Stories included in the following article are shared only to illustrate striking experiences that made significant impacts on my life and my relationship with ‘hope.’ Please respect my honest experiences as exactly that.
If you’ve known me for a while or if you happen to be a fellow Rock Boater, then you may not be surprised to read that one of the things I find most valuable in life are moments. Not just any moment, but moments that you’ll always save as precious memories frozen in time. Moments that inspire you. Moments when you were challenged and made the right choice (or maybe even the wrong one). Moments when the lead singer of your favorite band gave you his mic to sing part of your favorite song. Moments that shattered your entire understanding of the world. Moments that inspired you to keep on keeping on when life gets hard. Moments when you felt real, undeniable, unstoppable, unquestionable, unwavering love. Moments that are once in a lifetime.
In July of 2014, I went to Israel on my Birthright trip with Amazing Israel. One of the most influential moments for me (and there were many) was the moment my understanding of ‘hope’ changed completely. On Birthright, participants have the opportunity to be given a Hebrew name. I asked my tour guide/educator, Barak Berkovich, to help me find a meaningful name, as he seemed to really appreciate the intense experience I was having with the conflict as it unfolded around us throughout Operation Protective Edge. He asked me about a Facebook post I had made a day or two beforehand. Our conversation went something like this (paraphrased, of course – it’s been two years, after all).
Barak: What you wrote, it was beautiful. What does it mean to you? The song you shared, and what you wrote about it?
Katie: *long pause, lost in thought* I think, maybe… hope.
Barak: Ahhhhh, Tikvah. What a beautiful word and a beautiful name.
Tikvah (תקווה). In that moment, hope was no longer just a word we say when we want our favorite team to win the big game or the new movie to be good. For me, hope was the beginning. Hope is the beginning. That summer, my heart swelled with hope for Israel. Since then, I’ve come to find that any kind of progress or change in the world starts with hope.
In the beginning of Achvat Amim, we met a Rabbi who asked us what our thoughts were on peace in Israel. “Is it even possible?” When it was my turn to answer, I said that, while I was new to understanding this conflict and came to Jerusalem to learn about it, I was still “hopelessly optimistic” that peace is possible in Israel. This session with the Rabbi stuck with me throughout my time in Jerusalem – every time my idea of hope strengthened, morphed, or was challenged. And there were certainly times during my five months in Israel when I lost hope.
In October 2015, very early on in our program, we went with the Center of Jewish Nonviolence to Susiya in the West Bank to help the Palestinian communities there with their olive harvests. We spent the day with wonderfully kind, generous, and welcoming locals who served us delicious tea and made us feel comfortable in their homes. After a day in the field picking olives, we sat in a big circle and spoke with one of the host families over dinner. A father told his son that all of the volunteers there were Jewish. His son laughed at what he thought was a joke. The father insisted that we all were in fact Jewish. His son’s eyes got wide with surprise. “Really?! No!” It took me a long time to really understand why he was so stunned. Eventually, I realized that in that child’s six or seven years of living, the only Jewish people he had met were soldiers or residents of the nearby Susiya settlement, and none of them had ever helped his family with their olive harvests before.
When we talked about this as a group in Achvat Amim at the end of the day, we wondered how many people out there are like him and have only experienced a certain group of people in a certain way. How many Palestinian children only have soldiers and settlers guiding their perspectives on Israelis? And how many Israeli children only know Palestinians from terrorist attacks? How can there be hope when so many people – generations, now – on both sides have only experienced half of the picture and believe that to be everything there is to it? Going to Susiya really magnified for me how extremely different each person’s perspective in this conflict is. It’s almost not even about perspective anymore – this is not just how these individuals see the conflict – its truly how they’ve experienced it. How can there be hope when there is little chance to change these experiences on both sides? But then typing that, I immediately think, ‘I hope we changed that boy’s experience with Jewish people, because if we did, then maybe we gave him a chance to have a different perspective in this conflict.’
It should be noted that this very community that hosted us in October is now facing another potential demolition. My experience in Susiya was difficult, but it left me believing that if we keep working together, we can find a way to safely and positively coexist. I worry for the safety and survival of all of the people I met there, especially if the metal scraps and tarps they use to make homes are demolished.
Susiya was just the beginning. Later, I finally got brave enough to go to Bethlehem. Okay, I finally got brave enough to ask my wonderful Dutch friend who had been there three times already if she would please take me, because I had no idea how to even get there, let alone what to do once (if) I got there. Visiting Bethlehem was one of the most powerful and difficult experiences I have ever had. From talking to shopkeepers and locals throughout the day who all used the phrase “I feel like a prisoner,” to walking down the street towards the infamous wall where past protests were violent enough to permanently close all the businesses that used to be there, to seeing and touching the wall, to absorbing all the powerful works of art on the wall, to leaving Bethlehem through a walking checkpoint at 5pm as crowds of locals return home from the work day – that day was a turning point for me and significantly challenged my hope. I was moved to tears more than once, and looking at photos still makes me emotional. Experiencing that reality in just one day was enough for me to begin to understand why so much hope has been lost in Bethlehem, and to empathize with the fact that there is very little hope in restoring any hope.
