Joanne Palmer
Joanne Palmer

Sitting around a Shabbat table, feeling hope

Coming back to life is an interesting experience — with any luck  it’s also a once-in-a-lifetime one.We’ve had a quite a few Shabbat dinners since the world gingerly started to reopen, most at our home, some around friends’ tables. It’s always been with a small group of people, each of whom I’ve known nearly forever and missed achingly. Every new dinner has brought fresh joy.

Last Shabbat, we did something new. We had 10 people join us around a fairly crowded table. Three were good friends, the others strangers. One was a couple who belong to our shul, B’nai Jeshurun, and the other five were members of a group called Sharaka.

Sharaka — it means partnership in Arabic — was formed in the wake of the Abraham Accords; according to its beautifully designed website, it “was founded by young leaders from Israel and the Gulf in order to turn the vision of people-to-people peace into a reality.”

Fancy words often cover pedestrian realities, but if the young (but not too young; they’re fully adult) people who sat around our table — one drinking wine, the others grape juice, and we had been careful to use juice rather than wine in the gravy — were at all representative of Sharaka, it’s an impressive partnership.

They all have serious resumes

One of the five, the organization’s Indiana-born Israeli director of communications and global affairs, Dan Feferman, was the only Jew, but not the only Israeli. There was an Israeli Arab as well as three Emirati Muslims and one from Saudi Arabia. Each one was open, friendly, self-possessed, intellectually engaged and engaging, formidably well and thoroughly educated, and very, very smart. They were all very good company.

Each has a story. The Israeli Arab, Yahya Mahamid, was a combat soldier in the IDF. Omar Al Busaidy, from the Emirates, was a Fulbright Scholar, wrote a self-help book, and is the UAE’s economic affairs liaison at its consulate in New York.

One of the two women, Dr. Najat Al Saeed, is a journalist, a university professor with a doctorate in media affairs and a new book, her second, coming out soon. It’s about social media and intriguingly called “Gulf Tweets: Twitter Diplomacy and Media Polarization.” She was able to live in a Saudi village to do research, she said, and was able to talk to many of them honestly and directly, in a way that researchers from other, more distant backgrounds could not have done.

The other woman, Sumaiiah Almheiri, who wore a headscarf in a spectacular shade of red — everyone else was dressed in straightforward Western clothing — was perhaps the most surprising. She’s an electrical engineer by training, a skilled linguist who taught herself Hebrew, because, she said (please note that conversations are from memory, so I’m paraphrasing) it’s a Semitic language like Arabic and that piqued her interest; according to her bio, she’s created “Shafah, the first Arabic/Hebrew language platform in the Arabian Gulf.”

This coming academic year, she will study at an Israeli university – remotely, that is — and she is following her passion. Which — electrical engineering and linguistics notwithstanding — is midwifery. Sumaiiah feels very strongly that women in childbirth are treated more like objects on an assembly line than like individual people. In fact, every women, possibly in need of medical care and certainly the beneficiary of science,  is experiencing an entirely personal time of danger, creativity, opportunity, and magic.

Each of the new friends at our table is a very real — if frighteningly accomplished — person.

And each one of them, every single one of them, is putting him or herself in danger, because in a time of polarization, reaching out to the other side as they’ve been doing entails real risk. (And yes, they say, they know that the Abraham Accords’ connections to the administration of Donald J. Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, make many American Jews suspect it. Look beyond that, they all say. It’s for real.)

There is one feeling that comes from each of them, and infected every one of the rest of us, we fairly standard American Jews, sitting at a Shabbat table as we have just about every Friday night for decades.

That feeling? It’s hope.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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