I have just returned from two weeks in Israel with far more than the usual tourist souvenirs.
Yes, I did collect tiny bottles of water from the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee, and I do indeed have a handful of crosses made from Israeli olive wood, but the conversations I had with the people I met are far more valuable than the trinkets I brought back.
On one of my first days, I rode a public train from Jerusalem to Haifa on the northern coast in about two hours at speeds approaching 100 mph. The trains are very popular, so it was easy to find myself sitting next to someone who would talk with me.
One of my first conversations was with a woman named Sarika whose father had been a rabbi in Romania when the Nazis took control of that country. He fled to Israel with his wife in 1941, before it was a nation. The rest of his family was unable to escape and died in the Holocaust. Even though he continued as a rabbi once in Israel, he lost his faith in God as a result of what had happened. Sarika has lived her entire life without faith. She tried going to Synagogue and keeping the customs her father had practiced, but they are hollow and empty to her.
I also met a man named Lior who was a planetary scientist. We had a very animated discussion about why Pluto was a planet, then wasn’t a planet, and is now a planet again. (Basically, it never was a planet by the definition of what constitutes a real planet, but from a public relations standpoint for the people who know about these kinds of things, it’s better if they do call it a planet again.)
My first question to Lior was whether it was safe to visit Israel. I asked this because virtually everyone who knew I was going to Israel expressed deep concern for my safety. And, yes, while there were hundreds of rockets launched at Israel while I was there, a grand total of one person was killed. The Iron Dome missile defense system is amazingly effective. Lior made the point that it is far safer to be in Israel than it is to walk the streets of Chicago. He’s obviously right, and I am just barely smart enough to know that when a planetary scientist talks about this kind of thing, it is safe to believe him.
Lior had a deep, well thought-out view of Israeli politics and I learned a lot about the dynamics of what is going on in this nation of almost ten million people surrounded by their enemies. At its heart, the conservative religious part of Jewish society is only about 25% of the population, but they wield political power disproportionate to their size. This causes some resentment among secular Jews, who are a much larger part of the population. And that is why we see protests and a political struggle going on in Israel. Lior and every single Jewish person I spoke with who mentioned the media cautioned that the media, especially the American media, tends to inflate and distort what it reports. Lior was not an atheist, as he was far too intelligent to summarily declare there is no God, but religion is simply not a relevant part of his life.
Later in the trip, I was blessed to be able to explore and learn about an Israeli kibbutz. There are currently 270 kibbutzim (plural for “kibbutz”) in Israel with membership between 80 to 2.000 people in each one. That adds up to about 120,000 people, or about 1.2% of the population. Kibbutzim are communities where people voluntarily live and work together in what is idealistically intended to be a pure form of socialism. I entered the kibbutz looking for someone who could tell me about this place and just “coincidentally” ran across a woman named Bracha who was the historian for the kibbutz.
Bracha invited me into the building that served as the archives for this place and proceeded to show and tell for almost two hours how the kibbutz had been formed in 1910. Old photographs clearly showed it was a hot, barren place in the early days in contrast to the trees and flowers that grow there now. Bananas and avocados and pecans now provide income for the kibbutz. She had fond memories of her childhood growing up in the kibbutz, but when asked about her grandparents, she said she never knew them as they were killed in the Holocaust.
And then Bracha told about how her mother escaped Poland by living in a hole that had been dug under the house for a while. She then hid in a public latrine for a time until she was taken in by a Catholic family. She was blond-haired and blue-eyed which is probably why she survived, but she lived in fear of being caught impersonating a Catholic by improperly making the sign of the cross when she attended mass.
Bracha, like Lior and Sarika, saw no usefulness or advantage in practicing any form of religion.
Israel is a nation of religious contrasts. While Jews and Christians and Muslims do battle over this tiny piece of real estate at the crossroads of the Middle East, the majority of its inhabitants would rather not be involved in any of it. They were nothing but kind and graceful to this obvious tourist with little true insight into their national identity, even though their history and heritage is, in many ways, a wound still healing.
And the trinkets in my backpack do very little to tell the story of who these people really are.
“But some of these branches from Abraham’s tree—some of the people of Israel—have been broken off. And you Gentiles, who were branches from a wild olive tree, have been grafted in. So now you also receive the blessing God has promised Abraham and his children, sharing in the rich nourishment from the root of God’s special olive tree. But you must not brag about being grafted in to replace the branches that were broken off. You are just a branch, not the root.” (NLT)