Written by Bryan Baker, Louisville – Triteam 2012
The same way the glimmer we see from stars is really light emitted thousands of years ago, a kind of galactic time machine, that’s what it’s like to walk in Israel. It is a past frozen in the present, and it is impossible to forget the people who walked the same places centuries before.
Israel is less a vacation than an experience. At least that’s the feeling that overwhelmed me on my first visit, from which I returned on September 9 after an eight-day trip overseas. I went with three others from the Jewish Community of Louisville as part of the Partnership 2Gether program.
You may know the friends who went with me: Tzivia Levin Kalmes, Ben Vaughan, and Courtney Hughes. The four of us connected with a group from Indianapolis, with whom we have been meeting for months, as well as groups from Budapest, Hungary; and Israel. It was a way for our groups to embrace our Jewish identities and connect culturally with Jews around the world. Our partnership, which includes about a dozen other cities around the United States, is aligned with the Western Galilee.
Anyone who has been to Israel gleans his or her own unique connection from being there. I had never been. Admittedly, I have never had a strong Jewish cultural or religious identity, despite growing up in a Jewish household. The seminar was a chance to rediscover, if not discover, and change my perspective.
It didn’t take long. The first leg of our trip took us to Budapest, in a country frozen in an entirely different way. The Hungarian group as a whole, a mix of men and women in their 20’s, doesn’t have strong roots in Judaism at all. Some of them had only recently been told they were Jewish. Hungary is a place built on social deference, we learned, and being Jewish was not necessarily something to be proud of, if not something that should be hidden. Who are you when you do not know who you are?
The gothic architecture – medieval castles, Parliament, and the opera house – were memorable in Budapest, as were the giant Communist-era statues constructed around the city. But it was a minimally-descript, easily overlooked memorial that carried the real emotional weight.
Walk by the Danube River at night, and the row of small, bronze shoes may seem like curious art. But then you see the plaque. You listen to the story. The Arrow Cross, the Hungarian Nazis during World War II, took Jews from the Budapest Ghetto in 1944 and 1945. They lined them along the river. They tied two Jews together, so when they shot one the other would fall in and drown. When you’re controlling people, you have to conserve bullets.
It’s easy to realize my feet could fit in some of those bronze shoes. If not for a different place and time, this Holocaust Memorial could be a memorial to us.
You learn the most from what is uncomfortable and inconvenient and often not found in books.
One of them is the gypsy Roma village in Hungary. A group of poor people, overrun by alcohol and drug addiction, who get their water from a well outside the homes they live in – if you can call them homes. Most are structurally unsound and feature gaps in the siding. Even in 90-degree heat the chill comes over you here, when you think about what it will be like for them in the winter. The kids live in unimaginable filth.
We helped the people there dig holes so a charity that is trying to transform the village can plant a garden. There were shooting pains and splinters when our shovels scraped what we were unknowingly trying to unearth: stone, brick, and once, an old stick shift.
Tikkun Olam, a concept of social responsibility, was central to the theme of our seminar. There’s always someone less fortunate than we are. I’ve had this spirit in my heart but regrettably haven’t put it into practice. I rediscovered this devotion with the dozens of new friends who shared these experiences with me.
In Israel we packed boxes for a food bank and spent some time at an elementary school in Akko, working with at-risk youth. I immediately connected with a boy named Harel, who stayed by my side as we painted plastic cups. We talked about football. I thought he was talking about football. He was talking about football. Oh, he means soccer. I figured he meant football. You can laugh, because I sure did. We’ve reached each other on Facebook, and I hope to guide him in any way I can, even from around the world. We did laugh a lot that day.
There were plenty of the alternative emotions as well. These were moments of reflection.
We had dinner at sunset overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Ahead was a border gate into Lebanon, an area consumed by gunfire just six years ago, during the Second Lebanon War. We hung cloth stars we had decorated, in the shape of the Star of David, at the gates. My hope is that the only red stains on them will be from the crayons and markers we used.
We spent the Sabbath in Jerusalem and watched the sun set again in a place where millions have worshipped. We did the same in moving past the old city walls, past the vendors and onto the Western Wall. I brought a note and placed it in the Wall. I walked up to the Wall for the very first time and closed my eyes. I prayed. It is a moment and emotion I’m still processing weeks later.
The trip was about connecting to ourselves, each other and the places. It’s too cliché to say my life has changed. Words are only as heavy as the actions attached to them.
So I move on again in Louisville, with the prophetic words of Paul Simon that someone brought up as we were leaving our new friends: “Nothing is different, but everything has changed.”
It has, and I’m ready to prove it.
Editor’s note: The Tri-Team Partnership Mission brought together Jews from Israel’s Western Galilee region; Budapest, Hungary; and the Midwestern communities in the United States that are part of the Central Area Consortium. Partnership 2Gether, formerly Partnership with Israel, is a program of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and Louisville has been a member since its inception in 1997.
The program encourages one-on-one relationships among people from each community. Through Partnership programs, Louisville has benefited from numerous exchanges in medicine, art, music, education and business.
For more information about Partnership 2Gether, contact JCL Chief Operating Officer and Vice President Sara Wagner, 238-2779.
The JCL’s Young Adult Director Tzivia Levin Kalmes staffed the Tri-Team Partnership Mission, which was heavily subsidized by the JCL and Partnership 2Gether.