Friday, May 11, 2018

Israel - Final Thoughts from our 2018 Trip

Our last day in Israel awaiting our tour of the Ayalon Institute
I left Israel still very much in love with the land and with her inhabitants. I also left very much confused, conflicted, and hopeful over the present and future of the Jewish State. It is a land full of contradictions and complexities. As our guide, Mike often reminded us whenever we asked a difficult question, be it about Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, Israeli-Arabs, the Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox), peace, the two-state solution, modern economics, housing, egalitarianism, or just life in general in Israel, the answer was always: "it's complicated."

At the same time, we visited a land representing 4,000 plus years of our people's history. But it is also a land teeming with visions of what the future can, and should hold. There are dreamers in the land. As Herzl said so many years ago, "if you will it, it is no dream." There are pessimists in the land. There are true believers in the land, and there are atheists in the land. Often times, as the old joke goes, they are all the same person.

Other observations: the food keeps getting better, while the traffic keeps getting worse. Israel is also not a coffee culture like here in the states. I did miss having a fresh mug of coffee every morning, but the Israeli breakfasts cannot be beat. Time also marches to a different drummer. Time in Israel is very Jewish, and you can feel it from the moment you step off the airplane. But most importantly, bring a comfortable pair of walking shoes.

There is so much more to say about our time there, but as I still struggle to shake off the cobwebs of sleep deprivation, I will end with the words we say every Passover, "next year, in Jerusalem." Until then, I will keep dreaming of falafel and hummus, and a return one day to the land of our people.

A huge thank you to everyone who joined in the journey. I hope you found it inspirational and insightful. Thank you as well to Cantor Neff and the staff and leaders at the Reform Temple of Rockland, some of whom were on the trip, for enabling us to go.

And thank you to all of you who have been following along in our journey via this blog. It has been a pleasure having you join us, albeit virtually. And if you are interested in joining us for a future trip to Israel, just let us know.

But of course the greatest thanks goes to my wife for holding down the fort. She is my rock, and I could not have done this journey without her. Next time, let's do this together.

Day 9: Our Final Day in Eretz Yisrael

Machines at the "kibbutz" of the Ayalon Institute
As Chaucer wrote in the 1300s, "All good things must come to an end." Interestingly enough, in terms of the history of Jerusalem, the 1300s are practically modern history, but I digress.

We started our morning with a visit the Ayalon Institute, one of Israel's secret bullet factories. Before the end of the British Mandate, Israel found herself in desperate need of weapons and bullets. To do this, Israelis built a number of secret facilities to help manufacture armaments, but perhaps the most auditions was the one now known as the Ayalon Institute. Built just outside of Rehovot, on a kibbutz that wasn't a kibbutz, this underground bunker was used to manufacture more than 2.5 million bullets.

Learning about the secret bullet factory
It took only 21 days to build the underground factory, and 45 volunteers worked in the subterranean lair. The entire endeavor was a force of chutzpah an ingenuity. One could say that it was one of the original schemes of the new startup nation.

The secret entrance to the factory underneath the laundry.
Alas, I was the only one who got the Breaking Bad reference, spoilers
Most of the people working on the "kibbutz" worked in the factory, but there were a handful that did not. They were referred to as "giraffes," because they had once seen a train go by with a circus on it. The giraffes were positioned in the train cars to only see what was at their eye level and not what was going on below.
Mockups of the machines and personnel 
Many of the workers kept their stories secret for years. It was not until the opening of the museum in 1986 that the stories began to come out. You can read more about it from this article in the Daily Beast.
The most dangerous job, adding gunpowder to the bullets
Then after our visit to the Institute, we made our way back to Jerusalem and Hadassah Hospital to visit the world famous Chagall Windows. Like all modern hospitals, Hadassah was under construction, and it was hard to find parking, and even harder to find the windows. While there we learned about much of the symbolism that went into the windows. Chagall studied the Bible, especially Jacob's blessing of his sons to create much of the imagery. As an aside, though they are often referred to as the 12 Tribes of Israel, in actuality, they are of Jacob's twelve sons, as there is no tribe of Joseph. But that is a conversation for another blog.

