34th day of the omer 5764
Monday 10th May 2004
This time last week I was one of more than 100 riders cycling on a spectacular road, down into Eilat, from the red mountains of the Israel/Egypt border. We were ending the six-day, 300-mile, Arava Institute Hazon Israel Bike Ride: Cycling for Peace, Partnership & Environmental Protection.
The Ride was a remarkable experience, for me inspirational and thought-provoking. In quite a number of senses, as well as the most literal, we got to see Israel from an unusual perspective. In this email I want to give a flavor of what we did and some of what I thought about as we did it. This is a long email: feel free to print this and read it at your leisure later on.
Thoughts on riding out of Jerusalem
We had a punishing but spectacular first day. We began with tefilat haderech (the traveler’s prayer) read in English, Arabic and Hebrew. It wasn’t an incredibly big deal that we began with tefilat haderech in Arabic as well as in Hebrew and English. But the fact that we wanted to do it in Arabic, (not a translation of the Hebrew prayer, but rather an equivalent Moslem prayer), symbolized one aspect of the Ride which was important to many of us. More on this later.
We set off at daybreak, within sight of the walls of the Old City, and rode past the Prime Minister’s house, the Knesset, and the national cemetery where Yitzhak Rabin, among many others, is buried. We cycled with police cars skipping forward to block intersections so that we could ride uninterruptedly, which was great fun. This is what it must be like to be a head of state and have them close the roads for you. It felt good to see bemused looks turn to big smiles as we waved to early morning Jerusalem commuters along the way.
We rode down into Ein Karem, then up into the Jerusalem hills. This was the longest single uphill of the whole week (to Nes Harim, literally “miracle of the mountains.” As one of our riders put it, “the miracle was that I made it to the top.”) But what goes up, comes down: after Nes Harim, a long long glorious downhill, through the Valley of Ela (where David slew Goliath; see 1st Samuel 17:19) and past Wadi Soreq, (where Samson met Delilah; Judges 16:4). The air was still cool and the sky blue and the roads clear and the green trees and old stones all about us.
For me personally, this was one of the glorious highlights of the whole trip. There is a magnificent beauty in the hills of Jerusalem. If you travel by foot it’s hard to cover that much distance, and if you’re in a car you’re cocooned and you whiz by. On our bikes we got to savor the landscape, the subtle changes, the colors, even the way that the air temperature was warm in Jerusalem and cooled as we got out of the city. To set off in Jerusalem and end, 75 miles later, in Be’er Sheva, having carried oneself the whole way, was a remarkable and exhilarating experience.
Thoughts on eshel trees and toxic waste
The first stop on our second day for me summed up the unique educational power of the Ride. We were 12km south of Be’er Sheva. Our tour guide, on a week’s break from his day-job as General Secretary of Kibbutz Ketura, was Bill Slott. We were at a fairly unremarkable place called Ramat Hovav. A few short trees and lots of dry hot ground, as far as the eye could see.
Bill shared with us a memorable idea: “Let the Ride be your Rashi,” he said, by which he meant that we should allow our experiences of the Ride to be our own commentary on the Torah, on Israel and on Jewish tradition. Then he asked us if any of us knew what sort of trees we were surrounded by, and of course we did not. He explained that they were eshel trees: the trees, according to Bereishit (Genesis 21: 33), that were planted by Avraham in Be’er Sheva.
Bill then handed over to Dr Alon Tal. Alon founded the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, and is the author of Pollution in a Promised Land, the first environmental history of Israel. Alon explained that Ramat Hovav had for many years received much of Israel’s toxic waste, which was simply buried in the ground. The area had been chosen because “no-one lived here;” except, of course, for the fact that many Bedouin did indeed live in the area.
In 1979, instead of just dumping the waste a hazardous waste facility was opened. But in 1982 the site caught fire and a toxic plume wafted over Be’er Sheva itself. Under growing pressure from the fledgling Israeli environmental movement, a new incinerator, built to US standards, was finally installed in 1992.
