From Tension to Connection on a Train

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A train in Philadelphia. Photo: Barry Bub.

Radio Times yesterday offered discussion of a study showing a positive impact on the well-being of commuters who chatted with the strangers sitting nearby.

I had a moment of synchrony with this study when noticing yesterday that my colleague, Rabbi Amita Jarmon who works as a chaplain in Israel, made a commitment in response to the tension in Jerusalem: “Every time I ride on a local bus or the light rail, I will reach out to a Palestinian passenger.”

So, how did this commitment work out for her?

Rabbi Jarmon reported how she approached two men speaking Arabic very quietly on the light rail:

I came over to you to let you know that I am really sorry about all the suspicion from the Jews toward the Palestinians in this city. Jews are afraid and I know you are afraid as well. I want to bridge the gap, create a positive connection. I want to live in this city together with you. I know that the vast majority of people in this city want to live together in peace.

The two men responded warmly. One became the spokesperson for the two who were coming from work, going home to Shuafat. He said that he has Jewish friends — they go to each other’s homes and trust each other completely. He said that while he is afraid traveling around West Jerusalem, those are only the leaders who “want us to be afraid and to hate each other.”

Rabbi Jarmon’s described her next encounter, on a bus, when she went to sit next to a young woman wearing a hijab:

When I sat down, I noticed she was studying the same “Modern Arabic” book I use and have in my backpack. I showed it to her, smiling. I asked why she was studying it, when clearly Arabic is her mother tongue.

Turned out she was a third-year medical student at Hadassah, and teaches spoken Arabic at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She was preparing the section that she was going to teach this week.

The fact that she was a medical student meant she must be an Israeli citizen, as Jerusalem Palestinians almost always go to medical schools in the West Bank, Jordan or Eastern Europe. She told me she was from a village near Carmiel. I said to her, “It must be hard to be a Palestinian in Jerusalem now.”

She replied, “Yes, it’s not like this up north, thank God.”

I told her that when I came to Israel five and half years ago, I came with the intention and desire to live here with both Jews and Palestinians. We had a really nice nice connection.

Rabbi Jarmon serves two nursing homes, so she decided to also “reach out on a human level to one of the Palestinian aides who seemed ‘down'”:

He told me it had to do with his family: “Trouble inside the family is even more disturbing than the troubles in the city.” He said that my taking an interest made him feel a little bit better.

Rabbi Jarmon said that these encounters are having a major impact upon her time in Israel:

I feel my main work, my main purpose in being here now, has become to initiate these little positive connections when I am out on the streets and on public transportation. I invite all my friends in Jerusalem to do the same!

How might this affect us here in the U.S., where tensions after the Fergonson ruling are running high?

On the bus today I took a leaf from my colleague’s mitzvah-centered model to consciously sit near a black man I have seen in the sit in front of me on the train perhaps dozens of times and talk to him:

I came over to you to let you know that I am really sorry about how the Ferguson ruling went down. The process has not been conducted fairly.  I want to bridge the gap, create a positive connection. I want to live in this city together with you. I know that the vast majority of people in this city want to live together in peace.

He began to pour out his heart to me to me about his fears and profound disappointment. I just listened and when his stop was called and he realized how long he had been speaking he said, “My name is Joshua. I feel so much better. Thank you for listening.”

Cartoon courtesy of The Cartoon Kronicles @ cartoonkronicles.com

Cartoon courtesy of The Cartoon Kronicles @ cartoonkronicles.com

I said, “My name is Goldie. I hope our paths cross again. Blessings to have a safe and happy Thanksgiving.”

A primary mitzvah of Thanksgiving is hakarat ha-tov, “recognizing the good” in this world and speaking our gratitude for it. I am grateful to my colleague for teaching this practice that can help increase peace in our world, one commuter, co-worker or neighbor at a time.