2014 Day 8. – Jerusalem

Day 8 of our trip began with another fantastic Israeli breakfast at the Mount Zion Hotel in Jerusalem. Our first visit of the day was to Yad LaKaShish, a workshop for senior citizens and people with disabilities. Since 1962, Yad LaKaShish has been serving late life immigrants from many different countries who are no longer able to pursue their professions. The organization trains these people to use various tools of art. We spoke with some of the people in the workshop and watched them create beautiful textiles, beads, papier mache figures, metal sculptures, etc. Their creations help support the work of the organization. The gift shop was crammed with people eager to buy unique tallitot, jewelry with handmade beads, cards, and much more. The workshop employs 300 of these senior artists 5 days a week, and once trained, an artist remains part of the workshop team for the rest of his/her life. Not only do artists in the workshop earn extra income to supplement the support they receive from the government, but they also regain a sense of purpose and become part of a close community. It’s not surprising that there is a waiting list of 1-2 years to join the workshop. Yad LaKaShish was special also because of a St. Paul connection with Hands and Heart.


A worker at Yad LaKaShish


Painting silk at Yad LaKaShish

After the workshop visit, we took a walking tour through the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and saw excavations of some of the old structures. From the 1st Temple period, we saw the Broad Wall, which saved Jews from an Assyrian invasion. The wall was built through a neighborhood, using stones from the neighborhood houses. It was still possible to see the corner of one house poking out from the wall! Our guide, Zvi, did a great job of tying the archeological remains to biblical passages.

Further along on the walk, we saw the excavation of ruins from the destruction of the 2nd Temple. We could see the pile of toppled stones exactly as they had fallen on the 9th of Av. Zvi then called our attention to a Hebrew inscription high up on a part of the wall that had not been toppled. The inscription, which is a quote from Isaiah, was written in 360 c.e. long after the temple was destroyed and buried. It says, “If we can read this, we should rejoice” (because we are still here). Rabbi Spilker noted that the destruction of the 2nd Temple marked the point when Judaism moved from Temple to synagogue, from Priest to Rabbi, and from sacrifice to prayer. Judaism became less centralized and more democratic.


Toppled stones from 2nd Temple

We proceeded to an excavated area that was once Jerusalem Main Street, running along the western wall of the Temple Mount during the time of Herod the Great. We could see the pillars and arcades from 2, 000 years ago and it was easy to picture crowds and activity on that street.

Next we climbed the Southern Steps, the main entry for people making pilgrimage 2,000 years ago to the Temple on Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot.


Southern Steps to the 2nd Temple

After a quick lunch, we walked down to the Kotel. Several bar mitzvahs were in progress on the men’s side, with female family members standing on chairs along the dividing barrier to watch, cheer, and throw candy. The way back up the stair/street from the Kotel was packed with people moving in both directions. Bar mitzvah groups heading down to the Kotel created an exciting atmosphere with their Israeli “party motivators” who blew trumpets and beat drums. It felt and sounded like a parade in New Orleans.

At this point, we split up into two groups. One group took part in an active dig in the Beit Guvrin Caves, a 2,300-year-old site from the Hellenistic period. We found many large pieces of pottery, but Nancy wins the prize for the most exciting find: an oil lamp (in perfect condition and still with some soot!) from the time of the Hanukah story! Our guide Asaf showed us pictures of other finds from the same site, the most significant of which was a large slab of writing declaring that a Greek man H—(can’t remember his full name) was authorized to collect taxes from synagogues. Asaf explained that the revolt in the Hellenistic period began as a protest against a Greek tax collector, and once again we were able to connect concrete archeological finds to the old stories, which was very exciting.


Nancy’s amazing find — an oil lamp in perfect condition! (Zvi in background)


Picture of slab from same site. Our guide, Asaf, said it was the most important archaeological find in Israel.



After we dug up relics in the basement of the house where Nancy made her museum-worthy find, Asaf brought us to a cave that served as the entry to a building on the site which they had not yet excavated, so everything we saw there was exactly as Asaf and his team had found it. We crawled through tunnels and squeezed through some narrow passages in the cave. Throughout the site, we saw walls with cubbyholes carved into them. At the end, Asaf explained that these cubbies were nest sites for birds and that the building we had just crawled through was a columbarium (a kind of barn/stable/shelter for pigeons). The people were likely raising the pigeons for food, and indeed we had found bird bones in the basement of the house where we were digging.

I said that we had split into two groups and only one group went on the dig. The other group went to the Israel Museum. http://www.english.imjnet.org.il/ I was with the dig group and can’t go on expansively about the museum tour, but I’m told they met a director/architect of the museum with a connection to our synagogue in St. Paul. He brought them to see some 9 thousand year old masks found in the Judean area!

