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What is freedom?

We speak often about breaking down our echo chambers by exposing ourselves to ideas and perspectives different from our own. On my recent trip to Israel, I was given the opportunity to assess my own opinions while learning alongside other rabbinical students from Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements.

Within each movement participants range across the political spectrum from conservative to liberal, with many moderates in between. While we disagreed on many things, we did so respectfully. And in the words of one of our speakers,, “in every disagreement lies an agreement.” On our trip, we all agreed that we cared about the future of Israel.

As I was seeking new perspectives, I deepened my knowledge of Israel-- politically, culturally, and most of all, in terms of security. One of the most impactful sessions was spent with the IDF Colonel who led the team which designed and executed the security barrier between Israel and the West Bank.

During my year in Israel, the majority of my education on the separation wall came from Palestinian voices on Encounter trips. Those voices are valid, and I carry their perspectives with me. However, I learned from the Colonel that the section of the wall which is concrete… the only part I had ever seen, makes up just 5% of the entire barrier.

At the very end of our session with him, we stood next to one of the 29 foot tall concrete slabs and looked up at the hole in the top of it. He told us that they liked to call it “the hole of hope,” because they hoped that one day they would use those holes to remove the wall with a crane, piece by piece.

When we returned to the bus, another participant jokingly pointed out that those holes were used to put the wall there in the first place. We all laughed, because we knew he was right… then our guide pointed out that while both statements are true, the lesson we should take from the Colonel’s desire to tearing down his life's work is that all he ever wanted was freedom and safety, for both peoples.

In this week’s parsha, B’shalakh, we read one of the most epic freedom narratives of our people. The Israelites finally escaped from bondage in Egypt, but before Moses even had a chance to split the Sea, they began to doubt Adonai.

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to Adonai. They complained to Moses, saying, “Were there not enough graves in Egypt? So you brought us here… to die in the wilderness? What have you done, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not exactly what we told you in Egypt, when we said, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’?” But Moses said to the people, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the miracle which Adonai will make for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. (Ex. 14:10-13)

Of course we know that Moses lifts up his staff and splits the Sea, allowing the Israelites to pass safely, then releases the waters onto the Egyptians, drowning them in the Sea.

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to Adonai. They said: I will sing to you Adonai, for you have triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver you have hurled into the sea. Adonai is my strength and might; Adonai has become my deliverance. I will enshrine and exalt you Adonai, God of my ancestors. Adonai, the Warrior— Adonai is God’s name! (Ex 15:1-3)

In the beginning, the Israelites allowed their fear to cloud their judgement. They had already witnessed Adonai perform miracles through Moses and had no reason to doubt. When they arrived safely, they thanked Adoani, but it was not long before they again lost faith. Later in Exodus we learn that the Israelite people eventually arrive safely to the Promised Land.

From the very beginning, in times of oppression, our Jewish ancestors have fought for the freedom of our people. Each time, though not without casualties, our people have succeeded in gaining freedom. In diaspora communities around the world, we are battling antisemitism, and in Israel, our people are literally at war with their neighbors. While we live in an era in which Jews are considered to be free, we are not quite as free as we would like to be.

In order to work together for freedom, we need to act as ONE Jewish people, rather than Israel and several diaspora communities.

In order to rebuild that sense of peoplehood, we must try to get to know each other on a societal level, because we exist in very different worlds.

Growing up as a Jew in American means: In most places, you will likely be a minority. In school, you will celebrate different holidays, pray on a different day of the week, and have different family traditions than most of your friends. You will have to work hard to be Jewish and to think Jewishly, because most of the people around you will be taught a different way to exist in the world. -- You will likely face some form of antisemitism in your lifetime. You may or may not live in a state in which the law is designed to protect you from a hate crime. (4 still don’t).

Growing up as a Jew in Israel means: Judaism is weaved into every moment of your life, even if you manage to never step foot in a synagogue. You grow up living by the Jewish calendar, speaking Hebrew, and learning about Judaism and Jewish history in public school. There is no escaping Judaism in Israeli childhood, even if you aren’t Jewish. -- You are prepared your whole life to become a soldier. Then when you have a family, you prepare your children to become soldiers.

Many of the Israelis I met on my recent AIEF (American Israel Education Foundation) trip shared that while they grew up knowing they would serve, and had children knowing their children would serve, they are not happy about the necessity of conscription in their country. They do not want to be at war with their neighbors. They want to live in an Israel that is at peace, where their children can be children.

At Kfar Aza, a kibbutz just off the border of the Gaza strip, a community member spoke with us about what it means to live in ten second increments, because that is how long they have to get to a bomb shelter if the sirens go off. She shared that children learn about the sirens, often before they learn how to walk. They know that when they hear the siren, they should lift their arms up in the air and an adult will whisk by, scoop them up, and take them to safety… She shared that studies were being done to map the differences in brain development for children living in a situation of constant trauma. She said that their PTSD is missing the P, because they never have a chance to recover fully from one trauma before another occurs. And.. she shared that before the borders went up, she used to go to the beach in Gaza and swim among her neighbors, and she dreamt of the days they would swim together again.

While the battles Jews face in Israel may be different from those we face here in America, and we may sometimes disagree with each others methods, I think we can all agree that we seek freedom and safety for the Jewish people.

We can support our Israeli family by getting to know them on a more personal level. We can support them by speaking up and voting against policies that could be harmful to Israel. We can support them by sharing their stories so the rest of the world can begin to see them as more than a war zone.

Just as the Israelites needed to work together with Moses and Adonai, to survive their struggles, so to do we need to rely on each other to get through ours.

4 states without Bias Crimes Legislation: https://www.newsweek.com/states-that-dont-have-any-hate-crime-laws-1456207

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