Sunday, November 29, 2015

Leadership and Community

As I have been progressing in my post-college period and attempting to figure out my goals for a successful future, there have been two main ideas to grapple with: what it means to be a leader, and what it means to be in a community. I have had many opportunities to delve into these topics during my time on Yahel, but the most meaningful of these have occurred over the past week. During this time, I have realized that leadership and community are tied closely together, and one of these factors is essential to have for the other to occur. I have also learned that both factors, especially leadership, have different meanings for different people, and one can create their ideal community and leadership to fit their future plans and way of life.

I got much of my inspiration from a week-long Masa Leadership Summit that took place in Jerusalem. As you can probably assume from the title, this week was largely about building leadership skills and learning about different types of leadership and how to implement effective leadership in various environments. I definitely learned a lot in this regard, but a significant part of my learning derived from aspects I did not expect, including aspects of community. At this seminar, it was exhilarating for me to meet 230 young Jews like myself who came from multiple countries around the world and are all doing great work to enhance Israeli society. This was an amazing chance for me to make many new friends of interesting backgrounds and learn about the traditions of Jewish communities around the world. This was one of the first times I built relationships with multiple Jews my age who come from places other than English-speaking countries, like Russia, India, France, Argentina, and Ukraine. Our contrasting opinions and traditions really brought us together and helped us develop strong relationships that I hope can endure throughout the duration of my stay in Israel.

Leadership was also a strong focus of this seminar, but not always in the ways I expected it to be. I entered the summit thinking there would be many presentations about what effective leadership is, and I would just be expected to learn from these lessons and implement them while participating in my program. To my surprise, while there were presenters who guided us throughout the week, most of the programming was determined by the actions of the participants. This was especially prevalent during our small group workshops and discussions. Though there were facilitators present during each of our sessions, they really sat back and allowed the participants to control the direction of what we were doing. This became very difficult, especially during one politically-charged discussion one of my groups had about working together with Arabs to complete a task. However, whenever we got off topic or there was an awkward silence, the independence granted to us by the facilitators forced the group to step up and continue the discussion in a healthy manner. This experience taught me that part of leadership is trusting your instincts and taking initiative to perform actions that you feel would benefit the community.

The summit's staff members also tested our leadership skills through other surprising methods.  The most unexpected of these methods came during our large-group lectures and presentations, which included many figures with controversial views. At first, I and many other participants felt that these presenters were expressing what we considered to be Masa's "agenda," which was to get us to love Israel and eager to make aliyah. However, we later discovered that Masa purposely invited controversial speakers to challenge us to respond to them and defend our own beliefs. One example of such an example was the Director General of Prime Minister Netanyahu's office, who lectured us about the importance of Israel in the future of the Jewish people and essentially the irrelevance of Diaspora Jewry. Another example came when I took a trip to the Knesset (Israel's Parliament) and met with young female Knesset members from both the Likud (right-wing) and Mahane Hatzioni (left-wing) parties. In our meetings, both politicians were using generalizations and statistical data to describe the "correct" way the Jewish state should be run, and utilized personal rhetoric to delegitimize the views of the opposing party.

The Knesset building in Jerusalem

In the aftermath of these meetings, the Masa staff asked us why no one expressed fervent dissent to what these people had to say, especially when our identity as Diaspora Jews was challenged. One of our staff members from the Jewish Agency for Israel approached me and some others after the first lecture and explained that the speaker was meant to provoke a response from us and make us ask tough questions that would clearly show different ways of thinking toward the speaker's points, which she described as a tactic of strong leadership. Though I saw where this woman was coming from regarding the purpose of these exercises, I had to disagree that a strong, oppositional response to a controversial speaker in a room full of people is the only way to showcase effective leadership. I definitely have strong opinions on a variety of issues and I make it known when I disagree with someone, but I don't think the right time and place to do that is in a crowded room with an authority figure where your voice is less likely to be understood and received well. As I told this woman in response to her claim, I think silence can also be a powerful form of leadership because it shows that you are attempting to prevent tensions in your environment, and if you stay calm perhaps others will follow suit. I definitely  think leadership involves stepping up and fighting necessary battles to defend your beliefs. However, it also involves picking which battles to fight and choosing the ones that implement your purpose in the most peaceful and productive manner.

