Per què sóc jueu i independentista

Per als llectors que no em coneixen, sóc un jueu americà i israelià.  Vaig aprendre el català fa uns anys a Georgetown University a Washington, D.C.  Vaig prendre un curs d’un semestre, subvencionat per la Fundació Ramon Llull.  Encara que ja estava interessat en Catalunya abans, aquell aprenentatge em va canviar la vida.

Molts cops, la gent pensa que només les llengües amb més parlants importen.  Com si la quantitat de boques parlant representés la saviesa o l’intel·ligència.  Però no és veritat.  Podem pensar, per exemple, al cas del grecoparlants, que són només 13.4 millons, però que sense dubte han contribuït fenomenalment a la civilització occidental.

El cas dels catalans no és diferent.  Amb més de 10 millions de parlants, el català forma part d’una civilització de fa més de mil anys.  Una civilització amb literatura, música, dansa, arquitectura, poesia, i més.  I cada aspecte amb el seu caràcter únic i local.

Mil cops, quan vaig dir que parlava català, la resposta ha segut “per qué?  Cada català parla castellà, és una llengua petita, i no et serveix més el xinés o alguna llengua ‘important’?”  I la meva resposta és: “una llengua és un dialecte amb un exèrcit i una marina.”  O sigui, que a qualsevol lloc al món, podem trobar saviesa i riquesa cultural.  No importa el tamany de la llengua- encara si no té poder polític, val la pena aprendre.  De fet a vegades les llengües sense tant poder polític ofereixen una perspectiva nova i especial.

No és gaire curiós que aquesta expressió coneguda entre lingüistes i activistes és, de fet, una contribució de la meva civilització, la jueva.  El lingüista Max Weinrich, un acadèmic que s’especialitzava en la llengua ídix, la llengua dels meus avis.  I recenment, una llengua que vaig aprendre jo per a conectar-me amb els meus arrels culturals.  És una llengua minòritaria que, igual que el català, ha segut menyspreada pel seu tamany i “falta d’importància”.  Molts cops, racistes es refereixen al idioma com un “dialecte” de l’alemany, igual que el prejudici que diu que el català és només un dialecte del castellà.

És precisament per aquest menyspreu i imperialisme cultural que com a jueu, m’identifico amb el moviment per l’independència de Catalunya.  Perque jo sé bé que les forces majoritàries del món- no podem comptar amb elles per a protegir les nostres cultures.  Som pobles que hem patit la discriminació i la persecució- i del mateix estat espanyol.

Llavors comparteixo la meva solidaritat amb el poble català durant aquest moment difícil.  No sé qual sera el resultat, però vull que sapigueu que teniu el meu suport.  I seguiré parlant en català, en castellà, en anglés, en hebreu, en qualsevol llengua possible, per a que el món s’enteri de la justicia de la vostra causa.

Perque els pobles petits importem.

Una abraçada,

Matt Adler

Washington, D.C.

catala

Why I’m not afraid of the word Palestine

Last night, I found myself on an unexpected adventure.  While I sometimes miss the density and intensity of my adventures in Israel, after the past few days of rocket attacks, I’m feeling pretty grateful to be in Washington, D.C. and not in Ashdod.

I found myself in an Uber with a female driver wearing a hijab.  We got to talking, initially about mundane topics like podcasts and language learning.  Eventually, I asked what languages she spoke and she said “just Arabic”.  My eyes lit up.  I started speaking to her in Arabic and she was thrilled.

For the next twenty minutes, we talked about everything.  She loved my Syrian dialect, calling it rai’3ah, or “fantastic”.  She then asked the question all Arabic speakers ask me.  “Where in the Arab world have you been?”  This is a loaded question, although not intended to be.

The reason why is that Israel, in all honesty, is a part of the Arab world, or at the very least experiences a Venn Diagram overlap with it when considering the 20% of its citizens who speak Arabic as a mother tongue.  Not to mention the half of Jews there who come from Arab countries.  Furthermore, I had been to Palestinian cities and towns, which clearly qualified.

So I answered the question like this:

“Ana kinit be’Isra’il wa’Falastin.”  I was in Israel and Palestine.

Two countries whose borders are increasingly vague and whose cultures overlap and interact to such an extent that I find it sensible to sometimes mention them in the same breath.

