This weekend, I went to one of the most beautiful places on the planet, the Golan Heights. Please don’t bother reading the Wikipedia article, it’s a bunch of political nonsense and needs to be edited.
In short, the Golan Heights is the northernmost part of Israel. Once it was a part of Syria, but after Syria invaded Israel in 1967 and lost the war, Israel pushed back the Syrian soldiers and gained the Golan. The Golan is important strategically because it is high ground and for the first two decades of Israeli history, the Syrian Army used that advantage to pummel Israeli villages below in the Galilee.
Now, the Golan is home to both Jews and Arabs, with a slight Jewish majority. Arab communities include Druze, Muslims, and Alawites. The Arabs often identify as Syrian, although a number of them have adopted Israeli citizenship. It’s a very rural area and extremely green and beautiful. It’s kind of reminiscent of a Middle Eastern Vermont or Switzerland. Before I get into my story, here are some pictures to give you an idea (I visited the picturesque Galilee along the way so I’ll throw in a few from there too):
Friday afternoon, my friends and I went for a hike in the Galilee. A park ranger told my friend Jordan to get out of the creek and then told me I was wondering too far away. As with almost all tense situations in Israel, the awkwardness immediately dissipated when I started to talk to the guy. Turns out Muhammad is a Muslim Arab from the Golan, meaning his roots are in Syria. I spoke with him in Arabic and he started to open up to me. Turns out, Arabs in the Golan are afforded the very unique opportunity to go to college in Syria (this is astonishing because Syria and Israel are technically in a state of war and Syria doesn’t even recognize Israel. But as with all things in the Middle East, you find loopholes). He studied medicine in Damascus for a year, but then had to flee because of the civil war. He decided he didn’t like medicine (despite his parents’ wishes that he become a doctor- does this sound similar, Jewish friends?) and became a park ranger and enjoys being in the peace of the outdoors. He definitely had some delusional ideas about how great life is in Syria for its meager remaining Jewish community (after all, there is a reason almost all of them have left). That being said, he was also clearly a very open-minded and tolerant person open to people of all backgrounds. He is a person forging his own path (pun intended), something I can identify with.
After our hike, we went to a kibbutz to spend the night. To say this place was magical is an understatement. It’s the most romantic, scenic, and peaceful place I’ve ever been. And I’ve been to the Alps. It is a rural, progressive Jewish lifestyle, something that is almost non-existent in the United States. Not only is most of rural America conservative (whereas kibbutzim have socialist origins and still lean left), but also Jews as a minority need to be around lots of other Jews in order to make for a rich communal life. This partially explains the high concentration of Jews in New York, Boston, DC, Chicago, Miami, LA, San Francisco, Atlanta, etc. The same could be said for gay people, which is a big reason why I, as a gay Jew, have stuck to major urban areas in the U.S.
This is not the case in Israel. You can enjoy a progressive rural lifestyle and feel at home. No rednecks here 🙂
I have a deep love for nature and tranquility so I found the experience awe-inspiring and thoroughly relaxing. I wandered around the kibbutz and nearby and just felt at peace. I have a strong inclination to raise my family in a place like this in the future- somewhere safe, Jewish, open-minded, and surrounded by God’s beautiful plants and animals.
After singing “Lecha dodi” by a lake as the sun set over the mountains much like the first kabbalists in Tsfat, I came back to the house for Shabbat dinner. As we laughed and relaxed around the table, we heard a boom. And then another boom. And many more. We realized that those were bombs being dropped in Syria’s civil war. The border is just a few kilometers away. It was a somber reminder of the violence raging oh so close by. It’s one thing to hear about the civil war and quite another to simply hear it. I prayed to God for the safety of my brothers and sisters just across the border.
We then had a lovely dinner and I wandered around alone afterwards exploring the kibbutz, praying, dancing, just unwinding. I looked up at the moon and talked out loud to God. “God, thank you for this beautiful Kibbutz. God thank you for Shabbat and for the beauty of nature. God thank you for the opportunity to visit the Golan Heights. God, thank you for the gift of being an Israeli. For the gift of living in this place, for bringing me here. Where despite the news and despite the booms off in the distance, I feel safer than I ever have in my life. Help me to grow stronger and heal and to make your name great. To strengthen your people and to bring peace. Amen.”
I went inside, talked to a really hot Lebanese guy Ameer on Tinder across the (other) border, and got the best night’s sleep I’ve had in Israel yet.
That’s life in Israel- radically accepting that there are some things you can’t change (war and borders), and then thoroughly enjoying all the amazing things in front of you (trees, lakes, mountains, Judaism, good food, friends, and more). Never taking life for granted and, while things can be sad or scary, rather than being paralyzed, just enjoying the hell out of the blessings you’ve got.
It was a little scary and sad to hear those booms in the distance. At the same time, I can honestly say that I actually felt safer at this kibbutz than in America. Here, I feel my identity is validated, that I’m a part of a big national family, and that I’m enjoying life to the fullest. It’s worth the risks because life here is so much better for me.
And who knows, one day maybe Ameer and I will be able to cross the border and pick up where we left off last night 😉