Tag: Israel Trip 2006

Flying Home: Sadness Mixed with Inspiration

A picture from our archeological dig…
I found a little piece of pottery!

Later, on the Airplane…

It is Sunday early morning. I am somewhere in the sky between Tel Aviv and Los Angeles International. The world flies by at some 504 miles per hour (according to the seatback trip update) as we sit cooped up in an El Al plane. I recall an old physics brain teaser: if you were riding in a closed, windowless train box car on a frictionless train track, how would you know when you arrived at your destination? We would break our heads trying to discover the answer. Of course, we never guessed correctly because there is no answer. In that situation, you cannot discern either when you are moving or when you are stopping. Think about it. The air within the boxcar is motionless within its closed system. The frictionless track ensures that you feel no movement from the outside. Its like that old question: if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a noise. We face an uncomfortable reality: if our senses cannot immediately perceive something, than how do we know if it is real?

I suspect I focus on these conundrums because in just a few hours (3 hours 38 minutes, again according to the seatback trip update), we will land again in Los Angeles and quick enough return to the world as we once knew it. Having spent ten glorious days in Israel, we now depart for home. I wonder if my experiences there – the utter joy and elation of being in and part of this holiest of lands – will be sealed off, as in a closed boxcar. If I am no longer in the forest (Jewish National Fund forest, perhaps?), will I still hear and feel the experience? I now wonder how we can really sense what is happening in Israel and continue to live with that holy history in my heart? Said differently, I am asking myself the same question I asked our trip participants just before Havdala on our last Shabbat: what will I do in the weeks to come (beyond reviewing pictures) to keep this Israel experience and my connection to Israel alive and well?

What makes traveling to Israel so special?

For the Jew, traveling to Israel is not like taking a vacation to Greece or to Mexico. Though each can be historically and culturally interesting, and can provide hours or weeks of relaxation and enjoyment, trips to Greece and Mexico do not generally claim the soul of the Jew in the way that Israel does. For the Jew, to travel to Israel is to simultaneously experience history and holiness. In Israel the reconstruction of our people’s ancient past provides signposts pointing toward the individual’s future. Though a tourist in Israel may be enjoying the nightlife or mall-life of Tel Aviv, his mind can never really separate from the city’s historical significance as the first modern Jewish city outside of Jerusalem. Floating in the water of Dead Sea, (its 30% salt content lifting you up), she is regularly returns to the eerie story of Lot’s wife, who looked back to witness the Biblical destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah and was turned into that pillar of salt. Shopping for beautiful art in the northern city of Tzefat, this tourist cannot help but relive the cosmic connection between the visionary creativity of these artists of modern times and the inspired imagination of the sixteenth century Jewish mystics who rewrote Jewish spirituality in these same hilltops. Go down south, try to flee the “meaningfulness” of Jerusalem and the north, and even a jeep ride up Machtesh Ramon yields another example of Israel’s distinctiveness: that this huge machtesh (crater that is not really a crater) is unique that it is the only geological formation of its kind in the world. Go hike a wadi – An Avdat, for instance – and you begin to wonder which of the rocks lining the road might have been the one that Moses struck, and which of the Ibex were descendants of the mountain goats that so captured the inspiration of the Psalmist.

Or travel to the Northwest of the country to the seaside city of Nahariya just below the Lebanese border. You might expect to find lightness or quiet beauty in this beach town, or lahefech (the opposite) a trembling anxiety in the aftermath of the Lebanon 2 (this summer’s yet-to-be-named war). Yet even in Nahariya, the post-war stories are unbelievable. What inspired the (initially derided) decision of the Western Galilee Hospital’s head build an underground hospital complex that just happened to save the lives of thousands this summer? What guided (or misguided) the katusha rocket to fall exactly between this heavily populated apartment building and that Beit Knesset (synagogue) so that it harmed no one? Where did that amazing 14 year old post-Bar Mitzvah boy find the strength to carry on after his aunt was the first to be killed by katusha in Nahariya? The answer might be found in the same inspiration that leads him to work as a shaliach tzibur (musical prayer leader) at the local progressive synagogue Emet Veshalom.

Israel is filled with amazing stories, spiritually moving sites, and poignant historical places. It touches the heart and transforms the soul. Baruch Ata Adonai, Elohaynu Melech HaOlam, Shehecheyanu, v’kiyimanu, vihigeeanu lazman hazeh. Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Guide of the Universe, for giving us life, for keeping us in life, and for bringing us – ME – to (and through) these special moments.

We are almost back home to Los Angeles, and I am already planning the next trip! (Probably an adults-only trip, four to five star experience for 8 days in February 2008 – interested? Email me/Rabbi Paul Kipnes).

Stories from the Lebanon 2 War: Poignant and Promising

My wife Michelle and I write:

On Wednesday we visited the Underground Bullet factory at Machon Ayalon, which secretly manufactured bullets right under the noses of the British, in a factory placed underneath a kibbutz bakery and laundry room. On Friday, we visited the underground shelter of the Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya. This multimillion dollar project was scoffed at by many when first proposed and built as a potential waste of money. Thanks to the foresight of those who insisted it be built, it served six months ago as a refuge for those hospitalized during a time of attack. Like those who foresaw the need for ammunition in Israel’s fight for independence, this underground shelter and hospital ensured that medical care was available in the midst of repetitive and ceaseless katusha missile barrages. Later, the hospital opthamology department was hit by a katusha.