Another aspect of this summit I really benefited from was the work that the participants prepared for various programs. Like I mentioned earlier, the Masa staff was very helpful in not interfering in sessions and permitting the participants to really create the essence of each session. In addition to this, there were many parts of the week that were specifically designed by the work of each individual participant. One of these sessions was called an open source activity, during which each participant needed to present a talent or topic of interest to the entire group within a 7-minute time frame. I chose to utilize my love of music and write a song to perform for the group. The song I wrote was to the tune of "Hello" by Adele and it focused on my frustration about the current wave of violence in Israel and my hope for peace in the imminent future. This was a very cathartic activity for me because I was able to get a lot of my emotions out through songwriting and I got much joy out of performing a song that I created.

In preparation for the summit, I also needed to come up with a leadership challenge I have come across during my program that other Masa participants could help me solve. During one of my small group sessions, I needed to present my challenge to my group and answer all of their questions so they could come up with a productive solution. The challenge I chose was how to effectively discipline my kids at the Arab elementary school I work at in order to stop bullying and violence among the students there. This is a very tough issue, and my group was not able to decide on a clear solution. However, they did offer many helpful suggestions, and it was comforting to be able to speak freely about an issue that I have been struggling with emotionally. Through both this exercise and the open source activity, I learned that strong leadership depends largely on stepping outside your comfort zone and opening yourself up to new experiences that could benefit your community.

I was also able to experience community on a significant level last week through my group's Thanksgiving celebration. When I decided to spend a year in Israel, I assumed I was not going to be able to celebrate Thanksgiving, and I was initially ok with that. However, as the holiday grew nearer and I heard details from my parents about their holiday plans, I began to feel very left out and I realized how important this holiday was to me growing up and is still to my identity. Therefore, when almost all of the Yahel community came together for a festive Thanksgiving dinner last week, I was overwhelmed. I was in overwhelming awe of the efforts everyone put in to make this meal happen, preparing a multitude of dishes such as turkey, stuffing, Israeli and couscous salads, mashed potatoes, green beans, apple cake, pumpkin pie, and fried dough. (I was especially in awe of my Canadian flatmate Adrienne, who isn't even American and prepared a large turkey by herself so we could have a traditional Thanksgiving.) I was overwhelmingly surprised by how many people showed up to celebrate our mutual work and our relationships with one another, including most of Yahel's Rishon L'Zion participants who endured the costly taxi commute to and from our apartment.

Ultimately, I was overwhelmingly happy to be surrounded by this group of people that has truly become my family. As I sat among this large group enjoying delicious food and saying what I was thankful for, the first thing that came to mind was being in that moment; having this traditional Thanksgiving experience I thought would be impossible alongside these exceptional individuals who all committed to bringing this dream to life. Over the past two months, I have gone through so much with my fellow Yahelnikim, and we have bonded in ways I cannot compare with other friends. Though we are all different and I may disagree with them on many topics, in the end I know our bonds are rock solid and we will always have each other's backs. This realization at the Thanksgiving dinner table taught me another important lesson about community: no matter your differences in culture and background, a true community will always be there to give you support when you really need it.

Thanksgiving dinner at my apartment in Lod

 Over the past week, I have learned that leadership and community are very closely tied, and one component is essential for the other to occur. My experiences at the Masa Leadership Summit and my Lod Thanksgiving dinner have made me carefully evaluate both of these concepts and develop meanings for both that are very personal and relevant to my daily life. In my mind, no one likes a show-off, and leadership is not always about showing superior ability in terms of knowledge, courage, or coordination. Instead, leadership is about maintaining a strong connection to community, and developing a balance that maximizes the community's needs as well as your own. To me, being a leader can be about showing skill when it is needed, but it is also about showing vulnerability and relatability when those are needed. Many of the leaders I have on Yahel are so effective because they not only provide the guidance we need, but they also reveal moments in which they do not have all the answers and teach the humble message that at times even the strongest leaders need to be led by others. I surely know that I cannot reach my fullest potential as a leader without a supportive community surrounding me, and I look forward to developing my leadership skills this year with the assistance of my Yahel community and family.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Importance of Religion Post-Paris

Stunning views into Lebanon and the Golan Heights

Enjoying a wine tasting at the Dalton Winery

Here in Israel, it is undeniable that religion encompasses a central part of daily life. From all the people I have met here, even the most secular Jews, I have found religion significantly influences essential aspects of identity in contemporary Israeli society. I have found this topic fascinating, and I think it is especially important to think about at this time. After horrible events occur in the name of religion, like the attacks that recently occurred in Paris, it is easy for people to frame religion as the enemy with a destructive and polarizing nature. However, through a Yahel seminar I participated in last week, I discovered evidence that is entirely contrary to this claim. This experience traveling through Northern Israel and meeting with diverse religious communities taught me that all of these groups, and religious communities as a whole, have transparent values that stand to enhance and benefit any person regardless of their background.