Fatima’s ears perked up.  She was curious.  While she only called the countries I visited Palestine (which is not how I view things), she wanted to know where I had lived, what I had seen, and more.  She was respectful.  I told her I had lived in Tel Aviv and mentioned some of the Arabic-speaking areas I had visited in Israel and (the areas east of the Green Line I call) Palestine.

I even told her a funny story about language practice I experienced in Tel Aviv, to share some of the life she probably rarely hears about.  I was sitting in a restaurant and asked “efshar et ha’sal?”  I meant to ask for the salt, but by using the Spanish word “sal” for salt, I ended up asking for a basket!  The waiter asked why I needed a basket, and I said “for my chicken!”  It cracked him up at the time, and Fatima was no different.  It’s all a lesson that making mistakes while learning languages can be a blessing if you learn to laugh.  I’ve never forgotten the word for basket.

At times during my life in Israel, I struggled with the concept of Palestine.  What are its borders?  Does it threaten Israel’s existence?  Is there a way to make peace between these two countries and societies?

Now, I feel more at ease.  Even with someone like Fatima who may not even recognize Israel.  And yet finds herself open to hearing about it, even as she can’t speak its name.  Much like I used to struggle with the word Palestine.

Fatima knew I was Jewish.  That I am an Israeli citizen.  And yet something in our conversation, despite the different views we held, kept us talking.  Even had us laughing and complementing each other.

It’s the kind of magic Benjamin Netanyahu lacks on even his best day.  It’s called compassion.  It’s called dialogue.  It’s called respect and a desire to use words rather than bombs to make a point.

After Bibi’s most recent show of force, which killed about two dozen Palestinians and resulted in yet more warfare launched by the Islamic Jihad terrorist organization, the only thing we saw grow was fear.  The only result we saw was damaged houses, crying children, and trauma.  After a decade as Prime Minister, the Gaza Strip is beset by increasingly dire poverty and terrorist organizations and the Israeli communities that surround it have more PTSD, more death, and more desperation.

We could keep trying the same techniques and feel pervertedly comforted by receiving the same horrifying results.  Or we could try what I did.  Talking.  Creative problem solving.  Dialogue.

I’m not suggesting it’s easy nor do I know exactly how to do this on a political level- I’m not a politician.  What I can say is if it reduces the chance of more misery, it’s worth a shot.

As Fatima dropped me off, she said to me a phrase that will stick with me the rest of my life. “Fi amal,” she said.  “There is hope.”

Hope

A quick glance at the news is enough to make your stomach turn.

Today over 20 Iraqis were massacred by their government.  Hezbollah thugs attacked peaceful protestors in Beirut.  Donald Trump continues to abandon Kurdish allies to Turkish aggression in northern Syria.  Settlers attacked IDF soldiers in the West Bank.

And yet there are rays of hope.  The protestors in Beirut, in particular, inspire me.  Fed up with ineffective government, they have put aside their (numerous and strong) sectarian affiliations to push for a clean house.  Sunnis are protesting Sunni politicians.  Shiiites, Shiites.  Christians, Christian leaders.  The rallying cry of these protestors is beautiful: “kullun ya3ni kullun”.  All of them means all of them.  Meaning not a single politician is being spared the anger of these idealistic protestors.  People brave enough to speak out as the country experiences a severe economic crisis and in a place where politicians don’t take kindly to criticism.  A place that has known Civil War.

They are a role model for what we should all be doing.  Instead of engaging in ceaseless blaming of one group against another, we should realize that the people up top enjoy this conflict.  While we tear each other to shreds because we pray or speak or look differently, our basic needs go unmet.  Patients die because of lack of care, trash goes uncollected, jobs become more scarce, and the rent continues to skyrocket as if none of it was happening at all.

It’s time to unite against the few who control our fate and yet care so little about it.  Israel could learn a lot from the Lebanese protests, especially as Benny Gantz is now charged with trying to form a government.  If he doesn’t, we will see a third round of elections in a country already fed up with voting over and over again.

Much like its neighbor to the north, Israel’s political parties are almost entirely divided by ethnicity and sect.  There’s the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox, the Ashkenazi ones, the secular left, the secular center, the secular center-right, the modern Orthodox, the Russians, and the Arabs.  In Lebanon, the names are different, but the concept the same.  A gaggle of Christian sects, Sunnis, Shiites, and Druze jockey for power based on group labels.  An entire bloody civil war was fought over it.  It’s depressing.

