Sunday, February 21, 2010

“Making the Desert Bloom”: Mormons, Zionists, and Tomorrow’s Water

I submitted my Udall Scholarship application last Monday, and wrote this essay about the connections between Udall's policy and my own ambitions:

When a desert blooms, the fruits of agriculture are rarely sustainable. Irrigated flowerbeds deceivingly pepper the landscape in temporary beauty. Just as the harvest season draws to a close every year, the days of intensive desert agriculture and desert flower beds are numbered when irrigation efforts overdraft water supplies. When agriculturists, homeowners, and policy-makers use water faster than it is naturally replenished, complex irrigation projects can temporarily alleviate drought but wreak serious environmental havoc.

Morris Udall favored construction of two major dams on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon National Park during the 1960s, a policy that he later regretted as myopically irresponsible. As Zionists today struggle to sustain Israel for generations to come, Udall’s maturation serves as a microcosm analogy for change that must take place. Zionists have built incredible beauty in the land of Israel, but the days of ubiquitous flowerbeds must come to a close.

Udall explains his decision to support the dams in the context of his Mormon ancestry. His ancestors were in awe of the beautiful southwestern landscape, but also built many dams to supplement rainfall irrigation:
I was caught between my Mormon upbringing, my environmentalist leanings, and my constituents’ near unanimous support for the dams. My decision finally turned on one irrefutable fact: water is life in the desert. (Udall, pg. 54)
I am disappointed that he made this decision, but inspired that he came to condemn it later in his career. Water is life, but he later acknowledged that these were band-aid solutions: expensive projects that would be environmentally disastrous and unsustainable in the long run. These particular dams would have irreversibly damaged the Grand Canyon National Park, temporarily supporting an unsustainable desert population.

Similarly, Israel’s impressive water engineering served a hugely important role in building the country, but now plays an increasingly troublesome role, undermining the nation’s future. The writer and Politician S. Yihzar poetically captured this duality of triumph and destruction:
Making the desert bloom meant doing away with the wasteland, erasing the nothingness, exploiting completely all natural resources. We felt that if we succeeded in doing this thing, if we could conquer the wilderness, do away with it, make it bloom -- in other words, if we could settle it, build it up, make it not wild, not devoid of human values -- then we would have achieved the Zionist dream.

Israel must draw down on its water use, given that the Jewish State’s water withdrawal-to-availability ratio is one of the 10 highest in the world. The once-mighty Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized, is now a trickle. The Dead Sea, a true anomaly at the lowest point in the world (400 meters below sea level) is disappearing, leaving gaping sinkholes in its wake. Water rights divide Israelis and Palestinians. The country’s largest reservoir, the Sea of Galilee, is shrinking. Israel must turn its policies around, as Morris Udall did.

These environmental crises require visionary demands of rewritten agricultural policies, impassioned calls for systemic change. They require an understanding that there is a harsh future in store if environmental limits remain ignored. When Udall looked back on his decision to endorse the dam projects, he realized that there might simply be too many people in the arid southwest. With Israel growing, it could do well to look at Udall’s thoughts. The pressing demands of constituents must be taken with a grain of salt. He sought a pragmatic balance between development and preservation. The civilizations of these two deserts irrefutably have the right to exist, but water must be used carefully if they are to exist for our children.

Udall’s self-criticism offers a clear model for the maturation of Israel’s water policies. Both heritages, Mormon and Zionist, are inspiringly rich with hardworking civilization builders. They can inspire us all to look back at our ancestors who toiled to shape the land, to eek out a basic survival. Mormon and Zionist settlers took awe in their landscapes, shaped the land, and built the societies that we must sustain for future generations. It is my dream that Israel, as a “light unto nations”, may become an example of sustainable development for the world.

An exuberant Carter beats Udall in the 1976 Wisconsin primary election. The election was so close that one newspaper actually misprinted its headline... "Dewey defeats Truman" anyone?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

From the Diaspora...

Since Monday morning I have met 3 inspiring professors, 1 outlandishly friendly journalist, an impassioned CEO, and 1 cousin who I had never known existed! I have been through the bowels of several central bus stations, toured a checkpoint, witnessed the complex reality of Palestinian life on the Green Line, and I have made my way half-way around the world, back home to the Diaspora…

This entry is rather lengthy. So if your time is limited then I suggest reading the first section as a basic summary of my trip. I will add photos and more thoughts as time and internet access allow.

This Blog Marches On!!

“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness, and will hold your hand and keep you. And I will establish you as a Covenant of the people, for a light unto the nations.” ¬ –Isaiah 42:6

This blog is not dying! We must keep the reality and wonder of Israel alive in our hearts and our minds. For non-jews, secular jews, and religious jews alike, the grassroots change happening in Israel is like none other in the world, because Israel is an absolute anomaly. Not only does this dwarf-state host the diversity of an entire continent, but its unique challenges make it a beautiful model for what is possible.
In relating the final stories and emotions of my trip, I hope to relate the sense of potent opportunity that pervaded my sojourn in the Jewish state. Yes, Israel absolutely has its faults. However, Israel also does incredible things. If it is possible for Israel to become a place of ecological sustainability, and peaceful coexistence, then forging sustainable peace must be possible anywhere. You may say that this is not possible, and indeed it is a high bar. However, the inspirational leaders I have met would be rather upset (as would I) if you consigned their passionate struggles to the realm of the naïve.
This semester I am working part-time for the Environmental Studies Department at Oberlin, and my work will focus on maintaining connections with institutions and individuals across Israel. I will write less frequently, perhaps every week or two, following the evolving thread of my passion for Zionism.
As I discussed with a mentor in Jerusalem earlier this week, I hope to create a book within 2-4 years. As I have begun to do, this opus would follow grass-roots change-makers in the footsteps of great thinkers and philosophies. As a resource, I hope this could inspire those keen on making a difference anywhere, not only Israel. Israel is a fantastic classroom, and will hopefully become the world’s teacher.