From the Ethiopian Jewish community, I learned the importance of dreaming. For many generations, the Ethiopian Jewish community focused their tradition on a single dream: to someday reach the Land of Israel and the holy city of Jerusalem. Now that their dream has come to fruition and there is a sizeable Ethiopian community in Israel, Ethiopian Jews can freely celebrate their culture with the comfort of being settled in their promised land. I was able to witness this remarkable sight last week when I attended a celebration of the Ethiopian holiday Sigd. Sigd is considered the holiest day on the Ethiopian Jewish calendar, and is a day devoted to spiritual contemplation through fasting, reading Jewish texts, and celebrating with an end-of-day festive community meal and dance. When living in Ethiopia, the Jewish community marked the Sigd holiday by hiking to the highest point of elevation in the village to read from the Torah and face Jerusalem. Now that they are in Israel and can actually travel to Jerusalem, Ethiopians from around the country host a communal Sigd celebration at an elevated spot in Jerusalem directly facing the Old City. This was truly inspiring for me to see because it showed me how when religious beliefs influence you to dream big, the outcomes when these dreams come true can be overwhelming and monumental.

From the Druze community, I learned the importance of hospitality. When arriving at the Druze village of Yanuch for a 24-hour stay, I had no idea what to expect from this religion I knew very little about. Nevertheless, not only did I come out of this visit with a much deeper knowledge of the Druze religion and culture, but I also left this village feeling like an intimate part of the community. This is undoubtedly due to the elaborate hospitality I felt for every moment while visiting Yanuch. For our entire stay in the village, my group was joined by a dozen young community members who took time out to bond with us and get to know us. Each young Druze person I met was very friendly, and I have remained in touch with many of them through Facebook and WhatsApp. There was not a moment that went by when they were not offering to make me more comfortable through offers of snacks, tea, coffee, or simply engaging me in conversation. Something that helped me build relationships with these people was my willingness to communicate with them in Hebrew, which was much more widely known in the village than English. Because I allowed myself to be vulnerable and exercise my Hebrew skills, I introduced deeper levels of conversation that in turn made my new Druze friends more comfortable engaging with me about a variety of topics. My knowledge of Hebrew became particularly useful with my host family, since they knew very little  English and Hebrew was the only way I could communicate with them. Much of their hospitality also came from their patriotism toward Israel and their enthusiasm toward Israel-related topics I am passionate about, such as Israel's mandatory army service and religious diversity. The elaborate warmness and generosity I received from this small Arab religious group I knew nothing about was unbelievable to me. My experience staying in a Druze village reminded me of the essential religious value of caring for strangers, and that even in our messy world kindness and hospitality can come in the most unpredictable of places.

Olive picking

From the pluralistic Kibbutz Hanaton community, I learned the importance of compromise and sticking to your roots. After hearing continuous discussions about the prevalence of dati (religious) and chiloni (secular) Jews in Israel, I assumed that it would be difficult to find a middle ground that matched my Conservative background. Nonetheless, I ultimately found a community that contained the values and customs I grew up with while still including pluralism and diversity, and that community is called Kibbutz Hanaton. Situated 20 minutes away from Nazareth, Kibbutz Hanaton was established by Conservative Jews in 1983 to revitalize a traditional Jewish presence in Israel with a focus on social awareness and communal responsibility. As soon as I walked onto the kibbutz, everything started to remind me of home. From the beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat tunes that I was accustomed to hearing growing up to the stunning views of nature and Jewish community that reminded me of my summers at Camp Ramah, my Shabbat experience at Hannaton was like a mind-out-of-body experience for me. I truly felt that though I was still in Israel, my soul was being transported back to home and my cherished Jewish roots that have made me the person I am today. It was also refreshing that so many of these kibbutznikim were American immigrants and their American accents gave me a strong sense of comfort after two months of living in a culture largely different from my own. However, while it was good to be in my own religious environment, it was also great to see the compromises made so all types of Jews can feel at home at Hanaton. A prevalent compromise I noticed concerned driving on Shabbat, which entailed that on Shabbat no one can drive within the parameters of the kibbutz, regardless of their level of religious observance. The community definitely has serious issues to be dealt with, but its inspiring message of compromise leading to cooperation and coexistence is one of tremendous merit. Both Kibbutz Hanaton's similiarity to my Jewish upbringing and its message of unity between different Jewish traditions possess tremendous moral value in my eyes, and I will definitely continue to consider it as I contemplate my plans for starting a life in Israel.