Later Friday, we sat in an underground shelter that served as the community center for Emet VeShalom, a Progressive Jewish synagogue in Nahariya. There we listened to the very personal and poignant stories of seven people who lived through the Lebanon 2 war. One 34 year old man, who left his family to return to military duty, spoke of the constant pressure of shooting artillery into precise coordinates ahead of the infantry. Another man, who was evacuated from the upper levels of the Western Galilee Hospital, spoke of his gratitude for the protection of the underground hospital where his treatment continued seamlessly. His wife was one of the only residents in her neighborhood who chose during the war to remain in her home; just in case the building was hit by missile fire, she would take out the trash daily to signal the trash collectors that there was still someone in the building. A white goateed grandfather, who was born in Algeria and moved to Israel on his own as a 15 year old, spoke eloquently about the routine experience of weekly katusha bombing over the years; though different now that he has grandchildren, he nonetheless remains committed to living up near the border where the life is wonderful.

The head of radiology spoke of his 2 year old granddaughter who, along with her new puppy, routinely ran into her apartment’s safe room at the sound of a rocket, waited for it explode, and then returned to playing joyfully with her new puppy. Finally, we heard from a 14 year old boy, born in Argentina and quickly becoming a shaliach tzibur (prayer leader) in the congregation, who choked back tears as he shared the trauma of losing a beloved aunt, the first person in Nahariya killed by a katusha. Each time he made a statement, he asked the question, “Why?” Over and over, these progressive Jews spoke with pride and warmth about how their congregation provided so much emotional and practical support for members of their community during the war, including regular newsletters and resettling members and non-members in the southern parts of the country. It was like being with Or Ami and our Henaynu Caring Community Committee.

Finally, we spent Shabbat – services and dinner – with the congregation. Though completely in Hebrew (after all, it is their mother tongue) with a bit of English and some Spanish for the Argentine immigrants, the service was wonderfully musical. Clearly the Rabbi/Cantor Israel Horowitz, with his graciousness and musicality, has grown this congregation in tremendous ways. Most poignant were the comments shared by Mickey, mother to Ehud Goldwasser, one of the soldiers captured at the beginning of the war. With strength and composure, she urged the community to join her efforts to lobby on behalf of all the soldiers who remain in enemy hands. Or Ami members were impressed with the warm embrace we received from our Israeli Reform brothers and sisters (and we enjoyed a delicious home cooked Shabbat dinner too!).

We purposely programmed this exploration of the reality and effects of the war until near the end of the trip. We had hoped – as has happened – that the trip participants would first fall in love with Israel, the real country, before dealing with these contemporary issues of life and death. It provided a context of ahavat yisrael, love of Israel. When Michelle asked the panel participants why, in light of the war, they remained in Nahariya and Israel, each answered in a similar way: the beauty of the north was such that they could not imagine living anywhere else.

It was an intense day of illumination and learning. Shabbat Shalom.

Kinneret, Tiberias, Tzefat: Feeling Fabulous in Northern Israel

I’m in heaven again as I watch the sun rise over the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). This beautifully blue body of water (famed of late as the setting for Jesus’ Gospel miracles: turning water into wine, walking on water, multiplying fish and bread into enough to feed hundreds) also has the distinction of being the source of much of Israel’s drinking water, fresh water sports, fishing and boating. I had the pleasure of arriving early to give my (now healthy) daughter a half day away from the group so she could recover from a slight fever and cold that was making its way through the group (worry not, everyone is fine!).

From our 16th floor window at the Tiberias hotel, we had a gorgeous view of the bright blue sea. During our hour walk around the area, we stopped at a charming “beach” (some rocky sand down by the seashore) lined with palm trees. Not a wealthy town, Tiberias nonetheless was clean, calm and welcoming.

I have fond memories from my year-long stays in Israel (a year after high school, another year at the start of Rabbinical school) of trekking around this northern region. The lush greens of the hillsides, the deep colors of the agricultural land that checkerboards the valleys, and the flocks of birds flying to and fro. Getting me out of Miami Beach-like Tel Aviv and into the Galilee (north) is like taking basic yellow cake (tasty but unimaginative) and covering it with a layer of rich chocolate frosting. And here I was, walking with my eldest child, tasting the ta’am (flavor) of this Jewish city in this Jewish land. In fact, were it not for the regular rain and the biting winter cold (two things that in time I could get used to), I could make my home away from home here. I felt giddy.

The drive up north to catch up with the group in Tzfat (Safed) was equally magnificent. Our cranky cabdriver in spite of himself shared a bit of his history. I kvelled with joy as my little used Hebrew grew stronger and stronger as the conversation meandered from history (his family has roots in the north going back almost 100 years) to family (five children ranging from high school to post-Army grad school – one each studying law and psychology) to Kinneret water levels (still too dry) to the summer’s war (in spite of missiles landing nearby, they did not flee because “this is our land”) to where we needed to be dropped in Tzfat (clearly, he did not know that area).

As we drove up the winding road from northern point of the Kinneret to Tzfat, we were delighted at the simple splendor that greeted us. I nudged my daughter out of her book. Look there at the greenery. Look here at the rocky hillsides. See there, wildflowers. See here, clear blue skies.