There are many wonderful pics to be found of the windows
but none of them do the windows justice.
It is best to see them in person
We then went back to our hotel to finish packing and freshen up before our last supper together as a group. A little less than half the group stayed in Jerusalem to begin their journey southward to ultimately go to the Jordanian site of Petra, made famous in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The rest of us made our way to Ben Gurion airport to begin the long 12-hour flight back to the States.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Day 8: Masada and the Dead Sea

Our day began with a very unusual weather pattern. Even though it was well past Pesach, and it was early May, we were headed into rain storms in the Negev. We received word that there was even hail outside of Jerusalem. However there was no mass migration of Jews, except for us tourists. Oh well.

Upon our arrival at Masada, we were informed that Herod's winter palace/fortress was closed due to high winds and rain. Thankfully, as we arrived, the wind and rain stopped, so that we were able to take the cable car up to the top of Masada. I would like to say that I had something to do with it, but alas, as a desert, nomadic people, we only have prayers for rain, not any to stop the rain. And even if we did, I certainly would not be praying to stop any form of precipitation in a land so in desperate need of water.

Masada was built by King Herod, who was well known for having an 'edifice-complex.' The construction took from about 37 - 31 BCE. And the site contains not only his palaces but also store houses for food and cisterns for water. It even has Roman style baths.

View from the Palace
However, Masada is much more well known in history because it was the site of the last stand of a group of Jews known as Zealots, against the Roman Empire. Following the failure of the revolt starting in 66 CE and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in the year 70, the Romans laid siege to Masada in 73. Unable to climb the winding snake path, the Roman legions slowly and methodically built a ramp up to Masada. Facing an imminent breach of their walls, and facing a life of slavery, 960 men, women and children either killed each other or themselves, rather than be captured by the Romans. Only 2 women and five children survived.

Examples of the Roman Camps can be seen in the distance
As a form of psychological warfare, they surrounded Masada on all sides
Masada today, like so much of Israel, is a place of contradictions. For some, it is another site of Jewish futility against oppressive rulers. For others it is a site of Jewish perseverance and defiance. Both interpretations are correct, if not complete. Military induction ceremonies now take place at Masada with the idea that no Jew and no Israeli shall ever have to take their own life to save themselves. Masada is also now a popular place for life cycle events as well, as we were even witness to a Bar Mitzvah that was being celebrated there.

Thankfully the rain held off, mostly. And everyone was so pleased
to be able to tour Masada
After Masada, we went to the lowest place on earth. They even have a bar there. And as I noted, it sure is a low bar. The Dead Sea, though it is shrinking at a rate of more than a meter per year due to lack of fresh water, it is nonetheless a very popular site for tourists and those seeking out the benefits of the salts and minerals.

It is also a very dangerous walk down to the Dead Sea. I am just so glad no one was significantly hurt as they were slipping and sliding on the mud.

Here are just a few pics from our time in the sea (and no I did not go in. One time is plenty). There are lots more pics, but here is a sampler.

After the Dead Sea, we returned to Jerusalem to clean up, and enjoy an evening out on the town. 

Day 7: Memory

We concluded our day with a visit to Yad Vashem, Israel's national Holocaust Museum. The term "Yad Vashem" comes from Isaiah 56:5, "I will give them, in My House and within My walls, a 'Yad Vashem' a monument and a name better than sons or daughters. I will give them an everlasting name which shall not perish."

The original building started construction in 1954 and was completed in 1957. It was then replaced with a museum 4 times larger in 2005. It represented a decade long $100 million dollar project dedicated to the lives and memories of those who perished in the Shoah.

The new museum was designed by Moshe Safdie. He created, "a triangular concrete prism that cuts through the landscape, illuminated by a 200 meter (656ft) long skylight." Each section is cordoned off, in essence, forcing every visitor to go through every section of the museum. Some also noticed how the cordons felt like barbed wire, reminding the visitors of the complete lack of choice and freedom of the Jews in Nazi Germany.

One could spend days, if not weeks studying each photo and each gallery. But at the end of it all, we were reminded that there is no way to make sense of the incomprehensible. For example, why did so many (or so few) risk their lives to save Jews? There are answers to this question, of course, none satisfactory. Why did the world turn its back? And so many more. There is no making sense of this mass genocide, there is only memory.

As I was reminded, we are now the witnesses, as the survivors are dying out. We are the witnesses to the great cruelty that humanity can bestow, and we are witnesses to the indelible kindness individuals can demonstrate.

