We spent this gorgeous, summery day with thousands (maybe tens of thousands!) of other tourists up on the Sea of Galilee, experiencing the traditional site of the miracle of Jesus of the loaves and fishes at the Tagbha Church, then the church commemorating where Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount, the Primacy of Peter church which houses the rock thought to be the table Jesus used as his prepared a meal for his disciples after his resurrection (The Table of Christ), and then Capernaum, the town Jesus called home for his three years up in the Galilee while he was preaching and ministering.
With sweaty brows and red-faced overheating from the blazing sun, we climbed aboard a large, motorized wooden boat for a ride on the Sea of Galilee (which is really a freshwater lake). Though a bit hazy, we enjoyed the cooling breezes on the water, while seeing some of those religious sites of our morning explorations from this vantage point. Beyond the coast, we could see patches of irrigated crops, looking lush on the arid hillsides above the lake…brown, rocky, steep mountainsides.
Refreshed, we headed for a luscious lunch of Tilapia (local fish) and a myriad of vegetable salads that excited our palates and gave us another colorful, local culinary experience. The St. Peter Grotto restaurant is prepared for the bus loads of tourists that arrive all day during this high season, for their Galilean fare. Our tasty meal was finished with plates of fresh dates (not dried!) and a tiny sip of our favorite Arabic coffee.
An hour north we picked up Tomme, our new Palestinian friend, in Gish, his hometown since 1948, when his family and entire village, were required to leave their homes in Bir’im and make their way several miles north, up to the hilltop location of Gish with fear in their hearts. In 1953, he and many of his village friends watched as their houses were bombed by the Israeli army. We drove to the site of that Bir’im village, which has become an Israeli National Park, not commemorating the obliterated Palestinian town, but rather the site of an old synagogue (which is not situated in the direction one would expect of a Jewish synagogue). Tomme told his painful story, with love and grace from his ever hopeful heart. We walked with him through his town, as he reminisced, explaining which families had lived in these village houses, reduced to rubble now. (One of the houses was that of the family of Elias Chacour, our famous founder of this educational institute where we are staying and the story of this village is told in his book, Blood Brothers.) The villagers come to Bir’im to clean up and take care of the remnants of their once vibrant town, lovingly, so that the story will not be lost. These elderly villagers (Tomme was 21 years old in 1948) have even restored their Christian church…you’ll see a photo of Tomme telling his story in that church.
It was a touching moment as he stood in the midst of the rubble remains of his family’s home, showing us the covered hand-dug well with its still pristine water, describing his love of this place. This ended Tomme’s storytelling time with us, but we’ll carry the power of his story with us. The challenges this long established Palestinian community faced with the 1948 change in their world and their continued sense of loss of place is an important story we usually do not hear…and as you might guess, there were no other tour buses at this site!! Ours is not the usual tour of the area!
This was a day of contrasts: the inspiring morning, following in Jesus’ revolutionary footsteps and the afternoon, experiencing the sight of the results of a fearful army destroying the life of believers who had lived peacefully in their village since before the time of Jesus, Arab next to Jew.
As our bus pulled back into Ibillin in the late afternoon darkness, Rabbi Haviva Nerdaviv cut into traffic behind us, spotting us from her edge-of-town waiting spot, so as to safely find her way up the steep, winding streets (alleyways, really) up, up into Mar Elias. In meeting her, soon after settling from our day, we learned she was raised an orthodox Jew in NYC and despite the challenges of her denomination, was a determined feminist rabbinical student. She currently lives in a Galilean kibbutz.
With her husband and young family, she moved to Israel, following their Zionist upbringing, and spent ten years in Jerusalem, which she described as an ‘Anglo’ and ‘segregated’ experience. Jewish neighborhoods are segregated from Palestinian neighborhoods, often separated only by a street that is rarely crossed by ‘the other’. While in Jerusalem, her children participated in ‘Kids for Peace’ (Jewish, Christian and Moslem children camping together in the US), she was privately ordained a rabbi after becoming a Conservative Jew and her family found many ways to work for peace. She wanted to work in a denomination of Judaism that would allow for full egalitarian leadership potential for women, and that required a move from her Orthodox roots.
Although their kibbutz is left-leaning, all are Jewish; they are situated very close to the Palestinian town of Kfar Manda, our first stop when we arrived on Sunday. Surprising to her, segregation is still present here in this more rural Israel. She and her family use medical services in the Palestinian town and her children attend school with Palestinian children, but this is not the norm. Jews fear the Palestinians, even her progressive Jewish population; the idea that all Palestinians may be terrorists seems ever present.
Haviva has encouraged several Jewish women to join her in weaving baskets with the Sindyanna Palestinian women weavers…we were hosted by these weavers at our first luncheon her in Israel. Weekly they join together, however language is a bit of a barrier, requiring translators, since few of the Arab women speak Hebrew and few Jewish women speak Arabic. (Haviva is learning Arabic with her 10 year old daughter, as ‘she is embarrassed that she cannot fully communicate with these women she has grown to appreciate as dear friends’.)
She told the story that on the day of the flotilla attack in the Mediterranean off of the coast of Gaza, the Sindyanna women, Arab and Jewish, were weaving together, not yet knowing of the attack. Jewish cellphones rang, fearfully calling the women to come home. Haviva stayed! She stayed with the Arab women feeling as though she was right where she wanted to be and that it would have an affront to her friendships to leave these women in fear.’
Haviva summed up her message by describing herself as a ‘post-denominational’ rabbi, committed to serving all, egalitarian in her faith, recognizing the humanity of every person. She will remain in Israel, although no longer Zionist, ‘as long as she feels she can do things for peace, small as they might be, one friendship at a time, to honor and eventually alleviate the tension each feels in their current situation.’
Haviva is a generous, brilliant, loving Israeli woman, who exposed her own tensions and humanity so beautifully as to expose the heart of the challenge in this complicated culture with tortured histories…an end to a huge day of complicated contrasts.