I have a story for you about an extraordinary man here in Israel who models for us the essence of humanitarianism. His story might seem as though it could only happen in the movies. And, in fact, Steven Spielberg visited him several years ago to consider the possibilities! But his story is entirely true, and he is an inspiration.
Jawdat Ibrahim is an Israeli Arab. He grew up in Abu Ghosh, an Arab village of about 6,000 people, about 20 minutes outside of Jerusalem. At the age of 21, he decided it was time to spread his wings a bit, and he traveled to the United States – Chicago to be exact. Not long after, Jawdat went into a store one day and bought a ticket for the Illinois State Lottery. He awoke the next morning some $23 million richer. So, at the age of 24, he decided to return home to Abu Ghosh, and invest in the village in which he was raised. The year was 1993.
During the War of Independence, the people of Abu Ghosh sided with the Israelis and helped them. After the war, they were determined to live as Arab Israelis within the State of Israel. From that day until this, they have been loyal friends, and peaceful Israeli citizens.
When Jawdat Ibrahim returned to Abu Ghosh, he decided to open a restaurant. He called it, very simply, Abu Ghosh Restaurant. He built his staff from among the local young men, in order to give them a base of income and stability. He continues this practice today. Very quickly, and with good reason, his restaurant grew in popularity, and he is reputed to serve the best hummus in Israel. (I personally can vouch for that!) In addition to the restaurant, Jawdat set up a scholarship fund for Jewish and Arab university students. When asked why he was helping Jewish students, who already were benefitting from other scholarship funds, he replied that he wanted to set the example for Jews, so that they, in turn, would contribute to Arab students!
In addition to his philanthropy, Jawdat became a pursuer of peace. During the 1990’s, the then Defense Minister, now President Simon Peres, would hold meetings at Abu Ghosh Restaurant with Faisal Husseini, a chief negotiator of the Palestinian Authority. No doubt the meetings included plenty of hummus. In 2002, during the darkest days of the Intifada, Jawdat set up a huge tent alongside his restaurant, and placed in it a giant TV screen. Then he sent out word, through newspapers and other media, to the surrounding Jewish and Arab communities, that they were invited to come to his tent together to watch the World Cup Soccer Tournament. For the month that followed, Jews from Jerusalem, and Arabs from neighboring towns, came to Jawdat’s tent, often having to pass through several roadblocks, and watched the tournament together. He said, “People always come away from these meetings saying how they never knew that there was another side.” One evening during the height of the Intifada in 2002, my friend and I went for dinner to Abu Ghosh Restaurant, feeling totally safe. And we were. It also is important to Jawdat to display his coveted prize from 2010, when he won the Guinness Book of World Records prize for the biggest bowl of hummus in the world (with the help 50 neighboring chefs!).
As our stay in Israel comes to a close, at least until next time, Steve and I decided to have lunch today at Abu Ghosh Restaurant, since indeed it is one of our favorites. After a plate of the celebrated hummus, among other things, our own coveted prize was our Turkish coffee, which you see in the picture. I can also tell you that Jawdat, now in his 40’s, is just a lovely man – a hard working, down-to-earth, regular guy. And if we didn’t know his story, we would think he was just an ordinary restaurateur, having a good time, looking out for his customers and staff. He is also a husband and father, and has embraced the principle of “from one to whom much is given, much is expected.”
Late last month, some Jewish extremists sneaked into Abu Ghosh, and slashed the tires on a number of the residents’ cars, and sprayed racist graffiti in the walls. The government condemned the act as terrorism, and created a legal mechanism that would hasten the prosecution of racially motivated hate crimes such as this. The last thing Israel wants or needs is to hurt and alienate its loyal citizens. In the wake of these crimes, the people of Abu Ghosh have pledged their ongoing friendship and loyalty to Israel. But peace-loving, rational, compassionate people everywhere should be alarmed and outraged by extremist behavior, wherever, and whenever it occurs, particularly in this context.
The Mishnah teaches: Be of the disciples of Aaron; seek peace and pursue it. Jawdat Ibrahim is just such a person.
This is The Night of Tishah B’av… the 9th day of Av, a day of mourning, as Jews all over the world remember the Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, first in 586 BCE at the hands of the Babylonians, and then the Romans, in 70 CE. Services are characterized by sitting on the floor in the dark, a 24-hour fast, and wearing canvas or rubber shoes instead of leather – kind of like a mini-shiva. In addition, the Scroll of Eichah (Lamentations) is intoned, with its mournful timbre reflecting the poetry of bereavement.
