2012 Day 11: The Dead Sea Basin

Our next day started early with a trip to Masada, a site outside of Jerusalem where Jewish rebels attacked the Romans before committing mass suicide rather than be taken prisoner. According to Doron, this story grew in popularity after the Holocaust when Jews were looking to dispel the stereotype that they were passive and soft. Most of us took a cable car to get to the top of the hill where most of the scenery was, but Doron, Rabbi Spilker, Batya, and Reine opted to climb the long path in triple-digit heat, a decision that I later overheard her call “one of the worst of my entire life.”

As a group we were able to walk through the ancient barracks and get of an idea of how they initially tried to defend themselves against the Roman siege. Beyond the story, the scenery itself was breathtaking, although the heat began to wear on most members of the group as the tour went on. Doron led us to the edge of a canyon that had the clearest echo I’ve ever heard, so as a group we opted to shout “L’Chaim,” “Shalom,” and of course “Mt. Zion Rocks” which was then broadcast back to us in a way that was somewhat spooky.

From there, we went to one of the most anticipated attactions: the dead sea. Of course, I’ve heard all the stories about the dead sea and how people float in it, but I had always received them with a bit of skepticism, figuring that you sort of float if you try really hard to. In reality, once you get in deep enough, the water yanks you and gives you no choice but to float. At the dead sea, they also offered mud which apparently would help soothe skin, so some members of the group covered themselves from head to toe in the stuff.

After that, we took the bus back to the hotel where most of us met with Rabbi Ron Kronish, director of the interreligious coordinating council. I was wiped out from the day so I missed the meeting, but hopefully someone can comment to fill us all in.

2012 Day 10: Shabbat in Jerusalem

Day 10 gave us the unique opportunity to experience Shabbat in Jerusalem. For me, that meant staying very true to the spirit of Shabbat and spending the day being quite lazy. This was probably the least busy day of the entire trip.

Rabbi Spilker took some members of the group to a pair of synagogues to experience Shabbat morning services in the city. I slept in, but those in the group who are actually responsible and able to wake up at early hours enjoyed the experience, which took them to a Modern Orthodox congregation followed by a more reform-style service at Hebrew Union College. At the college, Batya got the chance to wear her tallit from Yad Lakashish for the first time.

In the late afternoon we walked as a group to the actual Mt. Zion, where we took a picture of ourselves in front of a Mt. Zion/Talmud Torah sign (if anyone has this picture, email me). We also walked through the Christian quarter, which was once again a chance to see how this city is sacred to so many different people. The space seemed to take on a unique meaning for every group depending on their history.

After that some of us hiked up to the Mount of Olives. It was a fairly steep trek, but was worth it for the incredible view of the old city of Jerusalem. Located on the Mount of Olives is a massive graveyard (it’s apparently one of the most coveted spots to be buried), with all the tombstones lined up vertically and so close together that, from a distance, they almost look like a big wall. After a lot of walking, most of our group took a cab back to the hotel.

After dinner, we had a special Havdallah service. It was supposed to take place at a scenic overlook of the city that was outside the hotel, but the swirling wind prevented us from lighting the candle, despite seemingly hundreds of attempts. Finally we gave up and went inside and had the service before going our separate ways for the night.

A group of us went to Ben Yehuda street, one of the busiest in Jerusalem, to see the nightlife that happens right after Shabbat ends, which was a special opportunity. Jerusalem doesn’t really shut down on Shabbat like a lot of us assumed it did, but it is definitely slower and then everyone seems to really let loose once the sun goes down on Saturday night.

We stayed out pretty late, and even at the end of a fairly laid-back day we were still exhausted.

– Josh

2012 Day 9: Memory and Renewal

Like the title of the day provided in our itinerary suggested, day nine was a unique blend of remembering some of the most horrific events in human history while also experiencing all the life and vitality of modern day Jerusalem. The day began meeting with holocaust survivor Hannah Pick, who was a childhood friend of Anne Frank’s. Pick’s personal story of the Holocaust was tragic and heart wrenching, as she lost a childhood friend and her parents to the Nazis. But Pick’s outlook was also inspirational. She was not resentful or angry, but matter of fact about the things that happened to her. And we were honored that she shared her story with us. Many of us were moved to tears by her testimonial.

