Rabbi Penzner's Kol Nidre 5777 Sermon


Walls are going up everywhere. Great Britain wants to create a virtual wall from Europe, and European nations want to erect walls to keep out immigrants. Not to mention the wall that Mexico is going to fund to keep immigrants out of the US.

There are other walls inside our country. We are walled off from people who are different from us. In detention centers, walls separate families. Those in prison are surrounded by walls. These walls divide prisoners and their loved ones. In solitary, walls divide one human being from the entire world of experience, human connection, human touch, life. These are walls that sap the strength and deaden the lives of human beings. Human beings who need to be tended and mended are buried alive behind walls.

We could take hammers to smash the walls that divide us. That might feel good in the moment. But violence doesn’t bring walls down. Violence only helps erect new ones. How we take down the walls is related to how we make peace.

Making peace is hard. Shimon Peres, after a lifetime of leadership, making mistakes and ultimately committing himself to peace, said in an interview not long before he died,
“Whoever you try to negotiate with is not a partner. You start from animosity, not from peace. The purpose of negotiation is to convert somebody who is not a partner to somebody who will be a partner,”

Making peace is hard. I did not come back from Israel with a grand vision for peace. I came back from this trip, my 20th time in Israel, with a shift in my thinking about Israel, Palestine and peace, and how to break down the walls.

In two and a half weeks, I visited my favorite people and places and was reminded of all that I love about Israel. And my eyes saw and ears heard the disturbing aspects of life in Israel and in Palestine. I felt love and joy, distress and discomfort, kindness and generosity, fear and anger. And heartbreak.

For nine days, Brian I joined Rabbi Toba Spitzer, members of Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, and a few HBT members for an unusual tour run by MEJDI. This company specializes in “dual narrative tours.” We had two guides, an Israeli woman named Morgie and a Palestinian man named Nabil, whose personal stories became part of our itinerary. We stayed in hotels in Tel Aviv, Nazareth, and East Jerusalem and visited sites in Israel as well as the West Bank. Wherever we went, we heard different narratives from our two guides, and we met Jews and Palestinians doing work for coexistence in Israel and in Palestine.

[I hope you will each consider signing up for an HBT dual narrative tour that I hope to lead in February 2018, 1 ½ years from now.] I believe that every Jew, whether a supporter of Israel or a critic, should go on a tour that tells the Palestinian narrative as well as the Jewish one. In between the hard conversations on this trip, we also got to know the pleasures of Israel in its fullness, from welcoming Shabbat in Tel Aviv at the port, to eating shakshuka in a crowded restaurant in Yaffo, to visiting olive groves and eating honey from the comb in the Galilee, to wandering through the Arab shuk in Akko, in Nazareth, and in Jerusalem. It was the best tour I’ve ever taken.

After only one day of touring together, our group gathered to share first impressions. Over and over, people shared this observation: the situation is complicated. That summed up every day afterward.

In my time in Israel, there was almost no one that I agreed with wholeheartedly. Not even my closest friends. And that’s ok. That’s the nature of being human. We are all puzzle pieces, and they don’t always fit together to make a coherent picture.

Instead of finding agreement, my purpose was to listen to everyone with an open heart. What I want to share on this Yom Kippur night are those places where I found open hearts that left me with reason to hope. Not a messianic hope. Not a Niagara Falls of hope, but the drip drip drip of small acts of everyday people that over time, wears down mountains. The unending stream of small hopes that lead us, someday, to a river of peace.

I have chosen this path to help us bridge our divides, to move us away from the paralysis and fear of expressing our opinions, and to give us direction as a congregation. I want to adapt the mission of Kids4Peace: “to change the conversation, to bring new questions, and new answers to the struggle for peace, ones that are based in real relationships of trust and understanding.”

