|With the group at my grandmother's plaque|
Sunday, July 6, 2014
Israel Through the Eyes of Christians
I never thought I would find myself walking through the Old City of Jerusalem with a group of Christians. I recently spent five days with the Holy Land Democracy Project, a group of non-Jewish teachers, many of them at Catholic schools, that is sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to help integrate much needed Israel education into Los Angeles classrooms.
Just a few hours into the trip, we were touring the Old City. “The Old City is all about paradox. Everywhere you look, there’s a contrast,” our tour guide told us as we walked towards the Kotel. I couldn’t help but think that- being in Israel with a group of non-Jews was a real contrast for me. I have been to Israel several times but always with groups of Jews. Seeing Israel through the eyes of non-Jews and first-timers was a completely new experience. Listening to them recite and relate verses from the Bible at both Christian and Jewish sites was new and surprising for me. I was also surprised at how moved the teachers felt as we visited the Kotel and other Jewish sites. It was not surprising how easily they picked up essential Hebrew phrases like “L’Chaim!” and “Bete’avon!” when food and drinks were involved.
But what was the most surprising for me was how being with this group of non-Jews actually strengthened my Jewish identity. Back in Los Angeles, I never felt much of a distinction between Christians and me. I had a lot of Christian friends, participated in non-religious activities, and even had non-Jews over for Jewish holidays. And being in Berlin where I live, work, and socialize in the Jewish community, it’s a given that I should feel Jewish. But standing there at the Kotel, the holiest spot for Jews, with a group of Catholics made me feel more Jewish than I ever had before. It made me realize that my Jewish upbringing, my history, and my connection to this place distinguished me from the rest of the group. One of the participants, a teacher at a Catholic high school, told me that he was jealous that Jews get to have this place that is so tied in with our identities. It was a strange feeling, sort of being isolated but feeling this contrast was also a powerful experience that defined who I am as a Jew.
I had the opportunity to speak to the group at Yad Vashem, which I have a very personal connection to. Three of my grandparents are Holocaust survivors from Romania, Holland and Germany. My grandmother was just a toddler when she was separated from her parents in the Netherlands. During the Holocaust, she was passed from family to family and was never shown any love or affection that she craved. She is the only survivor in her entire family. She has no cemetery to go to, no ashes or memorial site to mourn her parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. So she has a plaque at Yad Vashem, the very place where I spoke to the group, with the names of her murdered relatives.
I have spent the past year working and immersing myself in the Jewish world, and to be able to stand in front of a group of people who have no personal connection to the Holocaust and tell my grandparents’ stories and the stories of Jews I’ve worked with in Europe was a profound moment for me. After I finished speaking, a few of the participants came up to me to tell me that the experience moved them to tears.
I am grateful to have had the chance to tour Israel with such a wonderful group of people. Their obvious passion for what they do and their new understanding and deep appreciation of the country I get to call my homeland was refreshing. And amidst so much anti-Israel sentiment in the world today, this gives me hope for the future of Zionism, starting in Los Angeles classrooms.