That got is prepared for going to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial. To say I enjoyed Yad Vashem would obviously not be apt, but it was an incredibly well-done museum that raised strong emotions from everyone in the group. We all felt terror, anger, and shock walking through the halls and watching the story develop chronologically, from the very beginnings of Nazi Germany to the unimaginable atrocities of the Holocaust. There were many extremely powerful exhibits: an entire collection of small shoes that would have belonged to children, shelves filled with hundreds of thick books, listing all the names of the victims. There was also the Children’s memorial, which was one candle in a room of mirrors that gave a sense of the infinite loss that the Holocaust was for our people.

It was difficult to move on with our day after such the harrowing first few hours. The trip tp the Machaneh Yehuda market right before Shabbat was probably the best place to go, because it was full of life and noise which helped lift most of us out of our funk. At times it was a bit too crowded, as a few group members got lost during our time there, but we all made it out okay in time for Shabbat services that night.

We went to services at Kehitllay Yozma, a reform sister congregation of Mt. Zion. Led by Rabbi Kinneret Shirion, their service was similar to Mt. Zion’s, but of course all in Hebrew. After services we got to experience home hospitality for the second time on the trip, going to the homes of congregants. My family was paired with the Hadarys, who had twins that were my age, along with a 12 year-old who impressed my mom with his piano playing. While our last home hospitality experience was a bit awkward at times, we hit it off with the Hadarys pretty quickly and talked a lot about Israel and how it compares to America.

Our two home hospitality experiences are one of the things we’ll remember most from the trip, as we got to, at least for a night, get a sense of what it is like to be a family in Israel.

2012 Day 8: The Layers of Jerusalem

Some of us, including me, awoke very early in the morning on our first day in Jerusalem to make it to Temple Mount, a holy religious site for Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and site of the famous dome of the rock. For most of the trip we stuck to Jewish areas, so this was our most prolonged exposure to Islam. There were women praying at the site, children running around, and there were some Islam sites that Jews couldn’t access. It was a powerful experience to see how one fairly small area could be meaningful to so many different people, and the structures like the dome were beautiful.

The entire group then reconvened for a tour of Yad LaKashish, which teaches poor elderly people skills in arts and crafts, then puts them to use making beautiful items which are sold in their gift shop to fund the operation. The contrast between what Yad LaKashish does and what we frequently do with senior citizens in America was massive. Rather than being passive, the elderly people at Yad LaKashish were given a direction, were able to learn something new even at an old age, and there seemed to be a bond among them as they worked together to make these products. There was something incredibly dignified about these people from so many different backgrounds quietly going about their work as we toured the many different rooms.

At the end of the tour, the group loaded up on items in the gift-shop, all of which were hand-crafted by the elderly people of the organization. Yad LaKashish inspired a similar operation in St. Paul called By Hand and Heart, and hopefully will inspire many more.

For more information on Yad LaKashish: http://www.lifeline.org.il/

For more information on By Hand and Heart: http://www.stpauljcc.org/adults/hand_heart.lasso

Doron then led us on a walking tour of the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem, providing his usual blend of humor and encyclopedic information about the history and people of Israel. Eventually we wound up at the Western Wall, one of the biggest sites for Jews, and certainly one of the most moving spiritual experiences of the trip. There were seemingly a thousand different Bar Mitzvahs taking place at the wall, which involved shooting colorful pieces of paper into the air and playing a lot of music. Just seeing so many Jews around the wall, silently praying or leaving notes, was an undeniably powerful experience.

