For 12 days now, the 9th cohort of the Staff Israel Seminar has been building connections through conversation, collaboration, commiseration and cohabitation. We have grappled with the things any cross Atlantic tour group deals with—jet lag, the anxiety that goes with packing/unpacking/repacking, the impact new and strange food has on the body, and of course never getting enough good sleep—and we have found new friends and unconditional support in each other.
In addition though, this trip has taken each of us out of our comfort zone in many other ways—politics, religion, conflict, and identity—all in the interest of deepening our understanding of this messy, holy, heartbreaking, beautiful, frustrating and often, hilarious land of Israel. Yes, hilarity is a profoundly important and seldom mentioned part of the Israel experience. At last night's huge Independence Day gathering in Rabin Square, kids were running everywhere spraying everything with giant cans of a shaving cream like foam. The sprayed each other, the sidewalk, my pizza, a cop car and most importantly they were spraying a ridiculous spume on anything that got in the way of their exuberance and amazement that life goes on. A frothy, funny, kid-driven prayer for normalcy in the midst of this paradoxical place.
In Israel complexity is the norm. It is an argumentative and confrontational society. Cohort 9 was not protected from that turmoil—we have grappled with the reality of the occupation, seen the settlements and all the problems that they spawn. We have also witnessed the power of bringing Arab and Jewish kids together, before too much hatred has ossified in them, to play and eat and know and in some cases come to adore one another even into adulthood. We sat on the floor of a Mosque, had Shabbat dinner in an Orthodox Jewish home, and navigated the many twists and turns of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; in one day we heard both the sounds of war coming from Syria and the songs of migrating birds in the Hula valley; we hit the clubs and visited an absorption center, saw the sights and heard the sighs. We joked with falafel slingers, and haggled with vendors, and floated with a motley crew of spa goers at the Dead Sea. Most importantly, we did it together--first as colleagues and, by our last night together, as friends.
We have been touched, challenged, impacted and I think changed, by this strange and holy land, people and project. And I hope that some of the people we visited were also touched by us, because it’s not just about what we take away, but also what we leave. Our curiosity, willingness to witness and listen, to consider and ponder is the gift we bring to the many people here who are all seeking ways to make this place secure, peaceful, vibrant and just.
We are all dispersing now, heading off in many directions towards home. To all of our friends, family and co-workers: don’t be too surprised if the person who left your department, cubicle, home or office returns with an increased sense of appreciation for Israel that is also beautifully confused. And that is real.