Joanna Tebbs Young
CIRCLES OF COMMUNITY
This is the second in a series of stories about everyday people in our community.
Dena Goldberg was loving her non-political life. A physical therapist and mother of three school-aged children, she and her husband Ori have happily, and unobtrusively, enjoyed everything Rutland has to offer since they moved here in 2007. Taking advantage of Rutland Recreation Department’s many offerings, hiking at Pine Hill, swimming and holding birthday parties at White’s pool, attending downtown festivals, and skiing at Pico, the Goldbergs could well be a poster family for everything that’s great about this area.
Between family and work obligations, and living in a quiet Vermont town, in, up until last year, a relatively peaceful political time, Dena admits she had become complacent. But it hadn’t always been that way.
Born in Wisconsin to an American mother and Israeli father, Dena moved to Israel when she was one-year-old. Growing up in such a small a country surrounded by and in constant conflict, politics was ubiquitous. During her childhood, suicide bombings were a daily reality and the military operation in the “security belt” of Lebanon, was about an hour north of her home. In the early 1990s, during the First Gulf War, when Dena was in 8th grade, Iraq was remotely bombing Israel. Dena and her classmates packed a gas mask and anti-chemical weapon kit, including self-injecting atropine, along with their lunch.
As a teenager, Dena was an activist. Starting in 7th grade when she and a friend rode the bus to Tel Aviv to attend a Feminist Youth Association seminar, she took part in peace rallies, and in high school attended Israeli-Palestinian Youth Conferences. Here, Dena explains, the participants had the opportunity to engage with the other side of the conflict. “It was a dialogue,” she says, “a chance to realize things aren’t black and white when the teenage brain tends to think only in black and white terms.”
Her senior class, as had every class before hers, traveled to Poland for a two-week “Holocaust Tour.” It was a way, Dena explains, to teach what can happen when the powers-that-be go against the civilian population. “It forced us to ask, ‘How do we prevent this from ever happening again – to ANYONE?’”
After high school, at age 18, Dena, like all Israeli citizens, she began her two years (three years for men) of mandatory military training in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). It was 1996 and the fight with Lebanon was still going on. “We were the soldiers in that conflict,” Dena says. “Part of my training was to prepare the soldiers against specific military situations pertaining to that region.”
And it was during her stint in the IDF, in February 1997, when 73 Israeli soldiers died when two transport helicopters collided on their way to the “security belt” of Lebanon. This event was an extreme version of the on-going reality of loss. “Everyone we knew had been to a military funeral,” Dena explains. Israel’s Memorial Day, given the additional fact that it falls the day before Israeli Independence Day (1948), is especially poignant. “You are immersed in an overall collective grief.”
Despite her military service, Dena never ceased to be an activist at heart. “I explained [the internal conflict] to myself by emphasizing the focus on the civilian population. I knew there were a lot of people on the other side who wanted the same thing: long-term solution and on-going dialogue. Our goal was always a long-term resolution.”
“Activism didn’t mean not giving all to the army,” Dena continues. “We understood that we needed military security. It was a sense of giving all to each other, of giving for the common good. It was public service in the form of the military and we were striving to get to a solution.”
Fast forward ten years and Dena and her husband, Ori, after traveling in the Far East for a couple of months, were living and working in Connecticut where Dena had been at the University of Connecticut pursuing her masters degree. They always thought they’d return to Israel after school because, she says, “we hadn’t found ourselves, our community.”
But instead, Vermont called them. After looking at Burlington, they decided they wanted a smaller town, closer to the mountains and surrounded by nature. Rutland fit the bill. After Dena secured a job at RRMC, the family moved here in 2007.
“What we found was a unique community where it was much easier to establish relationships with people, to be an active member. We consciously chose to live in the city for that reason.”
Over the last ten years, Dena says, “we have watched Rutland evolve from what was a dormant town into a town with culture, art, and the potential for a unique mix of population.”
And it is this very potential that has recently re-lit the fire in Dena that first burned when she was a teenager in Israel. “The refugees reignited my heightened awareness of the importance of these issues, especially when it has to do with the civilian population.”
“Ori and I have been civilians in a conflict zone, but life was still relatively stable on a daily basis — nothing like Syria. There’s nothing naive about us. But we are not fearful. We are fully engaged in the community and we enjoy what we have. We don’t live in the fear. We engage from an intellectual, data-driven angle. We are pragmatic activists.”
“I don’t get anxious,” Dena continues, “I get agitated. It’s a disturbance that gets me involved. I want to support Rutland; I feel so strongly that I want it to continue to evolve in the direction that is has been going. I will continue to pursue opportunities for engagement in our community and education system.”
To this end, Dena has decided to jump into the local public service sector, hoping to put into practice what life has taught her from an early age: “I have learned that fear and conflict are not driven by everyday civilians, rather it is the leaders who can fuel such sentiments. If you take people from different sides of the fence and engage them in dialogue in order to recognize the common denominators we have and strive for, if you get people together and engage them in mutual interaction, you can create real solutions.”