And yet there is this ray of hope coming from the north that sometimes people can put aside their partisan and sectarian labels and come together for the common good.  My hope is one day Israelis will be able to do the same, as they briefly did when they protested against rising house prices.  Perhaps the most salient issue in Israel today, yet one repeatedly shunted aside in favor of endless ethnic conflict both within and externally.

This is not easy.  But my hope is that the fervor gripping young Lebanese people can inspire Israelis to follow suit.  Only by putting human interests first will we be able to make the difference we need to see in the world.  And perhaps one day, God willing, we’ll see Lebanese and Israelis joining together in protesting for justice.  In one straight line from Beirut to Tel Aviv, like the British colonial trains used to run.  If you will it, it is not a dream.

Shabbat shalom.

 

An Israel contingent on justice

This week’s Torah portion is Shoftim, or “judges”.  The word, when used as a verb, also means “they judge”.  You can read the text here.

In this portion, the famous quote “justice, justice shall you pursue” makes an appearance.  What stands out to me, though, is the rest of the quote.  Few people disagree with the concept of justice, even if we might have radically different concepts of what it means.  It is the rest of the quote which particularly intrigues me.

In the Reform translation, it reads: “justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you.”  The Jewish Publication Society’s version reads: “Justice, justice shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.”

In today’s political climate, the difference between the word “inherit” and “occupy” is everything.  For now, I’ll leave it at that, but the verse clearly complicates your point of view no matter where you stand politically.  “Inherit” is a gentle word.  When someone passes away, you may find yourself with a “yerusha” or inheritance, the same root as the word used in this famous Torah quote.  It is something passive, something that comes to you- that you do not conquer.

Occupy, on the other hand, is a very different way to put things.  And without delving too deep in the morass that is Middle Eastern politics, if you’re on the progressive side of the spectrum, this biblical dictate certainly complicates our relationship with the Divine.  And our engagement with Torah itself.

And yet what intrigues me the most about this particular verse is the connection made between pursuing justice and receiving political autonomy.  In other words, the Land of Israel isn’t simply given to the Jewish people in the Bible.  This verse makes abundantly clear that it rests on the pursuit of justice for it to be fully realized.  After all, one could simply say “justice, justice shall you pursue” without any mention of the Land of Israel.  But this verse makes the connection explicit.  That our gift of self-determination is contingent, indeed dependent, on doing the right thing.

The implications are enormous.  The Bible, after all, is an incredibly political document.  To pretend otherwise is to ignore the text itself.  And the text has enormous implications for today’s world.  After all, the early Zionist movement explored other locations for a Jewish homeland, including in Africa.  But the heart pulled us in the direction of our ancestral land.  A land which did not lay empty- which is still precariously shared between two peoples.  If the text of the Torah did not include verse after verse promising the Jewish people this sliver of territory, today’s politics would be quite different.  And we might be eating yams instead of hummus.

The implications also extend to how we engage as a people in this Land.  It is, in my view, not enough that we are simply promised a piece of territory by an ancient document.  This ancient document, filled with wisdom (if sometimes in need of an update), makes clear that any society which is to flourish, to “thrive” in this Land must pursue justice.  It is far from a free pass to do as we will without regard to humanity- both our own and that of other peoples in the region.  The humanity of the poor, the humanity of refugees both Jewish and not, the humanity of Palestinians, the humanity of olim, the humanity of the stranger among us.  The humanity of every person in need.  That is the mandate we are given to pursue over and over again in the Torah.

So where does that leave us today?  It might be enough for me to suggest it as an interesting lesson for our personal lives.  To be good people, and to seek out justice however we can as individuals on a daily basis.  Something I absolutely believe in and strive to pursue.

Yet we can’t ignore the fact that Israeli elections are around the corner.  On September 17, the Israeli public will decide the next chapter of our history.  Far be it from me to endorse a particular political party, I will simply suggest that justice be a metric for our decision-making process.  Does this political party stand for the greater good of society?  Does this party seek peace and pursue it?  Does this party balance our need for security with our need to treat all humans with kindness and humaneness?

That is the barometer our Torah sets out.  There is no more repeated commandment than that which asks us to welcome the stranger.  So this election season, as frustrating as it can be, let us find an opportunity to search our hearts for compassion and wisdom.  So that Israel, the Jewish people, and all humankind can progress in a fashion worthy of the justice we must build.  And to use our self-determination responsibly, on foundations of truth and hope.