We encountered the group outside the synagogue of the AR”I (Rabbi Isaac Luria), the famous 16th century mystic. A quick tutorial on Kabbalah, a quick tour of the ornate crammed shul, and a quick pause on the raised bimah to offer a Mi Shebeirach for many (including Linda Fingleson’s parents – she clearly would love being in the home of Jewish spirituality). Soon we were off for a lesson in Kabbalistic artistry with an artist cum educator. Shin, Mem, Aleph. Prime letters drawn in prime colors. Basic shapes – triangle, rectangle, circle. Circles within circles signifying the varying levels of awareness. Perceptions within perceptions. Are the concentric circles telescoping in or out? (Both.) What does this teach us about reality? (That we can observe holiness on both the micro and the macro level.) Ayin Sof (meaning, “That which has no end.”) The connections between colors and lines and shapes and concentric circles are those invisible lines of connections (a la Rabbi Larry Kushner) which illumine the ineffable. The Holy One, a.k.a. God. The experience meshed well with my Institute of Jewish Spirituality retreat program over the past two years. Connections within connections. A comforting alternative to radical individualism.

Oy, so much to consider. Some much we learned. Time to put it aside to do some serious shopping in the Artists Galleries of Tzfat. L’hitraot… See you (blog you) later!

You Mean There is a World Out There?

I finally took a moment to read Haaretz, Israel’s daily paper. Seems that there is actually a world out there. I read about the earthquake in Asia and its effects on the world’s internet (not much said, surprisingly, about people who were harmed by the earthquake). I read about the snow in Jerusalem, and in the north and south (yes, at Maktesh Ramon, where we toured by jeep yesterday, they had snow too).

I read about the few Qassam missles shooting into the South from Gaza. Apparently one missle injured two Sderot teens. The government instructed the Israeli Defense Forces to again destroy the missles when and if they can identify the exact location.

You wouldn’t know any of this is happening from where we sit. My daughter just commented, “It was interesting to hear this. We have no idea that any of that happened. It feels so safe here and everyone I talk to feels very safe!” We walked through Jaffa last night. If we weren’t so tired, we would have hung around in the Tel Aviv mall like everyone else in the city. But we needed to get some sleep instead. After a day of archeological digging and a tour of the Ayalon Institute (the secret underground factory where they manufactured bullets in the days before the Arab States invaded nascent Israel), we were just tired.

Here in Israel, you are more likely to get injured driving in a car than from a terrorist attack. No one is worried. No one is concerned. At least on the trip.

So if you are worried. Don’t be. We are having a great time and cannot wait to tell you all about it.

Floating, Camel Riding, Desert Wandering… All in a Day’s Touring

Floating in the Dead Sea. Its 30% salt content (as opposed to 3% in the Pacific Ocean) ensured that no matter how heavy the body (in my case, getting heavier and heavier with each delicious meal) we floated. Boy, was it cold! So cold, in fact, that we made quick work of the floating. Six minutes of body surfing before we dashed out of the water to drape ourselves in towels and sweatshirts.

Camel Riding at the Bedouin Village. In Mexico, you attend a “real” Fiesta experiences. In Hawaii, you party at the “authentic” Luau. In Israel’s Negev desert region, it’s the Bedouin experience that charms you. We disembarked from the bus and immediately ascended the camel humps for a ride around the area. Flashbulbs illuminated the near-darkness, capturing comical expressions on the faces of riders as the camels tilted this way and that. Next, sitting on padded mats on the ground, we listened to a Bedouin man describe the traditions of desert living: how the way you hold your cup indicated the depth of the hospitality you want to share and how grinding the coffee beans becomes the rhythm to which beautiful songs are sung. I confess I fell asleep on the cushy pillows, only to awake enough to stumble into the eating tent. There, sitting on bigger cushions, we dined on Bedouin delicacies of chicken shish kabobs, yellow rice, tehina, and freshly baked pita. Sated, I fell asleep again. Traveling can be exhausting.

A Little Bit of Heaven on Earth. We canceled the next morning’s program so that we could enjoy the beautiful sunshine and gorgeous Dead Sea view. (The decision turned out to be particularly clairvoyant as rain – and snow on Mt. Hermon – hit the rest of the country two days later.) The kids discovered the game room and entertained themselves with pool and more videogames. The adults, in contrast, enjoyed the hotel’s heated pool of Dead Sea water (for adults only). We floated and floated. One quick move and we spun out of control. Soon we learned to use our feet on the sides to stabilize ourselves. Someone noted that this might be how the astronauts feel in space. We tarried in the spa, enjoying the jaccuzis. In one pool, mini-alcoves provided specially aimed jets of water. This one massaged the lower back; that one the calves; yet another the feet. Others enjoyed facials and massages in the spa. A moment of rest and a bit of heaven here on earth!

