The Reconstructionist movement recently ran its first Birthright Israel trip. Many of the participants were Camp JRF alumni. Organizers and participants put a great emphasis on understanding the complexity of the country and engaging in substantive discourse. The group encountered many perspectives, including those expressed by an Israeli Arab leader and high-tech entrepreneurs. Two of our participants have since published reflections about this experience.
The following piece appeared Jan. 20 in The Times of Israel.
By: Hannah Myers
At the very beginning of the first ever Reconstructionist Birthright trip, our tour guide instructed our group to use to word journey when referring to these 10 days in Israel. Though it sounded hokey, I knew that Birthright wanted all of its participants to leave Israel feeling some sort of impact on their personal development. What I didn’t know was that these 10 days truly would become a journey, not only for myself but also for my fellow young Reconstructionist Jews.
I refer to myself as a Reconstructionist now, but prior to joining this group, I had no idea what a Reconstructionist was. I was placed on this trip by chance due to the cancellation of my first choice. I was raised Reform, but never really felt like it was the best fit for me. All my life I felt like Judaism was thrown at me and I never wanted to catch it. I am now 23 years old; this Birthright journey introduced a community that actually seemed like it wanted me, and so I threw myself into its open arms.
I live in London and currently sing with an Anglican Church choir (for a variety of reasons too numerous to explain here), which distances me from Judaism in the most immediate sense. Throughout my life, being at synagogue never felt meaningful to me, and as a preteen, I reluctantly underwent two years of intensive Hebrew school to train for my Bat Mitzvah. I completed the ceremony and promptly swore off most Jewish activity afterward. Yet, I chose to go on Birthright because I felt I owed Judaism another chance, and who wouldn’t want to take advantage of such a travel adventure?
For the first time during my Birthright journey, I felt reconnected to my Judaism. Fortunately, I have found Reconstructionism to be exactly the kind of Judaism I want to reconnect to—it is progressive, open, welcoming, and liberal. These are features that were demonstrated to me particularly during instances such as the Shabbat service led by a few of my peers; the words “whatever you feel comfortable with” characterized the whole experience. Because Reconstructionism presented me with such unexpected positive experiences, I definitely got more than I bargained for, and feel as though I can return to an authentic sense of Jewish identity.
I got more than I bargained for in other aspects as well—had I not joined this Reconstructionist journey, I think my understanding of Israel in a geopolitical context would have been very different. Because there were certain events that Birthright mandated for our group (such as the visit to the Israeli Innovation Center and the lecture on Birthright’s statistics and goals) that directly contrasted with experiences arranged by the Reconstructionist organizers, I felt as though our group was able to see a well-rounded picture of Israel. Every Birthright trip travels with several Israel peers who showed us their points of view, but so did the citizens of Tayibe, an Arab community within the boundaries of Israel. I felt that this privilege of seeing both sides put us at an advantage and enlightened us in way that many other Birthright groups are not.
I cannot speak for every member of our group, but a general consensus amongst us seemed to be that we were simultaneously pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. An in-depth exploration of what this position means is a subject for another time, but it is worth saying here that this implies being able to criticize the issue from both sides and recognizing that neither side is perfect or justified in everything it does. Essentially, being able to understand the conflict from both sides is vital to working towards a solution. Many of us felt that as American Jews, this conflict was not ours, and we struggled to recognize our place in it. I have a Palestinian friend who eloquently sums up what we need to remember when trying to understand: perspective, context, and history are everything.
One major theme that proved itself to me once again during this journey was how much words have power. As a Masters student getting a degree in Public Relations, Marketing, and Advertising, words (and images) are the tools of my trade—they construct reality. Words can be used to frame, to destroy, to interpret, and to persuade, amongst many other purposes. The tone in which words are used can massively influence the message. Thus, I paid attention to the words used when each point of view was expressed, whether American Jewish, Israeli, or Arab. Is it an action or an aggression? Is it a disputed territory or an occupied space? Whose civilians are framed as “innocent?” Is it the Israeli Defense Forces or the Israeli Occupation Forces? Even the term “birthright” implies a certain point of view. Using certain words express particular opinions, and I found myself trying to be careful while choosing which words I used while in Israel.
