By Jennifer Ferentz
When I arrived to JFK the evening of our flight, I was definitely nervous. As someone on the left of everything, both in politics and in handedness, I was scared of Birthright. I was scared of confrontation. I was scared I would be shamed for asking questions and for digging beyond cherry tomatoes and apps into conflict and religion.
Although I was surrounded by my friend-family from Camp JRF, and quickly formed deep friendships with the Americans I didn’t know and our Israeli trip members, I carried that fear around with me until the very last night of the trip.
I’m someone who has been rejected by many American Jewish institutions for my political beliefs surrounding Israel. And in the current American political climate, it feels like my political beliefs are so-very-much tied to central parts of my identity: I’m a woman, I’m queer, I’m a progressive Jew.
So before I left America to take part of the Reconstructionist Movement’s first Birthright Israel trip, I unconsciously put on a big shield, and I was ready to defend myself: fittingly, the first argument I got into with my Israeli friends on the second evening of the trip started with a Donald Trump joke.
But it took me until the last night of the trip to actually confront my own close-mindedness and to realize that through shielding myself, I was blinding myself as well.
On the bus back from the Israel Museum, and a hail storm that cut short our day in Jerusalem, I just wanted to go to sleep. I asked my Israeli friend a question about that night’s activity, a geopolitical talk, and he gave me a terse reply. My question was loaded, and so was his answer. This quickly turned into a back and forth, where it became clear that all he heard was that I assumed malintent and agenda on the part of the speaker, and he was frustrated that I didn’t even want to listen.
And all I wanted was some preparation, and to know if I needed to get ready for an evening where I was going to feel belittled and silenced.
Throughout the exchange, I cried.
I was transported back to a moment when I was getting out the vote for Hillary on Election Day. My volunteer team member and I were in an Uber, and started discussing the election with our driver. As we pulled into our destination, it became clear that the driver was an undecided voter, and thought Clinton was a criminal, and (insert “statement swirling around in the media” here). My partner got out of the car immediately slamming the door behind her. And I was left in the silence of the car. I looked our driver right in the eye and talked about how she was having a long day, and I thanked him for telling me about his mortgage and his children and his wife’s student loans.
On the day of the election it felt like there were so many more conversations to be had, and that I and so many others should have gotten started much earlier.
With miscommunication and frustration at an all-time high, I give so much credit to my friend that he did not slam the door. We walked into the hotel and talked for about about an hour and a half before dinner, and got to the bottom of things. I believe we left that conversation more understanding of each other’s contexts and struggles, and neither of us was mad.
How easy and how hard it is to listen.
On the days after the trip, I thought as much, if not more, about the state of America than current developments in Israel. On questions of civil rights and equality, politics in America has started to feel like a battle of good vs. evil, of light vs. darkness.
However, I know that I cannot lose patience. And I cannot give up on empathy.
Last month, Barack Obama gave his farewell address as the President of the United States. And after my trip to Israel, I was ready to hear his words now more than ever:
“… Regardless of the station we occupy, we all have to try harder; we all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.”
After it was all over, when I landed back at JFK, exhausted and so congested I couldn’t taste food for a few days, it became clear to me what this trip did for me: my politics have not changed, but my heart is more open, open to everyone’s suffering, open to dealing with complicated. Moving forward, I will strive to use my own privilege (for example, whiteness) to be patient and dig in when others need to protect themselves and fight. And I can hope that others (straight folks, men, and non-Jews to name some) will move hearts when I need solidarity and my shield once again.
Rabbi Tarfon teaches “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot, 2:21). In the coming weeks and months, I’ve decided to recommit myself to a higher-self. I attended a training for IfNotNow in New York City this past weekend, was at the Women’s March in D.C. the day after the Presidential Inauguration – and I’ll be seeking out opportunities to engage with people who disagree with me, not through protest but through building connections.
I’ll be trying harder than ever to stay open, to stay present, and to keep listening.
Jennifer Ferentz is a New Yorker, who grew up at West End Synagogue and currently lives in Brooklyn. She is also an alumna of Camp JRF and AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.