July 6 Wednesday, Mt. of Olives, Efrat, Yad Vashem

We left the hotel at 8:10 a.m. and drove to the Mt. of Olives to allow AB Sutton the opportunity to video a message to his congregation.  There were very few tour groups that early in the morning, and AB had his opportunity to record his message with out too much interruption.  I always love the view from the Mt. of Olives, and I can imagine Jesus stopping at the summit on Palm Sunday to look over the City and contemplate what was ahead.  AB’s message was about Paul returning to Jerusalem after his conversion, and how the “brothers” didn’t accept him at first until Barnabus spoke up for him.  The world needs people who will speak up and welcome.

From the Mt. of Olives we drove to Efrat to meet with Rabbi Schlomo Riskin.  Efrat is a settlement with 14,000 residents about 5 miles south and west of Bethlehem.  Rabbi Riskin was born and raised in the Bedford Stuyvesant  neighborhood in Brooklyn.  His family was the last non-Africa American family on the block.  The black kids adopted him as a kind of good luck charm and protected him from the Italian kids, who were the real toughs.

One of his grandfathers was an ideological communist, because he believed that is how you improve the world.  He became increasingly disillusioned and depressed by Stalin.  His other grandfather  was a halachic existentialist.  He believed that the Jewish Law speaks to the human condition.

He attended yeshiva, and in 1960-61 he came to Israel and attended Martin Buber’s last seminar.  There were several Christians in the class including a brilliant nun who went on to become an eminent scholar and Father Yohanan an important Catholic archaeologist.  That is when he first drew close to Christians.  He and Father Yohanan attended the movies every week.  He met a young lady while in Israel who later came to Barnard and became his wife.

He returned to New York and specialized in seminary in women’s rights especially laws of divorce both hallachic and sharia law.  He graduated from seminary and became a congregational Rabbi building the Lincoln Square Congregation into the most successful Synagogue in America. But that was success in a Western sense, numbers and money, how many people in the pews.  Always he was interested in moving to Israel.  So each summer he would travel to Israel, and give lectures and apply for jobs.  But he was never offered a job.  He became frustrated.  He couldn’t figure out why.  He had the most successful orthodox synagogue in America and no one in Israel would offer him a job.  What he found out later is that no orthodox community in Israel would fire a rabbi without a beard.  Rabbi Riskin could be described as progressive or modern orthodox.  “If someone had told me all I had to do was grow a beard, I would have grown one in a minute.  But now I wouldn’t grow a beard on a bet.

In 1976 Rabbi Riskin was lecturing in Ashkelon.  Moshe Moskewitz approached him and said, “let’s build a settlement.  I will be the Mayor and you can be the Rabbi.”  Moshe brought Riskin to the hill of Efrata, and said, “here we will be a settlement, Golda Meir has provided for this place in her plan for Israel.”  Before 1947 there were 4 Kibbutzim in Efrat.  When the War of Independence broke out, they evacuated the women and children, and they men stayed to try to hold the Kibbutzim.  They were surrounded and eventually they could not hold out.  Many of the men were killed.  Golda Meir wanted to replace those Kibbutzim after the 6 day War in 1967.  But Golda also had in her plan that Jews from advanced countries must be recruit for Efrat.  So Moshe Moskewitz worked on funding and pulling the right political strings, and Schlomo Risken raised money and looked for settlers from America and South Africa.  It took five years to do all of the necessary plans and surveys to make sure that the settlement would not by on Arab land, but would only be on land that had been occupied by the former Kibbutzim.  Finally in 1983 they began Efrat with one Synagogue and 60 families.  Today Efrat has 12,000 residents and 34 Synagogues.

During the Intifada, they had to wear flak jackets and helmets, and still 16 members of their community were killed.  Also during that time the flow of visitors to their Center for Jewish Christian  Understanding and Cooperation dropped to nothing.  They were afraid it would all dry up.  But Rabbi Riskin persisted and today the Efrat is safe thanks to a tunnel and new roads and the fence, and their programs are well attended.  Rabbi Riskin said, “The only friends we have are the Christians.  This is truly the Messianic Age.”  He told the story of a Christian Protestant Monastery in Germany that runs a farm, and all of the profits of the farm they send to Israel.  He is absolutely inspired by their example.  “That which unites us is more important than that which divides us, however you get to God.”