We had already had an amazing, full day, but we were unstoppable! Shortly after dinner, we headed out again for a nighttime tour of the recently excavated tunnels along the Western Wall. Our guide had a 3-D model that came apart like a puzzle so that she could show us how the Temple Mount was built in Herod’s time. She also showed a computer animation of the Temple’s destruction and explained how the fallen Temple Mount remains were buried by the Mameluks (“and the papaluks and the babyluks!” we all shouted). So the excavated section we were looking at was underneath the village they had built, and it was a continuation of the famed Kotel. She also explained that, while the Ark from the first Temple has been lost, the Holy of Holies (a stone that is part of Mt. Moriah) from the first and second Temples is still there and is buried under the Temple Mount. The fact that the Kotel is closer to the Holy of Holies is what makes it more important, even though it has been less accessible over the years than, for example, the Southern Wall. As a matter of fact, as she clarified with her 3-D model, the section of the Western Wall that is the very closest to where the Holy of Holies is can be found in the tunnels where we stood. The stones in the tunnel are in amazingly fine condition, with clear sculpted ridges made in the time of Herod. One stone was by itself almost 500 tons.


In the Western Wall tunnels

— Amy and Ben Fink

Today we had a later start and enjoyed a leisurely morning. We departed around 10:00 and made our way south through Tiberius. First stop was the Jordan River Valley, a facility that provides care and respite to children suffering from chronic health conditions (exs: juvenile diabetes, cancer and cerebral palsy). It’s a very modern facility with all kinds of features like an adaptive swimming pool, 275 seat theater, gym, zip line and a photo studio. Each group of kids comes for a week of fun. An impressive feature is that Palestinians children from the Gaza Strip are also invited. One of the volunteer served as our tour guide and we were served a delicious lunch. Many volunteers
contribute including 13 young people doing their year of service before going into the military.
Next, we continued south to Kinneret Cemetary. There we read poetry from Rachel, one of the people buried there. She had a very sad life, died young and never got to live by the Kinneret or have children as she had dreamed. We learned about the pioneers and their three values; working the land, military defense and the Hebrew language.
The Kinneret Cemetary is on the south end of the Kinneret (Gallilee) in a beautiful site. The Golan Heights and Syria are across and Jordan is just off to the South. When we left, we traveled along the west side of the Jordan River, right next to the Jordanian border and could see farms in Jordan on the other side of the river. It is really amazing how close all these borders are.
We continued south through the West Bank and the Judean Desert, passed by the Dead Sea, and turned west towards Jerusalem. We passed through the tunnel while listening to “Yerushalayim shel Zahav.” And suddenly, there in front of us . . .Jerusalem!
We stopped at Mt. Scopus to take in the view and did the Shehechiyanu Service. Then drove into the city and checked into the Mount Zion hotel. Some gathered for dinner at Rabbi Spilker’s favorite restaurant, Caffit. We look forward to exploring Jerusalem over the next few days!

2014 Day 5 – Safed, Golan Heights, and P2G (Partnership Together)


Presenting the MZ tzedakah box to Doron, Anat , and Hadar.

Presenting the MZ tzedakah box to Doron, Anat , and Hadar.

imageBorder with SyriaimageIn the beautiful setting of Kibbutz Nof Ginosar we woke up to the sounds of birds, the sights of light shimmering on the Kinneret (Sea of Galillee) outside our rooms and the bright blue sky. The color of the sky would be a motif for the day. As we made our way up from below sea level to the heights of Safed, the sky blue would be painted on doors and window sills contrasting with the white limestone.

In Safed we framed it as a visit to one of the four holy cities: Hebron (where the patriarchs/matriarchs are buried), Jerusalem, Safed, and Tiberias (where the oral law was codified into the Jerusalem Talmud). Safed became central in Jewish history in the 16th century when Jews escaping Spain (1492) were allowed by the Ottoman Empire to settle there not far from the grave in Meiron of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Three generations after the expulsion a new flowering of Judaism through mysticism emerged.

We sang L’cha Dodi overlooking the hills in the place where it was written, imagining our ancestors going to the fields to welcome Shabbat. We saw the Abuhav synagogue with 3 arks (!) and set in the Sephardic style with the ark in the middle of the sanctuary. Then after exploring the art and spirit of the market we headed out of town.

To the east. Heading down to the Kinneret and then up the Golan Heights we made it to a lookout called Bental. A former Israeli bunker, Bental gave us a view into Syria. With the news of the past couple days, we were not sure we would be able to go. From its height, we saw the UN station below on the border a mile and a half away and 40 miles to the east Damascus (which we couldn’t see).

We discussed the 1973 Yom Kippur war and how 7 Israeli tanks faced 500 Syrian ones. Catastrophe was averted by heroic daring by a few individuals and inexplicable slowness by Syrians who didn’t know how defenseless Israel was at that time.

Then we headed for something completely different. Some enjoyed wine tasting at the Golan Winery learning about the excellent state of Israeli kosher wines. Others “enjoyed” a promo movie in 4D (!) about the Golan Heights.

Another break was rafting down the mighty Jordan River! Actually the river was at its lowest since 1991. Oh well. We went up to a water channel that was made to help drain the swamps in the founding of the state. There we spent a leisurely hour on a slow raft under the open skies, interrupted only with a little splashing fun.

