Sabbatical Update #3
As the third month of our sabbatical comes to a close, we send greetings to you from far away, “across the Pond,” as people from the Atlantic region are wont to say. At this writing we’re in Ireland, after significant stays in England and Israel. The penultimate leg of our four-month sojourn is to a place we find very spiritually uplifting: the green isle of Eire. We’ve been here a week so far and there will be much more to experience on this trip, especially our first visit to Northern Ireland soon.
But we thought it fitting to share in this column some thoughts from our somewhat earlier pilgrimage in another Holy Land, the big one: Israel (March 14-28).
We came to Israel because one of Barbara’s best and oldest friends (Lisa) has lived there for thirty years, after marrying an Israeli. She continued her education, working as a therapist and raising three lovely daughters. Whenever she and Barbara would meet on one of her visits back in the States, Lisa would offer again and again the invitation to come see her in Israel. This sabbatical finally gave us the opportunity and we are very grateful, indeed.
We came to Israel without an agenda, but we can’t say we arrived without expectations. It is the Holy Land after all, and we imagined that we would feel the weight of history and faith in this young country. We knew we might have some welcome warmer weather but we were happily surprised by all the fruit and vegetables that were growing in abundance almost everywhere we went (besides the desert in the south, of course).
And yes, history was very palpable. Our first outing away from our friends’ home (which is outside Tel Aviv, just 20 miles northeast of Gaza) was to a nearby hill overlooking the valley where it is written a young David fought the giant Goliath. While there, we heard a young tour guide telling the story to a group under a tree.
Our personal escort (Tomer, my friend’s husband, who is a professional guide and tour leader) also translated for us this ancient story from the Hebrew Bible. And as we sat and looked at the views all around us, a Bedouin shepherd passed by with a large flock of sheep and goats. You might picture him in a long white robe but in truth he was wearing blue jeans and using a cell phone—a reminder that Israel may have ancient roots embedded at almost every turn, but it is still a very modern country.
We felt that modernism in the many factories and productive towns that we saw during our stay, plus solar hot water heaters on maybe 90% of the rooftops. One coastal city Lisa and Barbara visited (Ashdod) seemed like a gleaming white version of the Emerald City of Oz; everything seemed so new and bright. The newness was also felt in our friends’ self-built home, which had some curious stylistic differences but could likely be set down anywhere in a US suburb without missing a beat.
Perhaps the main thing that really reminded us of where we were was the reinforced “safe room” that all Israeli homes are required to have. To us, it looked like a laundry room, but to them it will always be a place to go when, say, missiles from Gaza land nearby (which happened again not long after we left). Living with the constant threat of such violence is jarring and impacts everyone, although the general climate throughout the country seemed quite free of the kind of threatening crime that often plagues US metro areas.
Admittedly, our window as two-week tourists was rather narrow. But thanks to our generous hosts, we got around and saw quite a bit, from the ancient city of Jerusalem (where we spent two nights on our own) to the controversial but beautiful Golan Heights (where Syrian missiles landed the day after we passed through). We saw the lovely port city of Haifa with its gorgeous Baha’i temple gardens; we picnicked in the soft hills of the Mt. Carmel area; we got caught out in a nasty sand storm in the town of Safed; we witnessed a group baptism in the Jordan River; and Jaco peeked through the closed coastal mountain border with Lebanon.
We stayed in a kibbutz guesthouse and then a hotel owned by a Druze hair stylist who had lived for ten years in Cleveland. We also got up close and personal with iconic creatures on a Negev Desert camel farm (their milk is used to make very healthy skin cream), and Jaco floated in the mineral-laden Dead Sea. We heard stories from our friends’ daughters about their schooling, their dreams, and their military service. We helped our friends host Pesach (Passover) for their extended family, and we learned to eat salad for breakfast.
We only occasionally talked politics, but our friends and most of the people we met through them seem deeply aware of the issues that confront Israel. We happened to be in Jerusalem on the day President Obama arrived (escaping the traffic jams only a few hours before his appearance) and everyone seemed eager to hear what he might say, and then were mostly positive about his visit.
Though they live cheek-by-jowl with many who would like to obliterate them, the Jews we met never expressed any hatred of Palestinians or Muslims. Our friends interact daily and respectfully with people across the religious and cultural spectrum. Both work closely with Arab Bedouins, for instance (one of whom asked Jaco if he was a “priest,” and then confided that he was an atheist, good-naturedly thinking it might shock him).
And we visited in the gracious home of some of their dear friends who are Druze, an offshoot of Islam that is intriguingly defined in Wikipedia as historically “Unitarian.” It is impressive how many varied religious folks have found ways to share relatively peaceful daily lives in the modern democracy of Israel, especially in dense Jerusalem.
That said, there are obvious challenges that we saw and learned about during our time there. Israel defines itself as a Jewish state, created in response to the Holocaust and the long-standing hatred of Jews that have made them unwelcome throughout the world. But being a Jewish state doesn’t necessarily mean all are religious, per se. Our host friends, for instance, certainly identify as Jewish but are not active in a synagogue, and, in fact, have very real concerns about the religious extremism present in their own country.
For instance, we saw a lot of Hasidim, one of the ultra-orthodox Jewish sects, whose rigidly righteous beliefs (and actions) are apparently not always appreciated by many fellow Jews. Importantly, recent election results elevated a new leader who courageously questions the power the ultra-orthodox wield, including their unwillingness to serve in the military (which all other Israeli young people are required to do at age 18-20, and even the local Druze agreed to serve thusly).
The Hasidim are resented by some for the extreme role they continue to play, especially in the settlements, and their avowed belief that until the Messiah comes, Israel as a state shouldn’t really exist. They are clearly a major obstruction to any two-state solution, which seems to many like the only path toward greater Israeli security. We don’t pretend to fully comprehend the intricacies of all this, knowing that it’s a complex and demanding problem, to be sure.
But it reminded us how precious our diverse religious landscape is in America. We are not only free from the tyranny of religion, we’re also free to be religious in whatever way we choose, with a unique value of the separation of church and state. Not things we should ever take for granted!
There is much more to tell about this stirring adventure (plus all our other sabbatical stops before and after), which we will begin to do upon our impending return, especially in the Sunday service on May 19 and then as our contribution to the ongoing Pilgrimage series on June 16.
We continue to miss all of you at Cedars and look forward to our return in a month.