The cover photo is of me and an African refugee in Tel Aviv at a rally to support their human rights.

What Reform and Orthodox Jews can learn from each other

First, a little background.  I was raised a Reform Jew and have been involved in the community since I was a young child.  I served on my Temple’s youth group board, was on the NFTY-MAR Social Justice Committee, traveled with Kesher to Argentina, led my college’s Reform Chavurah, and represented my movement as part of my Federation’s dialogue program with Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox youth.  I’ve led services in St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and Tel Aviv.  I’ve visited Reform communities in at least eight different countries.  And I believe that social justice and tikkun olam should be integral parts of Jewish practice.

In addition to my ongoing involvement in the Reform world, I am also a member of an Orthodox synagogue and have on various occasions over the past six months prayed regularly at three different Modern Orthodox synagogues.  I’ve been to Orthodox weddings.  I’ve davvened with Hasidim in Bnei Brak.  I’ve wandered the Haredi bookstores of Me’ah She’arim and Crown Heights and done Sukkot with a Chabad family in Montreal.  I’ve visited the ultra-Orthodox community in Antwerp and eaten gefilte fish in a  Satmar restaurant in Williamsburg.  I’ve spent countless Shabbats eating and laughing and counting on my Orthodox friends to both provide joy in my life, and to be there for them when they needed a sympathetic ear.  These are deep relationships I’ve developed and am proud to have, including with Modern Orthodox rabbis who I’m out of the closet to as a gay man.  I’m a member of Eshel, an amazing organization of LGBTQ+ Jews who’ve spent (or spend) time in Orthodox spaces.

I find myself in the unique position of loving both communities and finding something beautiful in each space.  Theologically I still define myself as a Reform Jew, albeit one whose practices lean more traditional than the average member of our communities.  And I think both communities, often at loggerheads and in political conflict in Israel and around the world, should learn from one another.

Let’s start with the concept of community.  Orthodox Jews are brilliant community builders.  Study after study shows that if you want to make friends, you need to see them regularly, organically, and often spontaneously.  Last Shabbat I went to synagogue for kiddush and without even asking, a friend invited me to lunch, where I happened to be joined by a new member of the congregation who I had been talking with on WhatsApp for months answering his questions.  He’s new to town and until Saturday, I had never even met him face-to-face.  I didn’t even view it as a favor, I just felt it was part of the ethos of my community.  Countless people had stepped up and included me in their lives, I would of course do the same for a new member of the synagogue.  Warmth, kindness, and inclusion of new members is interwoven organically into the fabric of the Orthodox communities I’m a part of.  It’s not a special initiative or program- it’s an integral part of the lifestyle.

When you add to this mix the fact that many Orthodox Jews feel an obligation to regularly go to synagogue, it is a potent way to build links between people.  I know that any given week, without having to make plans, I will see most of my friends in the same two or three synagogues.  And sometimes more than once a week if there are weddings, additional holidays, and sometimes even Shrek viewings!  There’s a tightknittedness that one rarely sees in the modern world.  And leads to a rich spiritual, social, and communal life.

In short, consistent obligation creates community in a way that progressive synagogues have rarely succeeded in doing.

So what, then, can Orthodox Jews learn from their Reform brethren?  A few things.  One, that tightknittedness need not come at the expense of concern for the “other”.  In a world that is increasingly polarized and in which we are witnessing political cruelty at the highest levels, Jews cannot remain silent.  Even if it does not always directly affect “us”.  In other words, it requires great effort to ensure that communal solidarity and tightknittedness doesn’t come at the expense of caring for those not in the community.  Reform Jews are incredible at tikkun olam and social justice work that ensures that Judaism is also part of a broader societal “we”.  Politics is often hushed in Orthodox communities that I’ve been a part of, and while this can be a reprieve from the news cycle, I believe religion is inherently political.  Being quiet for the sake of internal cohesion can come at the expense of speaking out on the issues of the day like the Prophets of old.  We come from a tradition of speaking in the here and now.  While respecting diversity of opinion within the Jewish community is important, so is mobilizing to protect the rights of others.