Wandering in the Wilderness of Zin. Tanach (the Bible) came alive as we trekked deeper into the Negev for our Desert experience. First stop, En Avdat National Park and Nature Preserve. Wadi Zin is a broad ravine surrounded by strata of hard white limestone bearing thin seams of brown-black flint as well as base strata of soft clays and marls of reddish, greenish hues. In wet months, a stream flows down the wadi from a magnificent waterfall set halfway back along the trail. We reminisced about the Biblical significance of this area. We read in Bamidbar (the Biblical book of Numbers) that somewhere nearby in this Wilderness of Zin, Moses’ sister Miriam died, throwing the Israelites into chaos. Miriam had a prophetic knack for finding sources of water wherever they wandered. Only later, still in this Wilderness of Zin, did they receive water, when Moses struck the rock in violation of God’s instruction to speak to the rock. His frustration with his rebellious people brought Divine punishment, forbidding Moses to enter into the Promised Land. Throughout the hike, we imagined that each rock by the side of the trail might have been “The Rock,” and that this stream was “The Stream” which from which our Israelite ancestors drank. Our youngest children learned to track wild animals by identifying their footprints and spoor (a nice name for animal poop). The Psalmist wrote (Psalm 104:18), “The high hills are a refuge for wild goats.” These beautifully bearded Ibex with long curves seemed abundant. Throughout the hike we marveled as this species of desert goats walked boldly along the hillsides along the thinnest of ridges.

Lucille Goldin and Teen Andrew Gurewitz Blog on Through Israel

Or Ami Israel Trip Participants blog on through Israel.

Teen Andrew Gurewitz writes: I had a great time in the jeep ride through Maktesh Ramon. Well really they were a land rover. Today it is poring rain as we drive through the desert. The jeeps went all off road. One of the jeeps almost fell off the road. Quite the scare. Luckily, no one was hurt.

We also went for a lovely hike through An Avdat. We came to an oasis. Ibex were a popular sight on the hike as well. Ibex were a like a goat. The males have long curving horns. They are very sure footed. As well they blend in well with the cliffs. All in all it was a very good day.

Lucille Goldin: The Bedouin people who wondered through the desert were very interesting to learn about. We had the opportunity to go to a Bedouin Village and see first hand how they lived. The highlight for me was riding a camel with Ryan, of course he took the front so I got the rear seat! Our camel ride was followed by a welcoming ceremony in their large tent where we were served both tea and coffee.
We were then lead to another tent where we ate a traditional Bedouin dinner chicken, rice, flat bread while being seated on cushions and served on tables low to the floor. The food was actually good enough to have seconds! I was glad that we had passed on the opportunity for our group to sleep in Bedouin tents overnight as the weather was extremely cold and our beds and warm hotel rooms felt very good upon our return.

Day in Contrasts: Bruce Sallan Reflects Back on the First Shabbat

Bruce Sallan writes:

While I know it’s a spiritual coincidence, I love the irony of our two back-to-back days in Jerusalem…days of contrasts. First was the contrast of going to Yad Vashem, followed by the Mahane Yehuda open-air marketplace and then, we had the unplanned contrast of today.

Arnie and I detoured from the group, somewhat, as we all had a free evening. So, these particular details are partially specific to us, but I think will be of interest to all who are following our trip via these blogs as they seemed to be among our friends here who heard about it, at our dinner the next evening.

In the morning, as a previous blog illuminates (why is “illuminate” the word that always comes to mind?), we attended services at our sister (reform) congregation near Jerusalem. Kehillat Mevasseret Tzion, long in construction and near completion, was elegant in its design and simplicity and the service, led by Israel’s first native-born ordained female Rabbi Maya Leibovich, was lovely. A congregant, Gallie, sang exquisitely in the cantorial role, though just a mere 18 years of age. The Rabbi led much of the service in English and other than the extraordinary view of Jerusalem from the windows of the synagogue, much was familiar to us. Later, after an Oneg, she shared some of the difficulties and accomplishments their congregation has lived, in establishing themselves and building their Temple. Among them was the suspicion that an arson fire that destroyed their first pre-school, might’ve been set by very religious Jews who objected to their presence there and their form of Judaism. She also spoke of breaking the taboo that had always existed in Israel of a female Rabbi speaking at or leading a funeral in the state cemetery, which she did recently.

Living as we do in the Los Angeles area, it was stunning to learn of how there are such differences and infighting between the Orthodox and Reform movements in Israel. We learned even more about this at our lecture by Rabbi Uri Regev, in detail about aspects of Israeli life that most American Jews know little…specifically the rules about marriage and the exodus of Jews to other countries to actually get married vs. endure the requirements of the rabbis in charge of the institution within Israel!

So, where is the contrast you ask? This is where we detoured from our group, on a free evening, that followed our visit to Kehillat Mevasseret Tzion. I have an old friend, who invited us to his home for dinner. An American, who made Aliyah to Israel many years ago, whose name is Joshua Mann. He came to Israel to complete his rabbinical studies and stayed. While here, he met another American who had made aliyah a few years prior, Sema, and they fell in love and married. Ten children and four grandchildren later, he lives and studies in a new suburb about 40 minutes away from Jerusalem. 7 of his children still reside in their small home (he’s just 51, by the way!).

We were given the privilege of really seeing how an orthodox religious family lives. We broke bread at a simple meal with them. Joshua and the kids showed us their home, absent of most of the toys and technologies we take for granted (NO TV!), but full of the life and joy everyone prays for. His study was filled, top to bottom, with texts in Aramaic and Hebrew. He teaches Torah a few days a week and otherwise studies…5 nights a week with a group of other men. How he makes ends meet is a mystery to me.

