Finding the Balance

My children came home from school so excited to tell me everything they learned about Thanksgiving. My daughter who is in kindergarten had to decorate a feather. Every student in her class that would then added to her “class turkey.” My son who is still in preschool was amazed that he could trace his hand and it would look like the shape of a turkey. He was excited to “teach” me that Thanksgiving was about being thankful. In preparation for the holiday, I asked him what he was thankful for and he responded with a list: my house, the playground, my family, and my toys. I am just happy that family made the cut, even if we are seen as less important than the playground in his eyes. The more my children listed all that they are thankful for, the more grateful they became for the blessings in their lives. However, I also realized what a selfish exercise this was.

Giving thanks is an important part of our daily ritual as Jews. We begin each morning with the Birkot HaShachar, the morning blessings, in which we thank God for the everyday miracles of our lives. Even the Amidah prayer, recited three times daily, consists of Hodaot, daily prayers of Thanksgiving. Yet, as my children listed what they were thankful for, I realized that they – like all of us – were only thinking of themselves. I am grateful for the roof over my head, the food on my table, my family and friends, the blessings that benefit me exclusively in my life. We should always be grateful for the blessings in our lives, but I realized that by teaching my children to me thankful, I was also teaching them to exclusively think of themselves. 

This is true for most of us. Our initial instinct is to think of ourselves before we think of others. We care about our own self-interests and ignore the need and concern that others may feel. For this reason, rabbinic commentators and Jewish scholars have historically been perplexed by Abraham, the bible’s first monotheist and the patriarch of the Jewish people. This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Vayera, which begins with Abraham, infirm and recovering from a medical procedure, leaving his tent in the wilderness to greet strangers and invite them into his home:

“…As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, ‘my lords, if it please you, do not go past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves…” (Gen. 18:2-5)

The Torah portion begins with Abraham going out of the way to welcome strangers into his home. Later, as he passes by Sodom and learns of God’s intentions to destroy the entire city because of those who do evil within the city limits, Abraham stands up to God. Arguing to spare the lives of an entire city, strangers who he has no relationship with, Abraham challenges God:

“Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?” (Gen. 18:23-24)

Abraham continues to negotiate with God, attempting to convince God to spare the lives of those who have done wrong because of those who are righteous in their midst. Early on in his relationship with the divine, Abraham is willing to stand up to God to fight for the rights of others, even if it doesn’t directly benefit himself.

And for this reason, we are baffled by the final act of the Torah portion. The biblical narrative tells us:

“Some time afterward. God put Abraham to the test. God said to him, ‘Abraham,’ and he answered, “Here I am.’ And God said, ‘Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.’” (Gen. 22:1-2)

God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son and he agrees. While the rabbinic commentator Rashi suggests that Abraham tried to negotiate with God again, the simple reading of the text suggests that Abraham didn’t flinch. He woke up the next day prepared to kill his son and almost did so, until an angel intervened at the last minute. How is it possible that the patriarch who went out of his way to welcome strangers into his home, who fought with God to spare the lives of strangers, didn’t stand up to save his own son? We are not taught to always walk in the ways of our biblical ancestors. Rather we are taught to learn from their actions. We naturally live lives in which our first inclination is to think of ourselves and no one else. Our understand of the id of our psyche leads us to conclude that this is our animal instinct. Abraham does the complete opposite. But this too is incorrect. By standing up for others but refusing to stand up to save his son, he also fails God’s test. 

Our initial instincts lead us to the most extreme position of only thinking about ourselves and Abraham lives a life on the opposite extreme where he only thinks about others. The lessons of the Torah guide our lives and teach us that we must find the proper balance. We must equally care about ourselves and others. Hillel’s famous teaching reminds us: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” but also, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” Hillel teaches these two lessons simultaneously. One cannot only think of oneself and not of others. But one cannot only care about others and neglect his or her own needs. There must be a balance.