I thought I would never have the words to describe what I had experienced, but my instincts as a writer took over. This blog post is only one interpretation of a few different observations I made during and after the journey. My lasting impression is that my Birthright journey is not over. The 10 days I spent on the first ever Reconstructionist trip in Israel are only the beginning of learning who I am, what being Jewish means to me, and how Israel affects my life.
The following piece appeared Feb. 10 on www.eJewishphilanthropy.
Remembering How to Listen: A Reconstructionist Trip to Israel
When I arrived to JFK the evening of our flight, I was definitely nervous. As someone on the left of everything, both in politics and in handedness, I was scared of Birthright. I was scared of confrontation. I was scared I would be shamed for asking questions and for digging beyond cherry tomatoes and apps into conflict and religion.
Although I was surrounded by my friend-family from Camp JRF, and quickly formed deep friendships with the Americans I didn’t know and our Israeli trip members, I carried that fear around with me until the very last night of the trip.
I’m someone who has been rejected by many American Jewish institutions for my political beliefs surrounding Israel. And in the current American political climate, it feels like my political beliefs are so-very-much tied to central parts of my identity: I’m a woman, I’m queer, I’m a progressive Jew.
So before I left America to take part of the Reconstructionist Movement’s first Birthright Israel trip, I unconsciously put on a big shield, and I was ready to defend myself: fittingly, the first argument I got into with my Israeli friends on the second evening of the trip started with a Donald Trump joke.
But it took me until the last night of the trip to actually confront my own close-mindedness and to realize that through shielding myself, I was blinding myself as well.
On the bus back from the Israel Museum, and a hail storm that cut short our day in Jerusalem, I just wanted to go to sleep. I asked my Israeli friend a question about that night’s activity, a geopolitical talk, and he gave me a terse reply. My question was loaded, and so was his answer. This quickly turned into a back and forth, where it became clear that all he heard was that I assumed malintent and agenda on the part of the speaker, and he was frustrated that I didn’t even want to listen.
And all I wanted was some preparation, and to know if I needed to get ready for an evening where I was going to feel belittled and silenced.
Throughout the exchange, I cried.
I was transported back to a moment when I was getting out the vote for Hillary on Election Day. My volunteer team member and I were in an Uber, and started discussing the election with our driver. As we pulled into our destination, it became clear that the driver was an undecided voter, and thought Clinton was a criminal, and (insert “statement swirling around in the media” here). My partner got out of the car immediately slamming the door behind her. And I was left in the silence of the car. I looked our driver right in the eye and talked about how she was having a long day, and I thanked him for telling me about his mortgage and his children and his wife’s student loans.
On the day of the election it felt like there were so many more conversations to be had, and that I and so many others should have gotten started much earlier.
With miscommunication and frustration at an all-time high, I give so much credit to my friend that he did not slam the door. We walked into the hotel and talked for about about an hour and a half before dinner, and got to the bottom of things. I believe we left that conversation more understanding of each other’s contexts and struggles, and neither of us was mad.
How easy and how hard it is to listen.
On the days after the trip, I thought as much, if not more, about the state of America than current developments in Israel. On questions of civil rights and equality, politics in America has started to feel like a battle of good vs. evil, of light vs. darkness.
However, I know that I cannot lose patience. And I cannot give up on empathy.Last month, Barack Obama gave his farewell address as the President of the United States. And after my trip to Israel, I was ready to hear his words now more than ever:
“… Regardless of the station we occupy, we all have to try harder; we all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.”
After it was all over, when I landed back at JFK, exhausted and so congested I couldn’t taste food for a few days, it became clear to me what this trip did for me: my politics have not changed, but my heart is more open, open to everyone’s suffering, open to dealing with complicated. Moving forward, I will strive to use my own privilege (for example, whiteness) to be patient and dig in when others need to protect themselves and fight. And I can hope that others (straight folks, men, and non-Jews to name some) will move hearts when I need solidarity and my shield once again.
Rabbi Tarfon teaches “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot, 2:21). In the coming weeks and months, I’ve decided to recommit myself to a higher-self. I attended a training for IfNotNow in New York City this past weekend, was at the Women’s March in D.C. the day after the Presidential Inauguration – and I’ll be seeking out opportunities to engage with people who disagree with me, not through protest but through building connections.
I’ll be trying harder than ever to stay open, to stay present, and to keep listening.
Jennifer Ferentz is a New Yorker, who grew up at West End Synagogue and currently lives in Brooklyn. She is also an alumna of Camp JRF and AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.