We had a meal of salad and pasta…small portions…no one complained. Afterwards, all the family “benched”. The children attend either yeshivas (for the boys) or seminaries (for the girls). They study year round, getting 3-week breaks in the summer and around the high holy days…plus other breaks around other Jewish holidays. Their week is 5 and a half days…a half day on Friday, the day off on Shabbat…otherwise they study.

By the way, the boys and girls are pretty much “introduced” Fiddler-style to their future husbands and wives! Not forced; but not too different from the whole matchmaker tradition. His two girls are happily married, with two children each and one pregnant with her third! The oldest son is next in line, at 22, to get married. Divorce is rare in their circles.

After dinner, the table was cleared and a ping pong net strung. I was first challenged by the youngest, a 7-year-old and I squeaked by with a win…then Dad took up the family honor but was quickly dispatched by my left handed spin. Finally, Schmoel (the oldest son) took the paddle but sadly this American shut him out, too. The laughter throughtout the evening, knew no bounds, even in this funny game of ping pong on their oval dining room table.

The contrasts!? Too numerous to list. The State of Israel and its people, too amazing and too complicated to understand, though we’re certainly getting a taste. I should add that in all the years I’ve known Joshua, I’ve never seen him without a huge smile on his face. A lesson? Or just another contrast.

Yerida L’shem Aliyah: Descent for the Purpose of Ascent

There is a rabbinic notion about descending from heights. Yerida l’shem aliyah, they call it. Descent for the purpose of ascent. Arising out of the experience of our Biblical ancestors of leaving the Holy Land – from Abraham and Sarah to the generation who left the famine in Canaan for Egypt, this precept reminds us that sometimes we must descend into lower spiritual realms in order to ultimately ascend to greater spiritual heights. People in 12 Step programs know that sometimes a person needs to hit his/her rock bottom (lowest point of addiction) before s/he can begin the process of recovery. Individuals fighting cancer know that sometimes you must endure nauseating, painful chemotherapy in order to put the cancer in remission. Similarly, sometimes you need to leave the Holy City of Jerusalem to fully sense the endless wonder of the rest of Israel.

So on Monday, mixing sadness and excitement, we descended from Jerusalem’s spiritual heights, arriving soon thereafter below sea level at Masada and the Dead Sea. Ascending by cable car, we soon realized that Masada and its environs are indeed beautiful. Who cannot but marvel at King Herod’s architectural genius of building this palace (and fortress) atop the plateau of Masada?! In Herod’s day, you could relax in luxurious bathhouses (cold water, steam rooms, hot pools). Intricate water channels brought water from the desert’s flash rains into cisterns cut into the base of Masada, which a host of servants (or slaves) easily brought up to the top. You could settle down in multi-columned atriums, enjoying both the majestic vistas and the healing power of the warm desert air.

Masada is not a bad place to hole up, especially if you were the last of the Jewish zealots revolting against the Romans following chorban habayit, the destruction of second Jerusalem Temple, in 70 CE. The valor of the Jewish zealots residing on Masada during the Roman siege is still celebrated as the supreme example of self-sacrifice for the preservation of the nation of Israel. (Even today, when the recruits of the Israel Armored Corps take their oath of allegiance, they do so on Masada to remind each generation of the price our ancestors paid for our nation. They cry: “Masada shall not fall again!”) Our tour group relived the stressful debate about how to respond to the uncompromising Roman onslaught which was beyond the Jews’ ability to thwart. Shall we surrender? Fight to the death? Try to escape? We listened as zealot leader Elazar ben Ya’ir (played convincingly by Jon Wolfson) raised spirits and convinced his fellow zealots to make the ultimate sacrifice for their values. Yerida l’shem aliyah. You can read about the engaging conclusion online.

Equally engaging was tour leader Alexandra Benjamin’s invitation to family groups to identify central values and commit ourselves through specific actions to maintaining them. Some groups dedicated to Emet (honesty); others to Mishpacha (centrality of family); and still others to Shutafut (partnership, helping each other). Yerida l’shem aliyah. Apparently, our descent into the turmoil of Masada’s history allowed us to ascend in our recommitment to significant Jewish values.

Finally the few of us journeyed down the winding snake path. It was a precarious at times; a breeze other moments. Glorious vistas, aching knees and great conversation vied with each other for attention. (My group shared stories of how we met and became engaged to our spouses). Yerida l’shem aliyah. Descent for the purpose of ascent. I shall miss Jerusalem until the next trip, but I shall treasure these ascending memories.

Jon Wolfson Contemplates Leaving Jerusalem

We are driving down to Masada. Jonathon Wolfson contemplates leaving the holy city of Jerusalem:
As we leave Jerusalem, I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I am sad to be leaving this spiritual place, this heart of the Jewish homeland. We have spent an amazing five days exploring and learning about this special place. On the other hand, I am very excited about climbing (metaphorically…really in a cable car) Masada and continuing our discovery of this amazing land and history. I hope that everyone at Or Ami has a chance to travel with their family to Israel and make the all important connection to Israel, the land and its people!

Pictures for Fun

So many pictures. So little time to post. Here’s a partial group shot, some tasty elongated kiwi, a Daniel Statue at the Israel Museum, Rach and Yonina reconnecting, and the group outside Jaffa Gate.

Shining the Light of Tikun Olam: Fixing the World from Jerusalem

Our Sunday began walking in the dimly lit passages of the tunnel that runs along the base of the Temple Mount. Our touring Sunday concluded as Rabbi Uri Regev, head of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), challenged us to live up to the ideals of Congregation Or Ami’s name (“Light of My People”) by truly becoming an Or Lagoyim, a shining light of Jewish values to the world. In between, we saw, we volunteered, we remembered and we contemplated what it means to engage in Tikun Olam, fixing this messed up world of ours.

Israeli archeologists have opened a passage (Kotel Tunnel) that runs eastward from the Kotel (Western Wall) along the walls at the base of the Temple Mount. We marveled at the intricate construction: each stone was etched with a perfect rectangular frame, each level set back exactly the same few centimeters from the one below it, and each stone perfectly flush with its neighbors. We contemplated (without conclusion) how the builders could have moved and placed foundation stones the size of school buses. Then, in amazement and wonder, we walked along the same stone street that our ancestors walked along back in Herodian times. In this dimly lit and slightly claustrophobic tunnel, our Jewish souls shined as we walked through history come alive.

Next, we visited Yad LaKashish, Lifeline to the Elderly, a Jerusalem workshop that takes Jerusalem’s elderly off the park benches, teaches them a craft, provides them with meals, transportation and supplemental medical care, and then sells their beautiful crafts to raise money to support this holy enterprise. Once a one room workshop, Yad LaKashish has grown into a multi-room complex dedicated to Tikun Olam, fixing the world by rediscovering the value (both spiritual and economic) of one elderly person at a time. These crafts are beautiful! We agreed that the light of Or Ami would shine brightly by filling our soon-to-be built Gift Shop with these crafts. Before leaving, our little group spent at least $4,000 (American dollars) on gifts – exquisite tallitot, beautiful wall hangings, and intricate jewelry – that will connect our family and friends back home with these sparks of holy social justice work.

Meir Panim and Koach LaTet reminded us of the transformational power of volunteerism. These Meir Panim “Food Houses” (sounds more humane than soup kitchens) offer meals in tasteful restaurant-like settings to thousands of people around the country. Koach LaTet (literally, “the Power to Give”) is like Israel’s Salvation Army, collecting furniture and clothing, refurbishing them, and then delivering it to Israel’s needy families. We volunteered our time. Some of us cut blankets, sewing them into scarves to warm the homeless and disadvantaged as winter approached. Others engaged in manual labor, lifting and arranging boxes of donated medical supplies to be shipped to medical clinics in low income areas or schlepping old palates and crates to the garbage bin. Then we ate the same lunch at the same tables as Meir Panim’s low income guests. Apparently, the monies we would have spent on our lunchtime restaurant meal were donated to Meir Panim so we could experience another form of living. We who dine in top notch restaurants were humbled to taste the watery soup and nibble on the spicy chicken and the quartered potatoes. Still, we were uplifted to learn that all this was made possible because one man wanted to carry on the memory of his son Meir who died from an incurable disease. From the darkness that consumed his son’s life, one father illuminated the world l’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai, to fix the world [as it should appear] in the realm of the Holy One. A few of us committed ourselves to developing a monthly Or Ami Tikun Olam volunteer day at the local Valley Sova Food Pantry so we can help fix (and feed) our little corner of the world.

Israel’s Mt. Herzl memorial and military cemetery connected us with Israel’s recent past and to the heroes who gave their lives to change the world. We visited the memorial to Theodore Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, who in 1897 convened the first Zionist Congress with the purpose of recreating a homeland for the Jews. Im tirzu, ein zo aggadah, he said. If you will it, it is no dream. We placed little stones (the Jewish act that signifies visitation to a grave) at the grave of Israeli Prime Ministers Golda Meir and at the memorial to assassinated Prime Minister and peacemaker Yitzhak Rabin. We witnessed Israel’s egalitarian tradition in the military sections: the grave of military hero Yonatan Netanyahu of the 1976 Entebbe rescue sits humbly next to the graves of less famous but equally venerated Israeli fallen enlisted men and women. Reflecting on the sacrifices these men and women made reminded us that with the rebirth of the State of Israel in modern times, we have changed the world in significant ways. Jews now have a homeland, free from persecution. The world, though they do not always appreciate it, now sees a vibrant example of democracy in the Middle East and unparalleled open access to religious sites throughout holy Jerusalem.

We ended the day at Beit Shmuel/Mercaz Shimshon, home to our Reform movement’s international parent body, the World Union for Progressive Judaism. In forty short minutes at the end of an exhausting day, Rabbi Uri Regev talked about the ongoing struggle to nurture in Israel and around the world a progressive, egalitarian form of Judaism which is committed to vibrant openness and social justice values. He illuminated the challenges: Chabad’s success at raising monies to claim a monopoly on Jewish life in the former Soviet Union with their patriarchal, hierarchical orthodox Judaism, and the ongoing attempts by Israel’s orthodox religious parties to block the development of an Israeli constitution that would guarantee the rights of all Jews in Israel to a civil (or a reform Jewish) wedding or burial and the rights of all Israel’s citizens (women and Israeli minorities included) to a equality under the law. In a riff on our name Or Ami (Light of My People), he challenged us appropriately to become that light to our whole people – not just the Jews who become members of Or Ami – by engaging in the conversation about what Israel’s character should be, by planting a progressive Judaism in the former Soviet Union (home to a quickly growing Jewish population) and by deepening our involvement in Tikun Olam, Jewish social activism.

An exhausting day! Sure, we found babysitters for the kids and enjoyed a dinner out at restaurant 1868 as adults. But the call to transform the world – and the challenges that we face in doing so – enflamed our imaginations as much as the tasty Israeli cuisine filled up our bellies. May we all be up to the task… to live up to our name – to be a light unto our whole Jewish people. Laila Tov – Good Night.

Snoozing, Shopping and Schepping Nachas on Ben Yehuda Street

Following a Havdala ceremony to end Shabbat and a surprise cake and candles for this Rabbinic Birthday Boy, we shared dinner with Lucille and Ryan Goldin at the Rimon Café, just off Ben Yehuda Street (Paul Goldin stayed back to recover from a bad cold). We chose Rimon Café upon discovering that Michelle’s favorite Aroma Café had shut down years ago after a series of suicide bombings decimated the nightlife on Ben Yehuda Street during early 2000’s Second Intifada. Yet from tonight’s activities, you would never know that mindless hatred had once turned this into a dangerous place to stroll.

Ben Yehuda Street has always been Jerusalem’s equivalent of Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade, a no-cars pedestrian walking mall lined with shops (tourist traps) and restaurants (mostly open air). It is a place of people watching and people meeting, where the game of Jewish geography can be played on an international scale. I bumped into a colleague from Pennsylvania and his synagogue tour group; others reconnect with old friends from NFTY programs, college, youth group and more. Inundated with tourists and Year-in-Israel college students, modern orthodox and motivated hawkers, it serves on Motzei Shabbat (Saturday night, post Shabbat) as THE center of Jerusalem’s almost non-existent nightlife. Midway down the walking mall a yeshiva band plays rock and roll. Farther down, at Kikar Tzion (Zion Square) an ever-growing group of yeshiva bochers (students in their early 20’s, boys only) dance wildly in a circle to music of their own making. Of course, smells of falafel and humus waft through the streets near a small hole-in-the-wall where more than 36 people line up for an evening meal.

Rimon Café is really two Kosher restaurants in one: on the left basari (Hebrew for meat) and on the right chalavi (Hebrew for dairy). Although we saw the Wolfson clan consuming a fleishig (Yiddish for meat) meal (they must have arrived before the crowds), we were only able to find seats in the milchig (Yiddish for dairy) section. Even under the heat lamps, we were still chilly. And exhausted. Post-ordering, four of us took naps. Michelle and I enjoyed a romantic (?) birthday snooze, dozing in our seats, while Noah and Ryan put their heads down on the table and slept full on. Grandpa Murray, Rachel and Lucille enjoyed some conversation while waiting for the food to come.

Well, the meal was a bust. My lox, cream cheese and avocado sandwich arrived cold with a rubber band toasted within, while the pizzas were bland and cooler too. Michelle’s onion soup was tasty but Daniel did not enjoy the baked parmesan cheese atop his pasta. The other boys merely nibbled on their pasta, while Rachel grazed off other people’s plates upon learning – after all of our food was sporadically delivered – that they did not have the burekas she ordered.

Funny though, lousy service aside, it was a great evening. We were mildly entertained by a loud-mouthed New Yawker at the next table whose grating voice reminded us that we were in a Jerusalem melting pot. I enjoyed “tay eem nana” whose warmth and flavor (fresh mint drowning in chamomile tea) brought back memories of many a night trying to keep warm from the Jerusalem chill. The restaurant’s manager appropriately provided a new lox sandwich and offered a complimentary dessert (I took a gift certificate to share with our tour guide instead). Jews serving Jews in a Jewish city at the end of a Jewish Holy Day. I would still come back to Rimon Café just for the experience.

Noah perked up at the opportunity to purchase a new shofar. A natural at sounding the shofar (he is a main blower at his Heschel West Day School in Agoura), this kid initially blanched at the thought of getting a four-foot long curly shofar until I promised that he would grow into it and that until he did, I would hold the end up until he did. We acquired two other shofarot that night: one for novice Ryan and another for trumpet-playing Andrew Gurewitz. I had to assure all the parents that shofarot of such length would easily clear customs and fit in the overhead compartment. I am sure, sort of, that I am right. Andrew and I made a deal: I would teach him the names and lengths of the sounds if he would show Noah just how to tighten his lips to alter the tone. I informed the bunch of them to be patient and practice. Although they would begin in the Shofar Blowing minor leagues (sounding at family and youth services on the High Holy Days), one day they might blow clean up as part of the ever growing group sounding Tekiah Gedolah at the Neilah closing service.

Other trip participants spent their shekels shopping as well. My family surprised me with a versatile, multi-colored Shabbat ritual box for my birthday. The Shabbat candle holders flip over to become a Havdala spice box and candle holder. The Kiddush cup and plate find use in both ceremonies. The Kelemans bought various items including a gorgeous chanukiah, even as Mishpacha Coordinator Rachel Isaacson found and fell in love with the perfect tallit for her wedding chuppah. Exhausted by 9:30 pm (touring is tiring), we dragged ourselves down the street to find a cab home. Of course, my two girls decided that since we needed two taxicabs to transport our family back to the hotel, they would hang back a bit to shop some more.