Last Thursday, I attended the Anti-Defamation League’s “Never is Now” Summit on Anti-Semitism, Bigotry, and Hate. The ADL was founded over a hundred years ago to combat Anti-Semitism in this country. As the organization evolved, the ADL realized that we have a responsibility to stand up to all forms of bigotry. As its website says, the “ADL fights anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry, defends democratic ideals and protects civil rights for all.” So, the daylong conference I attended had a session on the rise of Anti-Semitism and Violent Threats to Jewish Life in Europe and a session on Race, Identity, and Racial Justice. We listened to representatives from Twitter and journalists about the concerning use of social media by the Alt-Right to “troll” Jewish users and make online threats to Jewish journalists and we heard from Muslim leaders about the frightening rise of Islamophobia in this country. The promise of “Never Again” by the Jewish community is a promise to stand up to bigotry towards the Jewish community, but also to all forms of bigotry in which any minority is scapegoated. The leadership of the ADL and its CEO Jonathan Greenblatt remind us that our obligation is to protect ourselves and others. If we are not for ourselves, who will be? But if we are only for ourselves, what are we? 

Hillel concludes his famous teaching with the most important question: “If not now, when?” Now is the time because it is always the time to stand up for what is right. Now is the time to stand up to protect ourselves. Now is the time to stand up to protect others. Now is the time to find the balance, to learn from Abraham’s actions, and our own, to stand up for ourselves and others. This Thanksgiving, as we reflect on what we are thankful for, may we not just commit to protecting the blessings in our lives. May we ensure the blessings in the lives of others as well. 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky 

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The Journey Continues…

This article was originally published on November 13th, 2016, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

Over the past several days, I have felt sadness, anger, and disbelief. I feel lucky to live in a town, and be part of a synagogue, with such shared values. In democracy there is always a winner or a loser. My concern was not eliminating that – that division exists in a two party system. But, we have much work to do to repair a country that is so divided and so broken.

What was hard for me, and continues to be hard for me, is the tone and rhetoric. That is why I stood up time and time again condemning such hate speech. And now a candidate who, yes, ran on change, jobs, and the economy — but also on misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and bigotry — won. A candidate won who seemed to bully all the other candidates during the primaries and general election: calling them names, yelling at them, interrupting them.

It was hardest to share this information with my children – they are still so young. My daughter was so excited to come into the voting booth with us – about the historic nature of this election. I was upset to share the results. We teach our children certain values, at home, in school, at synagogue and in our sacred spaces: about how to treat other people, those like you and those who are different than you, about loving your neighbor instead of hating the other, about respect. And it seems with the results of this election, I fear that electing a candidate whose campaign seemed to reflect the opposite of those values we teach our children condones hate.

I fear for so many – and I fear also as a Jew – what it means when a candidate who was endorsed by the KKK is elected President. There is real fear for many of us that the hateful rhetoric of this campaign will lead to hateful acts. This week, we also observed the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” a pogrom when Nazis torched synagogues and Jewish homes, businesses, and schools, killing over a hundred people. Kristallnacht was a turning point, when hate speech led to hateful acts.

I was also reminded this week of the profound words of George Washington, found in a 1790 letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, home of the country’s oldest Jewish house of worship. In it, he pledged that the “government of the United States…gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” I acknowledge my privilege as a white, straight, man and I promise to do my part, as an American, and as a human being, to ensure George Washington’s words ring true – that our government does not sanction bigotry or persecution.

So when I spoke to my children, I reminded them that this election does not change what we believe and the way we act. We must continue to be kind. We must continue to stand up for what is right, and stand up for others. A single election does not change the values we stand for. That is what our text and our tradition teach us. We read at the beginning of Genesis 12 that Abram goes on a journey to “a land that I will show you” – traditionally understood as not knowing where he is going to end up. But Abram’s journey was not a journey into the unknown. It was a journey in which they knew exactly where they were going, because the text tells us that Abram’s father, Terach, also set out on this exact journey. We read in Genesis 11:31:

Terach took his son Abram, his grandson Lot… and his daughter-in-law Sarai… and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there.