After changing, we drove into Tiberias to meet with our St. Paul Federation’s Israel partnership. We were welcomed by Doron Lev, a mango farmer from Moshav Almagor, who is chair of the Sovev Kinneret region (our partnership region along with Tulsa, Madison, and Milwaukee). We gave them a Mount Zion tzedekah box. One of the host families spoke passionately about the need for the world to know and care about the three teenage boys Naftali, Eyal, and Gilad who were kidnapped. He had spent the day in Hebron as part of the search for the IDF. Seven different hosts took members of our group to their homes for meaningful home hospitality. There were varied experiences. One had two professional chefs cook an amazing, several course meal. Others went to a religious kibbutz and ate in the communal dining hall. Others in a secular moshav. At the end of the day we met back at our kibbutz and talked late into the night under the stars about Israeli life, politics, stories from our dinners, and how the trip has been going. Achla/awesome!

Adam Stock Spilker, Rabbi

Zvi explains Kabbalah in Safedimageimageimage

2014 Day 4: Along the Coast

Today we checked out of the hotel in Tel Aviv. Our first stop as at Neot Kedumim, a nature reserve dedicated to the flora and fauna of the Bible. We saw many of seven species in the Tenakh, including pomegranates, figs, olives, and grapes. After reading The Tree and the Messiahby Danny Siegel and reading “As my ancestors planted for me, I now plant for my descendants, Blessed is G-D, who raises up each tree of life,” we each planted an oak or a carob tree.

We drove along the “green border” and could see the security barrier dividing Israel and the occupied territories.

Our next stop was at Cesarea, where we learned about how the city was founded by Herod the Great and was subsequently conquered, destroyed, and rebuilt many times over the past 2000 years. Dan and Alison displayed their thespian skills in the original, 2000 year old amphitheater by acting out a scene from ancient times, debating how people should or should not adapt to the changing society and assume modern (greek) culture vs maintain the old Jewish traditions. Rabbi challenged the kids to a race in the old hippodrome, losing badly to the winner Benjamin Fink and all of the other kids.

We drove next to a Park Alona, the water source and Roman water tunnel that fed Cesarea, and journeyed 285 meters through water that at times went up to our waists. This was great fun on a hot day!

Our final stop before the hotel was Mount Carmel, where we looked over Haifa and the Mediterranean Sea. Rabbi Spilker shared the story of Elijah that took place on Mount Carmel, and we sang Halicha L’Cesarea.

Racing the Rabbi in the Hippodrome

Racing the Rabbi in the Hippodrome


The group at the top of Mount Carmel overlooking Haifa


Racing chariots in Cesarea


Hearing the story of Elijah on Mount Carmel


Walking through the water tunnel


Walking through the water tunnel


A view of Haifa from Mount Carmel


Reenacting the choices of the time of Herod


Learning about the plants of the Tenakh


Entering the water tunnel

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2014 Day 3 in Tel Aviv

Sunday was our second full day in Tel Aviv. It was a day of contrasts, both visual and psychological. Compared to my last visit in 1976, Tel Aviv has grown from a seacoast town with one tall building to a metropolis with many modern office and residential towers springing up, from its 1909 beginnings on sand dunes, in spread-out locations interspersed with many historical original buildings that the developers are required to maintain as a condition of constructing the adjacent highrises. This phenomenon was best viewed as a panoramic scene from our hotel’s rooftop swimming pool.

The morning started with a walking tour of a quiet residential neighborhood with more human-scaled 1930s Bauhaus homes with their simple lines and utilitarian form; Tel Aviv has the highest concentration of this architectual style of any city in the world.

Next to the home of poet Chaim Nachman Bialik our Jerusalemite tour guide, Zvi Levran, read Bialik’s poem “In the City of Slaughter”, which disparages Jewish victimhood, implicitly urging that Jews be the subject of history rather than its objects. In this modern Western city we observe and are a part of the success of normalcy. At the same time, is the new normalcy a failure of uniqueness? There is no sense of a siege mentality in this bustling city.

Beyond the sights and poetry is the immediate happy feeling of being immersed in a culture that assumes its Jewish identity. Lilith (9) told us that she likes being in a place where there are so many Jewish people and that she wants to move to Tel Aviv. This may stem from swimming in the Mediterranean on two successive days.

Ido, the youth educator, is doing a remarkable job of keeping the eight youngsters engaged–on and off the bus–at their individual age levels. In that regard, the Palmach Museum, which portrays the stories of the fledgling state’s elite strike force with expeiential immediacy, is somewhat problematic for younger partipants–Lilith told Ido that it was “scary and sad.” (She’ll be going to the zoo when we attend the Holocaust museum.)

After “participating” in the meeting where Ben Gurion declared an independent Jewish state, one is left with the notion that Herzl’s statement “If you will it, it is no dream” entails a constancy of will.
–Morley Friedman