I visited Jerusalem several times during my trip. I always put off writing about the Holy City because it is nearly impossible to explain, and I knew I would be back soon. So, now, I’ll do my best to relate my wanderings there. It is a city great inspiration, true wonders, deep rifts, and true difficulties.
Jerusalem is home to holy sites of all three Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christ is thought to have been crucified. A short walk from there, I prayed at the Western Wall, the last remaining portion of Israel’s ancient temple. After climbing steps away from the wall I could see the Golden Dome of the Rock just beyond, where Muhammad ascended to heaven accompanied by the angel Gabriel. The city is partitioned, and even the holy sites themselves are partitioned:
- At the Church, six Christian sects each control separate portions.
- At the Wall, men and women are separated.
- At the Golden Dome, also home to the Temple Mount, Jews and Muslim are separated.
This separation echoes the city’s separation in the East and West, which echoes separation felt throughout the country. Although Israel is very diverse, the vast majority of communities are homogeneous. I am pro-Israel, but do recognize that we must make changes.
Israel does not owe very much to those who want to destroy her. But, that label is not applicable in a vast number of cases. I’ll speak to this more under my reflection on seeing Barta’a with Muhammad. (One clarification: Just as Arabs deserve equal rights in Israel, Jews should be allowed to live in Palestine without threats of violence or expulsion.)
Jerusalem is not, however, a place of gloom and doom. The city is full of inspiration, not only from history and diversity. Just one example is the Church of Saint Vincent DePaul, a church offering care for children and orphans suffering from Chronic diseases.

Jerusalem International YMCA

“We are not human beings have a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
– Great Buddhist Monk, as quoted by Forsan Hussein, CEO of the Jerusalem International YMCA

"Here is a place whose atmosphere is peace, where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten and international unity be fostered and developed."
–Edmund Lord Allenby, dedication of the Jerusalem Y in 1933

Across the street from the King David Hotel, which regularly hosts world leaders including US Presidents, this YMCA promotes coexistence, peace, and interfaith dialogue.
Forsan Hussein, a young Palestinian-Israeli, has been the CEO here for 6 months. He is the first Muslim ever to become head of a YMCA. I was lucky to meet with him yesterday afternoon, and found his vision very impressive. The YMCA may become a model for Jerusalem, which may model peace for Israel, the region, and the world.

Barta’a – Living on the Green Line

From the mountains above Barta’a, I could see the alleged path of the Green line below. And, it goes straight through Barta’a. On one side there is a green-dome mosque, and on the other a yellow, but other than arbitrary landmarks it is impossible to see the line.
When I drove into Barta’a with a friend that afternoon, nothing changed after we passed over the “border”. The real border, marked by a fence and Israeli checkpoints, is significantly further into the West Bank. But would it make sense to draw a real border through Barta’a, straight through the center of a bustling market place where we stopped to walk around?
The division in Palestinian communities is not so dramatic as a border. Muhammad, the friend I visited there, explained that national services like the post office are drastically underfunded. Jewish communities have nice parks, and functional national offices. He takes his children to nearby communities so that they can play outside, because these spaces are not available in his community.
I do not want to become too political, but there are definite injustices here. This may not be institutional racism, but is a clear discrimination that demands redress.

Givat Haviva: Hashomer Hatzair

The Hashomer Hatzair movement is a progressive Zionist youth movement. It is about equality, community, and social responsibility. The movement has an educational center at Givat Haviva in northern Israel, where Palestinians and Israelis come together for dialogue work as the basis of peace through friendship. The center offers art classes, women’s studies and Holocaust studies as well.

Last Evening, and Cousin Ross

On my last night in Israel, I was hastily doing arts and crafts before I needed to leave. I sat at my cousins’ dining room table making bookmarks as I gave them pointers on how to bend wires into cute animal figurines. It was a wonderful way spend my final evening, although I could have done a more careful job with packing…
As I sat at the table with dried flowers, paper, tape, and scissors, my cousin Ross came in the front door! We had never met before, but Batsheva (my cousin I was staying with) had mentioned that this then-mystery-character would be joining us for dinner. It turned out that we are both very interested in environmental issues, specifically in Israel, and we are nearly the same age as well. It seemed poetic that even as I prepared to leave, I would meet wonderful family members in Eretz Yisrael.

On Returning to the Diaspora (written aboard the bus back to Jerusalem, via Tel Aviv):

Breaking my gaze from the window to check the time, a gut wrenching reality nudges a tear from my eye. I have gotten to know the public bus system, the “Egged”, very well, and this time tomorrow Egged and I will be shlepping my baggage to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. From there across the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean and back home to the Diaspora…
Now I sit on the fourth bus connection of the night from the junction where Muhammad dropped me off. From there to Hadera. Hadera to Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Jerusalem to Efrat. Farewell nighttime Jerusalem…

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Farewells, Shabbat, Gratitude and Yad-Vashem

I apologize for the delay in getting this post up. I have a spattering of journal entries from the past week, but only now have time to actually compile them into a cohesive blog post. Although these words do not convey the fast-paced intensity of the past week, it has been a period of transition, prayer, and reflection.