Another thing Orthodox Jews could learn from Reform Jews is to let go of some of the guilt they feel for making non-halachic decisions.  In other words, because Orthodox Judaism views Jewish law as binding, when individuals (inevitably) make personal decisions about the nature of their religious observance, it is often accompanied by a sense of feeling “less” observant than their peers.  With accompanying guilt, or a sense of inhabiting a lower spiritual plane.  Reform Jews, precisely because they celebrate rational, educated choice as the gateway to religious practice, don’t feel as much guilt about not keeping the same “level” of kashrut or traditional Sabbath observance.  For Reform Jews, Judaism is an evolving tradition.  So if we accept that even the most strictly Orthodox Jews make individual decisions about religious practice, perhaps it’d be beneficial to simply label this as “difference” rather than “levels” of observance.  You are not more or less Jewish than someone else simply because of the time of night you light Shabbat candles.  Rather, it’s because of the light you feel from their warmth in your heart, inspiring acts of kindness.

Reform Jews could use some more religious obligation, ritual, and communal warmth.  Orthodox Jews could use less guilt, more openness to change, and more concern for people outside their community’s borders.

And we could all use a deep breath.  There are enough crazy people in the world who are happy to persecute us for being Jewish, for being different.  Do we really need to add to the masses of fanatics by hating each other too?  After all, it’s hardly as if anti-Semites are clamoring to persecute only one kind of Jew.  Kindness is the path forward for the Jewish community- both internally and our relationship with the rest of the world.

The biggest difference between Israeli and American Jews

Over the past few years, the gap between American and Israeli Jews seems to have widened considerably.  Debates have included religious conversion, access to the Western Wall, and the degree to which each party should be allowed to exert influence in the other’s political sphere.  It’s given more than a few Jewish leaders headaches and heart break to see the world’s two largest Jewish communities at each other’s throats.  And personally, I find it disturbing for the future of the Jewish people.  Compromise and understanding, coupled with a healthy dose of empathy and intercultural understanding, could do a lot to repair this relationship.

While this deepening rift poses a threat to the Jewish people, I think the greatest difference between Israeli and American Jewry is systemic and structural more than (what I hope is) a temporary rift.

That difference is positioning.

To be a Diaspora Jew is always to be a minority.  Even if you happen to live in one of the heavily Jewish areas of the world (Crown Heights, Boro Park, Williamsburg, and not a small number of suburbs and towns across France, the U.S., the U.K., and elsewhere), you are exceedingly aware of the fact that you are a minority.  While you may feel more comfortable being visibly Jewish and have a great reservoir of community to call upon to foment your identity, not a single person would doubt their minority status.  Jews form 2% of the American population and an even smaller percentage in other countries.

As I’ve written before, this creates a certain ethnic solidarity that often blurs or softens boundaries between different types of Jewish communities.  I noticed this when traveling in Antwerp, where I found the local Hasidic community quite warm to me.  I have traveled a lot in Haredi communities around the world, but there was something about doing it in the Diaspora that felt different.  Despite our own differences, we have a certain sense of being in it “together”.  Against a rising (or perhaps never disappearing) anti-Semitism, and for Jewish peoplehood.  We know that ultimately someone seeking our destruction won’t ask whether we’re Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox.  What they’ll care is whether we’re a Jew.

While that doesn’t mean to suggest there aren’t conflicts between different Jewish communities outside Israel, the conflicts tend to play second fiddle.  Our first priority is Jewish survival- against prejudice, against violence, and for a stronger Jewish community which can navigate the complicated territory of assimilation.  This has been more or less the modus operandi of Jewish communities for about 2,000 years since exile from Jerusalem.

On the other hand, Israel was built to ensure Jewish survival in a very different fashion.  While Diaspora communities have to focus on building interfaith partnerships, innovative programming, and lobbying local governments, Israelis have a very different approach.  As the only country in the world with a Jewish majority, Israelis have the right and responsibility to protect themselves with arms.  And because Jews are the majority, the rifts which take a back seat in the Diaspora become the flame wars we see in the Knesset.

Because while Israel faces threats (ISIS, Hamas, the Iranian regime, Hezbollah, etc.), it has developed an astonishing military capacity to handle them.  Therefore, in some ways (contrary to what you might see in the news), some of the most intense conflicts in Israel are between different types of Jews.

While some would argue these enemies of Israel are capable of exterminating it, I feel confident that the IDF and security apparatus of the state are in capable hands and able to deal with existential threats.  Some might disagree, and certainly the greater the external threat, the less prominent the internal debate about the nature of Judaism becomes in Israel.  In other words, a high degree of external threat (perhaps a reflex of 2,000 years of brutal anti-Semitism) can actually decrease Israeli internal societal debates.  Our survival instinct, after all, is part of why we’re here and Akkadians only occupy chapters of history books.