So we learn really that Abram was recommitted to continuing the journey his father was already on. Terach set out on his journey, but stopped and settled and never continued. Maybe he was tired; maybe he despaired; maybe he gave up; maybe he was content with simply getting this far.

The disappointment some feel following this election is not just because a candidate won and a candidate lost. It is a fear – fear that the progress this country has made, great progress forward toward justice and equal rights – progress that I believe our tradition celebrates, as well – will stop.

So for those disappointed, I say that the journey continues just as Abram continued Terach’s journey. We will continue on this journey determined to reach a destination of justice and equality. We will come together as a community, as a diverse people, and we will continue the American journey.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Yom Kippur Sermons 5777

For those who missed them, want to read them again, or are interested, here are my Yom Kippur sermons, delivered at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, NJ:

Kol Nidre: Liking and Sharing the Negative Moments in Our Lives

Yom Kippur: I Just Called to Say ‘I Love You’

Please feel free to share your feedback, thoughts, and comments.

Wishing you a happy and healthy new year!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Forgive Yourself

During these days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we spend extra time reflecting on ourselves. We insert additional words into our daily Amidah prayers, asking God to remember the good that we have done in our lives.

But we are supposed to do more than just recite additional words of liturgy. We are taught to spend these days saying sorry. We apologize to those that we have wronged – knowingly and unknowingly – through the past year. We reach out to family members, friends, co-workers, and classmates, and apologize if we have hurt them in anyway. Sometimes, it is easy to know when we have wronged another. Other times though, we hurt someone’s feelings without even realizing it. That is why we reach out to those that we care about to say we’re sorry, whether we know we have hurt them or not.

In that vein, I want to apologize to you if I have done anything during this past year to hurt you. If I did, I truly apologize.

Forgive

We first ask for forgiveness from others, and then we ask for forgiveness from God. We repent during these days leading up to Yom Kippur so that we can beginning the most serious of days apologizing to God. We go into the day of fasting, a day filled with admitting our mistakes and transgressions, knowing that God will forgive us. We wear white on Yom Kippur because it is a symbol of a new beginning. We believe that we will be sealed for a new start and clean slate in the year to come.

Lastly, and most important, we need to forgive ourselves. We are our own biggest critics. We are often harder on ourselves than others are. We continue to feel the pain of our wrongdoings long after we have turned a new page. The most important step in this process of renewal is being able to forgive ourselves. Yes, we must admit our mistakes, but just as we did during the Tashlikh ritual, we must let go of what we’ve done in order to truly begin again. May we have the courage to ask ourselves for forgiveness and may we have the strength to finally forgive ourselves.

Wishing you a meaningful conclusion to these days of reflection!

Gmar Chatima Tova!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Rosh Hashanah Sermons 5777

For those who missed them, want to read them again, or are interested, here are my Rosh Hashanah sermons, delivered at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, NJ:

Rosh Hashanah Day One: Writing Your Own Words

Rosh Hashanah Day Two: Responding to Hate: Building a World with Love

Please feel free to share your feedback, thoughts, and comments.

Wishing you a meaningful time for reflection during these days of awe!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Finding Purpose in the Shofar Blasts

While we look forward to the blasts of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah that announce the new year, we’ve actually been blowing shofar at Beth El since September 4. We are instructed to blow the shofar every weekday morning during the Hebrew month of Elul — a whole month prior to the actual Jewish new year. We blow the shofar to remind us that the new year is upon us, and to encourage us to use these weeks for spiritual reflection. In some ways, the shofar blasts that we will hear in the coming days on Rosh Hashanah is a culmination of that period of self-examination. In fact, we are taught that our responsibility is not to blow the shofar, but to hear the blasts, so much so that the person who blows the shofar must also make sure to listen. And each blast, from the beginning of Elul until Rosh Hashanah day, is meant to help prepare us spiritually.

big-shofarTekiah! Tekiah is our wake up call. A single blast meant to remind us that we are here and present, created in God’s image with the power to create, to love, and to build. Tekiah is a call to grab our attention, a reminder that we too often get consumed with the thoughts of others and don’t focus on ourselves enough. Tekiah reminds us to not compare ourselves to others and instead focus on becoming the best version of ourselves in the year ahead.

