By Tom Johnson
For Becca Rosenthal ’15, resolving differences between Israelis and Palestinians, or anyone for that matter, begins with a single, concerted step -- outreach. From reaching out, a dialogue can ensue and progress can be made.
As Jewish Community Outreach Coordinator for the Open Hillel Campaign, Rosenthal put that idea – that Jewish Israeli’s and Arab Palestinians can find common ground – into the form of a “Letter to a Jewish Girl” that was recently published on Tikkun’s website and has garnered more than 10,000 page views so far.
“The response has completely blown my mind,” she says. “It’s not that complicated to say that we all have questions, but let’s talk about them. There needs to be empathy and compassion brought to bear on both sides.”
Tikkun is a progressive Jewish magazine, published quarterly, that analyzes American and Israeli culture, politics, religion and history. The magazine's title comes from the mystical Hebrew concept tikkun olam which emphasizes co-responsibility between God and humanity to heal, repair and transform the world. The Open Hillel Campaign is a student run initiative to allow for a full range of Jewish and non-Jewish perspectives about Israel-Palestine to be discussed in Jewish spaces on college campuses.
According to Rosenthal, The Open Hillel Campaign (and her “Letter”) is an opportunity for Jews to ask hard questions about Israel and to try to reconcile what is said in the news as well as what is talked about by Jews, Palestinians and Arabs alike.
“The point of the work is that we really need to be able to talk about these difficult issues and get away from the ideological divide that separates being pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian,” Rosenthal says, “and get to the real issue: that there are people in pain asking questions who want to start a dialogue in a real way, away from the perspective of advocacy.”
Rosenthal says the idea for the “Letter” came when Open Hillel was asked to curate an entire edition of Tikkun.
“I was on the team that was trying to find students willing to submit pieces and I figured it would be completely unfair to say to students: ‘Write these pieces! Put yourself on the line!’ and not do it myself,” Rosenthal says. “So I sat down one night in one of the computer labs at CMC to start writing. Problem was, I had no idea where to start. As you can see from reading the letter, it’s very emotional, and I myself am still trying to process it all. So, after a few false starts, I got that repetitive lead idea (‘I write this letter for the Jewish girl who …’) and then realized I had something kind of cool.”
Originally, Rosenthal planned to sign the letter as anonymous but soon reconsidered. “Jewish kids with questions like me are very much silenced by our community and scared that if we speak out, it may cost us jobs, opportunities and standing in the family and community,” she says. “I have friends with those horror stories, and that’s when I knew I needed to sign my name to it.”
Apart from a few negative responses in the “comments” section of Facebook and Tikkun made mostly by men, Rosenthal says, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
“About a week before my piece was reposted on Facebook, I started receiving messages and emails thanking me for writing the letter,” Rosenthal says. “People wrote me saying they had been feeling the same way. I got ‘thank you’s’ from rabbis, from people I had known in summer camp and Jewish Youth Group. One message was from a Claremont alum who said he had wished that conversation had started when he was at CMC.”
The capper was a job offer to teach at a synagogue in Brooklyn. “There is this huge, progressive Jewish world that doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable in the hardcore Zionist establishment or at least has a lot of questions and a lot of tension underneath and this letter really resonated with them,” Rosenthal says.
Although Rosenthal turned down the Brooklyn job, she has accepted a two-year position to be an education fellow at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, MS. “My soon-to-be boss loved the ‘Letter.’ They flew me out this weekend and literally called me 24 hours later and said “we want you.’ The contract arrived in my inbox five minutes ago; incredibly cool.”
Rosenthal says that she will help develop a Kindergarten-12th grade Hebrew School curriculum for about 65-70 communities throughout the southern states. “Starting in the summer, I’ll be visiting about seven or eight focused communities three times a year working, with them on their Jewish education needs,” she says.
A Middle East Studies major at CMC, Rosenthal participated in SIT's Modernization and Social Change program in Amman, Jordan in the fall, and the University of Haifa's Peace and Conflict Studies Honors Program in the Spring. During the summer, she taught at two Arab schools in Israel, one a Private Islamic School in Kfar Kanna, and the other, a public school in Kfar Masser.
In addition to her activism, Rosenthal is president and one of the captains of the Claremont Foxes women’s rugby team. She even strummed guitar in Pomona's production of Spring Awakening last fall.
“I owe CMC a lot,” she says. “The whole questioning period began when I got here. And the fact that I was able to go to Jordan and Israel and get academic credit, that’s all CMC. I am incredibly grateful that CMC gave me the opportunity to study the Middle East from the Middle East.”