When the external threats seem under control, the Israeli internal debate truly rages- among Jews.  You can even see this in the most recent unprecedented call for second elections in Israel.  Prime Minister Netanyahu found himself unable to form a coalition not because of the Arab-Israeli conflict nor economic issues.  He found himself unable to form a coalition because parliamentarian Avigdor Lieberman refused to agree to the demands of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) political parties.  Despite having sat with those parties in multiple coalitions in prior times.  Perhaps an indication of Israel’s position of relative strength vis-a-vis external threats relative to past elections.  Otherwise, such internal debate would probably be less of a priority.

Which leads us to the original point.  In Israel, socio-religious debates about public transit on Shabbat, religious family law, and the role of non-Orthodox Judaism in public life are only possible because Israel is a Jewish majority country.  While various types of Jews certainly debate Jewish philosophy in the Diaspora, it doesn’t have the practical impact of necessitating a change in government policy.  Not even the most strident Satmar Hasid in Kiryas Yoel, New York would propose the state close the subway on Shabbat.  It’s a laughable suggestion because as a minority, we would never even think to ask such a thing.  And our priorities are radically different given our positioning.  The average Satmar Hasid in New York is more concerned with his or her family’s continuation of Jewish tradition and how the state interacts with their educational system.  The idea of exerting control over other Jews’ behavior through government policy doesn’t even really figure into the agenda.

In Israel, Jews freed from the need to focus on Jewish continuity have the great responsibility of debating the future of Judaism itself in the only place on the planet where its existence is secure.  And Jews in the Diaspora, freed from the need to debate the role of Judaism in public governance, are able to find greater common ground and develop a more pluralistic tradition.  And have the great responsibility of finding ways to make sure such a community can continue to exist within the context of being a tiny minority.

One Judaism is not necessarily better or worse than the other, but they are most certainly different.  And when we view today’s challenges through the prism of minority and majority status, perhaps it can give us the necessary context and empathy to resolve the rifts driving our people apart.  Israeli and American Jews will never be the same, but perhaps we can use the tension of our different identities for the kind of creativity that has spurred our people’s success across generations.  Instead of letting things degenerate.

May it be so.

Gratitude

Gratitude is not an easy concept when you’ve been through a lot of hard experiences.  I’m not someone who falls for the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” or “it happened for a reason” ideas.  Some people find those valuable, and from time to time I suppose I can too, but I don’t think it’s a useful organizing principle.  What doesn’t kill you can still hurt and wound you and create painful consequences.  Everything “happens for a reason” but I don’t necessarily buy that it was preordained nor that good can only come out of evil or harm.  Something bad doesn’t have to happen in order for good experiences to be enjoyed later.  If it’s something you’ve come to the conclusion of, then that’s fine.  It’s not for everyone or for every experience- and certainly not an idea to push on others feeling pain.

Gratitude is a difficult but important concept.  And two stories come to mind when I think of the ways in which I’m fortunate.

One time in Belgium I felt someone else’s gratitude open my heart.  I was in the village of Dinant in the French-speaking region of Wallonie.  I had dreamed of going to Belgium for years.  I love tiny countries, especially multilingual ones like Belgium, and it’s a great place to speak French.

I was trying to get directions somewhere and I asked this older woman for help in French.  She gruffly pointed and told me where to go.  It wasn’t a very pleasant experience.  As any solo traveler knows, relying on locals for help and kindness is a crucial part of making your adventure a success- and feeling good.  And I wasn’t very happy with how she treated me.

My French is quite good, so I thought perhaps she thought I was a tourist from France, and maybe Belgium and France have some sort of rivalry.  Maybe she was old and miserable and in a bad mood.  I really wasn’t sure- I just knew I didn’t really want to be around her, so I made my way up a funicular to the top of a cliff to see the town from above.

It was a beautiful, beautiful place.

After chatting with some other tourists, I made my way down.  And who did I see at the bottom of the cable car?  The grumpy woman.

She approached me, perhaps feeling guilty for her rude behavior earlier, and we chatted for a moment in French.  She pointed me towards an interesting village she had mentioned earlier.  And asked where I was from.