From Saturday Evening’s Journal Entry:

Until Shabbat began yesterday evening, the week was an intense whirlwind, actually more so than the entire trip and my life in general. Preparing to strike out on my own, I said goodbye to the Oberlin delegation, and to all of the wonderful friends we have made here. On Thursday evening I got on a bus to a Jerusalem, schlepping my 50 pound backpacking bag and doing my best to keep track of my belongings.

That night I stayed up until 3am talking to Sam, my Oberlin Zionists Co-Chair for the coming semester. We stayed in a hostel in the Jewish quarter of the old city of Jerusalem. It was very exciting to plan for the semester in our ancient capitol. Many Oberlin students are terribly misinformed about reality in Israel. We are going to do everything we can to change the scene.

Thank You:

I would never have been able to learn as much as I have so far without the generous support of many incredible people. Just a few of those to whom I thanks:

Jonathan, Yochai, Nomi, Ido
– These four talented educators, from Mevuot Hanegev High School, exemplify what it means to teach. They not only have an incredible respect for their students, but also had a sincere interest in doing their best to show us Israel.

Gilad – Gilad (name change) is an Israel soldier, my age, who I have greatly enjoyed getting to know. We were both eager to learn about each other; our friendship began with conversations about life in general, but evolved into a deep examination of the conflict here. We talked about education, sustainability, personal responsibilities and respect.

Obies – I spent my first 3 weeks with a wonderful group of Obies, volunteering at Mevuot Hanegev High School, travelling, and learning all we could about the complex state of Israel.

Batsheva, Doug, Ayala, Chana, Efraim, and Yoseph – You have not only welcomed me to your family and community, but also sensitively opened my mind to reconsider the complex reality of the West Bank. Right now I do not know what I think about the occupation, but I am certainly wedged far closer to center than I had been before. One thing is for sure: if there is ever a two state solution, Jews should be allowed to live here. The vast majority of Jews here are good neighbors, offering jobs, hospital care, and other critical resources.

From Yesterday Evening, Reflection at Yad Vashem (transcribed, edited from my notebook):
I squinted as I stepped onto the Bridge to a Vanished World. Walking toward the museum’s entrance, the low morning sun sprayed my eyes. When I passed through the door to the holocaust memorial museum, everything became darker. The only natural light came through a narrow window running the length of the building. Yad Vashem – Hand and God – places sterile, cold Nazi policies alongside the faces and stories of countless victims.

As I neared the end of my two-hour walk through exhibits, I noticed a tiny mezuzah in the corner of a small room. Somewhere in the Warsaw Ghetto, somebody had found this bullet casing and carved a “Shin” into it’s now aged copper casing. The modest prayer froze my slow, deliberate, silent walk through the exhibits. It is truly remarkable that the maker of this humble Mezuzah turned a bullet, a symbol of the Jews’ destruction, into a reaffirmation of faith.

I now sit beneath the memorial to deportees, railroad tracks and a disturbingly small cattle car. The memorial is at the head of a reflection path, lined with lavender and inspiring quotations, in the Yad Vashem gardens.

My thoughts return to the Arava and Judean Deserts. There, alone, I gazed upon barren landscapes rife with historical, geological, and geopolitical struggles. I wrote about Israel’s ancient struggles to live freely in Eretz Yisrael, to hike through sterile deserts, to relentlessly defend their homeland, and to fiercely safeguard their monotheism and Jewish culture.

I sit beneath the train tracks, tracks symbolizing a terrifyingly inescapable passage to living hell. Upon arriving in Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel wrote of a “fire that consumed my faith forever.” The Nazis created a reality so evil that Jewish faith became practically untenable. Had G-d and nature “unchosen” the Jews in favor of the Aryan race? The victims of the holocaust faced not only a destroyed people, they faced a destroyed religion – a world in which, for countless victims, Judaism became impossible to believe in.

The death camps became a physical embodiment of Nazi Ideology, a landscape layering existential crisis along side real, physical pain. The trains led into a barren landscape. The world of Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka. The world of the Jew’s destruction. The world where we became powerless to defend ourselves. Many struggled to keep faith, many cursed G-d, and millions perished in terror.

That tiny bullet-Mezuzah, that humble prayer, aged but shining beneath the plexiglass, pointed me forward. We must preserve our traditions and our marvel religion in the face of a defiant world.

Every injustice is a challenge to Jews, Judaism, and Israel. Every little slice of reality that calls for compassion demands recognition and actions. I ponder the words that a prisoner penciled onto the inside of the car above me:

Here in this car load
I am eve
With Abel my son
If you see my other son
Cain son of man
Tell him I

A placard that we made for students at Mevuot Hanegev, the middle/high school where we spent three weeks volunteering.

Lavender on the Yad Vashem campus. I intentionally place this below the quotation we inscribed on our gift to the school. At Yad Vashem, where pain dominates and sorrow may triump, the winding paths of lavender offer an antidote to sadness. These flowers are incredibly small, yet in vast quantities they turned the mountaintop deep purple. And, crushed between my finger tips, the pedals let off an incredibly alive aroma.

“Architecture as pedagogy.” –David Orr
The Bridge to a Vanished World is lined with lights, leading visitors into the depths of the Holocaust. Visitors exit through the Bridge to the Living, and gaze out upon a thriving a Jerusalem.