One of the fascinating elements of Jerusalem is how it is such an ancient city with such a rich history that has also had to embrace modernity. I saw it first-hand at the Western Wall, when I witnessed an orthodox Jew, in full black-and-white garb, answer his cell phone while praying. When we had an aerial view of the city, we saw hundreds of satellite dishes topping the buildings. This combination of the newest things and some of the oldest things gives the city a unique energy that isn’t really found in America, which has such a relatively young history.

After walking through the Western Wall tunnel, the group split up again, with the options being either an archaeological dig or a tour of the Israel Museum. The younger people, including me, and most of the others went on the dig, with my parents joining the rabbi at the museum.

The dig might have been the most pure fun that I had on the trip. The enthusiastic tour guides took is down into a cave that contained a population nearly 2000 years ago. I had some skepticism of this dig would be that eventful or if it’d be mostly us digging up dirt, but there was an incredible amount of items buried in the cave. Doron and Ellis in particular hit a hotspot in the corner, digging up full pieces of pottery and several shards. With some help from one of the guides, I found an animal jaw that still had teeth attached to it. We had been learning so much history throughout the trip, but this was a chance to actually hold it right in our hands.

I received word that the Israel Museum was also fun, and Rabbi Spilker managed to get a private tour because congregant Jenny Schneider’s brother is the director of the museum. My mom said it was a fascinating museum, but they were only able to see 1/10 of it due to its size.

After the longest day of the trip so far, I was happy to have some time off that evening, and ended up going to sleep early, eager for another day in one of the most interesting cities in the world.

– Josh

2012 Day 7: Driving the Rift

We departed the Sea of Galilee on the fourth of July, and began a long day that would eventually end in our final destination: Jerusalem. On the way, we visited the ancient synagogue of Capernaum, which was once part of a Jewish community and the site of Jesus’ teachings.

This was followed by the Kinneret Cemetery, which is the resting home of several famous Israelis. Cemeteries in America are often rather grim, with dull gray tombstones lined up in order and little in the way of decorations. This cemetery was clearly intended to celebrate life by surrounding visitors with trees, flowers, and of course the Sea of Galilee that it is located by. Our tour guide Doron told us stories of some of the people buried there, including famous poets Noami Shemer and Rachel. At Rachel’s grave, a family was celebrating her life by playing some of her songs with a guitar and some recorders. As someone whose only exposure to recorders was squawking on them in 2nd grade, it was a surprise to hear such beautiful music coming from the instrument.

We left the cemetery and partnered up with some members of the Partnership Together community for a stop at the Jordan River Village, a camp dedicated to giving sick children the time of their lives. The Jordan River Village looks like what would happen if a young child was given a few million dollars and invited to go wild: It had a huge playground, arts and crafts, music, a zipline, and soon will have a gymnasium, swimming pool, and petting zoo with horseback riding. More importantly, it also had top notch medical care and was completely wheelchair accessible, guaranteeing that any children there could have the time of their lives. The camp serves all sick children equally, showing that even in a country with so much conflict, people can sometimes put their differences aside and do something universally considered good. That made the Village a powerful moment of the trip.

The Partnership Together members joined us for lunch at an organic restaurant on a Kibbutz, which served amazing kosher food. My sister, who is something of a foodie, declared it the best meal she’s ever eaten and eventually asked the chef for the recipe of a pasta dish they made. The restaurant also had delicious ice cream that was made with cactus milk, which we all enjoyed while secretly wondering how exactly someone milks a cactus. (I assume it’s like a cow, but more painful for the person doing the milking.)

Finally we were ready to approach the holy city of Jerusalem, and after a lengthy bus ride we stopped at a gorgeous overlook of the city with the Rabbi leading us in the Shehechiyanu prayer before entering. After years of saying “next year in Jerusalem,” maybe without really 100% meaning it, we had finally arrived.

– Josh

2012 Day Six: Communities Along the Galilee — The Climb to Safed

After staying the night right on its shores, we spent the next day exploring some of the communities along the Sea of Galilee. We started in the city of Safed and visited the worshiping place of Isaac Luria, who is considered the founder of Jewish Mysticism. There, the women of the group had to “dress modestly” for the first time of the trip, which would become a common theme when visiting historical religious sites. The women in the group mostly took it in stride rather than getting upset at what could be interpreted as sexism, and they felt like they were always comfortable and welcome in the places we visited.