Arava Institute students, as part of their MA in Environmental Leadership, come to the area to interview local residents and to take a register of ongoing health difficulties. Because of the toxic waste the Bedouins and other locals have suffered from a range of health problems, from respiratory diseases to spontaneous abortions. This is the work of environmental justice in one of its clearest forms; a recognition that when wealthier communities use their political power to effect NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) it’s inevitably the poor and the dispossessed who then suffer the consequences. That we could ride half the length of the country in under a week is a clear reminder that Israel is far too small to have anything other than the highest possible environmental health standards.
As Bill and Alon were talking I remembered a midrash on the eshel tree, that the word is an acronym for “achilah, shtiyah v’linah”, Hebrew for eating, drinking and sleeping (because Avraham was famous for his hospitality). And I wondered: Did the midrash arise because, by the Talmudic era, the rabbis were no longer in the land of Israel, and thus needed to find a different way to understand what this word signified?
There’s something very profound about being able to reach back behind a two-thousand year-old midrash to touch a three-thousand year old tree – and still see the tree itself, and still use the language of the Torah. Even though I’ve spent a lot of time in Israel in the past, this trip somehow re-kindled in me a sense of just how extraordinary it is that the Jewish people, who arose as the indigenous people of this land more than three thousand years ago, has reconnected with both the land and the language of the Torah. I think it’s far too easy in contemporary Jewish communities to cede this sort of amazement to right-wing and/or orthodox and/or messianic wings of the Jewish community. Any of us, of any age or background or political views, should be able to register how utterly extraordinary the Zionist enterprise has been. We were cycling in a land that Jews have lived in, yearned for and prayed towards for more than three thousand years. Israel has failed to live up to the highest hopes of its founders in some respects, but those failures shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the miracle of the resumption of Jewish life and of Hebrew language in the ancient land of Israel.
Yet it seemed even more extraordinary to me to be learning, in one place and one time, not only about the eshel tree but also about hazardous waste in the modern State of Israel: a reminder of the ancientness of the land and of Jewish tradition, combined with a very contemporary lesson about the human costs of mistreating the land. Bill’s and Alon’s teaching together was for me a profound commentary on the Torah, on the land and to some extent on the Ride itself.
Thoughts on the Ride as a Jewish experience
This juxtaposition was reinforced two days later when Ariana Silverman, a rabbinical student who previously worked for both the Sierra Club and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, gave a beautiful dvar torah at our Shabbat morning services. She spoke beautifully and movingly about the relationship between that morning’s Torah portion, which includes the famous phrase “kedoshim tihiyu / you shall be holy.” As she succinctly put it: “every year roughly four times as many people die in this country from environmental factors as from terrorism. Kdoshim tihiyu means that we ought to be doing something about that.”
If you don’t experience Shabbat as a time of rest, by the way, I recommend that you ride 150 miles in considerable heat in the preceding sixty hours.
On Shabbat some of our riders went to an orthodox Teimani (Yemenite) shul, a hundred yards from the hotel. Some went to look down on the machtesh (the Ramon crater). Some came to our own traditional egalitarian services – spirited and beautiful. Some of the people who went to the Teimani shul weren’t orthodox; and some of our riders who were orthodox came to our trad egal services. As did some of the people who don’t often go to any services. And some people of course just slept and walked and hung out.
During the Ride overall, about a dozen of our riders davenned three times a day, in a fast traditional minyan that was meaningful to many of its participants and which enabled people saying kaddish to do so. On Sunday morning Rabbi Eric Solomon and I offered riders a differently paced Shacharit, in which we said fewer of the prayers but spent more time on each of them. About 30 of the riders gathered, overlooking the Machtesh. It was a unique and spectacular setting for morning prayers, the more so when we were greeted by a loud clap of thunder and got to say the ancient prayer for thunder and lightning, “she’cocho u’gvurato malei olam,” (blessing the Creator whose immense power fills the universe). As hailstones started to fall we took cover under overhanging rocks. It was simultaneously a powerful moment and a very funny one.