View of Nazareth from Hanaton

A famous cemetery next to the Kinneret 

From the different religious communities I met with last week, I gained a deep appreciation for what religion is and what it is not. I saw religion as something that brings people together, no matter how similar they are to one another. I also saw religion as something to be celebrated because of the cooperation it brings to the world, and the dreams it helps come to fruition. When looking at religion, I did not see an idea that creates divisions or incites hatred toward the other. Though I had nothing in common with the Druze villagers who hosted me, they still went above and beyond to welcome me with open arms. Though there is much tension between the different Jewish communities in Israel and in other countries, the Kibbutz Hanaton community puts those differences aside to create and sustain a peaceful environment through which everyone benefits.

After what happened in Paris last week, it is very important to think of religion along the lines of what these communities in Israel envision. Though there are some people who try to use religion as a way of delegitimizing and even murdering those who disagree with their practices, we must see how far removed they are from the nature and purpose of mainstream religious teachings. It will be hard to move past what we have gone through, but it is necessary to look for a way forward, and that way can most definitely be found through religious communities. Let us learn from one another and grow from each other's teachings and values, and appreciate that each of our religious neighbors hold messages of hope that greatly outweigh those who try to deface them.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Peace or Pieces?

At this noteworthy period in Israel, when violent attacks are engulfing the entire country, it has been meaningful to take time out to reflect on how the country got to its current state. I had the opportunity to do this last week during the 20th anniversary of the assassination of late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

As with any issue in Israeli society, there is no black or white way to look at Yitzhak Rabin's legacy. Many Israelis focus on what is arguably the most significant aspect of Rabin's legacy, which is his efforts to make peace with the Palestinians. One of Rabin's most iconic moments as Prime Minister was when he signed the Oslo Accords, which developed the Palestinian Authority and created much of the Israeli and Palestinian divisions of the West Bank that we know today. The Israeli left wing admires Rabin's peacemaking efforts and uses Rabin's example to this day as a way to encourage developments within Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The Israeli right wing, however, sees Rabin's contributions as naive and disastrous because of the large concessions he made to the Palestinians, whom they view as dangerous enemies to the State of Israel. This was the attitude taken by Yigal Amir, a right-wing religious Israeli Jew who killed Rabin as a way to halt the progress of peace talks.

Corresponding to the multiple opinions about Rabin's legacy, there are many ways Israelis contemplate the anniversary of Rabin's death, which is a national memorial day. During a learning session last Thursday, my group was able to reflect on these different perspectives by looking at examples of observances of this day in past years. We looked at songs, magazine covers, and speeches that all resembled different meanings for this commemoration. One piece that I found particularly interesting was a critical response to a speech conducted by Rabin's granddaughter about her grandfather's heroism. This article stated that instead of focusing on the man himself, the memorial day should focus on the state Israeli society was left in following Rabin's death. We had a big discussion about this in my group, with people thinking both Rabin himself and Israeli society are important topics of focus when discussing Rabin's legacy.

We also looked at advertisements and magazine covers from the different anniversaries of Rabin's assassination. I was very intrigued by these because they painted very different pictures of what Rabin's legacy means in contemporary Israeli society, some of which were quite unusual to me. One that caught my attention was from the 13th anniversary, and had a Bar Mitzvah theme with musical instruments and party decorations. I did not know what this meant, since my understanding was this memorial day is supposed to be solemn and not joyful. However, one interpretation my group came up with is that for some people, the anniversary of Rabin's assassination can actually be a celebration instead of a day of mourning. Since Rabin's death led to the collapse of the peace process, and there has arguably been no Israeli Prime Minister since Rabin that has been as supportive of a comprehensive peace deal, those who oppose a peace agreement and the Israeli concessions that would go along with it celebrate the fact that Rabin's quest for peace ended with his death. This got me thinking about another major question...if Rabin had not been shot, what state would Israeli society be in today; peace or pieces?