Shevarim! Shevarim is three short blasts. The rabbis compare these blasts to the whimpering of a child. We cry to acknowledge our own broken hearts. We cry to acknowledge the brokenness inside us all. While Tekiah allows us to celebrate the divine spark within us, Shevarim reminds us that life’s journey is bumpy. In order to do a true accounting of the soul, we must accept what we have done right and what we have done wrong. We must celebrate the progress we’ve made since this time last year, but also speak of our mistakes.

T’ruah! T’ruah, nine short staccato notes, reminds us of the brokenness in the world, because when we make a new year’s resolution we think about ourselves and others. T’ruah represents wailing and tears. But when we begin Rosh Hashanah, we turn those tears of sorrow into tears of joy.

Ultimately, the shofar is a symbol of liberation, announcing a new year, announcing our new selves. It reminds us never to be apathetic or complacent. It reminds us that we are each holy, and we should never see ourselves as anything less than that. May the shofar blasts awaken us to a new year full of health, happiness, peace, and love, and may this new year be filled with new beginnings for us all.

Join us on both days of Rosh Hashanah for our Shofar service, which will take place in the Sanctuary at approximately 11:00am.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Stranger Inclinations

The following post first appeared as part of the Pop Elul Project at popelul.com. Check out all the connections between pop culture and the themes of the High Holy Days!

Spoiler alert: Stranger Things has a monster which comes from the “Upside Down”, an alternative universe that a sinister government agency gained access to. Spoiler alert:Stranger Things has a psychokinetic preteen who can move things with her mind. Spoiler alert: Stranger Things pays homage to 80’s era horror, thriller, and suspense films including adding Winona Ryder to the cast. Spoiler alert: Stranger Things is incredible!

If there is one show you binge watch next, it must be Stranger Things. The show is fun and filled with 80’s pop culture nostalgia. And while there are plenty of unanswered questions and things that don’t make sense, the story works in 1980’s small town Indiana in a way that it wouldn’t work in 2016.

Stranger Things, the breakout Netflix show of the summer, created by the Duffer brothers, tells the story of a group of middle school friends who go searching for their friend Will when he mysteriously disappears while riding his bike home from a friend’s house after a game of Dungeons & Dragons. During that search, they meet a young girl named Eleven who has special powers. With Eleven’s help, they realize that Will is stuck in the parallel universe of the Upside Down. The Upside Down isn’t an alternative reality. The kids, who are big Dungeons & Dragons fans, refer to it is the Vale of Shadows. This is not a what-if reality. Rather, it is a reflection of reality — what the world looks like if it was consumed by darkness and evil.

Jewish tradition teaches that we each have within us a good inclination, a yetzer tov, and an evil inclination, a yetzer rah. The Mishnah even teaches that we begin with only our evil inclination, with a general ability to do wrong. Mishnah says that we only acquire a yetzer tovupon turning thirteen, explaining why when one becomes a bar or bat mitzvah, one is finally responsible for one’s own actions.

It’s fascinating that rabbinic literature treats our good inclination and evil inclination as equals. They are essentially two sides of the same coin. While we strive to do good, we can just as easily end up feeding our evil inclination. In fact, if we have equal amounts of yetzer tov and yetzer rah within us, then it is nurture, not nature, that causes us to do good or bad. It is those whom we surround ourselves with that influence our actions, that impact whom we are, what we become, and how bright or bleak the world is. The Upside Down is not just scary because of the tar-like jelly within the dimension or the monster (or monsters! — stay tuned for season two) that lurk within it. The Upside Down is scary because it is a reminder of just how quickly our current reality can be turned upside down. It is a reminder of how easy it is for us to stray from light towards darkness, how easy it is for us to choose evil over good, and how easy it is for others to influence us to do wrong.

