Bethlehem is less than 5 miles from my apartment. When I went there this weekend, I was not there on an organized trip, but for some tourism and to visit my friend Sara, who is living and volunteering in Bethlehem this year.
I traveled with my friends Naomi and Amy, starting with taking an Arab bus from Derech Hevron, a few blocks from my apartment (where I usually take buses headed in the other directions, towards the center of Jerusalem). Our first stop in Bethlehem was the Church of the Nativity. While I was there, taking in the art, the quiet, and watching the other tourists around me, it struck me how places that are holy, no matter which religion they are holy to, have a shared aura about them. It was incredibly easy to be peaceful and reflective there, even though it is by no means my holy site. The Christian tourists had a respect and an awe for being present at Jesus' birthplace, and were able to fulfill their own religious needs without pushing or shoving other people. Unlike some other holy spaces I know... In this week's Torah portion, Vayetzei, Jacob wakes up from a dream and says, "אכן יש יי במקום הזה ואנוכי לא ידעתי - Surely God is present in this place, and I did not know!" (Genesis 28:16) This occurs in the middle of nowhere, in a pile of rocks that Jacob is misfortunate enough to have to sleep on. If Jacob can find God there, surely it's possible to experience the Divine Presence in any place that people have treated as holy for generations.
On Saturday morning, we walked along the separation wall by Bethlehem. The wall is covered with graffiti, some of which deeply resonated with me, and some of which deeply angered me. It encapsulates the diversity of viewpoints found there - on either side of the wall, there is not one, single, unified opinion, but a full spectrum of opinions and beliefs regarding this incredibly complex situation.
I was struck by the ease of crossing between two very different worlds, and the deep contrasts between them. When I got off the bus on Saturday in Jerusalem, all of a sudden I was back in Shabbat world, watching Jews head to Shabbat lunch, when 10 short minutes before I had been surrounded by Christians and Muslims going about an ordinary day. Because I hold an American passport, I have the privilege and ability to go places that Israelis cannot (into the Palestinian territories), and places that aren't accessible to Palestinians. Bethlehem mentally feels very far, especially from Pardes. As the week started and friends at school asked me what I did for Shabbat, there was a double-take when I said I spent part of it in Bethlehem. Bethlehem seems so FAR! Even though it is actually very close, the putting up of a wall and establishing check points (both actual and metaphoric), distances the place and its people from my daily reality.