A poster my group made showing the complicated nature of Rabin's legacy

This theme of peace or pieces has remained on my mind long past the session in which it was introduced to me. To me, life is filled with a bunch of "what ifs," and it is normal to ponder what could have happened if a chain of events went differently. In this case, it is hard to tell what would have happened if Rabin had not been assassinated. It is possible that Rabin would have continued the progress that he made, and today Israel would be much further along in the quest for peace. It is also possible that the critics of Rabin's politics would have increased their hateful rhetoric and violence, and Israel would be left in a relationship of distrust with the Palestinians similar or worse to what it is today.

After much thought, I have chosen to view this question through a different lens. Instead of focusing on the negative implications of Rabin's assassination, I want to focus on the positive things that have come to Israel since this event. I was able to see many of these positive components up close this past Saturday night, when I attended a memorial ceremony for Rabin at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. This was a very inspiring ceremony for many reasons. One of the biggest things that touched me was the amount of Israelis there supporting Rabin, and supporting the idea of peace. There were 100,000 people at this rally, and they were all there to send a clear message: we are sick of the violent status quo, and we want peace. I could see the crowd holding up signs with slogans like "peace now" and "we cannot eat war forever." This was very inspiring because it allowed me to see that there are so many Israelis who are fighting for better futures for themselves, their children, and their Palestinian neighbors. Since I arrived in Israel, though I have met with many activists and people invoking social change, it has been hard to visualize anything except the status quo. With the current wave of violence here, I go through each day seeing the unfortunate situations on the ground, waiting for some positive change to happen that will improve conditions for all sides. At this rally, for the first time since I stepped off the plane at Ben Gurion about one month ago, I saw a mob of Israelis who not only agree with the message of peace, but are motivated to take action to create a society in which today's challenges can disappear and every citizen can benefit. This is a message I have been eagerly waiting for, and seeing it in such a powerful way that night was one of the most inspiring experiences I have ever had in Israel.

Shalom chaver means goodbye friend. It is what Bill Clinton said at Rabin's funeral.

Another powerful component of the rally was learning about Rabin himself, and particularly how committed he was to both peace and Israel's security. These images came across in enlightening speeches from many world leaders, including Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and US Past President Bill Clinton. I thoroughly enjoyed President Rivlin's speech because of how blunt and honest it was in demanding equal rights and peaceful living conditions for all of Israel's citizens, regardless of religion, race, and level or religious observance. My favorite part of Rivlin's speech was when he discussed Israeli unity and said, "We all have a joint dream, a joint Israeli hope. We disagree on the path but we dream of an Israel in which righteousness lights the way." This statement conveyed that no matter how divided Israeli society is, there is still hope for us all to live together in security and understanding under the scope of peace.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin
Bill Clinton's speech was inspiring because it mentioned much about who Rabin was as a man, and it included many conversations that Clinton personally had with Rabin. One quote of I took particular note of was when Rabin said, "We will fight terror as if there were no negotiations, and we will negotiate as if there were no terror." To me, this quote really showed Rabin's strongest qualities as a Prime Minister, which were that he kept Israel's security interests in mind while still fighting for a peaceful and sustainable future for Israelis and Palestinians. Clinton spoke of how Rabin told him this in the midst of a wave of violent riots in Israel, which showed the strength of their relationship and of the bond between the United States and Israel. Clinton also stated that Rabin's life's work was to fight for Israel's values and avoid the crossroads of Israel deciding between being a Jewish and democratic state, and he urged the Israelis in the audience to continue Rabin's work. President Obama also participated in the ceremony to honor Rabin, leaving a video message about the importance of pursuing a viable peace for the futures of Israelis and Palestinians.

All in all, I was overjoyed to take part in this historic event for Israeli society and join the country in mourning and reflection. Even more so, I was honored to join the 100,000 Israelis and prominent leaders in the crowd who recognize that peace is not just an ideal, it is a goal that needs to be reached. Rabin made huge sacrifices and ultimately gave his life in his pursuit of a future where no Israeli needs to live in fear or contempt about their identity. In my opinion, the best way to honor Rabin's legacy is to finish what he started, which includes making tough decisions for the greater good. I hope that my work with Yahel contributes something to that greater good, and the peaceful future we all dream about is not so far off.