Thursday, July 12
Last Chance in Jerusalem
This morning we visited Yad Lekashish – Lifeline for the Old. This private organization brings in Jerusalem elderly and puts them to work making beautiful Judaica items. The 240 clients must meet certain financial eligibilities. Most speak little Hebrew (or English). The program is truly amazing. Shopping in their gift shop felt like a double mitzvah.
We then toured the Jewish Quarter in the Old City. Most Jewish homes were destroyed after the 1948 War of Independence; so these neighborhoods were only built after the 1967 Six Day War. Compared to the other three Quarters (Muslim, Christian, Armenian), the Jewish Quarter is essentially a planned city – courtyards with restaurants and synagogues, shopping in the same Cardo where Romans shopped thousands of years ago, and housing off to the sides. In the Herodian Museum, dug out beneath a yeshiva, we walked by the ancient houses that stood in the city before it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.
What a perfect way to underscore our themes of Old/New, Holy/Profane! After some final shopping and packing, we headed out to a closing banquet at the Medita restaurant in Talpiyot, and then off to the airport. There are stories to tell there as well, but the bottom line is … we ALL made the flight.
Can’t wait for Next Time/Year in Jerusalem!
Wednesday, July 11
We Dig Israel
Our day began at Bet Guvrin, an archaeological site in the center of the country that dates back to Hasmonean times (early 2nd century BCE). We dug inside two caves, which were essentially ancient basements. Facing destruction of their town by outside invaders, the ancient homeowners dumped all their stuff into the basement; thousands of years later, we were left to sift through the dirt in search of ancient bones (from their food, not humans!), coins, and pieces of pottery. One member of our group found quite a large piece of an ancient jug. After an hour or so of digging and sifting, we put down our tools and crawled through an unexcavated tunnel. This was a lot of fun – and a lesson in enterprise. Eventually these caves will be dug out and excavated, but in the meantime, they make for a good amusement park.
Later that afternoon, we toured the Israel Museum where ancient texts (Dead Sea Scrolls, Aleppo Codex), archaeological finds, and Judaica from around the world are on display. That evening, we watched an amazing light show at the David’s Citadel, surveying the history of Jerusalem with music and 3-D lighting effects. As we were walking home, people remarked on how easy it now seemed to navigate the streets. After six days in Jerusalem, it was beginning to feel like we belonged. Of course, the other side of that coin was that our trip was nearing its end; only one more day to go.
Tuesday, July 10
Vacation in the Desert
We left Jerusalem this morning, destination “down” – Jerusalem is 2474 feet above sea level; our destination in the Dead Sea region, the lowest place on earth, was 1410 feet below sea level. The fact that it was a dry heat was little comfort as we made our way from the city to the desert. Our first stop, though, was the beautiful oasis of Ein Gedi. After a short hike, we arrived at a beautiful water fall, a perfect place to cool down, take pictures, and relax before resuming our day.
The next stop was Herod’s ancient vacation palace on Masada. Herod – one of the ancient world’s most accomplished builders – used this palace as a weekend winter getaway. He enjoyed the spectacular views, beautiful bathhouses, and storehouses to entertain all his dietary desires. Aryeh told us the story of how this vacation spot became the scene for the Jewish people’s last stand against the romans in 73 CE. Rather than surrender to Roman forces, this brave group of zealots determined to commit mass suicide. When the Romans arrived at the fortress and found the full storehouses of food and water, they understood that these Jews were not killed by the Roman siege, but rather their own ideology. In the modern Zionist era, when the New Jews needed brave heroes, these Zealots became the model. Today, the question of whether they were heroic or crazy is open for debate.
Continuing on the theme of vacation, we spent our next hours at a Dead Sea resort. The kids loved floating, and the adults loved relaxing. We were all feeling pretty good when we finally arrived back at Eretz Breishit (Genesis Land) for camel rides and “Abraham-inspired” hospitality. The meal was FANTASTIC; the seating arrangements on the floor could have been better – not everything that is “old” or “authentic” is necessarily “better.” Still, the date-honey chicken, beef kabobs, Humus, salads, baklava, tea and coffee more than made up for the seating discomfort.
Monday, July 9
In Israel, You’re with Family
Our day began at the Kotel (Western Wall) for a spirited morning service where we could celebrate the b’not mitzvah of Avery Schiff and Sarah Lawrence (Avery had a bat mitzvah at B’nai Israel in March; Sarah will be celebrating hers in October). We were joined by Rabbi Barry Schlessinger, a colleague serving the Masorti community in Hertzliya and a cousin to Avery. We had a spirited service. Because it was the Kotel, there were services taking place all around us; but our kids led the prayers and our group was big, so, to me at least, it seemed that we were the loudest.
