Monthly Message from Rabbi Abby Jacobson
As you might remember, I recently spent jam-packed eight days traveling through Israel and the Palestinian territories with twenty-two Jewish, Christian, and Muslim clergy and community leaders from Oklahoma. Rather than try to describe all of the amazing moments from the trip at once, I will spread the anecdotes and reflections out over several bulletin articles. This month:
We’re All the Same. So, Why was I So Surprised?
Interfaith work does not go very far without the certainty that all people share a basic sameness. It is easy to talk about all being part of the human race without really acknowledging how much alike we all are. I would like to share a reflection about Tour Guide Adam, the Arab-Israeli guide on our trip.
A good friend and close professional colleague, a local imam, shared a very unexpected realization of similarity between our peoples. His mosque was preparing for renovations, much like the Synagogue has done in recent years. I listened to my colleague describing the headaches they have had over the sound system, the lighting, the temperature control, I said that I could sympathize—that we had been dealing with the same issues in our main sanctuary since it was built. In innocent and honest confusion, tinged with good humor, he responded, “Really? I thought it was just a mosque thing.”
We all know that other people are human—that they have parents and raise children, that they laugh and cry, that they get hungry and tired. But, sometimes, even the most worldly and empathetic among us can get caught up in the idea of how someone is different and forget the close similarities that we share. This very thing happened to me during this Israel trip.
There are many aspects of Israeli culture that I cherished when I lived in Israel—the directness with which people speak to one another, the intensity of connections between people—even while chatting on a bus, the tendency of children in some cities to sit on the sidewalk chatting until late on Friday nights, the devotion to the land, the certainty that the best hummus is served in a little restaurant on a side street in a hard-to-reach place.
On our trip, we had both a Jewish-Israeli guide and an Arab-Israeli guide. I assumed, upon meeting them both, that I would have an immediate connection with the Jewish guide and that being with the Arab-Israeli guide would be more work—more like an interfaith outreach experience. I thought that was a fair assumption—there are certain societal experiences Jewish-Israelis have which are different from those of Arab-Israelis. Jews in the Holy Land, as well as Bedouins and Druze, serve in the Israeli Defense Force, with most Israelis serving a mandatory term starting at eighteen years old; Arab Israelis, however, do not serve in the Israeli military. Jewish-Israelis are raised speaking Hebrew, while Arabic is the native language of Arab-Israelis—or one of the native languages, since a great many are raised completely bilingual. A visit to a Jewish grandma’s house often involves Shabbat dinner or Passover seder, rather than a Ramadan break-the-fast. The shadow of the Holocaust looms large over Israeli social and political discourse.
However, as I quickly saw, I had almost nothing in common with our taciturn, formal, academic, non-religious Jewish-Israeli guide. I had to reach quite a lot to overcome our differences. Instead, I had a great deal more in common with Tour Guide Adam, with whom I thought I would have far less in common. I expected him to share a love of good hummus (as I said in last month’s bulletin article, it is a food we share), but I found that those differences in upbringing and experience did not matter. And, I’ve been wondering why not.
The Talmud says that the air of the Land of Israel makes a person wise—not a Jewish person, but a person. Being in the Land of Israel affects a person as much as being in Oklahoma affects a person. As Okies, both Jews and Muslims talk about the same football teams, we complain about the same allergies, we are affected by the same huge winter temperature shifts. We are treated the same when we tell people we are from Oklahoma. In the Holy Land, no matter in what language people talk about it, people talk about the same wet winter weather, the same aggressive mosquitoes, the same olives and oranges and pomegranates, the same problems of Tel Aviv traffic, pollution in Haifa, and trying to figure out how to drive tour buses through narrow Medieval streets in Jerusalem.