common meals, a group of avid outdoorsie athletes has developed a strong community. Last Thursday afternoon, we transformed the small quad into a gym, with Palestinians, Isralis, and Americans lifting stones and doing dips on benches. Then, before dinner, we practiced an hour of Yoga as the sun went down.

In two weeks, we are all piling on to a Public "Egged" Bus, and heading North to Jerusalem for the city's first Marathon. None of us are actually running the whole thing; we are training for the 10k (and couple of folks for the 21k) gives us excuses to run together in the evenings. When we hit the streets, we'll be jogging through the Jaffa Gate, past the Kinesset, and finishing next to the supreme court.

Life at AIES is full of energy and connections that feed a harmony of the mind, body, and soul. We study regional water management during the daytime and play barefoot soccer at night.

The annual regional soccer tournament began last night, which is a BIG deal around here. It had been hyped for weeks - even before I arrived on campus. Our team, with professors from Israel and Turkey, students from Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and the U.S. played even harder than their cheering section hollared. The game went into tie-breaker penalty shots, and I could taste the tension. We lost the match in sudden death over-time, and marched back to campus to sing and play drums. Everyone wanted to win, but losing certainly wasn't going to be getting in the way of celebration!

And yes, we do work too. Until this week, homework was just less exciting than building community with my wonderful classmates. Now that I have settled in, exciting academic and activist projects are underway, which I'll highlight soon!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Settling Down in the Desert

When I left America, I kept saying that I didn't want to have the life-changing experience that everyone said I should expect. I wanted to have a life-affirming experience, and to return unchanged to an unchanged home. Even so, my expectations were exceedingly high - I spent five weeks travelling before arriving in Israel, much of which I spent meditating on how much I couldn't wait to get here. Life in the Jewish State has been full of pleasant surprises, deep conversations, and a promising future: a not-too-life-changing life-changing experience.

I spent my first Shabbat in the old city, followed by a visit with my cousin Sol who I had never had the chance to get to know before. On my long walks through the city, I remembered how much I had fallen in love with it last year. Sitting by the Kotel on my last night, I thought of the words of A.J. Heschel:
Streams of endless craving, clinging, dreaming, flowing day and night, midnights, years, decades, centuries, millenia, streams of tears, pledging, waiting from all over the world, from all corners of the Earth carried us of this generation to the wall.

I was sad to leave Jerusalem last Tuesday afternoon, but instantly felt at home when I arrived at Kibbutz Ketura and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. Meeting classmates from Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and North America, I became electrified to begin the semester. A heritage of yearning brought me to the wall; my generation's striving for a better world has brought us - Jews, Muslims, Christians, and others - together from around the region and the world. I am at home here. On our last night of orientation, we threw a birthday party for one of our classmates, learned Jordanian dances, and played circus games for hours - celebrating our group, excited for the beginning of classes focused solely on coming together around environmental action.

My friend Ibrahim relaxes outside our dormitory, next to the bike that another classmate, Bilal, is fixing up. The mountains behind our dorms are amazing hiking grounds, with cliff walks and incredible views. Looking out the other side of our quad, I can see across the valley to the mountains of Jordan.

Last week, we visited Neot Semadar, a neighboring Kibbutz. This is their arts and crafts building, complete with a passive cooling tower: magical eco-castle in the desert? I tried to find Mickey Mouse inside, but he must have been hiding with the Oompa Loompas.

Our class hiked up to nearby sand dune after leaving Neot Semadar; the softest sands in the wa orld, perfect for tumbling and playing! I didn't take my camera out when we got there, because the sand in the air could have gummed it up.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Rome, and Onwards!

Please note: the story of my time in northern Italy is on the way! I hope to complete final edits this weekend. For now, Rome -

Over the past few days,I have bid farewell to Rome and settled down in Israel. I have bid farewell to one pilgrimage center, and arrived in another. During my last morning in Italy, I attended a Papal audience with Catholics from around the world. He greeted the crowd in six languages.

Following a speech on the importance of family (in Italian - I didn't pick up much) he acknowledged the Church/school groups who had travelled to Rome from across the world. With each name, a group would stand up and most would sing a short choir peace. Sometimes the audience would clap to the rythm, and this always devolved into an applause which drowned out the singing and made way for the next group.

In Rome, I also had a chance to see all of the major monuments and holy sites. My feet left the city sore from walking, my mind satisfied with a full helping of first-hand history. Tonight I am sleeping over at a friend's house in Tel Aviv, and tomorrow I depart to reacquaint myself with Jerusalem and visit relatives and friends there.

The days have been packed, and I wish I had more time to offer valuable insights about Rome. However, I've spent most of my writing time on the story from before, and it will be a good read when it does go up.