I really enjoyed counting the omer during the Ride. The omer arose as part of the agricultural cycle, counting up to the barley harvest at Shavuot, and then became overlaid with rabbinic and then kabbalistic associations. There are seven biblical species which are associated with the land of Israel (olives, pomegranates, wheat, barley, grapes, dates and figs) and during our Ride we saw six of the seven growing in the land. And we cycled during that week of the omer associated with netzach (endurance) which seemed highly appropriate, and which for some of us, me very much included, added an extra layer of meaning to the counting of the omer each night.
We had nearly a hundred riders, so it’s hard to generalize their experience. The things that people loved included the sense of community, the range of participants, the chance to push themselves physically whilst feeling safe and supported, and the sheer indefinable experience of seeing Israel from a bicycle seat. Jennifer Molinari, in Israel for the first time, an NYPD detective and an inexperienced cyclist, struggled with the hills, but loved the Ride overall, and read a moving and funny poem at our celebrations on Sunday night. But the Ride was equally loved by people who’ve spent a great deal of time in Israel as by the dozen riders who were in Israel for the first time.
Larry Suchoff celebrated his fiftieth birthday by doing the Ride with his seventeen year old son Joshua. 71-year old Harold Kellner remembered his late brother in doing the Ride. Aliza Avital, one of a number of riders who returned from last year’s Ride, this year rode with both her sister and her son. Six of our riders were all parents at the Charles E Smith day school near Washington DC, and they epitomized a certain male-bonding energy that was a significant part of the Ride for some of our riders. Another participant summed up our hopes in organizing the Ride when, at our conclusion in Eilat, he simply said “I’m leaving here feeling more Jewish, more connected to Israel, and more determined to learn and to do more in the future.”
The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies
I want to say a word about the Arava Institute itself. Most of our riders had not heard of it before signing up for the Ride. They were psyched to ride in Israel, to show support for Israel generally, to have a great time while doing some good in the world. But the Arava Institute is a remarkable organization, and I think our riders became steadily impressed and inspired by its students and faculty as the week wore on. Susan Kennedy, a journalist for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, who was with us for part of the time, summed it up in this way:
Said Khalil, a Jordanian government engineer based in Aqaba, was offered a place to study in London, but chose to come to the Arava Institute instead. “I believe in the common destiny of all peoples in the region”, he told the group. “The environment is not confined by borders, so why should I be?” Hadil, an Israeli Arab from Acre who completed her first degree at Haifa University, said that the Institute was the only genuinely tolerant educational establishment she’d encountered. “We talk about everything here”, she said through smiles. “We might not agree, but at the end of the day we hug and are family”.
Ilana Meallem, 26, originally from London, is a current student at the Arava Institute who spoke to us on the last night of the Ride. She said, “The effort of the riders and the money they’ve raised is going to this special place – an oasis both literally and metaphorically, which brings together Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians to learn together, live together, and hopefully – inshallah, b’ezrat hashem – work together in the future to bring peaceful and environmentally sustainable co-existence in the whole region.” There aren’t many places in the world where you hear people say “inshallah, b’ezrat hashem” (Arabic and Hebrew, respectively, for ‘with G!’d’s help), and it both touched me and made me smile to hear her do so.
The most remarkable endorsement of the Institute was by Dan Asher, who first did our New York Jewish Environmental Bike Ride in 2002 when he came upon it randomly on a New Jersey environmental website. The NY Ride led him to the Israel Ride, and the Israel Ride led him to decide to leave his job in North Carolina to come and do the MA in Environmental Leadership at the Arava Institute.
Meantime a former Arava Student, Shirley (pronounced “Sheer-Lee”) Riceman, has made the opposite journey: from last year’s Israel Ride she came to this year’s New York Ride; this year she again staffed the Israel Ride. She’s decided that, when she graduates next summer, she’d like to come to the States to participate in the ADAMAH program at Isabella Freedman and then at the Teva Learning Center, because ultimately she’d like to create something like those two programs back in Israel. It’s exciting to feel the different ways that our Ride will have impact, some of them potentially profound and long-lasting.