There are so many questions, and so few answers:

"People often ask, 'Why did the Jews go like sheep to the slaughter?' How can they know what it was like, crowded together in a way that even animals are not treated - weakened by months of hardship and hunger, locked up in sealed wagons, without food, weapons, without friends - knowing that if even one escaped the Nazis, who was there that would welcome them, who cared! Who would life a finger? ... Sheep to the slaughter? What do those who use the phrase know about honor about the thousands of parents who would not desert their little ones, who stayed behind to embrace them, to cuddle them, to exchange glances with them just one more time? What do they know about reverence, about those who gave up their daily ration of food so that a father, a grandmother, a Rabbi might live another day? What do they know of a people who refused to believe in the death of mankind, who in forsaken places called hell organized schools, prayed and studied Talmud, wrote poems, composed lyrics, sang songs of today, of eternity, of tomorrow, even when there was to be no tomorrow?
-Max Jansy

If there is one lesson to take away, we should remember that our fellow Jews lives may have been taken, but the Nazis never took away their humanity.

May all the names of the righteous who died of Kiddush HaShem, or simply for being Jewish, always be for an abiding blessing.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Day 7: The Jewish Quarter

The headphones are for a relatively new device called: Whisper.
Our guide has the speakers and we can hear him even in a crowd
On Sunday we returned to the Old City, this time to visit the Jewish Quarter. The Jewish Quarter is an interesting contradiction. In it, there are archeological finds dating back over 2,000 years. And yet, because of the destruction of so many sites during the time from 1948-1967, most of the buildings in the Jewish quarter are relatively new.

All that being said, we started off with the traditional visit to the Kotel, the Western Wall. The Kotel is not actually part of the ancient Temple rebuilt by King Herod in the 1st Century B.C.E. Instead it is part of a larger retaining wall which supports the earth upon which the Temple was built, and which now stands the Dome of the Rock.

Nonetheless, it is a sacred site for Jews and also a site for much controversy. I also have mixed feelings about the wall, but that is a blog for another day. In the meantime, here are some pics from our visit:

Everyone loves to have their picture taken in front of the Kotel
Following our time at the wall, we then went and learned more about one of Israel's most important kings, Hezekiah. Hezekiah reigned from 715-686 B.C.E. He was a great reformer, especially of the Ancient Israelite religion, but more importantly, he saved Jerusalem and Judah from the Assyrian invasion. He did this by fortifying the city and stocking up food and water. Unfortunately, Hezekiah is not well remembered, but he should be, because without him, there would not be Judaism today.

Google Images
We then took advantage and did some major shopping in the Cardo, a beautiful area of the Old City with lots of great choices. The modern Cardo is built upon a Roman road that ran from the Damascus Gate to the Zion Gate. In Roman times, it was the main road of Jerusalem.

An idea of what the Cardo looked like during Roman days
The shopping area of the Cardo
We completed our morning with a visit back to the Western Wall. But this time we visited the whole wall, by taking a tour of the Western Wall Tunnel. The Tunnel runs the length of the entire retaining wall, and a section of it is the closest you can get to where the Holy of Holies stood in the ancient days of Israel.

Probably one of my favorite shots from the whole trip
As their website explains: the tour "moves through underground passages, mikves and ancient water trenches, streets from the Second Temple era, a quart used to excavate stones for the Hotel and more. The Western Wall's enormous courses of stone are revealed in full size and magnitude, telling us about the architecture and building practices of different historical eras."

Most impressive were the Herodian stones, which are still the foundation for the Wall today. The ingenuity, labor and skill it must have taken to build the wall is incredibly impressive. And to think they did it using ropes, pulleys, gravity, water, and simple stone tools.

Thankfully, no one in our group was claustrophobic, to my knowledge.

Our visit to the Jewish Quarter concluded with a stop at the proposed Egalitarian section of the Western Wall. Unfortunately, even though an agreement was reached, and agreed to by the Prime Minister; facing pressure from the Ultra-Orthodox, he reneged on the deal. You can read more about my thoughts on this on a previous blog post, It's Like Talking to a Wall.

All that being said, it was nice for us to be able to pray together at the wall instead of being separated by gender. We concluded with a Shecheiyanu before moving on to our next stop: lunch.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Day 6: Shabbat and the Old City

Israel roommates reunited 
Shabbat started with a little bit of extra time for our weary travelers to get some extra shut-eye. Some slept in. Others braved the Arab market in the Old City, and a few brave souls joined me in Shabbat morning services at Kehilat Har El in Jerusalem.

Har El is the oldest Reform synagogue in Israel. It was established in 1958 and was the founder of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. The rabbi there is Rabbi Ada Zavidoz, who welcomed us in with open arms. But the main reason we were there is because my roommate in Israel and dear friend, Cantor Evan Cohen, is the Cantor there.

It was a lovely service, and we were joined by two other touring groups as well as congregational members. It was warm, it was hamish, and it was all in Hebrew. This experience reminded me why we focus so much on learning the basics of Jewish prayer, so that we can connect with any worship experience in the world. We may come from many different cultures, backgrounds, countries and languages, but we share one Lashon Kodesh, one holy language: Hebrew.

Yours truly was given the honor of the first aliyah l'Torah, in part because I am an overseas member of the congregation. I learned this lesson from my father who feels that it is important for us to support at least one other congregation. I am honored to be part of the Har El community, and you can learn more about them here: Kehilat Har El. And if you are ever in Jerusalem, I encourage you to join them or any of there other Reform Congregations in Jerusalem for Shabbat worship experiences. You won't regret it.

Following our Shabbat morning experiences, we gathered together with Mike to journey into the Old City of Jerusalem. The Old City is divided into four unequal quarters: Jewish, Arab, Armenian, and Christian.

As Mike reminded us, Jerusalem is a city of contradictions and numbers. #4 - 4 quarters of the Old city. #3 - Home to 3 of the world's major religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. #2 - There is the Old City and the New City. #1 - The city is holy and home to monotheism the central belief in One God.

Speaking of New Jerusalem. Up until the 1850s, all Jews, in fact all residents lived in what is referred to as the Old City. It was only after the establishment of a new community: Mishkenot Sha'ananim by the philanthropist Moses Montefiore, did Jews begin to live outside the city walls.

The Montefiore Windmill was built as part of a mill
to encourage residents to support themselves outside
of the Old City
But as it being Shabbat, the Jewish quarter was closed, save for the Hotel, the Western Wall. So we spent our time journeying briefly through the outskirts of the Armenian Quarter as well and the Christian Quarter.

Waiting for Customers
It started with a visit first to Mt. Zion, just outside of the Old City which is home to the traditional burial site of King David as well as the Room of the Last Supper and a mosque, which all share the same building. (No photos were allowed of the actual sites)

Learning about Mt. Zion with Mike
Capturing Memories
We then journeyed through the Arab Market, home of the deal for all sorts of chatchkees. Though we may have gotten a little list, we ultimately arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, venerated by many as the site of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus. One interesting tidbit, is that this site is overseen by many different Christian denominations under a shared, unwritten agreement. Needless to say, it is complicated. And there has been bloodshed over the years over this site.

The crowds waiting to get into one of Christianity's most sacred sites
And yes, there is security
With the sun setting, we gathered with my colleague Rabbi David Young, whose group from Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, CA, joined with us for Havdallah overlooking the Old City.

Everyone then headed their own way for a late dinner, as restaurants don't open until the conclusion of Shabbat.

There is nothing like Shabbat in Jerusalem, and everyone should experience it at least once in their lifetime.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Day 5: Get Thee To Jerusalem

Following our visit to the Kinneret Cemetery, our trip continued south towards Jerusalem. During our journey we traveled through the Palestinian Territories. As part of the Oslo Accords over 20 years ago, the territories were given three designations: A, B, and C.

Image courtesy of:
Part A, the Palestinians have complete autonomy under the PA. It includes major cities like Nablus, Ramallah, and Hebron. Part A makes up about 18% of the land under the agreement. Part B is jointly overseen by Israelis and Palestinians. It makes up about 22% of the land under the agreement, and in the words of the Jerusalem Post "Israel enjoys exclusive jurisdiction over the Jewish inhabitants and exclusive authority over security for both its Arab and Jewish inhabitants. The PA has political, administrative and place jurisdiction over the Arab inhabitants. They are subject to its laws, pay the necessary taxes and benefit from the same public services the PA provides in Area A." Jerusalem Post

Area C comprises approximately 60% of the remaining land. It is sparsely populated, and Israel oversees it exclusively. Needless to say, during our bus ride, we passed only through areas B &C.