We entered the Golan heights after that and took a jeep tour of the area, which is located on the Syrian border and has been subject of many conflicts throughout the years, including the Six-Day War in 1967. The jeep tour was extremely bumpy on the rocky terrain, with some people occasionally flying out of their seats due to ineffective seatbelts, but the landscapes were beautiful and our tour guides were able to provide some entertainment. At one point, after passing a sign in English, Hebrew, and Arabic that said “Caution: Minefield” our tour guide jovially looked back and said “You know what it says in Arabic? Picnic area.” Rabbi Spilker, sitting in the back with me, looked somewhat appalled while the rest of us laughed and the bumpy ride continued.

The jeeps parked at an overlook, where one of the tour guides who has lived in the Golan Heights his whole life told the story of the land and how it relates to him. We all thought his story was great, and he accepted at the beginning that he had biases and that this was only one side of the story. Through his stories and the tour itself, we were able to get a good picture of this coveted land in a short amount of time. It was also a reminder after starting in the Utopian, carefree city of Tel Aviv, that much of Israel is still defined by conflict and occasionally danger.

“I admired their aiblity to live with danger and not feel totally crazy about it,” Batya said.  Sara saw the Golan Heights as part of a sense of “optimistic fatalism” that defines Jews living in Israel, a sense of happily living in the moment because it could be over tomorrow.

Our next stop was the Jordan river, where we went kayaking or rafting. I was in a raft with my family, steered by my dad and sister, with my mom and I relaxing in the middle watching them do all the work and occasionally helping out with a sarcastic comment about their ineffective boating skills. Part of the fun of  the rafting was seeing the other families joining us in our struggle to get through the river without getting stuck near the shore. Eventually we completed the journey and went on to home hospitality, coordinated by the Partnership Together (or P2G) program, which allowed us to enjoy dinner with an Israeli family and get a glimpse into their life.

My family went to a Kibbutz which was the home of a family of four — a mother, father, and 16 year-old twins. The father spoke a little English, the mother spoke almost none, and the daughter didn’t really speak at all, so most of the task of communicating fell on the shoulders of their 16 year-old son Sean, who impressed us with his maturity and ability to navigate two different languages. He was about to depart to Milwaukee to help teach people about Israel, so we gave him some tips about midwest life while he shared his family’s stories about living on a Kibbutz.

The home hospitality was a powerful experience, in part because, whether we want to admit it or not, for most of the trip we had been in something of a tourist bubble, going to most of the big spots and being able to communicate in English everywhere. This experience gave us the chance to see what life is really like in Israel. Everyone in the group agreed that it was a very positive experience and something truly special from the trip that we will remember.

– Josh

2012 Day Five: Along the Coast

We left Tel Aviv on day five after breakfast at the hotel and began our trek up towards the Sea of Galilee, also referred to as The Kinerret. On the way, we visited Neot Kedumim, an interactive nature reserve with natural flora and fauna from the Bible, including olive trees and fig trees. There we got the chance to plant our own tree in the land of Israel, allowing us to make a mark on the land that will hopefully last for many years.

The reserve was impressive because it showed just how difficult this land was for early Israelites who had to live off of it. “Coming to this hard land, you look around and it’s so barren, but they could get things to grow,” Sara Sternberger said. “It was survival. This was not an easy task to turn this into a great land.”

From there we drove past a long security barrier that separates Israel and Palestinian territories, with Doron providing some more helpful information about the ongoing conflict and the progress (or lack thereof) there has been recently. We arrived at Park Alona, and there we were able to walk through a 2000 year old water aqueduct that was used by the Romans to transport water to Caesarea. The aqueduct was a big hit with most of the group, who enjoyed having to trudge through sometimes knee-deep water while also working together to navigate the slippery rocks and drop-offs through communication in almost complete darkness. The aqueduct wasn’t just fun and historical, but it also felt like we came together as a group for the first time in it.