The Stones of Destruction … This year, instead of going to synagogue on this night, Steve and I did something different, that one can only do here in Jerusalem. We spent the evening at Robinson’s Arch – the archaeological site of the remains of the Temple. There we gazed upon the huge stones, strewn about just as they have been, since they toppled to the ground some 2,000 years ago. This is what is left of the magnificent structure that once stood towering above Jerusalem, now reduced to a pile of rubble. From there we walked a bit further uphill to the main Kotel area – the Western Wall – a section of the retaining wall that surrounded the Temple Mount. It is perhaps the most iconic symbol of our deep roots as Jews in the Land of Israel. The plaza was filled with people tonight, as was the entire city, as Jews devoted this night to memory and prayer.
As New Yorkers, unfortunately we can relate all too well to a place of destruction such as this. The devastation at Ground Zero is seared into our memories forever. We remember the The Twin Towers, once rising above all New York, gleaming in the sunlight. And we watched them as they fell to rubble and ash over over a huge area of Lower Manhattan. Every year on 9/11, solemn memorials are held all over the country; the most significant in New York, at Ground Zero.
The Difference, of course, is that even in the face of this horrific destruction, we New Yorkers did not lose our city, nor our freedom or national identity as Americans. Twelve years after the catastrophe, our businesses are back, and the new towers are on their way up, though the losses of loved ones are permanent. For us as Jews, however, the destruction of the Temple meant the destruction of Jerusalem itself, exile from our land, and loss of our sovereignty. For some two millennia, our people dreamt of our homeland and restoration of our independence. “Next year in Jerusalem,” we have echoed through the centuries. Finally, in the late 19th century, we began the process of reclaiming Jewish sovereignty, which culminated in May of 1948 when the State of Israel was born. Now, 65 years later, Israel is a nation seething with excitement; with scientific and high tech advances, a rich and profound cultural and intellectual life, an animated political and philosophical discourse, and economic progress and creativity, all of which far exceed her size. Yet with each year we understand more acutely that the responsibilities and challenges of sovereignty are manifold. There is much work yet to be done, so that Israel can evolve into all that she is capable of being, as a modern democratic nation. Yet we give thanks that the State of Israel is alive and flourishing, and that the process of rebuilding that state is ongoing, and continuously evolving. We will remember that during this coming Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort, as we begin the anticipation of our rejoicing in the New Year.
The Reform Movement, historically, has distanced itself from observing Tishah B’av, on the ideological grounds that we do not mourn the Temple, nor the Priesthood, nor its sacrificial cult. While that is still the case, there can be no doubt that Reform Judaism in recent years has sought to link itself to the shared history of ALL the Jewish people. The Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, along with the Exile that ensued, is a seminal moment in our people’s history, and thus we have much more willingly embraced this memory. As I beheld that pile of rubble tonight, I felt this link most profoundly.
This Coming Shabbat is Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort, as we read words of consolation from the Prophet Isaiah:
Nachamu, Nachamu Ami – Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God,
And declare to her that her term of service is over. . . (40.1)
Youths may grow faint and weary, and young men stumble and fall.
But they who trust in our God shall renew their strength.
They shall run and not grow weary, they shall march and not be faith. . . (40.30-31)
Fear not for I am with you. Be not frightened, for I am your God;
I strengthen and I help you, I uphold you with My victorious right hand. (41.10)
This has been an extraordinary week here in Jerusalem, and it’s only Wednesday! Since Sunday we have heard from three extraordinary people heavily involved in the ongoing debate over religion in the public sphere, which has now become a higher-pitched debate than ever before during the entire 65 years of Israeli statehood. Last night’s guest speakers were Anat Hoffman, Director of the Israel Religious Action Center (of Reform Judaism), leader of Women of the Wall, and former member of the Jerusalem City Council; and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, graduate of Yeshiva University, Talmud Professor at Hebrew University, Rabbi of Ohr Torah Stone, and Chief Rabbi of the City of Efrat, Israel. A Modern Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Riskin grew up in Brooklyn, and served for twelve years as the founding Rabbi of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan.
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute, introduced the program by articulating the great challenge to Jews and Judaism in the Jewish State. Is it possible for Jews of different religious perspectives and groups to build a democratic nation together, in a pluralistic environment, respecting each other’s rights as citizens? (The question, of course, also pertains to non-Jews, but for now I will confine my remarks to Jews.). The clashes at the Western Wall on Monday (Rosh Chodesh Av) reached fever pitch, and the previous day, the Israeli cabinet approved a bill for Haredi military service. Thus this discussion was particularly apt at this extraordinary time.