Let me share three places that we visited on the tour that filled us with hope:
Sindyanna olive cooperative in the lower Galilee.
The three-fold mission of this cooperative run by Arab and Jewish women:
•    providing fair wages to agricultural workers
•    improving the agricultural sector of the Israeli Arab community
•    women’s empowerment.
Our group walked in the olive groves and saw how Sindyanna’s trees flourished, went to the visitor’s center in Kafr Kanna, where we bought olive oil products (also available at Whole Foods!). We ate a delicious lunch prepared by the women of the cooperative, watched a video about Sindyanna’s empowerment program teaching women to weave baskets, and met the women from local villages whose lives had been changed. By the end we had a full experience of the success of Sindyanna and its hopeful vision. Jews and Arabs working together to improve the economic life for everyone in the region, creating new friendships in the process.

Roots. Some of us had already heard the founder, Ali Abu Awad, tell his story in the Boston area over the past two years. Ali is one of my heroes. His personal story is one of growing up in the West Bank in a home dedicated to the PLO. He served time in an Israeli prison for throwing rocks, then read Gandhi and Malcolm X and a host of other books while in prison. After Ali’s brother Yousef was killed by Israeli soldiers, Ali made non-violence his life mission. At his family home located in the midst of the Jewish settlements of Gush Etzion, just south of Jerusalem, Ali brings people together who otherwise don’t speak to one another. Ali has cultivated a number of settlers and rabbis who share in his vision. As Ali put it, “There is no peace without truth. Not one truth, but the two truths.”

While we sat in the shaded hut drinking Turkish coffee, we heard from a settler named Shaul Judelman and then Ali spoke. They each told their personal story, their pain and struggles, their connection to the land and why each believed they had a right to live there. They spoke without apologies or defensiveness and listened to each other with respect and friendship.
Ali asked: “What is justice? The only justice is to bring back my brother Yousef to his kids. Short of this there is no justice. Revenge appears to be justice. Reconciliation is the best revenge. Suddenly the devil has a face and he’s not a devil, he’s just like you and he has paid the same price as you. We have both lost but our life conditions are not the same. The best weapon that I never use is inside me. My humanity.”

Yakir Englander is another one of my heroes. He too comes with a complicated personal story. Yakir grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic family in B’nai B’rak, and left at age 22 to see the wider world. First he served in the army. His job was to collect the human remains after terrorist attacks. He went on to get his PhD, no small feat for someone who had never had secular studies. Now he is fully committed to peace-making. For several years he was director of Kids4 Peace in Israel, bringing together Jewish, Muslim and Christian teenagers. (You will have the chance to hear him in November.) Here is Yakir’s vision:
“I don’t believe in peace. I believe in making peace. Oseh shalom is in the present. It’s not a future goal, it’s what you do.”

Knowing how hard this is, Yakir believes that peace making requires hearing the other’s pain. Like Ali, Yakir will meet with anyone. Yakir brought with him a young Jewish Israeli named Oren who has been active in Yakir’s newest program, Dialogue to Action. This group brings together everyday residents from both the Jewish and Palestinian communities of Jerusalem to meet one another and work together in concrete ways for change.

Oren described how he was afraid to attend a meeting of Dialogue to Action because it took place in East Jerusalem. But then, he told us, “I shattered a wall and went to East Jerusalem.” While having a conversation about peace-making with a Palestinian on the roof of a house, he got an idea. Let’s start right here. So they worked together to clean up the roof. They painted a mural on the wall. For Oren, this was a success: “small enough to work and big enough to do something.” Now he is a leader, building a network of peace-makers across Jerusalem.

These three hopeful examples (Sindyanna, Roots, and Dialogue to Action) are but a few of the many grassroots efforts that we rarely hear about, programs that bring Jews and Palestinians together, among them the Abraham Fund, Sikui, Hand in Hand Schools, Givat Haviva, Galilee Foundation for Value Education among many other groups, most of them with supported from the New Israel Fund.  
Oren said he “shattered a wall” to go to East Jerusalem. Where was that wall? It wasn’t a concrete barrier. It was an internal wall, a wall that divided Oren from himself.