We noted the micro-climates of Israel, and how much of what we passed through is desert because it receives less than 6 inches of rain per year. But what is a trip through Israel without a camel stop?

And then ... Jerusalem, the City of Peace.

It was a hazy day in Jerusalem, but the view was priceless
We drove onto Mt. Scopus, the home of the Hebrew University, and one of the best views of Jerusalem, both Old and New. Yet we were also reminded that this view, from 1948-1967 was completely inaccessible as it was under Jordanian rule.

Our group recited the Shehechiyanu, drank some grape juice, sang Yerushalayim shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold), and we took lots of pictures. It was a powerful moment, and a few of us were teary eyed and flooded with emotion.

Our driver, Yaakov welcoming us into Jerusalem
Following our welcoming each other to Jerusalem, we checked into the hotel before heading out to a progressive kibbutz, Kibbutz Gezer for Shabbat. Though established in 1945, Kibbutz Gezer was closed in 1964, only to be reopened primarily by a group of American-Jews in 1974. As an aside, Gezer has one of Israel's only regulation sized baseball fields which was constructed in 1983 by the residents and funded by American donors.

Kibbutz Gezer Baseball field
picture courtesy of:
But we were not there to play baseball. We where there to pray with and then dine with the residents of the kibbutz. We were welcomed into Kehilat Birkat Shalom, one of Israel's more than 50 Reform congregations by Rabbi Miri Gold. Rabbi Gold is the first non-Orthodox rabbi to have her salary be paid, at least in part, by the Israeli government. It only took a seven year court case to reach this agreement.

Rabbi Miri Gold of Kehilat Birkat Shalom
We prayed together and then were split up into groups to have amazing dinners with our host families. The goal was to build connections with the local Reform communities. But from what I gathered, friendships were made, and we discovered many connections to our Rockland community as well. Some of our hosts even have family members who live in places like New City.

Needless to say, a great time was had by all. And don't get me started on the ice cream sampler by David Leichman, Miri's husband and rebbetz , who created Leich Cream: Artisan Ice Cream. All I can say is that next time we come, I am arranging a tasting for the whole group.

What a sweet way to enter into Jerusalem and into Shabbat

Day 5: Memories of our Founders and Visionaries, z"l

This post is dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D, President of the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, who died tragically in a private plane crash yesterday, May 5, 2018 in the Hudson Valley.

A view of the Kinneret Cemetery
Our day began with our journey southward towards Jerusalem. Our first stop was a visit to the Kinneret Cemetery, which is under the auspices of Israel's first Kibbutz, Degania. In the cemetery are many of the graves of the great Zionist thinkers, leaders, poets and philosophers who laid the foundation for Israel's government, economy, and cultural endeavors. These were the idealists who confronted a very difficult reality. Some of those buried died tragically and far too young from malaria. While others lived to see the dream of a Jewish State come to fruition, though many did not.

And one, Rachel Blaustein, who like Prince and Madonna, is known as Rachel to all Israelis, gave voice to that generation:


Perhaps it was never so. 
I never woke early and went to the fields 
To labor in the sweat of my brow 

Nor in the long blazing days 
Of harvest 
On top of the wagon laden with sheaves, 
Made my voice ring with song 

Nor bathed myself clean in the calm 
Blue water 
Of my Kinneret. O, my Kinneret, 
Were you there or did I only dream? 

Almost every major Israeli singer has at least one song done to the words of Rachel.

In memory of Rabbi Panken, who like so many of that generation was an inspiration, and whose hard work, diligence and brilliance will be brought to fruition. But who tragically will not be able to see his dream fully realized:

One Gentle Evening Suave 
One gentle evening suave, I'll go
Outside and immobile,
Not speaking to a single soul,
I'll sit awhile.

I'll rest like one who seeks refuge
From the sirocco's heat,
In the shade of a leafy tree,
While sitting at its feet.

I shall pretend to have forgot
That fate's decree is signed,
Which changes my few festive days
To mourning predestined.

One gentle evening, suave, I'll go
Outside and immobile,
Not speaking to a single soul,
I'll sit awhile. 

From Selected Poems of Rachel. Translated from the Hebrew by Elias Pater.

Baruch Dayan HaEmet, may his memory be for an abiding blessing

View from the cemetery
overlooking the Sea of Galilee