The Memorial to Deportees, above the reflection path where I wrote in my journal yesterday.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

One Cup of Tea

During the past three days I have journeyed to the Galilee and Golan Heights, met with representatives of a Druze community, and met with women who are struggling to support their community and increase literacy with an incredible Desert Embroidery project.

Desert Embroidery:

They are incredibly impressive, and just the group of passionate people that I have been looking for. Their work is incredibly brave, striving to navigate an elegant middle road between deeply rooted traditions and societal progress – traditional values and women’s rights. Their embroidery challenges gender stereotypes, builds community literacy, empowers women, and creates connections with Jewish communities.

They welcomed us with a wonderful cup of tea, and began to explain their work as we gathered in a round circle. They empower women and girls through literacy, building a stronger community and trying to make peace with neighboring communities. The parallels with Greg Mortenson's "Three Cups of Tea" were quite remarkable. There are continuing conflicts between Jewish and Bedouin communities, communities marginilized much like native Americans in the U.S. Their drive to improve their lot, contribute to Israeli culture, and maintain a positive ecological imprint is simply unbelievable. Literacy works wonders.

Reflection from the banks of the Sea of Galilee:

“I felt my feet were praying.”
– Abraham Joshua Heschel (on marching with MLK)

I accidentally encountered a deep puddle during a late night walk along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. My feet are soaking wet as I journal from a lifeguard tower. The light breeze occasionally knocks drops of rainwater from the bamboo-mat roof, so I open and close my computer to keep it safe and dry.

I hear frogs. I hear crashing waves. I hear beetles (I think they are beetles…). I hear a stray cat. I hear wind blow and raindrops patter. A raindrop falls on my screen, and I wipe it gently away.

I could hike the perimeter of the sea in a matter of days, the sea so integrally connected to all I’ve learned here. It feeds Israel’s agriculture, but the diversion of its outflow shrinks the Dead Sea. The Kinneret is at the heart of Israel’s vitality, yet also at the core of regional geopolitical dilemmas.

There is a shiny fireman’s pole at the front of this tower. What better way to quickly escape back into the warm indoors? I look forward to hitting spongy ground below. When my wet shoes smack down on the soil below

Captions are below each. I really like these pictures; each one says a great deal.

Atop an extinct volcano, the peak of which pierced the clouds. Or perhaps Jurassic park. These marvelous sculptures truly came alive amongst the stunning volcanic rock. I wish I could go back and do a better job taking this picture!

The Jordan River, Yarden, where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. Stairs allow pilgrims to submerge in the holy waters. This part of the Yarden is actually not the river’s trunk, but a diverted portion, with a dam visible in the background. These diversions are a serious problem, but an agricultural necessity. As the rivers shrinks, so do Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) and the Dead Sea. This picture appears simple, but is truly stunning. We see a holy site, a modern pilgrimage site, and a dam that connects religion and history to contemporary struggles.

From the Golan Heights: the Sea of Galilee on a stormy afternoon. Notice the agriculture on the fertile banks.

Two Bedouin woman create woven products.

Shalom, our wonderful tour-guide at the Golan Heights Winery, looks out lovingly at the sea of oak barrels filled with aging wines. We went to an amazing wine tasting afterwards. For the sake of grant funding, let’s call it “field research in local agriculture and industry”.

Shabi, a biology student at Oranim college, approaches a pond. A poem is in the foreground. The poetry on this path in the botanical garden was collaboration with the literature department.

Our Druze guide demonstrates how to use a traditional coffee grinder. He met us in Osafiya, and explained that grinding coffee outside of one’s home is a sign of hospitality and welcoming.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Gaza Envelope

Yesterday we travelled to the border of Gaza, a region known as the “Gaza envelope”. Ido, the principle of the school where we are volunteering, lives about a mile from the border. So, he took us around the area.  Each picture has a caption below it.

I do not want to fill this space with my own personal blather, but instead invite you to set aside a few moments after looking at the picture. I encourage you to spend extra time considering the final photograph. It is not a particularly stunning or beautiful image. Tall grass masks the blooming flowers.

At Kibbutz Kfar Aza, the community is building bomb shelters for every home. Shells travel here so quickly that public/shared shelters are not an option. The kibbutznikim would not be able to run to the shelter fast enough.

Children at the Kfar Aza kindergarten have created a wonderful fantasty land out of reused “big people garbage”. These kids have amazing ruach – spirit. Their school building is actually a large bombshelter.

Four years ago, a shell from Gaza killed a man, Jimmy, tending to his garden at Kfar Aza. This event sent many families packing, because his death made the community feel largely exposed and unsafe. The olive tree marks the place of his murder.

Flowers grow near the border. You can see the wire of a fence cutting across the picture…

A patch of wildflowers with Gaza in the background, and the Mediteranean Sea is visible in the distance. The Gaza Strip is so narrow that its entire width was visible, all the way to Mediterranean Sea in the distance. I took this picture one or two kilometers from the border. I could have jogged to the border in under 10 minutes, but the reality on the other of the wall could not be farther away from my own... The way I framed this picture, the relatively small amount of Israeli farmland before the border takes up a disproportionate amount of space between where I stood and the border itself.

A crop-duster roared as it sprayed pesticides on a wide swath of date palms. Birds chirped insistently. The wind blew slowly. Nearby military excercises brought loud punctations of artillery fire.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


“You’re packing for a place none of us have been, a place that has to be believed to be seen.