I need to say a special word about the Ride’s staff and leadership. Howie Rodenstein as the Ride’s founding Chair, David Lehrer of the Arava Institute, Vered Balan, our Ride Director, and every one of the staff (including our own Simcha Schwartz) were simply an inspiration to be around. People worked quite extraordinarily hard, with little sleep, considerable pressure, and phenomenal good humor. There was one particular staff meeting, very late at night, and people were really tired and starting to get slightly grouchy, and Shirley said something like “chevre, let’s not let our tiredness pull us down – let’s carry on being really great.” And I teared up slightly, because I suddenly remembered all the old stories about the generation of chalutzim (pioneers), the mythical kibbutznikim who worked all day and danced all night, and I realized that our staff and volunteers are the chalutzim of this generation, working quite astoundingly hard in remarkable spirits in their individual and collective determination to build a better future for all who live in the land of Israel.
This leads me finally on to politics, which was not a big part of our Ride, certainly in headline terms. We didn’t much talk about the fence or Sharon or Gaza or “the situation”. Yet our Ride was political in the best sense, in that it deepened people’s connections to Israel, introduced them to some of the ecological challenges that Israel faces, and simultaneously offered rare hope and inspiration from the Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and Americans who are living and studying together at the Arava Institute.
Being at Kibbutz Ketura was fascinating. Most people know that many kibbutzim have privatized themselves to a considerable extent in the last two decades. But what is less known is that a number have not. Kibbutz Ketura is one of them. Isolated from much of the rest of the country, set in this beautiful though spare piece of land, a few hundred yards from Jordan on one side, and with the mountains behind, Ketura is an oasis. The quality of the cutlery in their dining room is poorer than that of most Americans, but the quality of the lives of the kibbutzniks overall seemed to me in many ways much richer.
The Shabbat before the Ride I hung out on the kibbutz. On Saturday evening, as the sky was darkening and Shabbat went out, I had a great Mexican meal with David and Barbara Lehrer and some of their kids and kids’ friends. Like many of my friends’ kids in Jerusalem, these are good kids: intellectually sharp, socially mellow, idealistic.
David’s 17-year old daughter, Ariella, gave me her views on the fence that’s being built, so coherently that I think her position is now my position. (For the record: that it does make sense to build a fence to help prevent terrorism; but that the fence in its present position will do immense damage to Palestinian communities, and thus in due course may make things worse. Ariella’s view is that there should be a fence roughly along the lines of the 1967 border, expanded in Israel’s favor to include Ma’alei Adumim and Efrat, and expanded in the Palestinians’ favor by a corresponding amount elsewhere to redress that balance.)
I didn’t have chance to talk politics with my friends’ kids in Jerusalem, but I know that some of them would disagree quite strenuously with Ariella. More significant than her views, though, was simply the clarity and confidence with which she and her friends engaged. They are not beaten down – far from it – and they are not depressed and they are not nihilistic. They’re serving in the army and volunteering in a variety of contexts. They don’t like much of what they see around them, but they’re not only getting on with their lives, they’re doing so whilst straddling complex choices – commitment to Israel, attachment to Jewish tradition, a desire to travel safely, a full-on commitment to equality and equity for Palestinians. Like the students at the Arava Institute, who are a half-decade or a decade older, I came away absolutely inspired by these kids. They’re a reminder that there’s life beyond the doom and gloom of the TV channels and the op-ed pages. And the Ride as a whole, for me and I think for the overwhelming majority of our riders, perhaps indeed for every one of them, was a deep reminder that we absolutely can make a difference – that at one and the same time we can do something that will be good for our bodies, good for our souls, good for our intellects, good for our hearts and, finally, good for the wider world in which we find ourselves.
Feel free to join us next year…
With all best wishes