The hardest wall to break down is the wall around our hearts. These walls defend us from change, from our fears, from becoming vulnerable. But the walls that protect us can harden and choke us off from love. That is the wall that Oren shattered. And that was the wall I learned to shatter. This was the most instructive lesson of my time in Israel, because breaking down the wall around our hearts is something we can all do, we all need to do, to make peace here at home. The story of breaking down the walls of my heart is the story I want to tell you tonight.

One of the reasons I planned this trip to Israel this summer was because my niece, Moriyah, invited me to her bat mitzvah. She even changed the date of the party to suit my schedule. Of my four siblings, I was the only one who would be at the celebration. The only problem was a big one: the party was going to take place in the West Bank.

My sister Devra has lived on the West Bank for over twenty years, but recently, she and her family had moved from Ma'aleh Adumim, a bedroom community close to Jerusalem where Brian and I had visited numerous times. Now she lives on a small religious yishuv (settlement) outside of Hebron.

Devra and I have had an agreement for years not to discuss Israeli politics. We’ve found a way to discuss our Jewish religious differences with respect and mutual interest, but since the Gaza withdrawal in 2005, we've avoided anything political. We enjoy getting together when I’m in Jerusalem, but I stood my ground against going to a remote settlement, because I have opposed Israeli settlement policy for most of my adult life. That has always created some distance between us.

As plans for the bat mitzvah changed, the venue shifted from Jerusalem to Maaleh Adumim, to Kiryat Arba and eventually to Ma’ale Hever, the yishuv itself. After much soul-searching, I finally agreed to go. After all, Devra and her family have come to the States for all of our family simchas. She and I both knew it would be hard, and we both ended up being grateful for the other’s kindness.

The yishuv, Ma’ale Hever, is a 45-minute drive south of Jerusalem, past Bethlehem and Kiryat Arba. I was nervous about going there. My sister rented an armored bus, used primarily by settlers to protect them from possible attacks. As I boarded, many of the other guests greeted me warmly. Looking around, I realized that all the women covered their hair, all the men wore large knitted kippot, and every person on that bus lived on a settlement of some kind. I was totally among strangers, and amid people with whom I disagreed about religion and politics. I was about to enter a world that I really didn’t know, and up until that day, didn’t care to know. The day turned out to be filled with surprises.

One of the first surprising things I learned was that several guests had chosen not to come, because they were afraid to travel there too. A few days before, a Palestinian from the area around Hebron had entered a home in a settlement and murdered a thirteen-year-old girl in her bedroom. The entire country was in mourning over this brutal and unprovoked attack. It was understandable that others were afraid.

When we arrived safely at the party, my five nieces and nephews embraced me with joy. I danced with the girls and women behind a partition. I watched my sister sing and dance with the same wild abandon that I’ve felt at a Springsteen or Grateful Dead concert. Though I’m not a fan of segregated dancing, I was again surprised to see how these 12-year old girls were having so much fun, playing games, dancing with their friends. They were dressed in pretty party dresses, not slinky black evening wear like bat mitzvah parties I’ve seen here.

I bounced back and forth between enjoying being at the simcha with my family, and feeling alienated by things I heard.  “Next is the wedding!” they shouted to the twelve-year-old. In her dvar Torah, Moriyah spoke of the imperative to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. And as we stood on my sister’s patio looking out at the desert, my brother-in-law proudly showed me where Abraham walked in his neighborhood, proving his right of ownership. (But I held my tongue.) On the other hand, I was deeply moved by my family’s closeness and the way they adored their younger sister (singing a song they wrote for her, with one of her brothers accompanying the family on the guitar), and by the genuine hospitality and mutual support of their guests.
I discovered the human side of the people I had only known, and opposed, as “settlers.”

To balance this experience, I had decided beforehand that I would need to do an act of tikkun, healing, to reclaim my principled opposition, after the bat mitzvah party. As it happened, the very next day T’ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, was offering a day trip for rabbis. The trip was sponsored by Breaking the Silence, a controversial organization of former soldiers who document the injustices that they witnessed and participated in while serving in the West Bank. It was eerie, heading in another bus—this one without armor—down the same road into the South Hebron Hills, passing the same settlements and hearing a different narrative.

