February 25, 2020

Taking a Chance, Finding Friendship

I recently read a United Nations report that said 96 percent of the groundwater in Gaza is unfit for human consumption. This is just one of the reasons I agreed to participate in Walk for Water, an event that brought together Muslims and Jews to raise money for water access in Gaza. The main reason I went to this event, however, was to support my friend Hedab Tarifi, the only person in our NewGround cohort from Gaza. 

NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change is a nonprofit that builds relationships between Muslims and Jews so they can transform their communities through lasting collaboration. Tarifi and I are just two of the 11 Muslims and 11 Jews who, over the past nine months, have come to know one another through the NewGround Professional Fellowship. The Walk for Water event was a Change-Maker project organized by a group of us as our culminating project of the fellowship.

Tarifi and I didn’t connect right away. In fact, at first I felt intimidated and even afraid to connect with her.

As a spiritual leader in my community, I’m always aware of the responsibility that comes with my role. I want to represent the best version of myself and my community. I am proud to be a rabbi, yet in this context, I felt an added pressure to represent the best version of myself and my community. I truly felt there was too much at stake if things went wrong. I worried, not only as an individual but also as a rabbi, that I would mess up or or say the wrong thing.

Not only is Tarifi clearly a leader in her community, she is also well respected in the interfaith world —  including the Jewish community. I truly felt that if I were to somehow break her trust, I would possibly be risking the relationships so many had worked so hard to create. To say it plainly: I didn’t want to be that guy who thinks he is helping but only makes it worse.

Tarifi and I empathized with each other, agreed to disagree at times, and in the end, became friends. I’d never had a Palestinian friend before.

Tarifi and I spent time together intermittently during our sessions and had intense conversations and disagreements when we did. At one point we decided to meet one on one, and I listened to her tell the story of when her parents sent her to the United States alone at the age of 17 to pursue her education, career and a better life than the one they had known in the Palestinian territories and Egypt.

Tarifi and I empathized with each other, agreed to disagree at times, and in the end, became friends. I’d never had a Palestinian friend before; acquaintances and colleagues, yes, but never a friend.

We are not, like, “BFFs,” but we have grown to respect and admire each other.
Walk for Water brought together 200 Muslims, Jews and allies to walk in support of bringing clean water to Palestinians. Each attendee had a story and reason for participating. Many of these stories were captured in the video that was posted on NewGround’s Facebook page.

I went to Walk for Water to support Tarifi. I went to honor her story and the stories of others who were there, as well. I was ambivalent at times. As a rabbi, should I even attend this event? Should I wear my kippah? Should I even go? What questions might my community ask me? Would they feel betrayed? In the end, I went to support Tarifi, and mostly to listen.

The most important Jewish prayer, the Shema, urges us — commands us even — to hear, to listen. What changed for me over the course of NewGround’s fellowship program was listening to Tarifi’s story. Hearing it helped me understand myself a little better and, in turn, helped me understand Tarifi a little more, too. This stuff is difficult and it is complicated, and it will never cease to be difficult and complicated. But stories, when told and heard from the heart, have the ability to make things easier. At the very least, stories open up possibilities. And in the end, possibilities may be our only chance to reach New Ground.

Rabbi Zachary Zysman is the director of Jewish Student Life/campus rabbi at Loyola Marymount University.