The same week I went to Bethlehem, I also went with Achvat Amim to the desert to learn about challenges in the south. We first tried to piece together what we could of the Gaza situation, touring the border with Gaza, visiting Sderot, and discussing the history of Gaza and what used to be. I went into that learning day with so much hope that I would come out on the other side with a better understanding of what actually happened while I was in Israel the last time, on Birthright, during Operation Protective Edge. But even after walking along the border, looking across the valley, and seeing Gaza… that situation is still hopeless to me. I can’t even begin to think of a way to solve all the problems that exist there. It seems to me that social change won’t even scratch the surface, and the barriers to even small grassroots efforts are seemingly insurmountable. Thinking back on that day still hurts my heart. Losing hope is not something I do, but I did then.
The next day, we explored some of the recognized and unrecognized Bedouin villages of Israel. After visiting Umm al-Hiran, I almost ran out of hope. I cannot follow any sort of rationalization for not recognizing people and where they live. They are there. Period. Not recognizing that they are there doesn’t mean that they aren’t there. You can dislike that they are there all you want, and you can even debate whether or not they should be there, but simply not recognizing them doesn’t make sense to me. I mean, you can drive there. So, the town is there, and when you get there, you see and speak to the people there. Adding to that is the idea of demolishing what the residents of Umm al-Hiran have built for themselves [which, by the way, how are there demolition orders for a community that “doesn’t exist” / is unrecognized?] in order to build a Jewish community in the same place and name it Hiran just furthers my confusion and, at the time, made me ready to throw in my hope towel. What is happening in this place that I love so much? It seemed like the opposite of all the Jewish values I hold so dear to my heart, and the opposite of tikkun olam. This is not repairing the world… it’s actively demolishing it. When I first wrote this post, I wanted to believe that, with this issue, there is hope, because all it would take is to just not demolish these peoples’ homes and to ‘recognize‘ them, right? I thought. I hoped. But then I read this. And then this. And now I see how difficult this situation is, and how hard it is to have hope in its resolution.
“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” -Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
I went back to Israel because I fell in love with a place that was at war. I wanted to be a part of finding a better way. I wanted to have a meaningful role in tikkun olam. It is true that I learned and saw a lot that hurt my heart and damaged my hope while living in Israel. But I’m grateful that even at moments when I thought all hope was lost, I still got to be a part of projects that restored my hope enough to keep on keeping on when life got hard.
The first project I was involved with was at Yad b’Yad, the Hand in Hand School for Jewish and Palestinian children. I was there to teach English, but the kids taught me so much more. I’ve written about some of my experiences there before, but it’s worth sharing more. One day, I met the first Orthodox Jewish student to attend the school. He and his friend, Mohamed, were working on an assignment together on the couches in the hallway where we usually sat between classes, so I joined them. After a few minutes of observing and listening, I said hello. The Jewish boy asked me how I knew he spoke English, and I told him that I didn’t know, that I just simply don’t know Hebrew or Arabic, so I always speak English. We had a nice conversation, and then I asked what he and his friend were working on. They were writing a letter together, alternating between Hebrew and Arabic. If that isn’t proof positive that Israeli society can be a shared one, and coexistence is possible and practical, then I don’t know what is. I’m sure that little boy didn’t think for a second about working with Mohamed, he just did so because he’s another boy in his class – a friend. The good news is that more and more parents want to send their kids to a Hand in Hand school all across Israel, and they are constantly growing their institutions. The fact that Israelis recognize the importance of bilingual schools like Hand in Hand gives me a lot of hope.
I’ve also written a lot about my powerful and wonderful experiences at the YMCA with the ACTV program. Nothing gave me more hope than spending time with those kids every week. It was the highlight of my work there (and it continues to be as I keep in touch with the kids!). One day, just when I was feeling like there was no purpose for my being in Jerusalem at all, one of the Jewish girls tried out her rusty Arabic with me. One of the Palestinian girls overheard and rushed over with delight and joy. She helped the Jewish girl with her pronunciation and even helped her remember words she used to know from school. In that moment, I saw how even just a small step in the direction of respect and understanding helps so much to bridge wide gaps in cultural divides. The effort these kids put in to connect with each other despite their differences is inspiring. They try, they listen, they help each other, they welcome each other into their cultures, and they share. I’m so grateful ACTV exists, and watching these kids work together every week filled my heart with hope. Unlike Yad b’Yad, no one tells these kids to go to ACTV each week. They willingly joined the program because they wanted to, not because their parents chose for them. Keeping this in mind adds so much meaning and purpose to what they are doing each week. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I truly believe these kids will change the world. I can’t wait to see it happen, and I’ll help them any way I can.
