Saundra Sterling Epstein

A charm I bought, the wisdom of a 17-year-old Arab Muslim, and so much more….

My husband and I were in Israel for almost three weeks in December – January. It was clearly a different experience given the reality of life in this land of my heart at this juncture. A dear cousin reminded me before our arrival that I should not expect to see everyone sad and despondent and that life goes on. Of course! I have been in Israel many times, including other chapters of difficult negotiation with its neighbors, attacks, and danger alerts. What I was actually hoping for was in some small way a relief and reality read that would serve as a perspective check, given the vitriol out there, the 24-7 upsetting news feed and media fueled hysterics way too available in the USA. While that may sound counter-intuitive, those of us who spend lots of time in Israel understand that this was indeed the case.

As we arrived and walked through the Ben Gurion arrival hall, immediately noticeable is all of the pictures of the hostages. I stopped at each one and took a moment to place them in my heart. Of course, this reality of too many deaths, hostages still in captivity, defense readiness, and mixed feelings is everywhere. And yes, life goes on, but there are notable differences. The many rallies, the displays throughout the country, the displaced families, the many hotels that have become “home” to these families, the closed upper scale restaurants, the absence of tourists and so much else. Clearly this is a country at war, for its survival, its soul, its citizens, democracy, sanity in our world and so much else. Simultaneously, this country is full of life and happy occasions and so much activity, much of which is now focused on trying to make a terrible situation a bit less terrible.

So just a few snapshots are in order. I spent a day in Kfar Manda with my wonderful colleague, Haviva Ner David. We were introduced by mutual friends who claimed we just had to meet each other and I do believe we may have been together in a seminar program years ago. She lives in Kibbutz Hanaton which I remember from its earliest days with the first Garin that began this community, having known well many who started this collective. Through the decades, it has rebranded a bit and remains a wonderful gathering post for all types of cooperation and working across lines with people who can become friends instead of turned into enemies. This dynamic always warms my heart.

Haviva graciously invited me to come to her English Classes at a high school in this Arab Muslim Village. I spoke with the kids, who were generally 17 years old and honestly, they were just teenagers – with their cell phones, nails done, cousins who have friendly conflicts in front of everyone and so much else. One group was especially impressive with kids expressing their hopes for the future. I was particularly taken by one 17-year-old young man who was so mature, articulate and focused. He was also the “metargam” or translator for the class – his English (as his third language by the way, after Arabic and Hebrew) was exceptional, and other kids would ask for his help when they needed a word. He spoke at length about his own work on his family’s chicken farm, how he wants to begin a business and had plenty to say about the Internet and how it is dangerous and causes many problems. He explained that if he took his news and perspective from this source, he would think that “every school in the USA has gun violence and shootings, every black is a hoodlum, every Hispanic is a gang member, every Jew and Israeli is an occupier, and every Arab and Muslim is a terrorist.” Clearly, he explained that he knows this not to be true but sadly too many people are buying and accepting the cheap verbiage of the outtakes on the Internet. I wanted to take this young man home with me and bring him to every school, every community and every gathering to share his wisdom.

I had many conversations with people across the ideological spectrum in Israel from the left to the right, but/and all of these conversations were filled with kindness, respect, and shared frustration about the extremes that are the tail wagging the dog in the public arena. There ARE still wonderful things happening in Israel, including the Yad B’Yad Schools where Jews, Arabs, Muslims, Israelis, and all learn and live together and maintain their relationships. The many cooperative communities with everyone living together are still trying to power through. Walking in Mamilla and seeing Muslim families just walking and chatting, seeing kids (and they are kids at 18+) “hanging out” with their guns slung across their back because they are in Miluim. Yes, in many ways, Jerusalem is protected from the horrors of what is going on elsewhere in the country but/and everyone feels it and knows that it is ALL OF US who are being attacked.

Quite a few people remarked that with all of the antisemitism and violence in the USA, Israel is still a safer place to be. I tend to agree with that. I was heartened to hear about Multi-Faith groups and friendships in Israel that are still rising above the challenges and obstacles to figure out how to continue dialogue and connections.  And then there are those relationships that have been broken just as I have witnessed and experienced in the USA. I fear that these relationships will at best take years to rebuild and at worst may never be the same. That is precisely why I want more people like the teens I met in Kfar Manda to speak up and work towards being the new type of leadership so sorely needed on all sides of our many world- wide fractures.

Along with our dear cousins, we spent time in the Prima Melachim hotel in Yerushalayim for a family retreat. We were among the only people there vacationing. Generally, this hotel, as so many others, was now  “home” to an entire community from the North on the border with Lebanon. Watching how these families were interacting and living their lives in the midst of all that is going on, and acknowledging all who had stepped up to take care of them as best they could reminded me of the interconnectivity of this people. So many stories were told about those who stepped up to help the many displaced families. Schools popped up to accommodate the children, activities were developed, day excursions to sites, and so much else to say that “you are not alone.” This is so much of what Israel is to me. I wish others would notice this example and follow it in their own countries and collectives.

About that charm – I decided I wanted a charm of the outline of Israel, that was displayed in so many places as well as other necklace charms indicative of this moment in time. I bought my charm and immediately added it to my necklace. My husband asked if others in my Multi-Faith circles would see that as a political statement. NO! I clearly do not see it that way. Israel is my heart, Israel is my soul and Israel is part of me and I part of it. If someone does not see that, they do not see me and it is important to be seen in these interactions. I am proud of this and do not hide it in this challenging set of spaces. In my Multi-Faith work, I walk in the room knowing exactly who I am as an Orthodox observant Jew who loves Israel, wants better for all of us and cries at the loss and lack of compassion for human life by too many. I stay in the room with all of this and leave the room the same, hoping that by being in the room, others will think of their own faiths, the outlines of their own lands of their hearts and remember that we are all responsible to work to continue to build bridges of understanding even when it is so hard to construct them. My charm reminds me of all that Israel is – all to whom Israel is home, all that Israel continues to accomplish, all that Israel means to the world as the protector of so much, and when this is reduced to outtakes on the Internet, this will not have an impact on me.

With continued prayers for all of Israel and all innocent victims of prejudice, hatred and horrible violence and terrorism. May we all learn that peace will keep us going, and that it is inherently about compromise, not total agreement. This too, is part of Israel.

About the Author
Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein (Sunnie) earned her B.A., M.S. and Ed.D at the University of Pennsylvania. Sunnie directs BeYachad , bringing Jewish living and learning together and has been teaching texts, reaching and inspiring students and looking at challenging issues in the world in which we live and how to bring these three together for decades. She has published widely in a variety of venues on a variety of topics, including Women in Faith, Inclusion of LGBTQ Members in our Communities of Faith, Environmental Sustainability, Prayer, G-d Talk, the importance of Interfaith and Intrafaith Dialogue, Israeli-Palestinian Relations Beyond the Conflict, and so many others. Sunnie presently is Director of the Welcoming Shuls and Communities Project of ESHEL, the National LGBT Inclusion Consortium for the Orthodox Jewish Community, gives shiyurim in various communities, serves on the leadership team a Multi-Faith Coalition and continues to develop creative ways of teaching texts. Her book, Life Journeys: Stepping Back and Moving Forward was published in February 2017 and is available through
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