Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

Israel and the Palestinians: Piecing Together Peace

PromisedLandIn this week’s Torah parasha, Mass’ei, the Israelites are finishing up their forty years of desert wandering and are preparing to enter the Promised Land. “The Promised Land.” Promised by God, our tradition tells us. And further, we were not to share it with anybody else. Listen: “On the steppes of Moav, at the Jordan near Jericho, God spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Tell the Israelite people … When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land. […] You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have assigned the land to you to possess.’”

That was Numbers 33:50-53. This week’s Torah reading. We’ve been teaching this idea to one another for 2500 years! We taught it while we lived in ancient Israel. We taught it while we were in Exile, wandering across Europe, living in ghettos and enduring pogroms. And we still teach it, as a second commonwealth of Israel is now being built on that ancient land. The Torah is quite clear. Israel belongs to the Jewish people.

Islam’s Qur’an seems to be a bit less precise. In some passages, the Qur’an explicitly acknowledges that God gave the Land of Israel to the Jewish people. Forever. But in other sections, the Holy Land has been turned over by God to the Muslim people who have been deemed more worthy than the Jews.1

The end result appears to be the same: Two peoples vying for the same parcel of land. Each one citing its ancient scripture as the prooftext for its claim.

And yet, no one is going anywhere. The Arabs have not succeeded in pushing the Jews into the sea. Nor have the Israelis succeeded in making the Palestinians go away. In my opinion, the sooner these neighbors realize that neither one is disappearing, that they’re either going to have to learn to live together or destroy each other, the sooner peace can become a real possibility.

You and I, watching the latest outbreak of violence from afar, shake our heads in disbelief and despair at how long this has been going on. Why, we ask, don’t they finally insist upon peace? Why is it that each time fighting breaks out, they kill each other until a cease-fire is declared, and then return to their corners, preparing for the inevitable renewal of violence somewhere down the road.

CoexistBut hold on, there are Israelis and Palestinians who believe in a path other than one littered with violence. Some are literally agitating for peace (more on that later), while others are building it through cooperative ventures on behalf of both peoples.

First there’s The Villages Group, Israelis and Palestinians who live near one another and who maintain daily contact via economic activity, sharing resources, and basic human relationships. The premise is a simple one: we either learn to live together, or we’ll die.

One of my favorite cooperative ventures was shared this week with me by young Maya over here. It’s a Facebook page entitled “Jews and Arabs Refuse to Be Enemies.” The premise is also a simple one. Take a picture of yourself with someone who’s of that other enthnicity, and post it on the Facebook page. Some of the pairs are best friends, some are lovers, and some have been married for decades. All of them believe not just in the possibility, but in the reality, of celebrating difference and opting for love.

Breaking the Impasse is a group comprised of some three hundred Israeli and Palestinian businesses that work together toward achieving a peaceful, two-state resolution to the conflict. They are a direct challenge to the philosophy of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement. Breaking the Impasse argues and advocates for deeper and broader investing in the occupied territories as one of the most important strategies for furthering peace in the region.

Then there are diseases and pests, which know no borders and threaten the well-being of all. Israel’s Ministry for Agriculture and Rural Development has partnered with the Palestinian Ministry of Environmental Affairs to share in providing veterinary training and flora protection that benefit both peoples. That’s relationship-building at actual governmental levels!

And then there’s the violence. While Ellen was in Jerusalem these past three weeks, she was invited to a demonstration by a group called Lokhamim l’Shalom, Combatants for Peace, which consists of Israelis who have served as soldiers in the IDF and Palestinians who have taken part in the violent struggle for Palestinian freedom. In their mission statement, Combatants for Peace writes, “After brandishing weapons for so many years, and having seen one another only through weapon-sights, we have decided to put down our guns, and to fight for peace.”

There are so many more organizations, both small-scale and large, grassroots and governmental, that are working to improve relations between these two enemies. Of course, for those involved in The Villages Group, Breaking the Impasse, Combatants for Peace and, don’t forget, Jews and Arabs Refuse to Be Enemies, they are not enemies. They refuse to be enemies. For these folks (and there aren’t nearly enough of them yet) have acknowledged that neighbors mustn’t destroy one another. Neighbors must take care of each other, must be civil to each other, must build bridges of peace with each other — for their own sakes, for the sake of their children, and for the sake of their nations.