I also found a lot of hope in Masa Israel and the leadership development initiatives they established for Masa participants. I was able to attend a few conferences that pushed the participants to think critically and ask questions about real challenges that Israel faces. They offered programming that supported a broad spectrum of ideas concerning these challenges and found ways to make room for everyone’s perspective. This gave me my first real, complete exposure to the extremities of international Jewish perspective on Israel. There were heated debates in many of the workshops. It is clear that there is a definite passion for so many people about this place, and Masa proved to me that it’s possible to make room for everyone’s passion, regardless of how different an approach they each may take. At first, realizing how radical some people’s perspectives were only upset me. Then, one of the group leaders challenged us: “If something initially made you angry, how could you have responded differently?” I realized that being angry because someone thinks differently from me doesn’t make any sense. Actually, our disagreement creates an opportunity to better understand a different perspective and to have civil conversations. Who knows? Maybe this can lead to mutual respect and understanding. Maybe we’re all, in fact, on the same side and want the same positive outcomes for this State we all love. This possibility gives me hope that maybe someday, we can all put aside our differences and work together. And truly, that is a key component in finding a solution for המצב (hamatzav, the situation).
Most of all, the fact that Achvat Amim exists, and the fact that Karen and Daniel have dedicated their lives to developing and facilitating a worthwhile, meaningful, educational, and analytical program like this gives me the most hope. Not only are these humans incredibly knowledgeable and realistic about the conflict, but they are both unfailingly understanding and supportive. Achvat Amim was one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my life, but Karen and Daniel always made me feel like I had a strong support system to manage it. When I started Achvat Amim, I knew nothing about social change or activism, I had no idea what “grassroots” meant, and I knew very little about the realities in Israel. Achvat Amim gave me the opportunity to not just understand social change, but also to be a part of it and experience it as it happened. Through this program, I was able to be a part of my own learning process and learn by living life on the ground in Jerusalem. Karen and Daniel created a safe space in our group to have open dialogue about the conflict which made it easier to process more difficult experiences. I now understand the importance of grassroots programs like these, and I will forever be grateful for this experience. Knowing that this program exists, and knowing that it will keep growing and developing and impacting peoples’ lives restores all of my hope.
“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.” -Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist (I really love this book!)
I’ve been home now for six months, and I’ve been writing and re-writing this since my last post, seven months ago. Actually, some draft of this article has existed since October (2015). Figuring out what I wanted to share and how I wanted to share it has been a challenge on its own, because it’s all so important but also incredibly delicate. On top of that, reimmersing myself back into my normal American life has been interesting and exhausting. I find my mind is still constantly on Israel and – really – I find that I’m still learning a lot about my experiences there as I get reacquainted with my life here. I hope this article doesn’t seem too far removed from the experiences six months ago to share with you now. For me, it feels like I’m still very much in it, even though it was about a year ago that I started this intense and transformative experience.
When I think back on my whole Israel journey, I return to the moment early on in Jerusalem, when I told the Rabbi that I was “hopelessly optimistic” that peace is possible in Israel. But really, after six months of living the realities of Jerusalem life, I think I was wrong from the start. Saying that I was hopelessly optimistic was never accurate. I learned over those six months that, in fact, I am so incredibly hopefully optimistic. Because no matter what the challenges are, I still know from experience how many good people there are doing grassroots work to make a difference in people’s lives. There’s so much hope in that – that they don’t give up. Maybe that’s truly what lies in the heart of tikkun olam. During our first few weeks of Achvat Amim, Karen and Daniel shared with us part of what they learned from growing up in Hashomer Hatzair: Tikkun Adam, Tikkun Olam (“Repair thyself, Repair the world”). Learning about the world and working to better it goes hand-in-hand with learning about and bettering yourself, and holding the world accountable to higher standards innately means you should be holding yourself to those higher standards, too. So even when the atmosphere of a place leaves little wiggle room to make big, overwhelming changes that you feel are necessary to make progress, you don’t give up on the smaller projects, because those are still making a difference in someone’s life, and you’re still repairing a part of the world, and yourself. And if we’re lucky, maybe making positive differences on the small scale will catch up to the large scale and really repair the whole world.
“Remember that hope is a good thing, Red, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” -Stephen King, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption
I think this says it all. Hope is the best thing, and my hope for peace and coexistence will never die. Now, to figure out what to do with all this hope.
Click below to listen to the song that inspired the title of this blog post, “Young & Restless” by The Gallery: