Tag: Israel Trip 2009

Day 2: Masada, Meaning and Questions that Matter

Someone once told me that anywhere else in the world, a tourist travels through a country, but in Israel the Jew journeys toward meaning. Up early (4:09 am – the result of too much jet-lag induced napping), with the hotel window open, a cool breeze and the sounds of the Holy land awakening, provides me with the chance to reflect back on yesterdays meaning-making on Masada and beyond.

Ultimate Questions

This morning’s ultimate question: If placed in the shoes of another, would we make the same choices? We hired a larger taxi for the day, to take us down south to Masada (the Dead Sea and Ein Gedi too). It was good to get out of raining Jerusalem, though who knew what kind of weather we would find beyond – divine blessing, it seems, at least in terms of weather. Clear, albeit cold, skies, and some strong winds met us on the mountaintop, making it sometimes chilly, but dry enough to walk around. Thankfully, the threat of ugly weather kept large numbers away from Masada, so we had this historic hilltop much to ourselves. We meandered, explored, took in the precious panorama surrounding us.

Much has been written about the difficult choices Masada’s first century Jewish residents had to make. Forced to flee Jerusalem under the Roman onslaught to King Herod’s Masada Palace retreat, they holed up, lived life, and prepared to fight the ever intensifying onslaughts by the Romans against Israel’s Jewish residents.

The new Museum at Masada offers a wonderful way to enter this ancient event. Jerusalem Post wrote about the Museum’s opening:

The visitors’ museum experience begins in the lobby, where they receive audio headsets. They then pass through nine rooms, each of which features artifacts placed in three-dimensional scenes that depict facets of the Masada story.

In the Herod room, for example, visitors enter a display of black, statue-like figures at a banquet scene. Spread amongst these figures are artifacts such as a stone table, amphoras which held Herod’s provisions, and terra sigillata ware (the finest dishware of the time.) As visitors move from room to room, their headsets automatically begin the narration for the corresponding space. The first eight rooms delve into the worlds of the Jewish rebels, the Romans, and Josephus Flavius, while the final room pays homage to Yadin’s work.

Later, ascending by tram, we were walking in the footsteps of the Jews on Masada. Even as we were enthralled with the beautiful 3-D vistas from the upper palace level looking over the whole desert, we faced with were their impossible choice: to live life as the slave – property – of the Romans, or to proclaim their freedom by self-determining that their lives must end while they are still a free people. (Full Masada story here).

Masada forced us 21st century Jews to consider: besides freedom, what do we value so highly that we will take strong measures to protect it? Eschew the Masada option if we like, but still we are left with the question: what do I value? Family, yes. Love, sure. Country? Homeland? Could we endanger our families for the sake of an ideal, or to save another? Would we today, for example, be willing to hide our generation’s Anne Frank? For what greater value would we step out and stand up? We American Jews are rarely forced to contemplate such questions.

Less important on the spectrum of ultimate questions was the decision to walk down the mountain, but to take the tram up. We decided that being exhausted and sweaty would impede the poignancy of the Masada experience up top. We saved it for the end, and after an energizing but exhausting descent, we regained our strength (and dried out our sweaty shirts) over lunch in the restaurant.

Wadis Go Wild
What do you do when things don’t turn out as expected? Get frustrated? Cry out in anger? Find new visions worthy of blessing? When do you realize that some things are just beyond your control, and it is time to “go with the flow?”

We intended to drive north to float in the (currently) frigid waters of the Dead Sea. Yet the rain had other plans for us. After fielding conflicting reports about whether the road north was open or closed, we drove up to see. Just before En Gedi, we witnessed something few chance upon safely. Hikers in Israel are regularly warned about the dangers of flash floods in the dry wadis of the Negev. Now, under clear skies, we were able to witness one ourselves. A wadi (dry canyon riverbed) had flooded, sending thousands of gallons of muddy water across the road. Just 200 feet separated the dry land on both sides. We waved to people on the other side. Yet, the police had stopped traffic, after a 4×4 got stuck in the muck. This could have been a buzzkill. Instead, like for Israelis and others in love with their land, the roadblock did little to douse spirits. People on both sides of the blockage parked, and hiked up the sides of the wadi. Some took out beach chairs and boiled water for Turkish coffee; others took to the heights to watch with amazement. I remember learning that perhaps the Israelites crossing the Red Sea could be explained right here: that a wadi flooding, just as suddenly runs out of water allowing the Israelites to cross, until just as suddenly a flash flood of muddy water catches and drowns the pursuing Egyptians. Whichever, it was majestic.