Me? I don’t care that the Torah tells us the land is ours. What I think is that we’d best get about the business of sharing that land before it’s too late for everyone. God may indeed have told us, “When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall dispossess all the inhabitants [there].” But elsewhere in the Torah, God explicitly instructed, “It is not in the heavens … it is not beyond the sea … it is in your mouth and in your heart.” We decide how to live Torah, how to live Jewish life. What God may have said back then may even have been right back then. But it doesn’t work today. And it’s high time we figured out another way.

And in so doing, believe with perfect faith, that God will be just as happy and just as pleased.

Susan Sparks (a Baptist minister), Uzzer Usman (a Muslim) and Bob Alper (a Reform rabbi), are all comedians. When they perform together, the first thing the rabbi does is frisk the muslim. It’s a joke, see? It relaxes the audience. Everybody onstage and off knows something out of the ordinary, but very special, is happening. And it is special. In their own unique way, these three men and women are building relationships. And not just relationships but they’re building a new world. One where Jew and Christian and Muslim live peacefully, even lovingly, side-by-side.

May we soon see such a world. May we help to build such a world. May our children and our grandchildren come to take such a world … very much for granted.

1 “The Qur’an: Israel Is Not for the Jews,”

Of Rockets and Screaming Children

Note: I wrote this as the violence began escalating between Israel and Gaza. While events in the Middle East are dominating the news cycle, I didn’t want to abandon my excitement for speaking about camp and science and Jewish life. Nevertheless, I am cognizant of the tragedy that is unfolding. Ultimately (I hope), these words reflect my feelings about what’s going on 6000 miles away as well. Billy


This past December, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) held its biannual convention in San Diego. It offered the usual fare — incredible study sessions with great Jewish scholars, fantastic speeches by major national and international leaders, the best music the Reform movement has to offer, and terrific debates on issues of liberal Jewish import (including, at this convention, agitating for more research on the dangers of hydraulic fracking, support for paid sick leave, and advocacy for ending the 50-year-old US-Cuba embargo.

beakman.01But nothing could have surprised or thrilled me more when Beakman showed up on the Biennial stage. Beakman, you may recall from your 1990s television viewing, was (and still is!) an eccentric scientist who, Wikipedia tells us, “performs comical experiments and demonstrations to illustrate various scientific concepts from density to electricity and even flatulence.” What was he doing at the Biennial? He was unveiling the URJ’s brand-new Science and Technology Academy, a summer camp for Reform Jewish kids that would combine Jewish values with really cool science. I looked over at Ellen and said, “I have got to go there!”

I’d thought I was finished with summer camping. Five years as Machon and a counselor at GUCI (in Zionsville, Indiana), a summer as the Judaic Specialist at Camp Coleman (in Cleveland, Georgia) and, of course, 22 summers on rabbinic faculty at Kutz Camp (in Warwick, New York). Did I have one more week in me to go see what a Reform Jewish science camp would be like? You betcha!

6-points-logo.01So a few weeks ago, I packed my car and headed north, 45 minutes past Boston, to the site of the oldest boarding school in America, Governor’s Academy, established in 1763, before the United States declared its independence! 60 kids in grades 5-9 soon arrived, dividing themselves into four major areas of learning: robotics, video game design, digital media production, and environmental sciences. For three hours each day, they work with some really smart professionals who, assisted by some really smart counselors, equip the kids to get their hands dirty in real experiments and projects.

I was only interested in the Boker Big Bang, which takes place every morning before breakfast and, under the guise of inquiry and learning, blows things up. As far as I know, there’s no other URJ summer camp where that kind of stuff is going on! I had definitely picked the right place for my URJ camping swan song.

BokerBigBang.01But fun as it is to explode things and even to make weird, squishy chemical reactions, the big question on my mind is: Can math and science really serve as the premise and foundation for a Jewish summer camp, even a Reform Jewish summer camp? After all, how many 5th through 9th graders have told me, in gleeful defiance, that they no longer believe in God because they “believe in the Big Bang.” And although belief isn’t really supposed to be part of chemistry and biology, apparently they have sufficient faith in their science teachers to warrant thumbing their noses at their rabbi.

In my synagogue we don’t teach kids that the Six Days of Creation as described in Genesis is real. We’re pretty careful to let them know that Genesis is our story and not our history. We love this story, especially for the values it teaches us, but we don’t feel the need to accept it as fact in order to learn from it. The Torah was finished around 500 BCE, when science was really just getting started. So of course science and Torah are going to be at odds with each other. Science and science are at odds with each other. That’s how we learn. By testing ideas and sorting out which are true and which are not. So long as we’re open to discovering new truths from wherever they may arise, and we don’t beat people senseless for it, being “at odds” is a really helpful component of human relationship.

