This week, I walked on the streets of my childhood Hasidic city Bnei Brak and I saw what I have never seen before—a couple walking together hand in hand. I was in shock, since, truly, I have never witnessed such simple, humanistic touch before between different genders in this city. I came closer and understood that both are mentally handicapped. Yes, the most romantic couple in Bnei Brak  are unique in every part of their lives. It reminds me of the interview of Krista Tippet with Jean Vanier, who opened 147 L’Arche communities, where mentally disabled people live together with “regular people.” Vanier speaks of the pure love that those with intellectual disabilities can give the rest of us, the broken people who have lost the capacity for pure, joyful living.

After listening to the podcast, I couldn’t help but contact Jean. Even though he is 89 years old, sick, and has difficulty hearing, he gave me all the time I needed. His voice was warm and full of love, deeply human. I asked him about the meaning of continuing work with Kids4Peace, creating change in Jerusalem, a place with such suffering on both sides that most have lost the ability and faith for any possibility of peace? He replied, and I quote the answer from his podcast: “What we can do is what Gandhi says, we can’t change the world, but I can change. And if I change, and I seek to be more open to people and less frightened of relationship, if I begin to see what is beautiful within them, if I recognize also that there’s brokenness because I’m also broken, and that’s OK, then there’s something that begins to happen.”

It’s time for my precious Jewish community to start the unique month of Elul, dedicated to self-reflection, prayer and forgiveness. The chasidic culture where I grew up, has many stories about rabbis who struggle with God every year during this month, questioning why the world deserves to have God’s mercy, what good we did to deserve life. Like my ancestral Hasidic leaders, I too struggle with God each year over life and death. This year, I’ll share with God about this couple, showing their love and tenderness by walking hand in hand, man and woman, in a place where such pure, simple love can’t even be imagined, teaching me and all of us about the beauty of life.

Originally from a Hasidic/Ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, Dr. Yakir Englander earned a PhD from Hebrew University in Jerusalem in Jewish philosophy and gender studies. Yakir is one of the leaders of Kids4Peace, a grassroots interfaith youth movement dedicated to ending conflict and inspiring hope in Jerusalem.  

Yakir is a Fulbright scholar and was a visiting professor of Israel Studies and Religion at Northwestern University and, Rutgers University, Harvard Divinity School.  In the last two year, he served as the Executive Director of Kids4Peace International’s innovative new program Dialogue to Action, as well as a scholar at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. In addition, he leads many of the leadership programs at the IAC (Israeli American Council). His work focuses on bringing religiously conservative communities into peace work, creating a Jewish theology of peace, and teaching and practicing peace activism in Jerusalem. In his academic writings he tries to touch the most sensitive subjects of gender, sexuality and religion and to create critique with love. His books are The Male Body in Jewish Lithuanian Ultra-Orthodoxy (Hebrew) and Sexuality and the Body in the New Religious Zionist Discourse (with Professor Avi Sagi) 
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