“We have a history of good relationships with the local Arab villages.  We built a medical clinic for them, and they come to Efrat for medical care, and they sell us grapes and produce.  I used to visit the Arab villages, but they have asked me not to come, because the radical leaders of the Palestinian Authority have threatened them, if they allow me to come for visits.”

When asked about the charge that Israel has set up apartheid, Rabbi Riskin said, “anyone who calls Israel apartheid is an anti-Semite.  There are two narratives about Israel, the true narrative and the false narrative.  Consider what happened in Gaza.  Ariel Sharon decided to give Gaza back to the Palestinians.  They pulled out 12,000 settlers, and let their homes and the hothouses they ran to grow produce and were employing 30,000 Palestinians.  Within days of the Israeli pull out the Palestinians burned to the ground and destroyed those green houses.  For what?  It doesn’t make sense.  They hurt their own people!”

Jonathan Miller also asked about the Jewish settlers living in the midst of Hebron.  Rabbi Riskin replied, “Why shouldn’t Jews live in Hebron.  Jews lived in Hebron for 4,000 years up until 1948, when the Arabs massacred them all.  There is always falsification.  I would be willing to let Arabs live in East Jerusalem, though my daughter-in-law would disagree with me.  But why shouldn’t Jews live in Hebron.  The truth is that Arabs live in Israel in safety.  Jews cannot live anywhere in the Palestinian Authority outside of Israeli protection safely.”

When Rabbi Riskin was asked, “how do you experience the divine?”

He replied, “I have a powerful intuition of the Divine Presence, and I talk to him all the time.  My latest book is entitled Listening to God.  Where is God?  Wherever you let him in.”

Rabbi Riskin then gave each one of us a copy of his book, and then had to leave us.  I was so captivated by his story telling I forgot to ask to take a picture with us, and then the only picture I was able to collect was a picture of the Ark in the Synagogue – very plain, very simply.

We then drove to Yad Vashem and met with the director of Christian relations for Yad Vashem, Dr. Susanah Kokkonen.  She is from Finland and earned a Doctorate in Holocaust studies from Hebrew University.  Because they had a big conference in session there were no rooms available, so we met with her on the avenue of the righteous near the mosaic that had been executed by Jeffrey Ballon’s mother.  She talked about the stages that lead up to genocide, and while the Holocaust was unique, it did share several attributes in common with other genocides:  singling out of a group, separation of a group, persecution of a group, demonization and dehumanization of a group and finally extermination of the group.

Dr. Kokkonen took time to talk about several of the righteous among the gentiles especially Raul Wallenberg, who ended up being arrest by the Soviets and then disappearing in the Soviet Gulag.  We had our group picture at Yad Vashem taken in the shade of the Raul Wallenberg Tree.  We then had an opportunity to go through the museum.  Visiting Yad Vashem is always overwhelming and emotionally exhaustive.  I found myself drawn to the exhibits toward the end that emphasized resistance to the Holocaust and the eventual effort to bring the survivors to Israel.

In addition I became aware going through the numerous video exhibits, that our Civil War was the first war that was photographed extensively.  World War II was the first war that was filmed extensively.

We didn’t leave Yad Vashem until closing at 5 p.m.  AB was particularly moved by the exhibits and sat and watched many of the videos two and three times.  We then hurried down to the Old City, so we could take AB to the Western Wall, since this was his first trip ever to Jerusalem.  After the Western Wall we were able to take him through the Arab  souk to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where he was able to see the place of the crucifixion and the place commonly believed to have been the tomb of Jesus.  Like most first time visitors he was deeply moved.  Then we grabbed some dinner, walked back to the hotel, packed and went to bed in order to be able to leave by 3:30 a.m. Ugh!

One Comment on “July 6 Wednesday, Mt. of Olives, Efrat, Yad Vashem”

  1. Martha Bibee says:

    I love your group picture! Israel is beautiful this time of year!

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