We stood on land in the village of Susya that belonged to Palestinians, where the army had demolished homes and clogged up the wells. We heard about the different justice systems for settlers and Palestinians. Palestinians are under military rule; Israeli citizens are subject to Israeli civil law. When settlers complain about Palestinian attacks, 98% of Palestinian suspects are convicted. When Palestinians complain that settlers are killing their flocks, burning their olive trees, and harassing children walking to school, every day, they have to call the Israeli civil administration, which is a half hour to an hour away. 90% of complaints against settlers are never brought to court.

These were very difficult to see and to hear, as I’m sure they are for you as well. The message of the tour was that the Israeli government is working to make life so miserable for the Palestinians that they would rather leave than stay. At the same time, I had noticed that the Israeli settlers seemed so at home, driving easily from Jerusalem into the territories. It was as if the West Bank was already part of Israel.

Your head may be spinning from these dramatically different stories. Believe me, so was mine. I was confused for days, alternating between anger and despair. I saw no hope for the end of the occupation. No hope for peace. My heart was broken.

That all changed in the coming days. Eating lunch with the people of Sindyanna, sitting in a kind of sukkah with Ali and Shaul, and hearing Yakir’s story on Shabbat morning in the dining hall of an East Jerusalem hotel—all woke me up from my paralysis and pointed me in a new direction.

Hearing their stories gave me the courage to take what I had learned into my own life. My heart was broken open and I decided to take a risk. I had to open up to my sister.

Back in 1997, President Bill Clinton inaugurated his Initiative on Race, saying:
“I believe talking is better than fighting. And I believe when people don’t talk and communicate and understand, their fears, their ignorance and their problems are more likely to fester.”

That became clear to me when I arranged to meet Devra and her husband when we returned to Jerusalem.  Over falafel and pita in an outdoor cafe, we talked about things that matter to us, things we’ve never discussed. Through an indirect route, we ended up talking about dialogue between settlers and Palestinians.

It was a very difficult conversation, and yet we were both grateful for it afterward. I learned things that I had never really known about them. Things that surprised me. It didn't change my political views, but it did create an opening for us to speak more openly, to understand what we share as well as how we are different. Since my return home, we have used email to ask each other probing questions and share some of our heroes, like Yakir and Ali. I am hopeful for this to continue, not knowing exactly where it will lead.

Professor Harlon L. Dalton, professor of law and expert in critical race theory, once wrote, “When we are open and honest with each other; when we abandon our hiding places, take risks, and own up to our own self-interest, when we place on the table our assumptions, fears, trepidations, and secret desires, by that very act we are connecting with one another as equals.”

It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about Israel and Palestine, or race, or any other issue. When we can see each other with the heart, knowing our joys and sorrows, we have the power to bring holiness to our world.

Parker Palmer put it this way:
“imagine the heart broken open into new capacity—a process that is not without pain but one that many of us would welcome. As I stand in the tragic gap between reality and possibility, this small, tight fist of a thing called my heart can break open into greater capacity to hold more of my own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope.”  

Walls are held together by fear. When we bring love to others who are fearful, when we listen to their pain without turning away, we can chip away at the fear and destabilize the wall. When we break down the walls of our own hearts, we open up the possibility for reconciliation, whether with a sister or brother, a parent or a child, a friend or even an acquaintance. It's those small acts of opening the heart that drill holes in the walls that will, slowly yet surely, break them down.

To arrive at a place of understanding, of holding both/and, suffering and joy, despair and hope. That is the work of tikkun olam, repairing our world. That is where I believe God dwells. That is where we begin to work for peace.

Ken yehi ratzon.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner
Kol Nidre 5777
Temple Hillel B’nai Torah


Posted on October 14, 2016 .