March 26, 2014 – When I took up Rabbi Stanley Miles’ offer to join him on the Partnership 2Gether (P2G) trip in February as a representative of Louisville’s Beit Seder Yachad (LSBY), the Judaic/Hebrew school where we both teach, I had no idea what I was in for. I’d already been asked by Rabbi David Feder, LSBY’s director, to take on a twinning project between my fifth grade and the fifth grade from Moshav Betzet, so I foresaw the trip as a fact-finding mission more than anything else.
As far as I was concerned, I’d use the trip as an excuse to visit my old haunts in Jerusalem (where I’d lived as a child for three years) and then make my way to the Western Galilee for what I imagined was going to be a pleasant combination of sightseeing and educational presentations in a bucolic location. To say that what I encountered blew me away is an understatement.
For a week I was dazzled, awed, deeply touched, humbled, excited and more and more inspired by P2G.
We were a small group of seven from Dayton, Indianapolis and Louisville with diverse areas of focus within P2G. The team staffing our trip was dynamic, welcoming, warm and seamless in its organization, keeping our group together for certain activities and separating us according to our interests, when appropriate. Our guides in places like the old city of Akko, Haifa and the Druze village of Daliat El Carmel were knowledgeable, intelligent and stimulating.
We were so graciously welcomed by project hosts, time and time again, in such fashion as to remind me of the ancient code of biblical hospitality and the reception the three angels received in the tent of Abraham and Sarah. And at each place, we were drawn into compelling personal narratives, dazzled by beautiful objects of art, touched by trusting young faces, giving hands and open hearts.
Among the highlights was a visit to the home of the woman who has created an Ethiopian hut in Kibbutz Evron. While serving us homemade ingera to scoop up the exotically spiced dishes she’d prepared, she mesmerized us with her tale of how as a child she survived the brutal journey across the Sudanese Desert. It was the dream of Eretz Yisrael that pulled her forward, even when her legs buckled beneath her from unimaginable fatigue. “I made it,” she said, “with the help of my mother who kept urging me to run and the promise of a homeland for our people. That’s was kept pushing me to take another step.”
At the Wings center, we were welcomed by staff and the program’s handicapped participants who had all pitched in to make us a huge Italian meal. As we broke bread together we chatted informally, learning much about the various illnesses and physical challenges that these young adults were facing with courage and the determination to ensure that they would not compromise their hopes for living independent, fulfilling lives.
We took a tour through the Ghetto Fighters’ Museum, viewing in depth the new exhibit on Holland’s role throughout the Holocaust, which was expertly curated and the ended with a peek into the educational room where 8th graders from a school in the area were busily engaged in constructing what they imagined a newspaper of the period may’ve looked like.
We walked through alluring displays at the Ethnographic Center in Akko that brought the crafts of the past to life in a magical way, and then drank tea made with herbs from the garden while chatting with the museum staff and local artists about their creative P2G projects.
At the Western Galilee Hospital, we had the opportunity to see a state-of-the-art medical facility with an underground wing that would continue to function in the event of biological warfare, missile attacks, etc. Apart from wondering why the USA has no similar hospital of which I’m aware, I was further stirred to hear one of the doctors share the information that the Red Cross helicopters in wounded Syrians for treatment and that the staff at the hospital never even ask for their names. I would say that a medical staff that heals those who wish to annihilate them adds new meaning to the concept of the Hippocratic oath.
Another exciting tour was the one guided by the Security Chief of Matte Asher who took us to the Lebanese border (and just past it!). His explanations about how the IDF and Security Patrols function coupled with his gruff warmth and humor brought home the reality of Israel’s stance as a fearless David surrounded by a host of Goliaths.
And then, as if to flip to the less dark side of humanity, we enjoyed a beautifully presented program of percussion and dance by adolescents at the Arab village of Sheich Danon, sponsored by Achmad Samniya. For me as an American, the abstract notion that the population Western Galilee is half Jewish and half Arab became a concrete understanding, tenderly proffered with the message that we must never abandon the opportunities to build the bridges that lead to peace.
