Edie Mueller has retired from teaching Creative Writing and English at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. To fill her free time, she has worked with the clergy of Temple Israel, Boston, to create new liturgy and services for the Days of Awe. She has also colored a pink streak in her white hair, and begun making jewelry under the name All That Glitters.
Working Together on a Social Justice Project Strengthened Our Marriage
Through the work my husband and I have done with Temple Israel's Ohel Tzedek (Tent of Justice) and the Israel Hevre (group) my marriage has become stronger; the conflict between Israel and Palestine had been tearing us apart.
My husband's sympathy for the Palestinian cause of holding on to their land may have been born at his birth--in Berlin, Germany, in 1941 during an air raid--and the years following when he and his family lived in displaced persons camps and received food from Oxfam. That experience, and his Catholic background, helped him develop a strong sense of justice.
I, on the other hand, with no Jewish education or religious affiliation or knowledge about Israel or my religion, kissed the ground when I first landed at Israel's Lod Airport. These thirty-five years later, I still don't understand that feeling I had of coming home. At the end of my two-week visit, I made plans to return to Israel through the aliyah (immigration) program and returned the following year to Kibbutz Sdot Yam, a communal farm.
I thought I would live my life in Israel, but when I came home for a visit two years later, I met Guntram, my true love. He's a mathematician. Logical. Passionate about justice. I'm a poet. Intuitive. Passionate about Israel. You can imagine the conversations we have tried to have throughout our thirty years together, especially as the conflict between the Jewish Israelis and Palestinians escalated:
The Palestinians should be allowed back to their homes.
People are already living there.
At the very least they should be compensated.
Like the Jews from the Holocaust?
Those last words, though, were probably obscured by my voice choked with tears.
When the second Intifada began, my temple had an evening of open conversation where congregants could talk about the situation in Israel, our feelings about it, and our possible responses. Emotions ran very high, echoing my own personal conversations with my husband. At this gathering, however, the clergy kept the discussion civil, though at times this was difficult to accomplish. We got a bitter taste of the high emotions surrounding this conflict, even within our own Reform congregation: How could we support Israel if no one could agree on how to do so?
Shortly after that meeting, the temple began Ohel Tzedek (Tent of Justice), a way to activate the congregants around social justice issues within the congregation and beyond. I was one of the organizers. We had conversations with about 1,000 congregants, found out the issues of concern, and began organizing haverot (groups), including the Israel Hevre (group), to take action.
When I told Guntram about this group, he said he'd like to go to a meeting. It was his first real involvement with the congregants, though we've been affiliated with the temple since 1979. At that time, my husband and I had wanted to help in the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees; Temple Israel was the first synagogue I found that was taking action. We joined the temple, and with their support we opened our home to a family of five. My husband also participated in our daughter's Bat Mitzvah; and he supported me in my work towards my own Bat Mitzvah; but all these years he'd never before gotten involved in temple life, in which I was so active.
Over the course of the three years that the Israel Hevre met, participants came and went. Some left because the group did not express enough support for the rights of Palestinians; others left because the group did not express enough support of Israeli rights. A core group tried to get to the place of exploring social justice for both Israel and the Palestinians. My husband wanted to look at Israel's policies, especially regarding the settlements, through the lens of Judaic law and notions of justice.
As a person who works for peace, he tried to negotiate between opposing sides within the hevre while also trying to get his agenda met. He found the work frustrating, though he enjoyed the people with whom he worked. After nearly a year of his participation, he helped organize a discussion led by one of our clergy, Rabbi Jeremy Morrison, on biblical and Talmudic law regarding war. The evening was well attended by many congregants, including me. Watching my husband that night as he interacted with clergy and congregants with easy respect, his tolerance, patience, and compassion at work, I felt closer to him on this red hot-button topic than ever before. But though the evening drew us closer together, the conflict within the group eventually tore it apart.
Since the hevre dissolved, Guntram has not kept in touch with anyone from the group, nor has he been involved with the temple in any way. The experience, though, helped him understand the many and varied Jewish perspectives. And he says that if there were some way to continue an "open and honest dialogue" regarding the Israeli/Palestinian relationship, he'd be glad to join the conversation.
I've come to accept that though we have vastly different ideas about the situation there, he is concerned about justice for everyone. Since his work with the hevre, we've been able to find tolerance and common ground. We've even worked together on this issue: When the temple wanted to put up a banner that said "We Support Israel in Her Quest for Peace," we both thought the sign ineffective and one-sided. We asked that it be changed to "We Support Israel and Palestine in Their Quest for Peace and Justice." Though the banner was not changed, I cherished my discussion with Guntram on our dissatisfaction with the wording and how to change it.
Through this joint effort our marriage was strengthened by seeing that yes, we can work together on issues over which we disagree!
Edie Mueller teaches creative writing at University of Massachusetts-Boston.