A trip to Israel, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, was eye opening and life changing.
By Joe Cimperman
Last week, a group of non-profit leaders, through the insight and support of Tom and Joan Adler and the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, learned about a most beautiful, historic, epic, spirit filled, and complicated place called Israel.
This visit was a first for me and for many of the luminaries on the experience. As a native Clevelander raised in a very Roman Catholic home, I read and prepared and inquired as much as I could to be ready for this. But let’s be straightforward – no amount of books or conversations can adequately prepare you for the sacred land where Islam, Christianity, and Judaism blossomed. No amount of white papers or blogs or Facebook posts can prepare you for the meaning of Israeli entrepreneurialism, national get up and go, or semi-regional cooperation like the work ongoing on the Israeli-Jordanian border. And as many interviews and meetings and phone/text message chains as I initiated, nothing, absolutely nothing prepared me for the wide, deep, million miles traveled roads between The Holy Land (Israel) and The Land (Cleveland).
We landed in Tel Aviv, and through the kindness and connectedness of Elie Weiss we went on a block by block by block graffiti tour of this amazing city – a city whose name means The Old New Land. So much of Tel Aviv history and present time was painted in doorways, alleyways, and canvasses large and small throughout. The poignant, hilarious, sad, inspiring, joyful, and enduring images of this city and Israel were all around us. The one piece that burns still in my memory was the illustrated depiction of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. You cannot shake the haunting image of what was in one moment the closest and furthest from peace that this great land experienced.
We met with the leadership from the LGBTQI Center in Tel Aviv, thanks to Gregg Levine and John Corlett. In true open door, open welcome, judgment -of -no -one- so- prevalent- in -this -community fashion, youth from all over and every faith (EVERY FAITH) are given support as they need it. We were welcomed as sisters and brothers and talked about the Cleveland Tel Aviv connections from the International Gay Games we hosted here in Northeast Ohio. And to travel to Jaffa and see the intersections of faith and commerce in one of the oldest ports in the world was a real lesson in history.
Ancient civilizations came to a head here: Roman, Greek, Judaic, Ottoman empires all have fingerprints on these ancient stones. The market in Tel Aviv reminded me so much of our own West Side Market, and the wall breaking, bridge building nature of sharing food is a universal truth. And then. And then we traveled to a magical place called Kiryat Gat, where the Jewish Federation of Cleveland supports the growing Ethiopian Israeli community. I was blown away. These ancient, beautiful, persecuted and resilient people are welcomed everyday and supported as they fulfill millennia dreams of return. The dance, music, FOOD, and deep civic and civil society building is made possible by generous support from Northeast Ohio’s Jewish community.
These connections are real, they are important and they are two-way streets. And the Jewish Federation of Cleveland is right there.
We then traveled to the Sea of Galilee, and for the first times among many on this journey I was speechless. To be where Jesus spoke of the Beatitudes was soulful and wondrous.
When we visited with the Kibbutz Nir David, we had the distinct privilege of meeting with our adopted sister city, Beit Shean–Valley of Springs. The similarities between our people were apparent from the beginning: gritty, multi-cultural, resilient, searching, pride without arrogance, civic responsibility and looking for a way forward.
I kept thinking about the work of Destination Cleveland and how we took our greatest assets and amplified them. The Kurdish Jewish community hosted us for the evening, and from the Cuyahoga to the River Jordan, we felt the connection. The connection this community has with my home community, the St. Clair Superior community, is also real. It is important. It is a two-way street. And the Jewish Federation of Cleveland is right there.
We then visited three places that work collaboratively, strategically, thoughtfully and beautifully EVERY SINGLE DAY.
- Havat Hashomer: an IDF army base that specifically works to re-integrate youth who have made mistakes, and creates a path for them to live lives of meaning and thrive in their second chances. Can you imagine this program here? Working with the future by meeting them where they are. Meeting the leader, Samuel, was a moment I will never forget. His charisma and emotional/human intelligence was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. And every one of his commanders is a woman. A group of boys who made a mistake, being given the chance to come back, aided and led and directed in their journey by young women. This is how societies thrive. And the Jewish Federation of Cleveland is right there.
- The Jerusalem Foundation: “Jerusalem is a complicated city that needs to care for its diverse residents.” Amen. No truer words were ever spoken.
This organization programs specific events that invite and include and bring together Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druze, Bedouin citizens and they are making real progress. From shared meals to community meetings to real opportunities for employment and empowerment. All of this, so Holy Jerusalem, the birth city of Judaism, Christianity and Islam can thrive together. And it’s not easy. And it’s real and important. And the Jewish Federation of Cleveland is right there.
- Meeting with Shadi Abu Jaber, the Palestinian Director of the Youth Futures program in East Jerusalem: this was a moving experience along the lines of Samuel from Havat Hashomer. Shadi said ten years ago he viewed Israel very differently than the view he held five years ago. Five years ago his kids were born, and he wants a better future for the Palestinian kids of Israel and the Jewish kids of Israel. He does this by tutoring, mentoring, hosting soccer tournaments for Arab Israeli students. And in this is the most sacred part of any holy city — how to make tomorrow better for our children’s children. These children who may come from different places and faiths and neighborhoods, find common ground, and Shadi inspires community engagement. And the Jewish Federation of Cleveland is right there. This work = real. This work = most important.
I will be meditating on this journey for the rest of my life. We as a group will continue this dialogue. With the goodness and guidance of Steve Hoffman, Oren Baratz, Jessica Cohen, Kelly Rubanenko, Elie Weiss and Cheryl Davis and the Jewish Federation of Cleveland this experience w ill continue to be real for the people who went on this journey and for the people who have yet to return. And we will all take up the mantel of building more two-way bridges and travelling more on the bridges already built.
But make no mistake, none of us travel to the City of Gold, the Holy Jerusalem. We follow in the words of the great Yiddish Poet Yitzchak Yasinowitz:
“One does not travel to Jerusalem. One returns. One ascends the road taken by generations, the path of longing on the way to redemption. One brings rucksacks stuffed with memories to each mountain each hill. IN THE COBBLED ALLEYWAYS ONE OFFERS A BLESSING FOR THE MEMORIES IN THE PAST WHICH HAVE BEEN RENEWED. ONE DOES NOT TRAVEL TO JERUSALEM. ONE RETURNS.”
This is real. This is important. Let us return as one Cleveland, one Cuyahoga County, one Northeastern Ohio, a diverse and united community, TOGETHER.