This week, as Jews around the world marked Yom Hazikaron and celebrate Yom Ha’aztmaut, I find myself reflecting back on my most recent trip to Israel. It was just a few weeks ago that I was standing on the Pilgrim Steps at the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. I was there to welcome Shabbat alongside 100 other participants of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Israel YOUR Way Mission.
Watching the sky turn pink and the colors of Jerusalem change, I thought about how much else had changed in just one week.
When we arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport, each of us landed with our own perception of Israel. Some of us had visited Israel countless times, while others had never been. Some of us came with strong opinions about Israeli policies and politics, while others were eager to learn the basics.
In other words, each of us arrived with certain perspectives and assumptions in tow. We were all familiar with Israel the myth, Israel the news item, Israel the great, Israel the complex. Our goal as part of the Israel YOUR Way Mission was to get to know Israel the real.
By design, the trip’s track-based itinerary provided us with a full range of opportunities for diving below Israel’s surface to explore the truly amazing and truly challenging things about the country.
For instance, when participants visited Rambam Hospital in Haifa, they had the chance to see Israeli innovation up close and personal. In this case, they saw how an underground parking garage could be converted into medical units for treating patients during a time of war. Likewise, when participants visited communities across Israel’s periphery, they witnessed the transformative work being done by creative and tenacious Israeli youth who were standing up for the underprivileged.
I was also inspired by the informal conversations we shared with local Israelis and Palestinians about the future prospects and potential process for achieving peace. Each of us
expanded our understanding of the opportunities and challenges that remain in ways we could not do from afar.
We did not all agree with our speakers, nor did we all agree with each other. Yet, regardless of our views, each of us found the exchanges exhilarating and refreshing. We considered it a tremendous gift to have the opportunity to meet new people and understand their perspectives. Their thoughts and ideas forced us to think, to put ourselves in new shoes, and see Israel and the world through a different lens.
By the time we lit the Shabbat candles, we had gained a much broader and more detailed picture of Israel and Israeli society. Most importantly, we realized just how many more questions we had than answers — seeing, perhaps for the first time, how much we did not know and still wanted to learn.
This, of course, is Israel YOUR Way’s secret sauce. The trip is all about helping participants move beyond a singular understanding of and superficial relationship with Israel. Indeed, by embracing Israel’s complexity, Israel YOUR Way helps participants to form a connection with Israel that is stronger, more honest and more resilient.
Now that I am back home and back to reading the news, I cannot help but think that we should approach all complex topics in the fashion of Israel YOUR Way.
Imagine the restorative effect we might have on our communities and on our country if we took the time to go see other people’s work, to immerse ourselves in new places, or to speak with people whose experiences are different than our own. Imagine what our future might hold if we approached every issue with humility and an open mind.
Imagine the world we might build if we traded our answers for questions. n
Gil Preuss is the CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.