Dear Brandeis community,
As most of you know I am just returned from a ten-day community-building mission to Israel, a trip that stretched my brain and my spirit. I have to start by saying how good it is to be back: I missed my family dearly, and all the happy good mornings! in the halls, and these mornings too, sitting in the semi-dark thinking of what to write to all of you. Thank you to everyone who has wished me such a warm welcome home, and as well to all of you who have been patient with me as my mind makes its slow jet-lagged way back from Tel Aviv.
The morning before I left, the students from 1-White (my daughter Sonia’s class) came trooping into my office to present me with an envelope full of money (five dollars from their class tzedakah
fund!). They wanted me to be shaliach mitzvah
, an emissary sent to do a good deed, so that I would be protected in my travels. They even typed up a letter for me, and each signed it with their Hebrew names. I was so honored—what a gift it is, to be entrusted with the charitable dreams of children, and in so doing to be protected in their name! I promised them that I would find an amazing organization to support with their money. And I did: this week I sent that same envelope to Tarbut
in Afula, a community arts and education collective whose mission is inspiring, and deeply resonant with our own.
The trip I was on was led by the Jewish Community Federation and by Varda Rabin, in honor of her late husband Irving Rabin, and was known as the Irving Rabin Community Building Mission. It had a dual purpose: to strengthen the Jewish community here in San Francisco, by learning from non-profit organizations focused on community organizing and multi-cultural civil society in Israel. It was an intense whirlwind of meetings, from the southern desert to northern valleys, and stops throughout Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in between. Those of us on the trip joked that we left with more pictures of people giving PowerPoint presentations than of historical sites. But those presentations were amazing! I was filled with hope, to meet all these different people working in myriad ways to build a more pluralistic and just society.
Having never been to Israel, I was overwhelmed by the richness and diversity of Jewish life, and by the range of issues that Israelis face as a society. So often we get a monolithic account of Israel here in the United States, told entirely through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and lately refracted in problematic ways through our own domestic politics. I felt as though I had been shown only the borders of a huge jigsaw puzzle, and told it was the whole picture. This trip was all details, filling in my understanding of contemporary Israel with stops in moshavs (settlements), Bedouin villages, high-tech accelerators, artist communities, and so much more. It was complicated, and inspiring, and deeply affecting.
Throughout the trip I carried Robert Alter’s beautiful new edition
of Yehuda Amichai’s poetry, and found many resonances between the poems and our trip. Three times I shared poems with the group—as a toast to the week ahead while on a farm in the Negev, as part of our shared Mourner’s Kaddish
and prayerful grief on the roof of the Carlton Hotel in Tel Aviv in the wake of the stabbings in Jaffa, and “Farewell” as a farewell on Shabbat in Jerusalem, as we stood together in a final circle, a community newly forged. I was grateful for the book’s counterpoint to our journey, and to be able to offer poetry in the ritual spaces we created together.
There is so much more to share about the trip—how it will inflect our own programming around Israel, the opportunities for collaboration with other Jewish organizations it will open—and I will endeavor to do so across different media and in various forums in the days and weeks ahead. For now though, I’ll end with another piece of Amichai’s, “Endless poem,” which speaks to the beautiful continuity and contradiction I experienced while in Israel, a poem as a prayer for what we might carry with us in our hearts:
In a modern museum
In an old synagogue
In the synagogue
Within my heart
Within a museum
Within my heart
Wishing you all peaceful weekends with full hearts, my friends.