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Meet the Neighbors: An Israeli Initiative to Dispel the Darkness

Meet the Neighbors: An Israeli Initiative to Dispel the Darkness

rainbow over Arab village

Between darkness and light
I will always walk,
And wherever I will go,
I will open a window of light
And will plant the seeds of love.

These beautiful words, written by Manel Harib, are the lyrics to the song "Between Darkness and Light," the music for which was composed by Dafna Rosenberg.

I want to describe to you a moment of true chesed (kindness), a moment when I’m not only speaking about peace, when I’m not simply speaking of love, I’m not just praying and uttering the words “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but rather a moment when I actually do it.

I am very fortunate to be deeply involved in “Meet the Neighbors,” an encounter program between Jewish families from Reform congregations and Arab families from neighboring Arab villages around the country. Our group brought families from Kibbutz Megiddo in the Jezreel Valley in northern Israel together with Arab families from the nearby village of Zalepheh and the city of Uhm-al Fahm. Watching the families talk, hash out, and unravel the various levels of complexity in our relationships with each other provided me with such a moment.

I hadn’t engaged in such dialogue for nearly 20 years, since I was a university student, and was both delighted and nervous for the renewed opportunity. For the past seven months, 10 families came together – five Arab, five Jewish – to talk, hike, and hang out, getting to know one another and brainstorm about the future of our State. The meetings are part of an initiative organized by Israel’s Reform Movement with assistance from Givat Haviva, an organization that aims to build an inclusive, socially cohesive society in Israel.

Riham Agberiah from Zalapheh and Michal Peri from Kibbutz Ramot Menashe served as facilitators, and I joined the group as the rabbi of the Megiddo Regional Council. (Yes, a female rabbi for an Israeli Regional Council does exist, but that’s a story for another time!) During our joint meetings in the past few months, we have seen a darkening of the atmosphere in Israel. No, not just a shortening of the days as a natural occurrence signaling winter’s onset, but rather darkness between fellow human beings, marked by violent acts and fear of one another. I learned, for example, that there’s a growing hesitancy among some Arab women to go out with their head coverings on, afraid of being attacked. I, too, had to admit there were moments at the Uhm-al Fahm junction that I also feared for my safety. Could there be someone waiting to attack me, I wondered?

In spite of this darkness, our “Meet the Neighbors” group provided us with something that is priceless – an opportunity to move beyond our comfort zone and to be proactive about overcoming the paralyzing fear that prevents us from going out to meet our neighbors. Especially in today’s age of technology, when so many encounters are virtual, the need for this kind of dialogue and personal face-to-face time cannot be overstated.

Although the official “Meet the Neighbors” gatherings have concluded, our group has continued to meet on its own. This past Shabbat – the shortest of the year, with the least amount of light – we came together to celebrate with an interfaith Kabbalat Shabbat.

During our study and prayer together, we offered this blessing, written by my colleague, Rabbi Tamar Duvdevani, which I now offer to you:

Hebrew blessing

Our God and God of our fathers and mothers, You who grant people knowledge and teach us to be understanding, grant us knowledge and teach us to see clearly. Open our hearts to Your Torah, which is heard in every voice, and open our eyes to see Your image in every human being.

We rejoice in study, in discovery, and in innovation. Grant us the spirit to understand and to be enlightened, to hear, to learn, and to teach. Give us peace and love in our hearts so that we may learn from one another, about one another, and, together, increase peace in the world.

And let us say Amen.

Rabbi Michal Ratner Ken-Tor, recently ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, is a sabra, the fifth child in a Zionist family that made aliyah from the United States in 1968. A multi-talented educator with more than 20 years’ experience, she encourages students of all ages to embrace the spirit of Judaism and turn it into a creative force in their lives. Michal lives with her husband, a filmmaker, and their three sons in Pardes Hanna, Israel.

Rabbi Michal Ratner Ken-Tor
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