Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

I know from speaking with y’all that the continuing conflict in Israel / Palestine is weighing heavy on many hearts. (Including my own.) Across our community we have many different relationships with that place and its peoples, and sometimes it is hard to know how to speak with each other given our range of views. This is true across the American Jewish community, and community divisions are emerging in many places. And yet, given rising antisemitism, now is a time when we need each other across Jewish community all the more.

Over the last six months, many of you have asked me if we can learn more about Israel and Palestine as a community. Can we come together to learn about its peoples, different narratives and histories, realities on the ground? I’ve heard a particular interest in learning about some of the words we often see in the news: what exactly is the “occupation”? Who are “settlers” and what are they doing (and why)? As American Jews, what are the stories we don’t hear, and where are the gaps in our knowledge and understanding?

Suzanne Levy Graver has chosen a book for the CBI book club that explores the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Apeirogon by Colum McCann. The book interweaves fiction and nonfiction, including the true stories of Bassam Aramin (Palestinian) and Rami Elhanan (Israeli) who both lost children to the conflict and together co-founded the Parents Circle / Families Forum. All are welcome to read Apeirogon and join the book club’s June 3 discussion about it – whether or not you’re a regular book club participant.

Meanwhile, a group of CBI members is putting together a film and discussion series about Israel / Palestine. I’ve been a part of the film series group’s meetings, and I’m moved by the collective insistence on choosing films that don’t dehumanize or stereotype Palestinians, or Israelis, or Arabs (who of course can be Israelis or Palestinians, Jews or Christians or Muslims or Druze). After each film there will be an opportunity for discussion and for processing our emotions, reactions, and learning – and please know that I am always here to listen if you need to talk.

Some of us may feel ambivalent about engaging with Israel / Palestine, or fearful that our differing lenses may lead to community conflict. Some of us may feel ambivalent about films that depict the painful complexities of Israel-Palestine or delve into difficult subjects, especially at a time when we may feel defensive of Israel or tender about antisemitism. I honor that, and I feel it too. And at the same time, I think these are important subjects that merit our exploration, and I’m grateful to the CBI members who are midwifing this film series into being.

If there are other Israel / Palestine films or resources that have been helpful to you, the film committee would love to hear from you – please send them to me and I will pass them along.

My focus continues to be cultivating empathy. Empathy for Israelis and all that they are facing (including the continuing reality of hostages still in captivity) – and empathy for Palestinians and all that they are facing (including increased settler violence in the West Bank and approaching famine in Gaza). Our hearts are big enough to hold both of these, and big enough to hold love for our fellow Jews alongside the dream of a better future for the peoples of that beloved land.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel