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Nelson Mandela’s Work

Nelson Mandela Photo: lasanta.com.ec Flickr

Last Thursday the world lost Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa. Through his own unimaginable personal sacrifice and almost superhuman determination and political acumen, he brought about peace and reconciliation to a deeply troubled land. In so doing, he inspired us all with hope in the potential of human beings to overcome the racism that poisons us and the hatred that divides us.

The Psalmist teaches: “The days of our years are threescore and ten, or even by reason of strength, fourscore years.” Threescore and ten – 70 years. But the first 70 years of Mr. Mandela’s life were marked by violence and tyranny, resistance and imprisonment. In the traditional view, that would have been his entire life. But when he emerged from the darkness into the light, standing side by side with the very people who once had been his enemies, he began a new life, and went on to bless this world for almost FIVE score years. It was amazing to behold.

No, we can’t all be Mandelas. One is more than any epoch can probably expect. But we can all learn from him, and draw inspiration from his life and work. We can make an effort to use our intelligence and our strength, and our human sensitivity, to join with others in promoting human progress and a peaceful life on this earth. Each of us has to find some area in which we are most compelled to make our personal contribution. But the work is what counts – our work. We learn from the Mishnah: “You are not required to complete all the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Each of us is obligated to make some personal contribution to repair the world. Each of us is personally responsible. That is really the most authentic way to honor the memory of Nelson Mandela, and all the other heroes and heroines who have worked and fought to make the world a better place.

This week we will complete our reading of the Book of Genesis. The rivalries and enmity that have marked the generations of our patriarchs and matriarchs have been put to rest. After 20 years of separation and estrangement, Jacob and his children are together as one family. At least for now, the spirit of peace and reconciliation has won the day. As we close the Book of Genesis, we proclaim in the words of our tradition, חזק חזק ונתחזק Chazak, chazak, venitchazek – Be strong, be very strong, and we shall strengthen each other.

As for Nelson Mandela we say, זכר צדיק לברכה – Zecher Tzaddik Livrachah – May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing – and may we keep alive the light he brought into the world.

An Extraordinary Man

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Jawdat Ibrahim in his restaurant Abu Ghosh.

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!

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Abu Ghosh Restaurant

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!).

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Turkish Coffee at Abu Ghosh Restaurant

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.