After the requisite pictures, we spent some time at the “regular” Kotel – the section where men and women are not allowed to pray together – and then began our tour. At the Kotel Tunnels, we saw how massive Herod’s retaining wall around the Temple Mount really was. We saw numerous bricks measuring more than 12 feet across and 8 feet high; at 80 tons, these stones weighed about 7.5 times what our bus weighs. It is somewhat of a mystery how they could have moved such massive stones, but our guide explained the “secret” pretty well. It took a lot of time, and a LOT of people – maybe 20,000 or more. Knowing what we do about Herod, we would expect that he treated the laborers as dispensable – if someone was injured or killed on the job, he was simply replaced. If you have that much labor – as a tyrant does – there’s virtually no limit to what you can accomplish. The road outside the retaining wall was not quite finished; apparently, when Herod died, the workers stopped. When the enforcer died, forced labor ceased as well.
After an amazing lunch at Bein HaK’shatot (Between the Arches) we went across to the City of David, aka the “original Jerusalem,” where David built his palace. We traveled through the ancient cistern that Hezekiah dug more than 3,000 years ago. I assume that people weren’t allowed to walk through the city’s main water source when it was operational, but we had a lot of fun.
After that, we traveled to the Ramot neighborhood to visit members of our sister congregation, Yaar Ramot. Members had a chance to meet each other and to learn a bit about life in Israel. We were introduced to Tamar Somer who, as of August 20, will be joining B’nai Israel as a Congregational Shlicha. She was a lot of fun; I can’t wait for you all to meet her as she shares “her Israel” with us.
On our way, I thought about the time I had visited a cousin in Ramot, more than 30 years ago. I couldn’t remember her name, so I assumed I wouldn’t be able to meet her. But wouldn’t you know it … my cousin (first cousin, once removed, if you’re keeping score) Eileen Fields Steinberg is a member of Ya’ar Ramot and attended this encounter! I saw the memorial plaque she had put up to honor my grandmother, which was very meaningful. I am sure we will be in touch the next time I am here.
So the day began with family, it ended with family … and in between, we drew connections to an extended family with which we share more than 3,000 years of history. That is what it means to have a homeland.
Sunday, July 8
What Does Israel Mean?
At first glance, it seemed like just another eclectic day in a jam-packed itinerary, but in actuality the theme was clear: This is what it means to have a state.
The day began at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial site. There was a lot of comparing between Israel’s national memorial and the museum in Washington DC. The narrative at Yad Vashem is not as personal; there is no equivalent to receiving an identity card and following the experience of a single individual as you do in DC – although our guide Aryeh did track the story of his grandmother as he proceeded through the tour. Unlike the American museum, which describes the power of man’s inhumanity to man, Yad Vashem tells a national story – our national story: this is what happened to the Jewish people when they didn’t have a state to call their own. The building is designed to end on a balcony with a panoramic view of Jerusalem. This is what it means to have a Jewish state.
But establishing the state is not enough. We have a responsibility to its Jewish citizens and the Jewish future.
Our next stop was the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem. Schechter began as an outpost of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Jerusalem – a place to train rabbis to serve in Israel and to help those training in America with their Hebrew. But under the leadership of Professor David Golinkin, the institute has grown into much more. The Schechter institute grants more Master degrees in Judaic Studies than any other institution in Israel, and its students – many of whom are principals of schools or directors of community centers – bring their pluralistic Jewish outlook to their work. Schechter also manages the Tali School system (Tali is an acronym for Tigborei Limudei Yehadut, co-curricular studies in Judaism). Traditionally in Israel, parents who send their children to public schools have to choose between Orthodox and Secular schools. Tali offers a “third way” for parents who are not Orthodox but want their children to learn about Judaism. Secular schools that choose to become Tali schools add several hours of Judaic studies into their curriculum each week. To date, more than 110 schools have joined the Tali network, which means that hundreds of thousands of students – about 10% of the school population – are being exposed to our brand of pluralistic Judaism. Tali is helping to change the face Israeli secular society because the Jewish state must be more than just a place where Jews live; but religion cannot be a coercive force in a democratic society.
At our last stop, we helped to pack boxes of couscous and other grains for Pantry Packers, a project of Collel Chabad, one of Israel’s oldest charities. In Israel today, 1 in 5 people is at risk for hunger that’s about 1.7 million people, an unacceptably high number for our Jewish state. It felt good to be a part of the solution … and it was a lot of fun.