Perhaps most moving of all the experiences for our group as a whole was the visit to the Hafuch Center. Here, a devoted gentleman named Stas works with teens-at-risk from both the Jewish and Arab populations in an attempt to direct them to healthier paths as they enter adulthood.
As we sat in a circle drinking Turkish coffee and listening to his description of the program, we were all keenly aware of the devoted young acolyte at his side. This young man took his job of filling and refilling our cups seriously, offering with the coffee the sweetest of smiles and sincerest desire to be of service.
Now and then, when his mentor would pause after telling us a bit about Hafuch, the young man would interject to tell us that Stas was the greatest man in the whole world, that he had saved his life, that he loved him like a father.
Just before we left, one of us asked the fellow what his dream-come-true would look like. His response was, “To somehow make enough money to begin a community garden here from which everyone could come and pick their vegetables.”
I do not exaggerate when I say there was not a dry eye in the place. Spontaneously, everyone took out their wallets. The lovely young man looked at us in gratitude and disbelief, knowing that the seeds for his fantasy garden were already beginning to sprout.
There were more wonderful visits to the Western Galilee College, a hands-on visit at the Orot Hesed where our group rolled up their sleeves to pack peppers into bags for the food bank, a trilingual Shabbat service at the Emeth V’Shalom Synagogue, home hospitality and, last but not least, the stops at schools.
Finally, since my area of focus is primarily educational (although I see all the other P2G initiatives as being educational in addition to their primary emphasis on the arts, medicine, community, etc.), I will speak to the school sites we visited and the powerful effect they had on me,
The Musical Kindergarten in Akko is one of the best showcases I have ever seen for the way the arts, movement and music begin to help a child know who she is. Efrat Srebo is one of those intuitively gifted educators with a genius for knowing how to engage children where they are. I am reminded of the Proverb, “L’chanoch yeled k’darko,” roughly translated as ‘educating a child according to his essence’.
Building on that were the presentations of students at Hagalil Elementary School, exchanges with Miri Johnson and the Educational Task Force and the dinner at the home of Mazal, the principal of the Shalom Aleichem School with which our fifth grade at Louisville’s LBSY School is twinning.
In addition to two other teachers, the gracious setting enabled me to begin a productive dialogue with Anna Zvagelsky, my twinning partner. Although we didn’t have sufficient time to say everything we wanted to say to one another, the bond was forged and Anna and I have since begun an active e-mail exchange in regard to our twinning projects. Happily, she will be visiting Louisville early next month after the P2G meeting for Israeli teachers in Omaha and we will have ample opportunity to brainstorm and fine-tune ideas. [Editor’s note: This account was written before Zvagelsky’s visit.
Our stimulating, jam-packed five days in the Western Galilee came to an end and I was exhausted, eager for my own bed. But a fire had been lit in me. Sparks were flying all over my brain and for the first time in many, many years, I became excited again about the possibilities for Jewish Education.
My sense was that the Partnership would be a wonderful vehicle in which to design a new curriculum on Jewish Identity. It is no secret that those of us who teach in after-school Jewish settings begin with a disadvantage. How do we engage and inspire our youth when there are so many disconnects in their ownership of Jewish Identity?
Ironically, I learned that a similar problem exists in Israel. Unless they are Orthodox, most Israelis identify as Israeli rather than Jewish. Why not utilize the twinning project to reach for the skies in providing a meaningful medium in which to explore Jewish identity – whether you are a kibbutznik or an American with only one Jewish parent, a Chasid from Mea Sh’arim or an olah from Ethiopia, a Reform Jew or an unafilliated Jew, a first generation Israeli whose parents are Moroccan or a Russian émigré who did not have the luxury of learning about your Jewishness while growing up?
I leave you with the questions in the hopes that you will be as inspired as I am. I extend my deepest gratitude to the stellar team of the Western Galilee P2G, with a special bow to the tireless and loving spirit of Heidi Bennish.