Last Friday, in his piece “Of sermons and strategies,” Rabbi Daniel Gordis chose to highlight several “examples” of what he describes as problematic actions of American rabbinical students. While I cannot speak to all the items or incidents listed, I can speak to one of them. I am the American rabbinical student who chose to celebrate his birthday in Ramallah.

Despite what Rabbi Gordis seems to have concluded, my choice was an expression of my Zionist identity. I fully support the existence of the State of Israel as a democracy and national home for the Jewish people.

I chose to have one of my birthday celebrations in Ramallah to honor, respect and value the relationships I have built with a people and place I care deeply about. I also celebrated my birthday here in Jerusalem for the same reasons. I believe in a Zionism that desires peace, safety and cooperation among Jews and Arabs. This Zionism is rooted in the ideals and vision of great Zionist leaders such as Chaim Weizmann and Judah Magnes. Their vision was one of cooperation; a vision of Jews and Arabs able to live side by side. Without cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians, how can we hope for a peaceful resolution to this conflict?

AS AN American Jew living in Jerusalem, I find myself in a unique position of access to communities and people separated by walls, fences and permits. When I visit a place like Ramallah, I do not do so ignorantly. I am aware of the writing on the walls and the incredible complexity of this conflict. I read, see and hear things that make me feel uncomfortable. There are also many places in Israel where I feel uncomfortable as a liberal Jew, a Zionist and an American. Feeling uncomfortable is not an invitation to disengage, close myself off or stop listening (or, in my specific case, celebrating). I find that by engaging those with whom I may not agree, I am provided with opportunities to learn about myself and others, and begin to transform discomfort into opportunity. It is here where real, valuable and meaningful learning and partnerships can emerge.

I agree with Rabbi Gordis’ conclusion that the subject of Israel is increasingly polarizing for American rabbinical students. Yet perhaps these students, my colleagues, can be a barometer of a new type of engagement for American Jews.

Instead of imitating the Saudis, as Gordis suggests, perhaps we should simply behave like Jews, struggling with complexity and those with whom we disagree. We should work to find ways to open ourselves to each other and facilitate dialogue between voices that are in conflict. We must heal the rifts forming within the Jewish community itself.

I believe this is beginning to happen in American rabbinical schools, and among the leadership in the Jewish community.

These are the values and ideals that brought me to celebrate my birthday in Ramallah. And these are the values and ideals that I hope will allow my Zionism to reach its fullest potential.

Maybe in the near future he and I can sit down over a cup of coffee, and learn more about each other and why (or even whether) we disagree. If my experience is any measure, maybe next year Rabbi Gordis will even come to my birthday party, wherever it may be.

The writer is a rabbinical student at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, CA. He is spending this year living and learning in Jerusalem at the Conservative Yeshiva.

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