Wednesday, July 4
Wish You Were Here
July 4 began with a little historical irony we might have preferred to do without. We visited the ancient city of Tzipori (Sephoris), the town where Rabbi Judah the Prince wrote the Mishnah around the year 200 CE. We saw the beautiful mosaics in the synagogue and in some of the fanciest homes; we learned the archaeological clue that a home was fancy – it had a bathroom! And then our guide casually informed us that the city had been destroyed by an earthquake in 383 and had to be rebuilt.
We visited Tzefat, a city that also existed in the time of the Mishnah but became most famous in the 15th and 16th centuries when it was home to great mystics including Rabbi Joseph Karo, author of the Shulhan Arukh. We toured the Ari Synagogue (named for Rabbi Isaac Luria), and saw its beautiful, European-inspired would cut ark. The sign outside explained that the synagogue was destroyed by an earthquake in 1837, and was rebuilt in 1857.
After a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee (Yam Kineret), we enjoyed a steak dinner at Decks Restaurant and a special fireworks presentation in honor of American Independence Day.
I was settling into my hotel room when the ground began to shake. I thought it might be an inconsiderate bellhop dragging luggage across the stone floor in the hall; it stopped after about 5 seconds. Well, it turns out that we were nearly at the epicenter of a magnitude 4.7 earthquake, which could be felt as far away as Tel Aviv. Apparently it was the third shock to strike northern Israel that day.
You can imagine the conversation at breakfast this morning, but I am not sure many are still thinking about it now. We just had too much fun!
In the Golan Heights we looked into Israel and imagined how, before the Six Day War in 1967, Syrian snipers could shoot into Israeli kibbutzim and fields in the Hulah Valley below. We ascended higher to a point where we could see out to Lebanon and over into Syria. Our guide Aryeh Herman told us about the Yom Kippur War in 1973 – how the country was caught off guard and unprepared when the armies of Syria and Egypt attacked on the holiest day of the year. Soldiers were called out of synagogue and rushed to the battlefield. We learned how a tank battalion led by Avigdor Kahalani fought against overwhelming odds to push back the Syrian tanks and save the Golan. “That’s what you do to save your home,” Aryeh explained. There was no other choice; if the Syrians had conquered the Heights, it would only be a matter of time before they would be in Tel Aviv.
After enjoying the view, we descended to the De-Karina Chocolate Factory and Bahat Winery – some of us made chocolate and others toured the winery. After a lovely lunch in the Druze village of Mas’ada, we rafted down the Jordan River. It wasn’t the Colorado River, to be sure; but we enjoyed splashing around and occasionally “falling” out of the boat.
And dinner … we’re having a lot of great meals, but this one will be hard to top. I finally got a group picture outside our host’s house (you read correctly). Pick out someone you know and ask him or her about the barbecue we had. My mouth is watering again just thinking about it.
Tomorrow we travel to Jerusalem. What an ascent it will be. …
Tuesday, July 3
What a Day … and What a Country!
If there was a theme for today, it was “If only…”.
We began the day at the Palmachim Air Base. We got to see a Black Hawk Helicopter up close, but that wasn’t our primary purpose. We were there to visit with Special in Uniform, a project of JNF, that members of B’nai Israel might recognize from when their representative visited us for Inclusion Shabbat in February. We learned about how this group makes it possible for teens with special needs to serve in the army, by going the extra mile to match skills with jobs and arranging for social workers and other support.
Executive Director Lt. Col (Res.) Tiran Attia explained that the officers in the US Armed Forces he spoke with brushed the program aside, saying, “The Army is not a charity.” But Israel is different. The Army protects the country, but it is also an important social force, as it brings together diverse elements from many racial and socio-economic backgrounds. To be denied service in the Israeli Army is to be denied a place within Israel’s social fabric.
Without this special program, these soldiers would be left to wonder: “If only …”.
Our next stop was Independence Hall in downtown Tel Aviv. We sat in the small room in the old Tel Aviv Museum of Art, where David Ben Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel on the afternoon of May 14, 1948. It was quite moving to hear the recording of the declaration and then to rise – as the 300 or so who were in attendance that afternoon did – for Hatikvah.
But the bigger story was how close we were to never experiencing that great historical moment. War had already begun with the Arabs in the wake of the United Nation’s approval of the Partition Plan on November 29, 1947. It wasn’t going well, and the leadership of the Yishuv knew that if the state was declared, other Arab armies would attack. When Golda Meir traveled to the United States to raise money, she met with Secretary of State George Marshall. He gave her a message for David Ben Gurion: “Delay the declaration; you will never succeed against an Arab invasion.” On May 12, Ben Gurion called a special meeting of the 13 member National Council. Only ten were able to make it, and they voted 6-4 to declare independence.
