Israel has always been important to me, but living in Jerusalem during my first year of rabbinical school deepened my connection to the land and the people. Working for the Cincinnati Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) this past summer allowed me to expand my knowledge of modern Israel and hone my skills in teaching and talking about this complicated place.
Each day, as a part of my fellowship, I read the news in Israel closely. My goal was to curate the content and create a snapshot of what is going on that I could share with our Cincinnati community. I followed the same stories across several news sites in order to keep our sources politically balanced. We shared those stories in a weekly emailthatreachednearly 1000 people connected to the Cincinnati JCRC. (You can sign up for that email here.)
Balance was perhaps the biggest challenge, because I did not always agree with the perspectives that I needed to share. The JCRC represents the entire Cincinnati Jewish community, so it is crucial that the news we share be free of bias. I would read stories of injustice toward the Palestinian and Ethiopian communities on Ha’aretz and accounts of Israeli soldiers and citizens being attacked by Palestinian extremists on JPost. Then I would search sites such as the Times of Israel, and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), where I would often find more balanced reporting of the same stories. Each time I was amazed by how differently the many sites reported the same stories, and I made it my mission to offer our Cincinnati readers neutral coverage.
Along with the Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Center, JCRC helped to lead a series of book club discussions throughout Cincinnati, including in public libraries, with the goal of providing the greater community with a space to learn and speak openly about the history of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I attended book discussions to provide stories from my first-hand experiences. This program gave me the opportunity to dive deeperinto learning about Israeli and Palestinian narratives while reading Yossi Klein Halevi’s Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor. In this book, Halevi shares his narrative of the Jewish people’s attachment to the land of Israel through history, stories, and Jewish texts. He also recognizes that the narrative he shares is only one of many narratives about Israel, and he invites his neighbors to respond. The second edition indeed contains an epilogue filled with diverse responses from Palestinian and Arab neighbors.
After spending the summer so heavily focused on Israel, I was inspired to write a sermon for Rosh Hashanah that would share about Israel and its many narratives through numerous stories about people and communities. The sermon focused on what Halevi called two non-negotiable commandments that Jewish history left his generation of Israelis. “The first: to be compassionate, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. The second: be alert, when your enemy says they intend to destroy you, believe them.” Halevi’s non-negotiable commandments perfectly describe the competing emotions I have experienced about Israel throughout my journey to becoming a rabbi. My understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a constant pendulum swinging between empathy and caution.
Madeline Anderson is a third-year rabbinical student and served as a TJF Fellow in the summer of 2019.