While in the throes of a new experience, whether it be something as large as moving to a completely different country or as small as starting at a new school, there often comes a time when a certain moment or encounter causes you to reflect on how far you have come in your journey. I had such a revelatory moment recently, whilst participating in the Abraham Initiatives Retreat earlier this May.
One of the days of the retreat centered around Lod, the city in which I have been living for the past nine months as part of my fellowship. The day began with a tour of the old city area, called Ramat Eshkol, and continued with diverse speakers – from Rabbi Samet, the head rabbi of the Garin Torani in Lod (an organization of religious Zionist families), to Ayman Odeh, an Arab member of Knesset and the leader of the Hadash party. I learned so much from the tour and the speakers, especially about the different perspectives of larger entities with a stake in the situation in Lod. However, I also realized how much I had learned just by living in Lod and being in proximity to so many of the issues discussed.
For instance, while on the tour of the Ramat Eshkol neighborhood, I realized how much of its story and history I already knew both from tours of the area as part of my fellowship and from personal interactions with members of the community. I knew about the stories behind the famous church, mosque, and synagogue in the area. I knew the history of Lod as a place that was important when the Romans were in control of the land. I knew the stories about what happened in Lod in 1948. Furthermore, I was able to supplement some of the information being provided, on both an anecdotal and factual level. I felt that not only did I know the background of the neighborhood and the city at large, but I truly possessed a more well-rounded perspective on the topics being discussed, particularly as they related to the city of Lod. I was able to articulate my own informed opinions and have substantial and deep discussions with coworkers significantly older and more experienced than myself. It was the first time I felt qualified enough to have and express an opinion on the city I had been calling home.
The most shining example of this is a discussion I had at dinner relating to our conversation with the head of the Garin Torani, Rabbi Samet. Many of the Abraham Initiatives staff and board members heavily criticized the Garin Torani and pressed Rabbi Samet on the organization of the Garin Torani and its mission and ideology, in Lod specifically but also in general. One of the largest critiques I heard afterward was that it felt as though there were certain questions that went unaddressed or were evaded, and certain responses that seemed untruthful or painted things too mildly. People were formulating opinions on the Garin Torani in Lod and on the people that chose to move to Lod as part of the Garin Torani based on the testimony of this one speaker. People were so ready to demonize the Garin Torani that it almost seemed as though they could not conceive of the organization or its members doing anything positive for Lod.
I, on the other hand, had met many other individuals and families who either currently identify or used to identify as members of the Garin Torani and who tell a very different story, one that I thought was also relevant to share. Some people simply chose to move to Lod because it was a significantly cheaper option for their family, not because of any particular desire to be a part of the Garin Torani. Some people chose to distance themselves from the Garin Torani entirely given differences of opinion on certain actions the Garin Torani take. Some people are actively counteracting and criticizing certain practices of the Garin Torani and looking to make changes in the organization from within. As part of my fellowship, we had a social activist from the Garin Torani come to speak with us and tell us about her work building bridges between the Arabs and the Garin Torani. She said that the only way forward was to create real relationships between the two communities, because neither community is going anywhere. Based on the discussion with Rabbi Samet, it likely would be a shock to many on the Abraham Initiatives retreat that such an individual can exist within the Garin Torani. However, I did have one discussion with an Abraham Initiatives staff member who also lives in Lod, and she concurred that she wanted a more well-rounded representation of the Garin Torani than was provided, because she also realizes that there is diversity of opinion within the organization.
At dinner following the Lod day of the retreat, I joined in a conversation about the Garin Torani and Rabbi Samet. When I told people that I actually live in Lod and had met many families within the Garin Torani that I have meaningful relationships with, they were very surprised and interested in hearing my opinions and descriptions of my encounters with them. They wanted to learn about my experiences and compare them with what they had heard that day, and I was happy to oblige. It was a fascinating conversation and I was glad that I had the ability to present another perspective stemming from an informed point-of-view. My time in Lod and my time with The Abraham Initiatives equipped me to discuss, and even adequately argue and substantiate, my opinions.
I want to extend a sincere and heartfelt thank you to The Abraham Initiatives for allowing me to participate in the retreat and learn more about Lod and about Israel as a whole. The opportunity to work for The Abraham Initiative these past nine months has been such an invaluable learning experience, and the retreat was the icing on the cake. It meant that not only was I conducting research and learning about the situation in Israel between Arabs and Jews from a distance, but I received experiential learning and first-hand accounts as well. What I have taken away from these nine months is not something I am likely to ever forget.