In season two of Stranger Things, the Duffer brothers promise to further explore the Upside Down. While that may keep us on the edge of our seats, my hope is that we avoid accessing the Upside Down in our own lives. During the month of Elul so focused on reflection, may we reflect on the decisions that we have made — the positive choices and the mistakes — in hopes that we will create a bright future for ourselves and for the world. May we avoid the metaphorical Vale of Darkness in the year to come.

Stranger Things premiered on July 15, 2016. All episodes of season one are available to stream now on Netflix.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Comfort of the Olympics

The Olympics may have come to a close, but I can’t help but think back on the past few weeks and try to figure out why I was so obsessed with watching the Rio Games. I’m not sure what it is about the Olympics that causes us to stop and watch. Maybe it’s because it is on primetime and there is nothing else on television. Maybe it is because it’s a much needed respite from the hateful rhetoric, name-calling, and 24-hour non-breaking news “breaking news” of the election cycle.

Whatever it is, there is something about the Olympics. I am a big sports fan. But when it comes to the Olympics, I find myself cheering for and watching sports I never watch. I DVR Beach volleyball, sprinting, fencing, gymnastics. I stop everything I do anytime Michael Phelps gets in the pool to make sure I can watch him win his millionth gold medal live. I watch these sports, but not because I love these sports. There is no other time that I insist on watching competitive swimming or fencing. It is not so much about the actual sports, as much as it is about friendly competition.

Rio2016.pngThe Olympics are a reminder of all of us coming together – all of humanity. Yes, we want to beat the opponent, but to compete against each other is an acknowledge that the other is our equal. It is a reminder that we are all one. No matter who odd the artful performance is at the opening ceremonies, the sight of athletes from each country – and even those who are refugees and have had to flee their home countries – celebrates each individual as made in the image of God. We come together, because we find comfort in each other.

We find comfort in knowing that the entire world is watching these games. We find comfort in knowing that the Olympics celebrate individuals, all of humanity, being together. On this Shabbat, referred to as  Shabbat Nachamu, we sought comfort. The Hebrew word Nachamu is the command form of comfort. Taken from the first word of the haftarah reading, from the book of Isaiah, this is a statement of comfort following the mournful day of Tisha B’Av, which was celebrated the week prior. We find comfort following mourning, following senseless hatred. But it is how we find comfort that is quite remarkable.

The haftarah begins: Nachamu, Nachamu, Ami. Comfort, oh Comfort, my people.

The doubling of the word helps us to understand it’s importance. Like when in angel called out to Abraham twice to prevent him from sacrificing his son (Gen. 22:11) or the command of “Justice, Justice, you shall pursue” (Deut. 16:20), the repetition of Nachamu reminds us, the readers, of the importance of this act. It is essential that we not just seek comfort, but that we act to comfort one another.

Throughout the books of the Prophets, we read of the prophets speaking on behalf of God. While the words may come out of the prophets’ mouths, they are God’s words to the people of Israel. We are then left asking, who is God talking to? If this is Isaiah speaking to the Israelites, then is God telling the Israelites – God’s people  — to comfort His people? That doesn’t seem to make sense.

The 16th century rabbi, the Radbaz, explains in Metzudat David that God is telling the prophets to comfort the Israelites. The doubling, he adds, represents the urgency of this. On Shabbat Nachamu we learned that it is not God who comforts us; it is each other who comforts us. We are meant to comfort each other. If we celebrate all of humanity made in God’s image, then we, in the divine image, walk in God’s ways and act on God’s behalf. We serve as God’s messengers. Nachamu Nachamu Ami. We comfort each other. And in doing so, God comforts us.

So what is it about the Olympics? Seeing athletes of all races and ethnicities coming together in friendly competition, treating each other as equals. This is a much needed break from the hate that too often consumes us and this world. This is a much needed comfort from the senseless hatred that we acknowledged just days earlier on Tisha B’Av. So we comfort each other. If only such acts of coming together didn’t only happen every four years. Nachamu, Nachamu Ami. May we all find comfort in each other.

