“This is a city built on rock and faith.”
Madeline Lavine, Jerusalem Tour Guide
I’ve had the honor and pleasure to spend the past week in Jerusalem. For several years, I’ve worked with the Jerusalem International YMCA. (Learn more at FriendsofJIY.org) This trip was a wonderful opportunity to see this amazing place first hand, and to meet the exceptional people who make up this unique community in the heart of one of the more tumultuous parts of the world.
Madeline, a former teacher and JIY employee, started her tour with the statement above. The story of Jerusalem is inextricably linked to both geography and theology. The geography – the hills and rock, the lack of water and farmland, the crowded streets – leads to both wonder and fear. The stony hills and verdant valleys are so very beautiful, but it is also a brutal landscape, as likely to be flooded as drought-ridden, yielding at best only enough to survive. In modern Jerusalem, streets that were carved out for the passage of people and donkeys are now clogged with tour buses and light rail and countless cars.
And in that small city, the children of Abraham share an uneasy coexistence. I would say they live together, but that is not generally the case. Despite being packed into this corner of the world, Palestinians and Israelis, and every denomination of Christian, Muslim and Jew all live in proximity, but not in community. They jealously guard their rituals, holy places and identities amid a political and economic landscape that is as changeable and unforgiving as the land itself.
My words are inadequate to explain the energy of this place. It is a slow, steady thrum. Sitting high in the tower of the Y watching the sun rise one morning, I could feel that energy keenly. The light blooming over the eastern sky felt like a weary benediction. On this morning, just like every morning for thousands and thousands of years, people would rise, make breakfast, kiss their children, go to work. No matter that today they do it with a smart phone in hand; their wish for themselves and their children is no different than in the time of Abraham.
I wish those in conflict could see how beautiful they are, could love each other’s culture as much as I do, to see each other first as human and not as a religion or ethnicity. But they do. One of the first questions that I was asked by nearly everyone I met was what my religion was. And it categorized me as “the Other” for most.
These problems aren’t unique to Israel and Palestine of course. Here too many of us judge another simply based on the color of their skin, where they were born, or how much money they make. We too push people unlike us into the category of “other,” and focus on our differences and not our similarities.
“The rain is a blessing to the earth, but the ground must be open to receive it. We are the same. If our hearts are hard like stone, the water will simply wash away. But if we are soft, the blessings flow in and allow love to grow in our hearts.”Rabbi Tamar Elad-Applebaum
We are all broken. We are all searching. But perhaps the rock which we seek is not under a temple or on the other side of a wall, but in our own hearts, keeping us hardened and locked away, resisting the call to be open to mystery, to change, even, indeed, to the divine. All of us live in a landscape of rock and faith, of what we think we know and what we’re sure we believe. It limits us and divides us if we don’t allow the rain to seep into our soft places.
Perhaps you, like me, were raised in a tradition that revered Jerusalem. If so, consider that Jerusalem is less a place than a way of seeing. Of being so very close to and yet so divided from God and from each other. Jerusalem is city that lives within each of our hearts, and colors the way we see the world. And whether or not you believe a word of the Torah, Bible or Quran, Jerusalem is also an invitation. A chance to trust, to be brave enough to be vulnerable, to stand with the Other and know that we are the same.
It is an invitation to break up the rock of your own heart, and let your soul be free.
All pictures taken by me, the week of November 2, 2015.