– U2, Move On

“In Israel you have one mishpachah – one family. I am family, he [my son] is family, you are family. You understand?”

– Moti, taxi driver

Moti left Iran three years ago because of Ahmedinejad’s intense anti-Semitism. Yesterday he gave me a ride to Be’er Sheva so that I could travel to Eifrat to meet my cousins, and on the way we picked up his son, Liran. From the back seat, Liran translated between Hebrew and English so that Moti and I could talk more easily. I told him that I wasn’t planning on making Aliyah (literally “going up”- moving - to Israel), because almost everyone I love is back home. He patted my knee and told me that here, we are all one big Mishpachah.

I am not going to move here, but I have come to understand that Israel is a home. Israel has been the Jews’ true home for thousands of years, and my cousins’ hospitality wonderfully reinforced my sense of belonging. Batsheva and Doug live in Eifrat with their four children, and I joined them for their son Efraim’s Hanichat Tefillin – putting on Tefillin for the first time, a month before his Bar Mitzvah. We went to the Kotel, the Western Wall, and as Efraim donned his Tefillin I donned my Tallis.

After we dovenned and joined a Minyan, Doug took me up to the wall. As we approached, we bumped into his friend who offered to help me put on Tefillin as well. So, just as my little cousin wore Tefillin for the first time today at the Kotel, so did I. Tefillin have been made the same way for thousands of years, just as the Kotel has stood for generations.

Humbled Jews surrounded the Kotel, worshipping in their own ways and forming one beautiful cacophony of prayer. This sure is one massive mishpacha. Our family is not only the Jews of Israel today, but our ancestors of antiquity and our children of tomorrow.

I’ve come home to Israel for the first time, but I have continued wandering since I arrived. I have wandered alone in the deserts, seeking out a deeper personal connection to this complex and beautiful land. Israel is not simply a physical home, it is the land that we make it. It is a land of beauty and a land with intense potential for positive growth. Learning from U2’s “Walk On”, we must believe in Israel if we hope to see it’s true beauty.

I am not a U2 fan, but I read this line in a D’var on this weeks Torah portion, Parshat Bo. The D’var is American Jewish World Service’s “D’var Tzedek” for this week, written by Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster. She draws on the story of Exodus to seek empathy for modern-day refugees. As I explore my home in the land of Israel, I am reminded of how lucky I am to have a home at all. Rabbi Kahn-Troster writes:

For today’s refugees, no one has foretold the end of their exile, like God did for Abraham. The length of their displacement cannot be estimated and the path of their journey cannot be anticipated. Generations might be born and raised in refugee camps. The concept of home slowly becomes elusive, describing neither the impermanence of the refugee camp nor the country of origin: as U2 sings, “Home... hard to know what it is if you've never had one.”

The critical importance of environmental education in Israel is coming into focus. Last week we taught a seventh grade class about the humanitarian crisis in Haiti. As global climate change envelopes every world citizen in a planetary crisis, Israel must lead the way toward progress.

As I read Rabbi Kahn-Traster’s D’var making this connection, I felt her words wrenching my gut:

But it is not just war that creates refugees. At the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 in Copenhagen, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres stated that climate change will become the biggest driver of population displacement within the not-too-distant future, as droughts become more frequent and rising sea levels inundate coastal and island nations.

As a young nation in an ancient homeland, we must share our gratitude with the world. I am proud that Israel has one of the most successful field hospitals operating in Haiti, and hope that the Jewish state will help lead the world forward. We are incredibly lucky to be back in our homeland, a safe-haven for Jews like Moti, and a home for us all.

Only 65 years ago we were refugees, our families murdered in the Holocaust, our livelihoods and homes stolen. The Roman empire destroyed the second temple in 70 CE, and the Third Reich attempted to annihilate us during WW2.

Batsheva, Doug, Ayala, Chana, Efraim and Yoseph – thank you for sharing your home with me. I look forward to celebrating Shabbat with you next week in Eifrat!


U2: "Walk On"

AJWS' D'var Tzedek (inluding this year's Parshat Bo)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Striving for Understanding – and Teaching

Back to School

I realized two nights ago that I have not written nearly enough about the school where we are volunteering. The students, teachers, and administrators here are absolutely incredible, and I am ashamed that I have not lifted up their wonderful work in my journals so far. As we have travelled around the country, there was simply to much to write about.

We have been giving English immersion lessons about environmental issues. Yesterday we worked with 7th graders on current events in Haiti. This work is very hard. It is one thing to discuss the complex issues, and other to do it in students’ second language. However, this also makes for extremely rewarding moments. We spoke about human need in times of disaster. What do people need? How can the students help?

We hope to table during Tu B’shvat (national Arbor Day), because the theme of the day will be planting. The idea is to “plant” awareness around the school. Just like a seed, awareness can be the seed of change. We are working with school’s activism center to coordinate this effort, and I will write about it again after the holiday next Wednesday.

Israel Air Force - Base Visit

“…given Judaism’s strongly realistic, and nonutopian orientation, the prophet Joel noted that sometimes, such as when evil forces are in the ascendant, Isaiah’s words must be reverserd: ‘Prepare for battle, arouse the warriors… Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears.’ (Joel 4:9-10)”
- Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

I am not a warmonger, but I strongly believe in Israel’s right to self-defense. I disagree with a vast array of the military’s actions and policies, but I have great respect and gratitude for their dedication to protecting Israel.