Having worked up an appetite, we ate lunch in a Druz village, and Doron shared a lot of details about the life and customs of the little-known group in Israel. We then went on to a site of ancient Jewish life in Zippori, where we saw fascinating mosaics that contained elements that we rarely associate with Judaism today, including zodiac signs and other possibly pagan symbols. In just one large work of art, we were able to see first-hand how Judaism was different back then, and how it had to always adapt.

“They could adapt to the beauty of the culture they were living in without replacing Judaism,” Sara said. “The whole concept of Reform Judaism is about that. How you make it relevant.”

After a long day, we finally arrived at a beautiful Kibbutz hotel that was located right on the Sea of Galilee, where we were treated to an enormous buffet dinner that showed the continued wonderful hospitality that we experienced throughout the trip.

– Josh

2012 Day Four: Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew City

Our second day in Tel Aviv began at Independence Hall, where Israeli’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence as a state on May 14, 1948. What’s striking about the hall is that it is a relatively small room, but it held 250 guests for the ceremony, which was kept relatively secret from the public. For all of its historical significance, the tour guide at the Hall said that the meeting lasted no longer than 20 minutes.

After lunch, we went to Beait Hapalmach, a museum that celebrates the Palmach, Israel’s pre-state elite fighting force. The museum was structured in a unique way, with a film about a group of typical people who would be in a Palmach group that allowed you to follow them through the years of the journey as you went from room to room. Some issues with hearing English translations of the rather loud Hebrew hurt the experience for some people on the trip, but others found it captivating and an interesting reenactment.

The next stop was the Ayalon Institute, which presented a tour of a munitions factory that was located underground and kept completely hidden by the few people who worked there (who called those not privy to it “giraffes”). This turned out to be a fascinating museum, and we were once again lucky enough to have a tour guide who was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic. We were all amazed at how they kept this mission a secret, and the fact that they were doing this highly important mission while being only 19 or 20 years old. That’s younger than me, and I doubt anyone will be allowing me to produce bullets anytime soon.

After eating dinner on our own, some of the group went to the Nalaga’at Theater, which puts on a show performed only by deaf and blind actors. Batya called the play “extraordinary” and said it was inspiring to see these people tell their stories. It was unusual and worth watching.

The rest of us explored the town for the night, where we continued to quickly become acquainted with Israeli life. One point in particular that has been observed by the group is that the average Israeli could be considered “rude” — they drive somewhat recklessly, push people aside while walking without saying anything, and in general seem to be somewhat oblivious to the concerns of others. It can be frustrating at times, but there is also a certain charm to their lack of put-upon niceties — what we call “Minnesota Nice” is often just an obligatory gesture without any real meaning, so I’ve enjoyed being in a place where things are a bit more unscripted and people are free to mostly do what they want.

That’s especially true of Tel Aviv, which certainly appears to be the “coolest” city in Israel, with a beautiful location on the Mediterranean and a vibrant night life. The casual, loose atmosphere wasn’t what I was expecting when I came to the country, but it appears to be the standard for most places. It was a good place to start our trip in Israel, and after this day we were sad — but also excited — to move on to other sights.

– Josh

2012: The Yitzchak Rabin Memorial

Photo by Emily Epstein

The most powerful sight we saw on our first full day in Israel was the Yitzchak Rabin memorial in Tel Aviv. Our tour guide, Doron, brought us to what is now called Rabin square, which was the site of the Israeli Prime Minister’s assassination on November 4, 1995. Doron was there on the night of the assassination and shared his personal memories of the event along with the national and international significance that carried with it. He was boarding a bus after the rally when his father ran up and said “Rabin was shot.” After his death, Doron said he feared that the country of Israel could fall apart, as the death of the Prime Minister at the hand of an Orthodox Jew could threaten to create a divide among the Jewish citizens.