Letting go of the plan to swim in the Dead Sea (now a swirl of brilliant aqua and muddy chocolate brown), we decided to leave early to take the long route back to Jerusalem. This southern, western roundabout route would claim up to 3 hours to get back. Still, nothing ever works perfectly. Some roads were blocked off, forcing even more detours. Sometimes the rain came down in buckets, creating slippery conditions. Other times the fog decreased visibility so much that traffic slowed to a trickle as we could only see the road and the car in front of us. One travel companion wondered when the next plague would strike. Then came the hail, small mini-balls of ice, pelting the group around us at a traffic stop. We Jews sing Shir Hama’alot, a song of ascension, upon ascending to Jerusalem. I hummed the tune to myself in thanks for finally arriving back in Jerusalem after a much longer journey than expected.

Love of Spouse and Belief in God: Twin Claimants of that “Leap of Faith”
Ultimate questions of belief poked their heads out again at night as we shared dinner together in the hotel. Between bites of tuna sandwiches, penne and red sauce, sophisticated-sounding salads, and some bottled water, we shared stories of our engagements to our wives, regaling each other with the fun details of deciding and planning to ask. Here, a ring was hidden in a tie tack jewelry box. There, a Valentine’s Day gift box from Victoria Secret enclosed a promise of a future (clearly, a shiny ring beats new pj’s any day). One invited a girlfriend on a business lunch, exchanging the frustration of being “stood up” by the “business associate” with the joy of a proposal to make a life together forever. A picnic during a long sought performance at a Shakespeare festival provided the backdrop for another proposal. I shared our joyous moment in Yosemite, where I offered her the lights of Orion’s belt as a testament to my forever love of her (resizing her great grandmother’s ring would come later, as would the 5 stoned ring we later picked out – one stone for each member of our yet-to-be-created family). My 20 year old niece Yonina promised to share her engagement story with us eventually, when the right guy comes along. We also talked about who asked the father-in-law for permission ahead of time; when and how family was included in the announcement. (I remember hanging out in a Marie Callendar’s restaurant, nervously trying to eat a patty melt, as we waited for my future in-laws to finish work so we could share the exciting news with them.)

All that wonderful talk about love provided the perfect backdrop to an unexpected yet equally delicious discussion about truth and belief and Torah and science. Being surrounded by ultraorthodox Jewish families whose lives are proscribed by Talmudic law, and whose relationships to each other (the roles of men and women) and daily life (prayer, study, work) are often so different from our own, questions of faith get magnified. So we talked. Is there a midpoint between literalism/fundamentalism and blind belief? Can Judaism make room for Darwin and dinosaurs when Torah offers a very specific God-centric story about six days of creation? If aliens from five different worlds simultaneously were to make their presence known to us, how would that affect Jewish belief in the creation of humanity? Is God the proprietor of a divine candy shop, distributing sweets (blessings, goodness) to us whenever we wish? And what does it mean when our prayers are not answered?

Some worried that such questions might offend me, their rabbinical traveling companion. I relished the discussion. (Only a bite of the rugaleh from Marzipan, sitting up in my room, could have made it even sweeter.) You see, it’s my life’s work to push people beyond the literalist reading of Torah, to open them up to meaning and Torah’s search for ultimate meaning. That truth need not be historical; that science need not be seen as being in opposition to religious belief. That the foolish acts of fundamentalists (and their cynical misuse of religion to kill and maim) does not negate the possibility that God exists and is benevolent.

I endorse the eighteenth century Chassidic rebbe who said that anyone who reads Torah only (primarily?) as p’shat (on its plot level) is a fool. Torah is about life lessons, not historic truths. It answers the question “why” to complement science’s question about “how.” Its sometimes stark stories of creation, primitive medicine and miracles are on their surface merely the experience of a people in its infancy. Just as my children once viewed me as all powerful, all knowing but as they have grown have developed a more nuanced view of their all loving father, so too must we mine meaning from Torah – through study, midrash and more – to discover insights (and answers perhaps) to ultimate questions.

As I age, and realize how little control I truly have over things in life, I become increasingly aware of realities that are unquestionable: the love I share with my wife, my love and devotion to my children, and my experience that we are all connected in a Oneness others call God. I cannot prove the love of my wife by an empirical means any more that I can prove that God exists. A cynic could ascribe ulterior (non-love) motives to the former; the non-believer finds comfort in our ability NOT to be able to prove God. But love and belief go hand in hand. Both require a leap of faith. And I lovingly, though not blindly, leap forward. Can you?

Oh, how I loved that nighttime conversation! They say Jerusalem’s air is intoxicating. I’m more than ready to get high on such heady discussions again and again.

Its 5:50 am. Time to wake up. Breakfast and modern Jerusalem calls. I wonder what questions she will ask us today!?! Oy, gotta run. I’ll try to embed more pictures later. Check the new ones here.

Jerusalem, Day 1


Our first full day in Israel we spent touring around Jerusalem. Our tour guide, Alexandra Benjamin, beautifully wove together archeological finds, Biblical verses, ancient history and modern realities to create a tapestry of Israel past, present and future.

We began at the City of David, an archeological dig of the original capitol city set up by King David in the year 1000 BCE (plus or minus). How fascinating to see how the Biblical stories of David’s life and kingdom correlate so well with the archeological finds. We marveled at the intersection of the Arab village, the ancient site and new Jewish homes. We viewed Hezekiah’s tunnel, an ancient tunnel dug to bring water into the city.

We stopped by the Kotel, writing prayers and placing them the wall. I wrote a special prayer asking for blessing for my family, our congregation, Israel and America and our world. I took special pride in placing in the Wall, prayers written by Or Ami congregants and students.

Walking under the Kotel Tunnels, that stretch the length of the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount, never fails to amaze me. To see stones the size of school buses that weigh 631 tons, and trying to imagine how they were moved into place so far up the wall. To walk along paved roads that our ancestors walked upon 2000 years ago. To view the huge underground cistern which stored water for the desert area city.

We gained a sense of the interreligious nature of the city of Jerusalem during a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where tradition teaches Jesus was nailed to the cross and laid following his death. Six different Christian denominations/churches each have a role and ownership of different parts of the church and its rituals. I was moved by the way Christian pilgrims were moved so deeply by being in the Church.

Standing atop the rooftops of the Old City of Jerusalem, we stood equidistance between three domes: Islam’s Dome of the Rock, the Dome atop the Church of the Sepulchre, and the new dome atop a new synagogue in the Jewish Quarter. Moments later, we heard the Muslim call to worship, listened to the Church bells ringing, and saw Jews rushing to the Kotel for pre-Shabbat prayers.

I took part of our group – who hadn’t tired yet from jetlag – to Machane Yehuda, the open air Jewish market. How I love the hustle and bustle of that place in the hours before Shabbat. Sounds and smells, colors and tastes, mingle together amidst the cacophony that we call the Jewish people. Pushing, shoving, selling, buying, talking, laughing… it is a wonderful feel for the hum and buzz of this city. We bought only chocolate rugaleh from Marzipan. Warm and delicious.

The day ended with Shabbat dinner at a Lebanese restaurant nearby the hotel. Following kiddush and motzi over the challah, we enjoyed a delicious dinner of salads and meats. Delicious!

Another joy is being with my niece Yonina, who made aliyah a few years ago and currently serves in the army. This 20 year old is one amazing young woman!

Alas, its late again (10:30 pm Jerusalem time, 12:30 pm California time). I’m exhausted. I’ll fall asleep watching Troy, the story of another ancient city with a rich history.

Aliyat haNefesh, My Soul Ascends to Jerusalem

I’m in Israel now (though I wrote this on the plane trip over). This might be a good time to reflect upon the purpose of this trip. Israel Adventure 2009 has three purposes:

  • To attend the convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform Movement rabbis) who meet once in seven years in Israel;
  • To help guide a small group of Or Ami people (Mark Wolfson and his current/future sons-in-law) through Israel;
  • To make my annual Aliyat haNefesh (spiritual ascent) to our Jewish holy land.