Yesterday we stood on the side of an Israeli Air Force runway and watched four F-15s take off for flight exercises. As the planes took off, their deafening roar and unbelievable rumbling shook the ground violently. War is horrifyingly loud, physical, and raw. We could feel the heat of the jets from 20 yards away.

One of our friends is an F-16 pilot in the reserves, which is why we were able to visit the base. His friend talked with us about moral dilemmas during last winter’s “Operation Cast Lead” – the war in Gaza, and we watched a film about rising from the ashes of the Holocaust. The memory of the Holocaust must remind Jews (at the Jewish state) of the terrible suffering that war can bring, and its memory must increase our sensitivity.

As we pulled out of the base’ parking lot, a raging storm was whipping an Israeli flag in the wind. Against the dark and rainy sky, the bright white flag stood out with an intense aura of determination. Feeling emotionally scrambled, the one thing I knew I felt was pride. Pride that Israeli is strong, and proud that her misuse of power does not go unquestioned.

Jewish history and religious ethics demand a very high bar of our national conduct. However, we are only human. As the pilots waved to us before take off I knew that humans make mistakes. Israel must be strong in order to survive, and the state MUST survive. Poor decisions are tragic, but this happens because humans are fallible and capable of improvement.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


This post recounts the single most defining experience of my trip. Building on my thoughts from last time, I wrote a journal entry on the cliffs descending from Massada. I’ve given a historical overview of Massada for those who are unfamiliar. If you don’t know the story, I encourage you to read it here – it is as inspiring as it is awful.

History of Massada – the Great Revolt

The Israelites of Judea revolted against the Roman empire in 66 CE, and 70 CE marks what may have been the greatest tragedy of Jewish history until the Holocaust: the destruction of the 2nd temple in Jerusalem. Massada, a great fortress on steep cliffs overlooking the Dead sea, was the Israelite’s final stronghold. Under Roman siege, the rebels (Sacarii) came to face certain defeat in 74 CE. Rather than become enslaved to the Romans, which they say as a form of Idolatry, they chose to take their lives.

Except for a few survivors, the nearly 1000 inhabitants took their lives. They drew lots to determine which ten men would die last, the same ten charged with supervising the communal suicide. They set their city ablaze as they begun to take their lives, the ten unlucky men drew final lots to see who kill the others and take his life last…

Reflection From my Notebook:

I sit cross-legged on the cliffs of Massada, gazing east over the Dead Sea and Jordanian mountains just beyond. Massada casts a growing shadow over the floodplain below. I calmly anticipate the mountains becoming awash in soft pastel hues of red and blue, as twilight descends over the Judean Desert. Having climbed Massada twice today, I pause to reflect before completing my descent to the floor of the Syrian-African rift valley, the lowest point on Earth.

The ruins of a Roman army camp, and an accompanying siege wall, are visible below. The legion, 8000 strong, sought to enslave heroic Sacarii (rebels) who bitterly held on to their Jewish dignity, taking their lives on the summit above the cliffs upon which I ponder their bravery.

We climbed the mountain before dawn broken this morning, and watched the sun rise as we ascended. Upon reaching the top, I immediately grinned when I saw an Israeli flag blowing in the cool wind. Nearly 2000 years after the Roman empire defeated the Sacarii, Israel has reclaimed this land for the Jewish people.

During my second ascent, I passed a sign that kindly reminded me not to enter Israeli Defense Force firing zones. The reality of continuing conflict struck me in a terribly real way.

Israel is a land of great struggles, of revolts, crusades, empires and lost hope. But it is also a holy land, a land of celebration, joy, worship, rich history, and stunning natural beauty.

I am perched, profoundly alone, in a liminal place. I am halfway up the mountain, a Roman camp below and the great fortress above. I am struck by the continue history of struggles that pervades Israel. Indeed, Israel literally means to “struggle” or “strive”.

The Dead Sea is shrinking and disputed borders criss-cross the land. The desert blooms as the Kinneret shrinks.

Israel is a land of Divine endowment, and the Divine image reflects core values held by the Jewish people for 1000s of years. Indeed, I believe that man created G-d, and not the reverse. Perhaps holiness is a spectrum, and we must do all we can to foster an Israel that reflects its humbling history.

Pictures (top down):

1) The new cover picture of my blog goes comes with this post, and there is a caption below it.

2) The view from the ledge where I wrote my journal entry, the entry that I transcribed into this blog post.

3) A massive water cistern, with my friend Amanda for scale. About 1/3 of the room is visible, and there were several other cisterns this large. The inhabitants captured flood and rainwater, and even had a large public pool! There were also Roman-style baths, public immersion pools, and ritual baths (mikvehs).

4) The rebels raised doves in these little cubbies, and used them for meat. My Hebrew name is “Doved” (shortens to “Dove”) so I got a little bit worried… It seems bizarrely humorous that rebels would raise birds of peace for slaughter…

5) This was the take-home view from my second hike. Parents: STOP reading now! At the edge of the path ahead, there was a steep drop-off, and for about 30 minutes I was walking along sheer precipices. From here, I could see the ridge connecting me to west side of Massada. The Roman ramp is visible just past the ridge, the ramp from which the legion made their final assault.

6) Taking preservation too far? All of the walls below the black are original, and those above are restored. Instead of constructing separate bathrooms, they actually built the restroom right up to the edge of the ruins. I’m not sure how I feel about this, but it is certainly tickling.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Rock - and Sand - of Israel

“And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day… And he said: 'Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.”