So six people made the decision to declare independence in the face of a seemingly unwinnable war. One vote would have made the difference; and three people weren’t even there. “If only…”
After a break for lunch and shopping at Nachalat Binyamin and the Carmel Market, we travelled to Rechovot to see a secret bullet factory that the Haganah had established in 1945. The young army, in dire need of ammunition to fight the British, built a 110’ by 26’ bullet factory underneath a kibbutz. To keep the project secret from kibbutz members and volunteers – not to mention the British – they built a laundry factory and a bakery above the factory. Some British soldiers even used that laundry for their own clothes!
For three years, the factory remained a top-secret. There wasn’t a single accident, and the 5 million budgets it produced undoubtedly affected the war for the good. There were certainly close calls; what if the factory had been found? “If only…”
Tomorrow we head north … and we’ll go back in time almost 2,000 years.
Monday, July 2
Some People Kiss Runways
My friend Danny Siegel wrote a poem to recite upon landing in Israel, “Some People Kiss Runways.” This was possible in the old days; before the modern terminal opened at Ben Gurion in 2002, all passengers descended from the plane to the tarmac. I was one of those who liked to kiss the ground before boarding the bus to the terminal. It was a perfect metaphor for the interplay between old and new, holy and profane, which characterizes modern Israel.
I am writing from the plane, a few hours before our arrival and then our first stop in Old Jaffa. Jaffa is a perfect place to begin our journey. Most of our group of 35 has never been to Israel; and for those who have visited before, it’s been a really long time.
The ancient port of Jaffa is mentioned in the Bible. This is where Jonah boarded a ship in an effort to defy a divine command. Looking north along the Mediterranean coast, we will see the modern city of Tel Aviv. The city was a sand dune in 1909 when a group of 66 pioneers first parceled out the land by lot. Meir Dizengoff, Tel Aviv’s first mayor, once explained the phenomenon: “If you want to be mayor, build your own town.”
Modern Zionism sought a break with the past. After 2,000 years of wandering, the Zionists proclaimed that Jews would no longer be the objects of history. Instead of Torah, they would be inspired by work. The “New Jew” was muscular, tanned, a farmer with a gun. The revolution was not welcomed by everyone. Reform Jews, imagining the fulfillment of Jewish destiny in the emerging democracies of Europe and the New World, rejected the notion of a national homeland. Religious Jews rejected the secularism of the New Jew. Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, the leading opponent of religious reformers who was known as the Hatam Sofer (dates), had already said, “hadash asur min ha-torah, Anything new is prohibited by the Torah.”
Religious Zionists, however, saw the redemptive promise of Zionism. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), the first Chief Rabbi of the Yishuv, the Jewish community of pre-state Palestine, once said, “ha-yashan yithadesh, v’ha-hadash yitkadesh, the old will be renewed, and the new will be sanctified.” Zionism did not threaten Judaism; to the contrary, Kook understood that Judaism would be strengthened by the establishment of a Jewish State.
Modern Israel embodies the tension between the polarities of Old and New, and Holy and Profane. We will see the farms that pioneers built after draining the swamps, and the trees they planted to make the desert bloom. And then we’ll visit the mystical city of Tzefat, where it feels like little has changed since the 16th century. In a few days our bus will ascend the hills to Jerusalem, where the modern Knesset stands only a few miles from David’s ancient capital. Israel’s capital is built on the fault lines between Old and New.
We will surely feel God’s presence when we celebrate two b’not mitzvah at a morning service at the Kotel. And, unfortunately, we will also experience the politics of religious administration in Israel. Only one brand of Judaism is legitimized and supported by the government; the non-Orthodox must overcome obstacles to establish centers for worship and study. And a majority of Israelis identify as secular, choosing a national/cultural expression of identity while all but ignoring Judaism’s religious roots. The yeshivot stand next to nightclubs. Israeli society exists between the polarities of holy and profane.
The tension is also beautiful. Nobody ever said that realizing our destiny as a nation among nations, or establishing sovereignty in our ancient homeland after 2,000 years of exile, would be easy.
Barukh she-hehe-yanu v’kiy-manu v’higi-yanu laz’man hazeh, Praised is the One who has kept us in life and enabled us to reach this moment of arrival in the Land of Israel.
“Some People Kiss Runways,” by Danny Siegel
Give me 5 more years
away from Israel
I will go back “home”
to make and save my money
So that when I come back home again
life will be uncomplicated
And I can spend
as many as my days
Will be at Lod
with a barrel of honey
And a vat of milk
to sprinkle on the runway
I want those who kiss
the holy concrete
How very sweet
The Homeland has become.