While during my travels I sometimes vary in whether I say American, Israeli, or both, this time I decided to say American.

And her eyes lit up.

She thanked me.  Thanked me?  For what, you might ask?  She is from a generation of Belgians that remembers the sacrifices Americans made to protect their country in both World War I and World War II.  Sacrifices like those of my great uncle Barney.  For those who don’t know, Belgium was a battleground in both- and large parts of its countryside laid desolate and decimated.  The graveyards are still present to this day, often flanked by American and British flags.

Her gratitude was palpable.  It was a beautiful moment, one which I totally didn’t expect.  Traveling as an American or Israeli abroad is often tricky, especially in Europe where both logical and deeply illogical negative reactions abound.  Before I have a chance to share who I am as a person.

In this case, I felt nothing but love.  It was this immediate bond and I thanked her for her kind words.  She then, like a cute little grandma, made sure I knew exactly how to get to the next village and even followed me for a bit just to help.

It’s stories like these that make you realize the power of a word.  Her gratitude made my day so much better.  I’m thankful for people like her, willing to open their hearts to a stranger.

Stranger is one of the most repeated words of the Torah, for those who don’t know.  The commandment to welcome the stranger is so incredibly present in the text.  And Jews, as one of the most mobile people on the planet, have often been treated as “the other”.  As strangers, sometimes even centuries after our arrival.

Which makes my second story all the more important.

I found myself in Ljubljana, Slovenia.  I hadn’t really come to this country for its Jewish community- it numbers only 1,000 and its main historic synagogue which I wanted to visit was quite far from the capital city.  I really came to this country for its mountains- and mountains it really does have.  It’s the second greenest country by percentage of land covered in forest after Finland.

I spent about a week in Ljubljana and at this point in my journey, I started feeling a bit lonely.  Lonely not only because traveling alone can be hard, but also because I saw a Hitler salute in the middle of the town square.  While I wouldn’t want to suggest that most Slovenians are anti-Semitic, the experience of seeing a teenage boy dabble in Nazism in front of my face at noon in the town square was horrifying.  While in the end I didn’t feel physically unsafe, I certainly felt alone and kind of sad.

Which led me to seek out Jewish community.

I googled and found the local Jewish museum.  Being originally from D.C., I think of the Smithsonian or other large institutions when I hear the word.  After traveling to other countries (and other American cities), I realize how lucky I was to grow up with such a dazzling institution for free at my doorstep.

Because this museum was a simple two room set up.  The size of an apartment.  Yet its power is much greater than its size.

In a country with only 1,000 Jews, the most prominent message displayed in this little space was one of tolerance and interfaith dialogue.

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It really astounded me.  I think if I lived in such a small community, while I would want positive relations with my neighbors (who in some cases collaborated with Nazis- so not an easy feat), my focus would be on Jewish continuity.  I would probably double down on building strong Jewish-centric institutions.

Yet this museum managed to find a delicate and thoughtful balance between introspection and outward engagement.  There were old relics of Torah scrolls and ritual objects and histories of the Jewish community.  Right alongside the very active programming the center does to engage the broader Ljubljana community in educating not only about Jews, but generally building a cultural of tolerance for all.  It’s a complex and nuanced approach to Jewish community that far exceeds the size of the building.  It’s one that much larger communities continue to grapple with- where does the particular intersect with the universal- if at all?

All of which made me feel both impressed and grateful.  Impressed at how this tiny community had taken such a small space and turned it into a meaningful educational endeavor.  At their resourcefulness and at their interconnectedness.  All in the space of two rooms.  You don’t need fancy equipment or huge fundraisers to make a difference- you need willpower and a strong moral fiber more than anything else.

My gratitude goes to the Jewish Museum of Ljubljana for reminding me of this lesson.  And it made me even more grateful to be part of the two largest Jewish communities in the world- America and Israel- where we have so many resources to explore our identity and pass it on to the next generation.  Something we should not take for granted.

To be part of these communities is a privilege that some Jews don’t enjoy.  Some Jews have fewer members of our tribe in their country than live in just one American suburb or an Israeli kibbutz.  Yet, as the Jews of Ljubljana show, it is possible even with such a small, dedicated group of people to make a difference in the world.

May they continue to remind me, and all of us, of the power of one.  Of the power of a small group.  Of the spirit of the Jewish people.  And, in the case of the woman from Belgium, the power of just one word to change someone’s day: thanks.