– Genesis 32:25-29

Two evenings ago we wandered in the desert with Rabbi Michael Cohen, a faculty member at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. He sent us out to walk alone for five minutes, to find a place where we felt secluded. Then he blew a shofar (ram’s horn) and we closed our eyes for 15 minutes until he blew it again. We opened our eyes and sat for 15 more minutes until the final blast, when we came back together to discuss our thoughts.

The discussion culminated in the fascinating question of why many prophets and religious leaders spend time wandering alone in the desert. A mentor of mine once said that humans’ greatest Divine endowment is our propensity to feel deep-seated internal displacement. Indeed, we wander in our own minds. Our internal struggles to make sense of reality can lead us to loneliness as well. This loneliness may be as real in our minds as physical loneliness is real when we are deserted on a sandy dune.

I have been here for one week now, and have both faced and witnessed many challenges. As Genesis 32 tells us, “Israel” means to “struggle” or “strive”. Praying and meditating in the desert, with Rabbi Cohen as our guide, was a wonderful experience as I strive to understand the ecological and human dilemmas (wrestles) of Israel and the region.

Pictures: captions are from bottom up, which is chronological order.

1) Ben Gurion’s grave: Ben-Gurion was the first Prime Minister of Israel, and is one of the most important figures in Israeli history. He is buried at Sde Boker, in the Negev (southern, less populated region). He believed that Israel had to settle the Negev in order to maintain the viability. He moved here to live in a small cabin where he enjoyed greeting other world leaders.

2) The Arava desert, where we wandered alone and discussed our thoughts with Rabbi Cohen.

3) This is the border with Jordan at Kibbutz Keturah. We stayed on the kibbutz overnight, after visiting the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. Students at the institute can take full part in kibbutz life, which is very special given that Keturah is one of the few remaining socialist kibbutzim in Israel (75% have privatized).

4) A straw-bale hut in Kibbutz Lotan’s eco-village.

5) An ancient copper mine in Park Timna.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Day 5 - Shabbat, Dead Sea, and High School

“…group religion cannot raise the ethical standard of man and nations unless it is rooted in the realities of physical and human nature. Its validity must be judged by its effectiveness in securing the emergence of a warless world based on freedom and justice.”
– Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan

Israel is a country of rich cultural and ecological diversity, and countless challenges. The picture captions give a general sense of my reactions, but cannot explain experience on their own. This is largely because I could not take a picture of the most beautiful moment that I have yet experienced here.

I was on my way to services on Friday evening when our group leader hushed us down. As a religious man, I had been nervously anticipating the opportunity to pray in Israel. When we quieted down, we heard the call of the Muezzin from a minaret nearby – the Muslim call to prayer. It was beginning to get dark outside, and I felt my feet slow down. For me, Shabbat begins with a feeling of relaxation and awe of the world, a feeling that had never before arrived so powerfully, nor in such a way.

Our kibbutz is very close to the Green Line, and is also uniquely diverse in terms of its Jewish population (other Kibbutzim are almost always entirely secular, or entirely religious). The struggles of coexisting in such a tiny land came into sharp focus. I did not feel drawn in to Muslim religion – I was brought into an acute awareness of how special this land is, for so many people.

Once again, my apologies for the poorly ordered photos - they go bottom up, chronologically.

Picture 1 - Yesterday (Sunday)
Mickey gave us a wonderfully spirited, honest, and personal tour of Kibbutz Shoval, where Mevu’ot Hanegev high school is located (this is where we are working – see other pictures). The kibbutz has a dairy farm, and she spoke about the frustrations of having to meet both health code and Kashrut regulations. Mickey also invited us to have the 3 day old calves suck on our fingers! It felt really wacky, and gooey… then we ate lunch. Yes, we washed our hands.

Picture 2 – Yesterday (Sunday)
Also on Mickey’s tour of Kibbutz Shoval, we visited kindergartens. They have incredible outside play areas! Children play with the things that are no longer needed inside. In America, we call it “trash” (it’s mostly in the background of this particular picture). Nothing here was bought new.

Picture 3 – Yesterday (Sunday)
Ido, the school’s principle, explains a prototype of a machine designed by a professor at Ben Gurion University. It converts chicken manure into liquid fertilizer, and is the first of its kind. The professor asked the school to test it out. Interested in investing? They’re looking for interested folks!

Picture 4 – Saturday
Dr. Clive Lipchin explains the Dead Sea Works and Red-Dead project; the former is behind him. The Works used to be the single largest contributor to Israel’s GDP, and produces vast amounts of minerals, mostly potash fertilizer. Behind the industrial expanse are evaporation ponds of the lower basin of the Dead Sea, and beyond the Sea is Jordan. Looking away from the industrial expanse was a breathtaking sunset.

Picture 5 – Saturday
Dr. Lipchin encouraged us to have a wonderful time floating in the sea and covering ourselves in the mud! Indeed, it is important to appreciate the sea’s wonders if we are going to preserve it for our children. This is an obligatory shot of me reading my Modern Hebrew text while floating in the Dead Sea! It was wonderful.

