Trip to Jerusalem a revelation for Bay Area rabbis

The weather was glorious, and the skies over Jerusalem were a clear, brilliant blue. But they were far from calm. Over the holy city, the air was constantly filled with the whirring of helicopters, and, often, clouds of black smoke could be seen in the distance.

That is how Rabbi Allen Bennett described the atmosphere in Jerusalem this week. He was there taking part in the annual meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the professional organization of Reform rabbis.

Bennett was one of several Bay Area rabbis to make the trip and who spoke about their experiences upon their return home.

It was a week filled with contrasts. It was one in which the rabbis uttered not only a Shehechiyanu, the prayer to thank God for bringing them to this place, but also "benched gomiel, the prayer you say when you have been delivered from a disaster or harrowing experience," said Bennett, spiritual leader of Alameda's Temple Israel.

The conference began last week, and Bennett attended a workshop on Emek Rafayim Street on March 7, after which some of the rabbis returned to their hotel and some stopped at a coffee shop called Caffit for lunch. Although Bennett wasn't there himself, quite a few of his colleagues were when a suicide bomber entered and tried to detonate himself before a waiter saw him and pushed him outside, averting the attack.

Two buses also traveled to a Bedouin encampment called the Jahalin, as well as the Palestinian village of Issawiya, where the group was taken by Rabbi Arik Ascherman, formerly of Richmond's Temple Beth Hillel, to see the work of Rabbis for Human Rights. Ascherman is the organization's director.

The group of rabbis met with a Palestinian whose home had been demolished by the Israel Defense Force.

"Heartbreaking" was how Bennett described it, but then, that is the same way he described many of the things he saw and heard.

Before leaving for the airport, the rabbis sang an emotional "Hatikvah" at a Hebrew Union College conference room overlooking the Old City. "We were talking about our hope for the Jewish homeland and we're in the heart of it, and it's like there's been a cardiac arrest."

Rabbi Michael Berk, regional executive director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in San Francisco, said he came away with a new respect for the Israeli people. One speaker the rabbis met with had a child who had been to three funerals that week.

"You have to applaud their daily courage," he said. "They are scared, and they talk about their fears, yet no matter who you talk to — the cab driver, the Reform rabbi, whoever it is — they say, 'You have to go on.'"

Berk said that he came home feeling more viscerally the pain and anger of the Israelis.

Watching Israel's television coverage of attacks is not the same as watching U.S. coverage, he said. "When they show the bombings, you see pools of blood. This is what you see every few days. You can't help but feel that this is my family that's bleeding over there."

Rabbi Stephen Kahn of San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel said that even when he lived in Israel as a rabbinical student during the Gulf War, he did not sense then the feelings of pessimism he experienced this week.

"You used to always hear that everything is going to be OK, it is what it is and we'll get through it," he said. "But you don't hear that now. They feel totally helpless and hopeless."

Kahn described being in a restaurant when an attack happened in Netanya. The place went silent, as everyone jumped up to watch the coverage on TV. "This is happening all the time; they are really in agony."

In conversations with Israelis, Kahn discovered that the younger generation, given the opportunity, is ready to leave.

"I don't know if they say it to make themselves feel better, like they have an out, or whether they really mean it," said Kahn, "but I think they really mean it."

Other Bay Area rabbis on the trip included Janet Marder and Josh Zweiback from Los Altos Hills' Congregation Beth Am; Martin Weiner of Sherith Israel, David Wirtschafter of Burlingame's Peninsula Temple Sholom, Melanie Aron of Los Gatos' Congregation Shir Hadash, Andrea Berlin of Oakland's Temple Sinai and Steven Kaplan of Fremont's Temple Beth Torah.

Rabbi Greg Wolfe of Congregation Bet Haverim Jewish Fellowship of Davis said he returned home feeling that a resolution to the conflict must be found immediately.

Saying that the Palestinians were suffering more than the Israelis, he maintained neither side could afford to take the wait-and-see approach.

"The cycle of violence hasn't solved anything," he said. "We both retaliate like a horrible pingpong game. Every side is so entrenched. There has to be a different kind of voice."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."