The cultural and religious dichotomy could not have been stronger. He was out of central casting. His name is Uddi, an old fashioned kibbutznik, the shirt out, the hair weathered. Despite dozens of trips to Israel, I hadn’t seen such a guy in a long time. We met on the Lebanese border that weaves between the hills that straddle the northern Galilee. His kibbutz, Yiftach, was one of those that in the fifties had battled between the primacy of Zionism, Socialism and Communism, leaving scars that are remembered even decades later.
We had arrived in Israel on Monday five hundred strong. It’s the largest organized group of the year, but so unlike many others that come. Our group didn’t fit into one ideological stream. It was diverse. Jews, observant and not, some who never miss a minyan, and others who have not stepped into a synagogue on Yom Kippur for years. Chabad’s adult education arm, the Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) organized the “Israeli Experience,” bringing delegations of rabbis and community members from more than 35 cities from across the US.
After visiting the border we heard the local story in the kibbutz clubhouse. The exuberance of the early years, the ideological battles that marked its growth, the more recent economic challenges. The re-imagining of the Kibbutz that even allows young couples who are not members to build homes. Surprisingly, the clubhouse doors were adorned with Mezuzahs. Tucked off the side of the room was an Ark with a Torah and Aron Kodesh. The women preparing the coffee and refreshments told me, “we have services twice a year, Yom Kippur and Purim.”
Earlier in the day, we had wandered the streets of the mystical Safed. Scribes showed our group how to write Torah Scrolls. An artist told them he had left the “California dream” for a life of spirituality in the “city of Kabbalah.” We toured the ancient synagogues and told stories of the great rabbis who breathed life into Judaism centuries ago, that continues to uplift even today.
But it was in the leftist Kibbutz that I discovered what really stands at the core of our connection with Israel and the Jewish people. When Uddi finished his presentation and we were getting ready to leave, one of the rabbis thanked him. “We admire your tenacity, standing here on the edge of the country for all of us,” he said. The Rabbi had looked to find value in the other, despite the clear ideological divisions. He was looking to find the unique good in each person.
Let’s not fool ourselves. There are real questions that divide Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora, issues that are not going away. The ideological divide between secular and religious, right and left is becoming more acute in Israel. Nor are the issues simple. The question is: even if we have strong feelings can we still see the good qualities in another? Can we look beyond our differences to the nobility that we all possess as G-d’s creation? In a secular Kibbutz, a Chassidic rabbi expressed his admiration for the self-sacrifice of a gruff leftist Kibbutznik. The lesson is clear. As Jews we all have a common destiny and responsibility for each other. At a kibbutz in Israel’s north I saw this was possible and realized much more connects than divides us.