The monument includes a large banner that simply says the Hebrew word “Slicha” — meaning “sorry” — in large letters, with pictures of Rabin clipped from newspapers underneath. There is also a square full of large broken rocks, which is intended to represent the “earthquake” that shook the nation after his death. The construction of the memorial also allows anyone there to physically recreate the situation with labeled tiles that indicate where the parties (Rabin, his killer, and the security guards) involved stood. The tile labeled “Rabin” and the tile labeled “murderer” are no more than two feet apart.

– Josh

Welcome to Israel in 2012

The Mt. Zion 2012 trip to Israel began successfully mid-afternoon Friday, June 29, with all 16 of us arriving safely at Tel Aviv airport –  and15 of us with our luggage…youngest Jordan Epstein was in siblings ‘hand me downs for a few days’ and handled the stress pretty well (from the outside).  All made it through passport control and almost all of us got our first ATM of “shekalim”; those whose ATM cards didn’t work enjoyed the generosity of the group until finding an ATM that worked.

Doron Wilfand, our tour educator/guide, greeted us at the airport and Rabbi Spilker welcomed us at the hotel, looking relaxed and pleased to greet us with cold orange juice and keys to our rooms. We changed quickly and rode our tour bus to services at Kehillat Beit Daniel for a wonderful service in the local language… Hebrew!

What we couldn’t understand in words, we got in ruach of Shabbat joy and warmth. A walk back to the hotel, taking in sounds and sights of very warm Tel Aviv at sunset with the sea beckoning us to visit was lovely. A Shabbat meal for what would become our tour family welcomed us in our own dining room, and we tiredly, excitedly, and cautiously greeted everyone who we would travel with for many days.

Some of us staggered to sleep and others, encouraged by Doron, stayed up very late as a way to wear off the effects of trip fatigue. Shabbat morning brought us our first experience of Israeli hotel breakfast buffet, and please, after four kinds of herring, four kinds of salad, egg dishes, cream cheeses, dried fruits, breads and cereals… well, you get the idea.

Many of us met on the beach near our hotel and studied Parashat Hashavuah Chukak together, led by Rabbi Spilker, with amazing contributions from Doron, whose Hebrew combined with his academic studies made him a uniquely wonderful resource. The Parashat we studied was about Miriam’s death, the loss of water for the community as a sign of mourning, and we did this while our feet were curled in the sands of the Mediterranean and we heard the splashes of its waves.  The voices of study from many MZ congregants and Rabbi Spilker’s unique and wonderful observations made it a magical time.

Afternoon brought us a guest visit from Rabbi Miri Gold, who told us her story of how she became the first reform Rabbi in Israel who earned a salary from the government. Her story is one of inspiration for Reform Jews in Israel, because it means that, for the first time, non-orthodox Rabbis will receive a salary from the Israeli government, indicating a growing acceptance of non-Orthodox religion as a valid expression in Israel. To our delight, we learned that Rabbi Gold was born in Detroit and had spent some time working with the St. Paul Federation. That was a surprising and welcoming connection.

Doron is an amazing tour guide and deserves a blog page of his own before the trip is over. This day he brought us on a walking tour along the Tel Aviv beaches, pointing out history and culture at many turns. We ended up in Rabin square, where he showed us the memorial to the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin and his own experience of being at the rally where Prime Minister Rabin was shot. Doron’s description of the setting and mood, and explanation of how the assassination happened, was one of just fifty extraordinary insights he has clothed us in in the past two days.

After this time, one of the group went with Doron to attend an end of Shabbat social protest of 10,000 people, and several others walked or cabbed with Rabbi Spilker to the Yemenite neighborhood for a delightful meal. Several others walked off on their own.

We then ended our first Shabbat in Israel with a Havdalah service on our Tel Aviv hotel patio. Simply ritual deeply satisfying moment.

Our first full 24 hours in the land of Israel was over.

Warmly,

Batya