What is this Aliyat haNefesh? On Shabbat and Holy Days, when we marched with Torah we sing a verse from Tanach: Ki mitziyon tetzei Torah, u’dvar Adonai mirushalayim – From out of Zion comes forth Torah and the word of God from Jerusalem. Purposely placed in the middle of the prayer service, this song trumpets our Jewish reality: that on some cosmic (metaphysical?) level, we are all connected as Jews to Zion, to Israel, by an unseen umbilical cord. We Jews are called from deep within to reconnect to the womb.

Back on Yom Kippur 2007/5768, I spoke to Congregation Or Ami about deepening our relationship with Israel. I paraphrased the writings of my colleague (the rabbi of my youth, one of my role models) then President of the Association of Reform Zionist of America, Rabbi Stanley Davids, who called for an aliyat hanefesh, a spiritual aliyah. (My sermon also draws from the writings of Rabbi Robert H. Loewy.)

Today, on Yom Kippur, I call for a new kind of connection to Israel, an aliyat hanefesh, a spiritual aliyah. Aliyah, from the root, Ayin-Lamed-Hey means to
rise up. When you move to Israel, like my (then) 19 year old niece Yonina did,
we say you make aliyah. When traveling in Israel, and you go to Jerusalem, even
if you are in the north traveling down south, we say la’alot lirushalayim
that you make go up to Jerusalem, rising up to our spiritual center. When you
ascend the bimah to bless Torah, we say you have an aliyah, rising up to that
spiritual plane.

I ask you all to consider making it a religious duty to participate in an “aliyat hanefesh, a spiritual aliyah.” Let it be “a soul-driven aliyah that places love for Israel near the center of our lives. Aliyat hanefesh could be expressed by visits for study and for vacations, by extended sabbatical stays, by making certain that our children and grandchildren have extensive personal experiences of Israel, by becoming informed advocates for Israel and by personally making certain to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut as a religious holiday each May.”

Today, this Yom Kippur, I call for each of us to recommit to the covenant with God by committing to travel to Israel soon and again. Let us walk the streets of our holy land once every 5 to 10 years. Let its holiness wash over our souls…

For me, once every 5 years is not enough. It is my hope, my goal, to lead a group of Or Ami congregants to Israel once every 12 to 18 months. So while our Or Ami Summer 2009 trip was canceled – the economy took its toll on everyone’s travel plans – this CCAR convention, and Mark’s desire to take his sons-in-law for a week of touring, provided me with the opportunity to fulfill this year’s aliyat hanefesh.

Blog Israel 2009: Flying to Israel

Nineteen hours into the trip to Israel, we are aboard El Al flight 8, somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, west of Lisbon. Lights are out; the plane is quiet. More than half of the passengers are asleep, except for me, Mark Wolfson (one travel partner), the Chasid up front putting on his tefillin to pray (it’s morning somewhere), and the Israeli behind me (who we believe is more than just our average traveler).

The trip has been beautifully uneventful so far, with a thought-provoking moments to keep the blood flowing.

(1) My travel partners for the first leg of Israel Adventure 2009 are Or Ami congregant Mark Wolfson, his two sons-in-law Dan Glassman and Jon Bronson, and his son-in-law-to-be Sundi Munavu. Mark and I traveled to Israel some five years back, during the Second Intifada. We called ourselves Or Ami’s Advance Team/Mission to Israel, ensuring for other congregants that it was safe to travel there. I will post my reflections from that trip on the blog. Anyway, going through security with a Kenyan proved interesting. As we have seen many times before, El Al security is phenomenal. I have never been so peppered with so many different questions, which I assumed would be checked out if there were parts that concerned them. I think security spoke with all of us, except Sundi. When the two security people conferred in front of me, in Hebrew, I chimed in, also in Hebrew. Was that a test of whether I was really a rabbi? As fascinated as I am with the security, am I being paranoid? Nonetheless, they waved him through. Sundi and I had an interesting conversation about profiling (called racial profiling here in the States), and about whether or not it feels different getting on a plane to Israel rather than driving through the U.S.A. Sundi seemed more accepting of it than I might have been, perhaps because of knowledge about an even higher level of screening to go in and out of Kenya. Which brings me back to the Israeli behind me. Is he our own personal Air Marshal, positioned such that he can keep an eye on us… on Sundi?

