Finding belonging and freedom in Jerusalem

I said goodbye to my life coach Leo a few days ago, when I realized I couldn’t afford his fees. I was struck by the depth of my sorrow, the tears that flowed freely, the shaking of my body. I saw my fear that I wouldn’t be able to confront the challenges of the next few months without him.

I was alone in the garden at Bethlehem University, trying to ground my body on the hard wooden bench. For a moment, I surveyed the possibilities: ask for a discount, withdraw money from my investment account, drain my savings. Each seemed like an action of desperation, and it suddenly became clear that this was a goodbye.

To pay Leo money I cannot afford is to believe that he alone has the ability to resolve the questions of my heart. But he’s guided me to water now, and I trust that I’m capable of stepping in to swim. He’s helped me to think through my aspirations for the next six months, aspirations as vast as the ocean, requiring faith, vulnerability, and bravery to dive into the unknown.

There’s a part of me attached to freedom, afraid of losing any agency or power, chasing the "sparks" in life: the joy, aliveness, the energy of starting things from scratch. I have so far optimized for this rich quality of life: always learning, following my curiosity, savoring the newness of place and people. Escaping boredom and stagnancy.

And yet chasing freedom has seen me leave communities of people I love. I’m remembering the rootedness and belonging that I felt in San Francisco, of seeing my own joys and sorrows reflected back to me in the presence of long-term friends. I miss the intimate connections formed with those friends, week over week bearing witness to each other in all forms, with deep care and unconditional belonging.

I’m longing for deep resonance in my life, where I am at home with the values of a place and its people. It’s how I feel back at Mariposa with the Sugarplum sangha. Where my teacher Joann is and where work can be. Where I wake up in a wooden cabin and the crisp winter air fresh on my skin, where the bell beckons me to the cozy morning sit and a hearty breakfast is always on the stove. Where friends are only a quick walk away.

And yet my curious heart – and my attachment to freedom – has pulled me away from Mariposa and San Francisco towards this land of Jerusalem, where things are often lonely and challenging.

Stepping into belonging in Jerusalem

As I read these words, written a few weeks ago, I realize that I am idealizing a place away from the one I’m in. Mariposa, San Francisco, Pleasanton: they are all faraway from my current home in Jerusalem. Can I can settle into this space and stop running from the discomfort of being here?

The narrative I often tell myself about Jerusalem is that I don’t belong. I am not Jewish, I don’t speak Hebrew, I am immediately identifiable by face and passport that I am not from here. Sometimes, the Israeli soldier walking down the aisle of the Arab 231 bus confirms this, other times it is the isolation I feel in a room full of Hebrew speakers. And yet I have been telling myself this narrative of non-belonging all of my life.

I am beginning to recognize that belonging has practically nothing to do with externalities (where I am, who I’m with) and more to do with my own perception. If belonging is an internal feeling based on perception, I can craft feelings of belonging here by choice. Where do I choose to focus my attention and energy?

Case in point: I’ve committed to learning Arabic, and suddenly the world in Bethlehem is blooming. Each street sign is a mystery revealing its secrets, each taxi ride an opportunity to connect. Suddenly, without pretending to be Palestinian or changing anything about who I am, I have become included. Because I have chosen to participate.

Can I do the same in Jerusalem? So far, I have turned away from learning Hebrew because most Israelis speak English, and I’m primarily in Bethlehem with Palestinians. Until now, every time someone speaks Hebrew or recites a Torah psalm, my mind disassociates, as if it’s not for me (I’m only here temporarily, they’ll translate, I’m embarrassed to ask them to repeat). But this is my home now, and I can choose to step into the difficulty of not understanding the language.

If I choose, that’s part of where belonging can originate: meeting the place and its people where they are. It doesn’t have to be through learning Hebrew. Maybe it’s by understanding the different forms of Judaism, or the history of the place, or simply knowing the Hebrew characters. My perception of belonging can shift in the simplest of ways, and I can be selective about the ways I choose.

But I must recognize my own power in creating belonging and resonance here! The narrative that I don’t belong in Jerusalem will forever distance me from the people and the land, just like my narrative of frustration and lack of power in San Francisco motivated me to leave.

Choosing to belong to a place comes with accepting the difficulties of that place. Yes, the Israeli occupation in Palestine persists to this day, and it’s often brutal and heartbreaking. But I cannot continue to deny the beauty too of Jerusalem, the sacred silence of the streets on Yom Kippur, the gracious welcome to a Shabbat meal. The questioning and dissonance and reconciling is part of this place. My dissonance is entirely welcome. One might say that it’s part of the belonging here.

The question of true freedom

In freedom, I move with joy and flow with the energy of my own heart. In freedom, anything is possible, and possibility rustles me from bed in the morning and out into the world. Freedom is creating new delivery mechanisms for trade skills education and partnering with NGOs to implement ideas on the ground. It is going to the ocean just because I want a lazy weekend, and staying up all night writing because I have nothing to do the next day.

But freedom cannot only be chasing joy or "doing what I want", for this quickly becomes avoidance of difficulty. No, freedom must also include the ability to be in suffering and discomfort, for this provides genuine choice no matter the external situation.

In choosing to settle here in Jerusalem, I’m afraid of stagnancy and loneliness. Of dooming myself to long commutes to Bethlehem, of being on the wrong side of the line. And I’m afraid that I am missing out on opportunities for partnership and community that may be more easily found in San Francisco or Tel Aviv. I see my fear that I won’t be able to stand up and leave if things get too difficult. I’m afraid that I’ll be trapped here, because to leave is to give up on everything I’ve started and begin anew, again.

And yet all I can do is try. No place will be perfect. I will not escape boredom or stagnancy. I will sometimes be lonely or afraid. Can I accept that I am not a problem to be solved, that I do not need to do anything in particular to be okay? Can I stop troubleshooting my life each time there’s discomfort? Freedom is building resilience to difficulty, rather than running from it.

I do not want to turn away from discomfort here in Jerusalem to pursue a definition of freedom that only includes joy. I want to embrace my life here, to stop running, to dig in. And in this stepping towards, I want to expand my definition of freedom to include an acceptance for the way things are (not avoiding difficulty by default; sometimes, choosing to build resiliency when things get tough).

All things will change

At the same time, I know I will leave Jerusalem. Maybe this December, or in a year’s time, or in many years when my physical body is no longer able to traverse the land. Can I invest fully here in Jerusalem, knowing that I will leave one day?

I am reminded of the Five Remembrances, a meditation practice for being with the great fears of this life. Thich Nhat Hanh translates one of them as:

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

Again, I ask myself this question. Can I invest fully here in Jerusalem, knowing that I will leave one day?

Would I have agreed to sublet in Nachlaot knowing that I would move out in two months?
Would I have agreed to Leo’s coaching sessions knowing that they would end so suddenly?
Can I love others knowing they will die one day?
Can I live fully in this fleeting interlude between birth and death, knowing that I too will die?

This time with this body in this place is fleeting. Just as I said goodbye to my family and will say goodbye to this beautiful home in Nachlaot, I will not be in this physical form forever. There is sorrow and fear in this understanding, the tendency to grasp for something permanent. If there is any consolation, it is that cause-and-effect  what Buddhists refer to as karma -- has already occurred. Leo’s wisdom, belonging at home in Pleasanton, the friendship and joy I’ve found in this Nachlaot house, my daily wanderings in this body: each has already manifested in an infinitude of ways. And saying goodbye does not deny or remove their impact.

So too with Jerusalem, and this life.