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As a Rabbi & Dad, This is What I Want My Kids to Take Away from Hillary Clinton

This article was originally published on August 3, 2016, on Kveller.com. 

kveller

I rushed home from work early last Tuesday afternoon. The roll call was taking place at the Democratic National Convention and I wanted to sit on the couch with my children by my side to witness history.

Hillary Clinton

Saint Louis, MO, USA -€“ March 12, 2016: Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton campaigns at Nelson-Mulligan Carpenters Training Center in St. Louis.

We cuddled up as I struggled to find CSPAN on the television to watch as the first woman ever was selected as a major party’s political nominee. I found the roll call to be fascinating, as with each state, we inched closer to this historic moment. After a few moments, my son got off the couch and began playing with his toys. I held my daughter close though, wanting her to watch this moment. But truthfully, she soon started asking how long this “show” would be.

She didn’t understand why it was such a big deal. She didn’t realize the pain and suffering that women went through for the right to vote, that women continue to go through just for equal rights under the law. She didn’t realize the struggles that those who came before her went through so that she can grow up to believe that she can be anyone and do anything…

You can read the rest of this article, on the Kveller.com website here.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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How Lovely are Your Tents, Your Dwelling Places, Rawabi

This article was originally published on July 25, 2016, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

In reading the well-known narrative found in Parashat Balak this past Shabbat, in which the Moabite King Balak sends out the magician Balaam to curse the Israelites, we learn of the blessing of potential. Balak knew that he whom Balaam blessed would surely be blessed and he whom he cursed would surely be cursed. He hoped for such a curse so that the Moabites could drive them out of the land. Balaam reminded Balak’s officials though, that regardless of the silver, gold, and riches given to him, he couldn’t do anything contrary to God’s wishes. He could not just curse who he wants or bless who he wants. He had no control over the words that would come out of his mouth. Time and time again, when he approached the encampment of the Israelites, he opened his mouth and words of blessing came out.

I spent time this month in Israel on a Progressive Rabbis Mission to Israel, sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation (AEIF), and organized by AIPAC. This trip is an example of AIPAC’s efforts to widen the tent and make sure there is room for progressive Zionists among their membership. We spent the majority of one day of our trip in the occupied territories of the West Bank. We drove by parts of the West Bank that looked like abandoned ghost towns; we saw the buildings still shelled and destroyed during the second intifada, abandoned long ago and never rebuilt. I expected to see the metaphorical “curses” of the community. How the Palestinians, because of failed leadership on the Palestinian and Israeli side.

Rawabi1Yet, among the many places we visited that day was a tour of Rawabi. The first-of-its-kind planned Palestinian city, we approached it and I opened my mouth and saw nothing but blessing. Rawabi is a short drive from Ramallah, in Area A, the area of the occupied territories in which the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian police has full autonomy according to the Oslo Accords. This planned city will have 23 different neighborhoods and a total of 5,000 housing units. There are already 650 people who have moved into one of the completed neighborhoods with another 600 soon to come – the plan is for the city to have a population of 40,000 when all the housing units are complete.

But like any planned city, Rawabi is about more than just housing units: We walked Rawabi2through the 14,000 person amphitheater, the largest in the Arab world – where only weeks earlier, Mohammed Assaf, who grew up in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip and won the most recent season of Arab Idol, performed. We wandered through the center-of-town commercial district, modeled after Jerusalem’s Mamilla Mall – the first shopping center in the Palestinian territories that will have brand name stores like Kenneth Cole. And we saw the Wadina family fun center in the distance, with volley ball courts, playgrounds, and the soon-to-be safari section with off-road ATV’s and a zipline that will be built. This seems like a model city.