None other than Albert Einstein himself perceived the connections between Judaism and science. In the Winter 2010 issue of Reform Judaism magazine, William Berkson (“Einstein’s Religious Awakening”) quoted a 50-year-old Einstein as saying, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed….A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity; in this sense, and this alone, I am a deeply religious man.”, I think, understood that Judaism and science were not incompatible. While yes, there have been, and will always be, those who insist that the Torah is 100% accurate and true, the value of Judaism does not rely on that to be so. After all, in 500 BCE how much could the rabbis have known about cosmology? As recently as the 17th century, Baruch Spinoza got himself into a heap of trouble when he suggested that the Torah might not be 100% true. What’s remarkable is that, even though we Reform Jews are essentially Spinoza-followers, our kids all think their rabbis are fundamentalists. No matter what we tell them, they seem to default to a belief that we believe every word in the Torah is true. So when the time arrives, somewhere around the 5th through 9th grades, that they are no longer able to accept a fundamentalist view of Torah, they blame us for lying to them!

And that’s why I think a URJ Science and Technology Academy for 5th through 9th graders is such a magnificent thing. At the very moment when science undoes Judaism for many of them, Judaism now places math and science front and center, as if to say, “Where are you running to? Math and science are not foreign to Jewish thought. In fact, math and science fits the Jewish spiritual outlook beautifully!”

But will a Jewish camp founded on principles of math and science succeed? That we cannot yet tell. It’s going to be a few summers before Sci-Tech figures out how to truly synthesize Judaism and science. But the opportunities for such synthesis are not only abundant, they’re critical. And I suspect that, as Sci-Tech figures out some of the best ways to teach these ideas to our kids, we will bring a bunch of those strategies back home to our synagogues. Yes, yes, yes … of course I want to blow things up! Probably not in the sanctuary, though. Maybe only on the front lawn? But to develop new ways to convey these ideas to our kids – ideas of mystery and spirit that are wrapped in science’s study of how our world works – that would be important and beneficial to us all.

evolution.01In my synagogue, most of our students stick around through Confirmation and even Graduation. But some of them are asking these great questions about the impact of math and science on spirituality. If they don’t receive satisfying responses, Judaism will lose its relevance and they will leave. And it could be a very long time, if ever, before these kids (adults?) truly come back.

At the Sci-Tech Academy, rockets are flying through the air. The sounds of excitement and curiosity can be heard across the entire camp. Sadly, rockets are also flying through the air in Israel right now. While people are curious, about them to be sure, I doubt they’re terribly excited. Thus far, neither science nor religion have figured out a foolproof way to turn enemies into friends. Thus far, all attempts between Israelis and Palestinians have failed.

RocketFromGaza.01But failure is what most of science is all about. Thomas Alva Edison viewed failure as merely being 10,000 ways that don’t work. And back to work he would go. We mustn’t banish either religion or science simply because we’ve experienced failure. What we must do is to embrace the humility of one and the determination-in-the-face-of-failure of the other, and forever accept the challenges our world sets before us. From questions as big and elusive as understanding the origins of existence, to questions as big and elusive as how to finally bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians, we must fearlessly persevere. And we mustn’t let anything — in the interest of scientific inquiry, in the interest of religious conviction, in the interest of peace — we mustn’t let anything deter us from continuing to try.

One of my favorite moments during my stay at Sci-Tech was when the camp director, Greg Kellner, gathered groups of kids to stand with him between an open Torah scroll and the just completed Sci-Tech Torah (which includes events both from Genesis and from secular scientific history). He spoke with the kids about his dreams for the kind of summer each one would have, a summer filled with fun and with learning, a summer filled with new friendships and new ideas, a summer filled with danger-free adventure and great memories that would last long after camp was over.

Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu … dear God and God of our ancestors …

SeedsOfPeace.02May the day soon arrive when the only rockets that fly overhead are the ones our children are squealing at with delight and laughter and a love for learning something new. Would that we could create such lives for all children everywhere, that their days and their nights would never be disturbed by the fear of explosions, or the destruction of their homes, or the disruption of their schooling. Utilizing all of the tools You have given us, God, may we soon fashion a world where kids feel like they’re living in one great big, wonderful Sci-Tech Academy all year long.