By Bonnie Bader
The light in Israel is brilliant. It floated over the Mediterranean, the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River (which is neither deep nor wide). It reflected off the Dome of the Rock, emanated from the candles held in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and reflected off the Kotel; men and women praying in their separate sections. The light danced off faces: white, beige, brown, black, sparkling in the blue and brown eyes.
The light in Israel is mystical. Wandering through the cobbled streets of Tzfat, one of the four Holy Cities, I took in the blue doors, gobbled down a delicious Yemenite sandwich, and visited art galleries with work inspired by the messages of Kabbalah, and old synagogues each with its own story.
The light in Israel is complex. One state? Two states? Co-existence? Shared society? We heard speakers on all sides of the spectrum. Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, a west bank settler, and Palestinian Noor Awad, founded Roots, where Palestinians and settlers get to know each other as people, not enemies. At Givat Haviva, the community is dedicated to a shared Jewish/Arab society. They work with Jewish Israeli and Arab Israeli children to get to know one another, to treat one another with respect and trust. Respect. Trust. These are two ingredients needed in this land.
The light in Israel is spiritual. A small group of us rose on Saturday morning and shul hopped around the city with Rabbi Timoner. First stop was an Italian Orthodox shul, where we women climbed up to our section, a small horseshoe-shaped space. I peered through the wooded trellis at the men praying, covered in their tallit. Then, a flash of light as a silver-haired woman opened the trellis, like a creaky window. I could see more of the men praying below but was mesmerized by the silver-haired woman’s loud voice as she prayed with passion and strength. I was impressed with the egalitarian Orthodox shul, Shira Hadasha, with women reading from the Torah, a Bat Mitzvah, and two baby namings. Then we found ourselves “at home” at the Reform Congregation Kol Haneshama, where we prayed and joined in their Kiddush lunch. Havdallah on a hilltop overlooking Jerusalem. We lit the candle, smelled the spices, drank the wine, and sang together, arms linked, taking in the holy land before us.
The light in Israel is harsh. West Bank. Hebron. The main street is a ghost town – Palestinian stores shuttered. We toured with Breaking the Silence, an organization of veteran combatants who have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the occupied territories, all the while being trailed by settlers armed with cameras. We were escorted by the military. We were refused entry to where the Palestinians and settlers lived. We heard from Issa Amro, a Palestinian who advocates for non-violent protest. Eight hundred fifty Jewish settlers (three hundred of whom are adults) are protected by five hundred soldiers under Israeli law, while the Palestinians live under military law. Palestinians subject to night-time raids by soldiers. Both groups claim the land. No one here lives in peace.
The light in Israel is compassionate. The Bialik-Rogozin School in South Tel Aviv educates children for 52 countries, most of them refugees. The school finds the spark in each student, nurturing each individual talent. At the same time, each child’s culture and language is preserved. Walking into a third-grade classroom, I was greeted by wide eyes, eager to connect, eager to learn. The child rose up in song, my eyes spilled over with tears.
The light in Israel stirred my soul and filled my mind and heart with questions, compassion, and love, and an aching to return.