While Ms. Hoffman and Rabbi Riskin hold different personal perspectives on religious observance, they agreed on virtually every issue that was discussed during this forum. The crux of the matter is not that Judaism is a state religion. Israel is, after all, the Jewish state. The problem, as both agreed, is that the power brokers and arbiters of how Judaism is lived and practiced have been, for far too long, the small group of Ultra-Orthodox rabbis who have co-opted the Torah and held the entire country as hostage.
What is clear now is that Israelis have had enough, and this phenomenon is about to change. On Sunday we at Hartman heard from new Member of Knesset Dov Lipman. Dov Lipman is an Ultra-Orthodox rabbi from Silver Spring, MD. He holds seat #17 in the Yesh Atid party, led by Yair Lapid. This party represents an unlikely conglomeration of people, men and women, from all points along the religious and (non-religious) spectrum. Rabbi Lipman advocates a separation between religion and state in matters of personal status and observance. Sound familiar? Both Rabbis Riskin and Lipman are American olim, and Anat Hoffman spent a number of years in the States, and holds an undergraduate degree from UCLA. It is not surprising that the principles of American democracy inform the sensibilities of all three, as they work to establish a fairer and more reasonable society in the Jewish State.
Since the confines of time and space require that I not go on too long at this time, I will ask that you access this video of the goings-on at the Kotel on Monday for Rosh Chodesh Av. It was a madhouse, but it needs to be seen in the perspective of this transitional time in Israel, and in the arc of an historic movement regarding Women of the Wall. At a certain point, I think you’ll recognize me, even with the sunglasses. I am confident that at some point a more workable compromise will be reached, and all Jews will have unfettered access to the Western Wall, the most iconic locus of Jewish historic significance.
Shalom Uv’rachah Mirushalayim – peace and blessings to all from Jerusalem
Nothing could be sweeter than Shabbat in Jerusalem, and this day was no exception. Earlier this morning (and last night as well) Steve and I attended services at Kehilat Har El, the first Reform synagogue in Israel, founded in 1958. The congregation is masterfully led by my good friend Rabbi Ada Zavidov. Har El’s congregants include both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and count among their founding members a number of German immigrants, mostly survivors of the Shoah.
During the service today, Rabbi Zavidov called our attention to the crown and breastplate adorning the Torah scroll. They are beautiful silver ornaments, and, like most people and things in Israel, bear a remarkable history. Otto Frank, z”l, was a leader in the Reform Movement in Europe after the War. After losing his whole family, he remarried after the war, and he and his wife (a former neighbor in Amsterdam) moved to Switzerland. During a trip to Israel in 1963, Otto Frank visited Kehilat Har El, and gave the congregation a generous gift. With this gift, the congregation commissioned the artist David Heinz Gumpel to create these beautiful Torah ornaments. They are inscribed with the words, “L’zecher Anna Frank,” “In memory of Anna Frank.” Anna, of course, was Otto’s younger daughter, author of the diary which she wrote during their family’s years of hiding in a factory attic in Amsterdam. I have inserted a photo of the ornaments below.
This week we will read a double Torah portion, Matot–Mas’ei, as we conclude the Book of Numbers. Our ancestors have come to the end of their long years of wandering in the Wilderness, and are about to enter Eretz Yisrael, the Land that God has promised to them and their descendants. In seeing these beautiful Torah ornaments I contemplated the sufferings of our people throughout history. And then I reveled in the sweetness of Shabbat among our people, in the midst of this wonderful congregation, speaking Hebrew, singing together, celebrating with a Bar Mitzvah and his family. In passing the Torah to his family and then to him, Rabbi Zavidov described him as “the newest link in the chain of tradition.” It was the Torah, of course, with these beautiful ornaments in tribute to Anne Frank. That one moment was an extraordinary confluence of painful memory, a moment of joy, and a future of hope. Then, amid the gleaming stones, and beautiful flowers, and shining sun of Jerusalem, we chanted kiddush and shared some challah. . .
Granted, it is not yet a perfect world, and our people still have very real issues to work on, both from within and without. Nevertheless, it was palpably clear in that moment that, in a very profound way, we have, indeed, closed the book on our wanderings. Our people are home.