(2) Traveling the first leg on an American Airlines flight (El Al’s domestic partner), we were offered a choice of two meals: pulled pork or antipasto with various meats in the ham family. You’d think that if El Al partnered with another airline, you could expect at least ONE non-treif meal option. The salad, cheeses and warm chocolate chip cookie carried me through.

(3) American Airlines gave us each a personal video screen, preloaded with movies. Cool! I played a few games, winning at Sudoku. I began to watch Bottle Shock, a based on reality movie about a 1970’2 era blind taste test pitting California Wines against French Wines. Supposedly the Californian wines won, in France. I wouldn’t know, because they collected the video screens 40 minutes before landing, leaving me 20 minutes from the end of the movie. Wouldn’t you know it, not five minutes after they took back the screens, the captain announced that weather had shut down some runways at JFK and we would be circling for a bit. We landed 30 minutes late… Bummer. I’ll have to search out the video when we return.

(4) We are flying on a 747, in the upper deck. How cool! There are about 24 seats up here. Kind of private. The only scary part about it is that if, G!d forbid, we had to use the emergency slide out the emergency door, we are waaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyy up here.
(5) I’ve been sleeping off and on. Though its 3:20 am California time; its 1 pm Israel time. Initially I planned to sleep straight through. Yet we arrive at 5 pm local time. If I want to get some sleep that night, so as to be awake to begin touring on Friday morning, I had better stay awake now. Not sure my body really likes 3:22 am.

Israel 2009: First Week’s Itinerary


I’m leaving for Israel tomorrow morning. My family understands how I feel about Israel. Its a cross between one child’s love of Camp Newman, another’s love of hanging with friends, and the third’s love of all things baseball. I’m blessed to be able to visit Israel yet again.

Here is my itinerary for the first week:

Thursday, Feb 19: Arrival
5:05 Arrive at Ben Gurion Airport
Take taxi to Jerusalem hotel – Citadel David
Eve Dinner in hotel (or walk into city)

Friday, Feb 20: The Old City
Early Breakfast in Hotel
7.30 Depart hotel by sherut (taxi)
8.00 City of David (nrn)
9.30 Walk up to Kotel
10.00 Kotel tunnel tour (r)
11.30 Continue touring Old City of Jerusalem.
Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Cardo, Arab Shuk and rooftops.
Stop for lunch in this time.
Depart Old City between 2 and 3pm and return to Hotel

Eve Shabbat Dinner and Evening Plans to be finalized in Israel
Possible: walk to Kotel/Western Wall for Shabbat experience

Saturday, Feb 21: Masada
AM Early Breakfast in hotel
Taxi to Masada
Ascend Masada – group decides if we walk up, down or both
Tour Masada
Descend Masada
Lunch nearby
Possible visit to Dead Sea
Eve Evening in Jerusalem

Sunday, Feb 22: Jerusalem: The New City
Breakfast at Hotel
8.10 Depart Hotel
8.40 Har Herzl Museum (r)
10.00 Tour Har Herzl
11.30 Travel to Supreme Court (nrn) (ft)
12.00 Supreme Court tour
1.30 Arrive at Knesset for tour at 1.45 (nrn) (ft)
3.15 Late lunch and poetry discussion at Tmol Shilshom
5.15 Shopping and wandering around Downtown, Nachalat Shiva area
Eve Dinner and Shopping in Jerusalem’s German Colony

Monday, Feb 23: Tel Aviv – The Old-New City
Breakfast at Hotel
8.30 Depart Jerusalem
9.30 Approx arrive in Tel Aviv
10.00 Independence Hall
11.00 Walking tour of Bauhaus Tel Aviv or Old Jaffa
12.30 Lunch
2.00 Palmach Museum
3.30 Depart Tel Aviv
4.30 (approx – Arrive in Jerusalem)
Eve Dinner and Nightlife in Jerusalem

Tuesday, Feb 24:
Breakfast in hotel
8:30 Depart hotel
9:00 Yad Vashem: Israel’s Holocaust Museum
Lunch Machane Yehuda Open Air Market
Possible visit to Yad L’Kashish, Lifeline to the Elderly
Eve Dinner (hopefully with Rabbi Jan Offel, Kol Tikva)