Picture 6 – Saturday
As you may know, the Dead Sea is tragically shrinking. This is because Israel diverts an unsustainable amount of water from a lake in the north (the Kineret). As the Sea shrinks, the saltwater-freshwater interface follows growing beaches and freshwater dissolves salt in the ground causing large sinkholes. This is incredibly dangerous, and drives home the shocking affects of Israel’s disastrous water policies. This is a place near several holy sites, including Jericho and Masada.
Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority are currently working together to address increasingly complex water scarcity, but their new projects may cause further damage. Hopefully, they can work together to achieve positive changes and set a precedent for further cooperation.

Picture 7 – Saturday
A “Baobab” tree on Kibbutz Ein-geddi. Ein-geddi is mentioned more than once in the Torah, and a beautiful botanical garden surrounds the Kibbutz. This tree grows hollow on the inside. Like all green in this part of Israel, it was just like the rest of the desert before people settled.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Day 1

Hello from Israel! My fantasies of how beautiful this land would be were shockingly, almost surreally accurate. It’s incredible here. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the specifics of my project, I am including a brief explanation of it below. This post is organized into three sections: Project Overview, Picture Captions, and My Initial Reactions (Day 1).

Project Overview

This project continues an examination of environmental conflict and peacemaking in Israel/Palestine, and is the first time that I am traveling to Israel/Palestine (with a delegation of Oberlin students and our professor). My work will begin with a high school on Kibbutz Shoval (Kibbutzim are small agricultural communities) in the Negev (southern Israel), as I help with and learn about their environmental education initiatives. While on the kibbutz, I will also work with and interview community members working in local agriculture. This high school draws diverse students together for problem-based learning, with several environmental and agricultural/permaculture projects. I am staying on Kibbutz Kramim, a unique place where secular and religious Jews live together (this is very rare in Israel). Following my time at the school, I will visit cousins who live in a settlement of the West Bank as well acquaintances in Jerusalem and throughout Israel. I aim to better understand environmental and human struggles of the region.

Picture Captions

From top left across to bottom right. I couldn't figure out picture formatting on this one, so these are in a random order...

1) Shomriyya - A town settled by Jews, evacuees of Gaza from three years ago when Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip under Ariel Sharon. They have an amazing story, as a community that chose not to resist the IDF during evacuation. They left in dignity, many even singing, holding onto optimism. As a testament to their Zionist spirit, they have begun anew, rebuilding greenhouses and constructing new homes, schools, and synagogues. Their hopes to expand also exemplify the balance between natural limits and a Zionist drive to make the desert bloom. I don’t agree with their politics or religious beliefs (or zoning practices, for that matter), but was very touched by a feeling of shared of devotion to this land. They are hospitable, friendly, and tolerant of those who disagree with them.

2) We woke up and began day 1 with a tour of the region. Our Kibbutz is actually about 1 kilometer from the Green Line, so the tour began with drive past the checkpoint. From our front door we can see houses of Arab and Jewish settlements across the border. Maps of Israel make clear how small the country is, but this made it very real.

3) A community garden on Kibbutz Kramin, where we are living.

4) The view west from a deck at the Joe Alon centre, a centre and museum for Bedouin culture. In the distance, we could see Jewish and Arab settlements in the West Bank. Jewish settlement on the left (next to the tower), Arab settlement on the right.

5) Our group heads to the “Hospitality Tent” at the Joe Alon Centre, a museum and centre for Bedouin culture. A very friendly man served us Bedouin coffee. It was incredibly strong. They customarily serve tiny portions, and the teaspoon-sized drinks pack quite a punch – it was sour, bitter, and black. It was absolutely delicious and smelled wonderful (if coffee beans sprouted flowers, they'd smell like this - sweet and pungent). Imagine an espresso shot condensed into a thimble... They offered us three cups, each symbolizing increased levels of hospitality and friendship. ( I was struck by a strong parallel with the a Pakistani custom described in Greg Mortenson’s book, 3 Cups of Tea.)

Initial Reactions

As silly as it sounds, it is incredible to be somewhere Judaism is normal. I have obviously been in countless temples, Sunday school classrooms, etc… but never felt my Judaism so accepted in a normally secular environment. In this way, the airplane itself was an amazing experience and an exciting taste of what was to come.

Tonight is a community Sabbath, and we are beginning the evening with a candle-lighting in our program coordinator’s home. We will have a chance to celebrate with the entire Kibbutz community, and I am very excited to attend services. Here, we face North towards Jerusalem, as opposed to East.

I would write more, but need to prepare for the evening. Shabbat Shalom!

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Eve of Adventure

“Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” –Deuteronomy 16:20

Filling a hiking pack with clothes, medicines, and other supplies for a month in Israel puts my journey at the tips of my fingers, and pulls me to the edge of my seat as I write this first journal entry. Questions crawl in to my mind: what things will I lose? What do I aim to achieve? How will this month change me? Will my bag, with all of its straps and buckles, make it through the bowels of three airports – and across an ocean – unscathed? From the functional to the philosophical, my mind reels.

As a man of faith, I turn to Jewish texts for grounding as my concerns uproot me. Feeling antsy, I opened the main text that I will reference during my research trip: Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's A Code of Jewish Ethics: Volume 2. Reading a chapter titled “Pursuing Justice”, I feel a fire rekindle in my gut. Judaism teaches us to pursue justice, to seek it out, not simply to act justly when it is convenient or when the opportunity arises. Hopefully, as I settle in and vigorously begin my work, I will discover and articulate ideas that can help address environmental and human dilemmas in Israel and Palestine. My excitement takes the edge off of my nerves.

(I'm heading out on Wednesday, at noon)