It’s now been two months since I first went to Jerusalem for the start of my duties in the World Zionist Congress. Thinking about it now, from my parents’ living room in sleepy Jacksonville, Florida, it feels more foreign than perhaps any other place I’ve been. I’d been to Jerusalem once before my trip there in October, on Birthright. Even back then, I found myself marveling about how foreign it seemed. I wrote in my journal,
“We were looking out at the city from the hotel roof tonight and I realized that I didn’t really feel much connection to the limestone or the smell or the patterns of lights. I think part of it stems from the novelty of it—I’ve only spent a few hours in Jerusalem so far, not nearly enough to become familiar with it. Yet I think there’s a deeper problem brewing: I’m having trouble conceiving of Jerusalem as my home.”
Back then, I came in expecting to find Jerusalem as a home, to feel awed by holiness coursing through the streets, and to reach some higher plane. After all, my heart was now “in the East.” Instead, I found a weird world of limestone, black hats, and tourist traps. It had left a bad taste in my mouth.
As I prepared to leave Tel Aviv for Jerusalem this October, I wasn’t exactly excited about going back to the city for the Congress. There had been an attack at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station a couple days before I left, so I took a sherut (shared, 10-person taxi) from Tel Aviv to the centrally-located Ben Yehuda Street. I was the last person to get on the sherut, which was good because it meant that I didn’t have to wait for anyone else to board, but bad because I was relegated to the worst seat there, the dreaded back middle. So, I spent the entire hour-long ride squeezed in between an Orthodox woman and suited-up businessman, listening to a Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me podcast to take my mind off the fact that I was going to the one of the most dangerous places in Israel inside the Green Line. Yet there was something that got to me as Peter Sagal concluded the “Not My Job” segment and the van wound its way past the flat Mediterranean farmland and up to through the Judean Hills. My time in North Carolina gave me a special affinity for pine trees, and so the pines lining the road as we entered Jerusalem made the place feel a little like home.
This feeling of home was unexpected, because in the years since Birthright, Jerusalem had become more and more alien. I saw it not as the center of the Jewish people, but as a tinderbox that didn’t welcome a religious progressive like me. It’s interesting, when the Zionist government accepted the 1947 UN Partition Plan, it didn’t include a Jewish Jerusalem, and I often wonder what the State of Israel would be like if those UN borders had been enforced, or had the Haganah/IDF not invaded the Jerusalem corridor and expelled the Arabs living there. Would Israel still long for the so-called City of Peace? Would the Jewish Diaspora still lead missions to the Jewish State to see the capital were in Tel Aviv? Does it matter?
Jerusalem, even West Jerusalem, is a product of war and expulsion. Really, it’s not so dissimilar to the genocide of the Timucua people that made Jacksonville inhabitable for Europeans (and Jacksonville is no exception for American cities, of course), except for the expulsion happened 70 years ago instead of 450. In Jerusalem, violence is just part of a messy, tragic history that continues to this day. And you can feel the tension from it.
I was thinking of this tension as I got off the sherut and onto Ben Yehuda Street. I stayed close to the myriad police officers patrolling the area, scared to take a wrong step and bump into the wrong person. Frantically, I found a taxi who overcharged me for a 7-minute ride to the Reform Movement guest house I was staying in. There, I took a deep breath, texted my mom to let her know that I was safe, and vowed to stay within the walls of the Reform Movement complex unless I absolutely needed to.
The rest of the day was rather boring, to be honest, as we had a bland orientation for the Reform Youth Delegate Summit, but it was brightened as I reunited with my friend from D.C. Having spent time in Jerusalem, she invited me to come along as she met her friend at the Jerusalem YMCA. Discovering that my FOMO was stronger than my fear of Jerusalem, I obliged, and we were treated to the last couple songs of a YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus concert. The Chorus, which is comprised of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim kids from both Israel and Palestine and focuses on nonviolent coexistence, had somehow evaded my attention when they were featured on Colbert earlier this year. The songs we heard from them featured bits in English, Hebrew, Arabic, and possibly Latin, combining and overlapping in these amazing, complex harmonies. Was it hokey? Perhaps. But it was also real, and beautiful, and seemed to engage in the work of justice and compassion more than anything I’d seen in Tel Aviv.
My friends walked to another hotel while I reluctantly walked the three blocks back to the guest house alone. It was nighttime, I was in a city I didn’t know, and scared out of my wits. But as I looked back at the imposing limestone structure of the Jerusalem YMCA building, with its imposing limestone tower lit up nearly the color of gold, I couldn’t help but feel lucky to be where I was.