The city is the vision of Palestinian Billionaire Bashar Masri, who invested in Rawabi as a vision for what Palestine can one day be, a small model for what a Palestinian State in the future can look like. Masri shared with us that he was tired of waiting for the Israelis to take care of Palestinians and described himself as being treated like a second-class citizen. He also said he was tired of the corrupt and ineffective Palestinian Authority who never helped and just continued to make broken promises. He invested his own money to make Rawabi, meaning ‘the Hills’, a reality. Upon the hills of Rawabi, you can even see the Tel Aviv skyline in the distance on a clear day. But these hills are also metaphoric: the hilltop represents a vision of opportunity, of what can be, for a struggling people.

So Masri began construction in January 2010. Yet when I visited six years later, there was still much to do. Why? Neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian government has made this easy for him. It took until 2012 for Israel to grant the project use of a single small access road for construction trucks. It took until 2013 for a new stretch of road to be approved for Palestinians to be permitted to drive into the town. And as of last year, Israel has still refused to widen the road, or allow for access to Rawabi from Ramallah or Nablus. Additionally, Israel connecting a water line to Israel’s water grid was promised by 2014, but that didn’t finally come until February of 2016, and Rawabi still has only a limited water supply for its residents, substantially less water than its settler neighbors has. And for what it’s worth, Masri agreed to use Israeli companies and building supplies to build the project, while employing Palestinian workers. When he said that he refused to allow products manufactured in settlements because he disagreed with settlement building, these companies agreed. The response was the right-wing government passing a law that allows a settlement to sue an organization, company, or individual who boycotts settlement products for economic damage.

And then there is the lack of support from the Palestinians. Many Palestinians criticize the city and Masri, seeing it as betrayal. Instead of seeing it as potential of what can be, they suggest that it normalizes occupation. Furthermore, many have protested the projected because Masri involved Israeli companies. And the Palestinian Authority completely betrayed him, promising to help fund the project and yet ultimately, because of the corruption of the elected leadership, they still haven’t contributed any money. The schools, medical centers, parks, water and sewage systems, and first-of-its-kind in the occupied Palestinian territories fiber-optics network are all privately funded by Masri. Rawabi is a vision of what can be and both Israeli leadership and Palestinian leadership are providing hurdles and barriers for it to reach its potential.

When Balaam opened his mouth to curse the Israelites, he only had words of blessing for them:

Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael. How lovely are your tents Jacob, Your dwelling places, Israel. (Num. 24:5)

Rashi suggests that “How lovely are your tents” refers to modesty – that the entrances of these tents didn’t face each other. They respected each other’s privacy and no one sought to look in on another’s private life. Hizkuni links the concept of “tents” and “Jacob” to Genesis 25:27 which refers to Jacob as an Ish Tam, Yoshev Ohalim, a quiet man who dwelt in tents. However, Nachmanides, the Ramban, sees this supposed-to-be curse that turned-out-to-be a blessing by Balaam as a prophecy for the future. “Your tents” refers to the current fragile state which is temporary. “Your dwelling places” focuses on a more permanent future. The blessing sees the reality of now and envisions a future that can be.

How lovely are your tents, your dwelling places. How lovely they can be and will be, if only there was support to make that a reality. Rawabi should be a prophecy fulfilled, vision that would lead towards economic growth and stability, and ultimately peace and a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians. But that has yet to come. During our time in Ramallah, we also met with Dr. Khalil Shakaki, the Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. He focused on changing statistics and research and said that while there are reasons to be pessimistic, there are still a majority of Palestinians, a majority of Israeli Jews, and a majority of Israeli Arabs who support a two-state solution.

How lovely may the tents of Rawabi be. May the temporary become permanent. May a dream become reality. Among the many conversation we had during this trip, it was also clear that Israelis and Palestinians had a shared view of their leadership: both Palestinians and Israelis don’t think their respective elected leaders were truly interested in peace. May they stop being the roadblocks to this city being achieved. If there were more projects like Rawabi, the Palestinian people would be far better off. And maybe, they too would see this as a prophecy into the future. And with this prophecy fulfilled, we could be one step closer to peace.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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