On September 28-30, 2018, NFTY-MAR gathered for the first event of the year, LEAD: Renewing Your Leadership. Below is a D’var Torah written by Dylan Davidoff.
On July 11, I stepped on a plane about to embark on the most draining, confusing, angering, emotional, bittersweet, thought-provoking, delightful, most memorable 3 weeks of my life. All the way from Israel, Palestine, LA, New York, Chicago and Maryland, Israelis, Palestinians, Palestinians Citizens of Israel, and American teens would gather in the suburbs of Chicago for a program called Hands of Peace, where we would have 2 and a half hour dialogues everyday just beginning to scrape the surface on the Israel/Palestine conflict.
During one of the dialogues we were instructed to share a story, a snapshot of our life when the Israel/Palestine conflict or any conflict has impacted us on a personal level. Each and every story told was emotional. Numbers of fatalities became friends, mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings and so on. Through each story I couldn’t help but think, “What if that were my best friend, my mother, my grandparent?” Tears unconsciously streamed down my face. We sat in silence with nothing but respect for each other. We finished dialogue like we always do with one word, describing how we felt in that very moment then, one person counts to three in any language and then a clap, officially recognizing the end of the session. While on other days we would typically get up and head right for lunch, today was different. I and a few others went straight to the bathroom. There was a short moment of discomfort before one hug then another and another, all bawling our eyes out, feeling for one another. I felt nothing but vulnerability and comfort, as I shared a part of my story in a small circle, in the girls’ bathroom, to Israelis, Palestinians and Americans I did not even know existed 3 weeks ago.
For the past week we have been celebrating the festival of Sukkot. And, just moments ago, we read a section from the Torah that refers to Sukkot as “chag haAsif” or a “festival of gathering.” Our ancestors were farmers, so for them, Sukkot was a celebration of the gathering of crops, their harvest that would sustain them until the spring. However, Sukkot was also one of three annual pilgrimages our ancestors made to Jerusalem. Picture a big family reunion. By day people would be harvesting the new crops with the entire neighborhood and by night you were around the campfire eating good food, singing, dancing, and worshipping G-d. Sounds fun right? In other words, when the Torah says “a festival of gathering,” it meant not just gathering of crops, but of people as well; gathering together as a community. But why did we have to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkot? Why couldn’t we have our harvests, our camp fires, all the festivities in the comfort of our home?
We have come a long way since biblical times, making physical gatherings much much more virtual. Thus, the idea of building bridges in hopes of peace could easily be done without ever sitting in the same room.
Yet, that moment after dialogue, a moment of honest pure progress would have never occurred if we had simply just logged off. The opportunity to go adventuring through Chicago together as simple teenagers not as a side of a conflict would have never occurred if we had simply just logged off. Making true friendships based on personality rather than opinions would have never occurted if we had simply just logged off. The establishment of a rare community built by Israeli, Palestinian, and American teens would have never occurred if we had simply just logged off and continued to go about our day.
The pilgrimage festivals created an opportunity for the Jewish community to reaffirm their communal commitment to the covenant with G-d and strengthen the self-identification of the nation as a religious community…such a thing could only be achieved in person, face to face, by spending physical time with others. A modern poet, cited in our Reform prayer book, looked at Exodus 23, which describes these annual pilgrimages and offered the following interpretation…“one does not travel to Jerusalem,” he writes, “one returns, one ascends the road taken by generations… one brings rucksacks stuffed with memories to each mountain and each hill… One does not travel to Jerusalem, one returns.”
Sukkot exemplifies that there is some sort of power in being physically together, that it elicits the memories of all those who came before us, allowing us to engage in the same ritual, and to take up our place in that chain of tradition.
Each day at Hands of Peace is a day I forever cherish, a day I wish I could just have 1 more minute with my 47 best friends in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. But why? I could easily Facetime them or even send them a text. However, nothing will replace the time we had together, physically together.
Think to NFTY-MAR, a region that requires a great distance of travel to gather with each other, when we could easily just stay in our amazingly comfortable bed while eating a delicious bagel with cream cheese and lox and a refreshing strawberry banana smoothie, all while binge watching the greatest show of all time, Friends, on Netflix and know there are other jewish teens out there probably doing the exact same thing. Or maybe why not just have one event. We all have phones, leaving us with no worry of having to write the all and powerful snail mail to stay in contact with one another. So, why gather 5 times a year for 4 years? What makes actually being together so powerful?
There is something about being in the presence of one another that an 1,000 dollar phone just can’t do. After almost 4 plus years in NFTY, there is nothing like being in a room knowing I can go up to anyone of you and randomly start a yoga slide or hokey pokey dance party, have an insightful conversation with, or simply just be my true self around. We don’t just come to NFTY events. We reunite like one big family reunion! We connect with old friends we haven’t seen in a few months and meet new friends. We read torah, and sing songs as one kehillah kedoshah. We have campfires, dance parties, and we even eat okay food. It doesn’t matter where we are or what we are doing, just that we are together.
The pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Sukkot was more than just a means to collect the harvest. But, to be among one another in joy and remind us that the journey that we undertake in order to accomplish our goals, must be recognized and celebrated with each other.
Our pilgrimage is just this. Being present in the moment that we are physically together. Celebrating this time together and most importantly using these moments as a time to give back to the earth and the people that have provided so much for us in whichever way we choose.
Just one more moment together. One more moment I wish I had with my Hands of Peace family. One more event I wish I would have with you at the end of this year. Just one more moment, because nothing will replace the time we have together, physically together.