Guiding Germans in Israel

Julian Resnick writes from Israel

I was asked to do this piece of guiding a while ago and never hesitated for a moment. 

When I started guiding many years ago, I only guided Jewish groups as that was my interest, working with Jewish people on our story. 

As luck would have it — and it really turned out to be a wonderful stroke of luck as you will understand later — I was approached by a rabbi who had travelled with me when I took a group from the World Union for Progressive Judaism to Rome, to meet with the Pope. It was 2005 and the 40th anniversary of the Nostra Aetate, the document issued by Pope Paul VI which, among other things, redefined the Catholic Church’s relations with us, the Jews; and absolved us of responsibility — all of us — for the killing of Jesus (thanks guys, it was a little overdue; a little earlier might have spared us a few ‘headaches’ over the centuries). The pope in 2005 was John Paul II, but luck would have it that a day after we arrived in Rome, he was hospitalised, and so we never got to meet him (and he never got out of hospital, dying on April 2nd).

Don’t complain that I wander off the point, I always do. The point being that Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Temple Emanuel in Birmingham Alabama asked me after the Rome trip if I would lead a ‘Friendship Journey’ of Jews and Christians from Birmingham. My immediate problems were twofold. I had never guided interfaith groups and had no interest at that point; and on the other hand, I had really enjoyed working with Jonathan and rather fancied the idea of guiding a group of his in Israel. So, I agreed.

It was probably the best decision I ever made at least professionally. I’ve come to love the diversity that interfaith guiding has brought me. I love the space where people of different faiths, and people of no faith consider the meaning of life as viewed from additional angles; the space where different commitments enrich one. I have learned so much, have been so enriched, so challenged; and have been able to open spaces for conversations that many people have never had before (by the way, I remain fairly pissed by how we were treated over the centuries by the organised church and many Christians, but am so happy to be able to be a part of working on changing that reality).

Almost all my interfaith guiding has been Jewish-Christian, but to my great delight I was asked once to guide a group of Jews, Christians and Muslims. That was a great delight and privilege, and a huge challenge, and was an amazing success both in the visit to Israel (and the Palestinian Authority) and in Turkey. 

I will return now to this afternoon. I have guided South Africans, Americans, Canadians, Indians, even a few New Zealanders (common denominator, the English language), but in an hour or so, a new nationality for me, Germans. No big deal I thought. I was told their English is excellent, so what is the big deal? Why am I so anxious about this?

Why am I so anxious? In 1972 after finishing my leadership year in Jerusalem on behalf of Habonim, I went with a few friends on a trip to Europe. When we arrived at the German border and the German border guard asked me for my passport, I was physically unable to give it to him. My passport to a German in uniform? I turned around and did not enter Germany. Eventually in 2002 I managed to enter Germany and, even though I am a kipahless/yarmulkaless Jew, I wore one all the time on the streets of Berlin, waiting, just waiting. Until this day, I am not sure for what. Oy, a terrible confession to make here — I loved and continue to love guiding in Berlin. To my mind a city which is more honest about its past than any other city I have ever been to (and I have been to many, many cities with a sordid past. Want an example? Try Brussels).

I have to go and meet them now, so the second part of this piece will be, I suppose, about what happens over the coming few days. Later everyone…

Almost a week later and the GGII is behind me.

And I am sad that it is behind me and so glad to have made the decision to guide this group of really special people. I often say to the people I guide, there are not ordinary people, only extraordinary people. Not all extraordinary people are easy or fun to be with with.

This group of highly intelligent, articulate people were really good to be with. For me, considering the work that I do and the expectations that I have, it means that they were interested in learning — in exploring — the complexities and nuance of this place. Much of their days were filled with meetings; meeting with some of the central people in the business community in Israel, and some of the people making a difference in civil society over here. My guiding was in the evening at times, in the morning before meetings and then for a morning in the Old City of Jerusalem and a morning in Nazareth and in Tzippori before they flew home to Germany. It was intense, brief and concentrated and I attempted to enable them to fully understand why we are the way we are. 

To understand the story we tell ourselves when we try to make sense of our lives over here; why we are so overjoyed to have returned; why we are so traumatised by our history; why we are determined to live with our roots firmly in the soil of our home and at the same time are constantly trying to fly like the birds, free of any roots restraining us; why we are an Old New Land, or using the words of Theodore Herzl (in German ironically) an AltneuLand.

We walked through Jaffa, Jerusalem, Nazareth and Tziporri. We talked of Hebrews, Greeks, the Children of Israel, Romans, Jews, Muslims, Christians and Jews, of Palestinians and Israelis.

And then we had dinner in Jerusalem on one of the nights. At the end of a delicious meal (the food in Israel is great), with half a dozen guests from civil society in Israel, all were asked to introduce themselves and to say a few words about their lives. Everyone did, both Germans and Israelis, and then it was my turn.

I had not planned to say what I said, but as soon as I stood up, the words flowed from my mouth as if I had spent weeks preparing them. They flowed because they were real and came from the depths of my very emotional being. I shared the words that I had written before I had met them. The words which are in the first part of what I had written the evening before I began guiding them.

I talked about my decisions to guide interfaith groups, my experience at the German border in 1972, my visit to Berlin in 2002 and my subsequent falling in love with that city. The words just flowed, accompanied by a huge amount of emotion. Tears welled up inside of me as I realised that they had given me a gift.

The gift of enabling me — not for the first time in my life — to confront demons, to share my truths, to continue the task I have set for myself in this work that I do. The task of trying to make meaning out of this wonderfully complex thing we call life. Of trying to be authentic with each and every one of the groups of people that I guide, over here in Israel and wherever I go to tell the ‘Story’.

What story? On the surface, the story of the Jewish People and our Journey across Time and Space. In reality, the ‘joining of the dots’; the ‘making sense out of it all’. There are many apparently different stories. The story in Berlin. The story in Marrakesh. The story in Rome. The story in Cape Town. 

And yet, they all share something. They all enable me to keep on asking the questions I am truly curious about. What makes a place holy? Why do some things hurt so much? Why do some things give so much joy? Why do I feel so connected? Why do I feel so distant?

Thank you Andreas, Joshua, Marc, Adalbert, Annabelle, Christine, Martin, Reinfried, Bernd, Julian (yes, there was a Julian), Gwen. And of course Gary Sussman, for asking me to do this.

Julian Resnick was born in Somerset West and grew up in Habonim Dror. He studied at UCT, and made Aliyah to 1976. He’s conducted numerous shlichuyot and educational missions on behalf of Israel, to Jewish communities in England and the USA. He works as a guide in Israel and around the world (wherever there is a Jewish story). He’s married to Orly, and they have three children and six grandchildren and is a member of Kibbutz Tzora.

• Published in the March 2023 Digital Edition – Click here to start reading.

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