I awoke at 6 am this morning to a note assuring me that my girls returned back to the hotel around 11:30 pm. A smile spread across my face. My family spent the night out in Jerusalem. My girls undoubtedly boosted Israel’s economy spending their share of shekels in Israel’s capital. My congregants were spent from a Saturday night in the heart of Jerusalem’s secular hot spot. And I slept soundly even before they were all in bed. Much still needs to be done to bring comprehensive peace to this part of the world, but for the moment, it feels darned peaceful to me.

Shavuah Tov, may it be a good week for us all.

Shabbat in Jerusalem: Reflections of Mishpacha Coordinator Rachel Isaacson

I am thrilled and overjoyed to be back in Israel – and I am so grateful to Congregation Or Ami for welcoming me with open arms on this trip! Returning to Jerusalem, where I recently lived for my first year of graduate school at Hebrew Union College has been both wonderful and challenging: I loved seeing the city sparkle in the Friday morning sun, but I still struggle with this holy city that is run by ultra-Orthodox Jews. How do we work towards the ideal of klal Yisrael (one people of Israel) with fellow Jews who spew senseless hatred? How do we reconcile feelings of Israel as our homeland, and Israel as a place that does not always welcome our Reform Jewish values? While I look forward to trying to answer these questions (truly a lifelong journey!), I also look forward to exploring these issues outside of Jerusalem – where this type of inter-Jewish religious conflict is not part of daily life.

This morning we traveled to Mevasseret Tzion for Shabbat services. Mevasseret Tzion is the sister city to Calabasas, and the Progressive (Reform Jewish) congregation there (Kehillat Mevasseret Tzion) is the sister congregation to Or Ami. Rabbi Maya Leibovich was the first Israeli woman ordained as a rabbi in Israel. She led services with a special warmth that drew everyone together – even though some tunes and words may not have been familiar to the Or Ami congregants, everyone was able to celebrate Shabbat and feel a sense of belonging. After reading Torah, we split into small groups to talk about our impressions of Israel and hear about the Israeli Reform Movement. These conversations were incredibly important – we heard from one of the founders of Kehillat Mevasseret Tzion, who explained how difficult it was for them to obtain the space and funding for a building. Another synagogue member explained the importance of having the choice of Reform Judaism in Israel – she is frustrated with the power the Orthodox hold over Israel. These conversations brought both communities together as Or Ami members were able to start thinking about the important role of Reform Judaism in Israel, and how much of a battle the movement has just in gaining the right to exist in Israel. No doubt these discussions will continue as we meet with Uri Regev, the head of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, tomorrow evening.

Welcoming Shabbat, Finding Shalom

We greeted the Shabbat bride beautifully. In Jerusalemite tradition, we meandered through the crowded noisy alleyways of Machane Yehuda, witnessing the cacophony of Jewish communal life: sellers hawking their brightly colored fruits and varieties of nuts and spices, fish salesmen showing their still-flopping catches, bakeries offering the most delicious still-hot challot and burekas.

After changing, we gathered in a top-floor room in a nearby hotel for Kabbalat Shabbat, our Friday evening prayers. Looking through huge windows at the expanse of Jerusalem at night, we lit our last night of Chanukah candles and then Shabbat candles. With Rachel Isaacson serving as Shaliach Tzibur (literally “representative of the community,” but more colloquial the “musical prayer leader” – another of her many talents that we keep enjoying to discover), we sang songs of praise and thanksgiving.

Reflecting on the connections we made that morning with our ancestors (at the Wall, in the alleyways of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, at Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum), we davened the Avot v’Imahot prayer, reminding the Holy One of Blessing that we are the descendants of those ancestors with which God had such close relations. Watching a youngster peacefully sleeping on the lap of one of our teens, and recognizing that all anyone really wants is to know that his/her children can sleep soundly each night like this little one, we prayed for Shalom Rav, a great peace for Jerusalem, Israel, the Middle East and the whole world. We reflected on the lessons learned from the juxtaposition of two tiulim (trips) in one day: the somberness of Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and the cacophony of the Machane Yehuda open air market. Participants offer so many meaningful drashot (interpretations) on this juxtaposition: that it teaches we moved from an attempt to destroy us to witnessing our survival. That the rich variety of Jewish life in pre-Holocaust Europe and North Africa lives on in the wide varieties of Jews shopping shoulder to shoulder. That since you cannot escape the reality that being even only ¼ Jewish would have put you in Hitler’s crematoria, you should embrace this wonderfully creative people called the Jews. That like good wines, the reason for survival must be based on an appreciation for a mixture of the rich varietals of Judaism.

[Incidentally, I found Yad Vashem overwhelming and Machane Yehuda reinvigorating. The one left a bad taste in my mouth (how could people do this to each other? Why does it continue in Darfur, through the words of Iran’s president, elsewhere in the world?). The other left my stomach aching joyously from the many tastes (including baker Marzipan’s world-famous chocolate rugulach).]

Standing in the middle of marketplace, I felt at peace; I could have stood in the middle of the crowds for hours. Celebrating Shabbat, I felt at peace; Congregation Or Ami’s light shined from one end of the world to the other that Shabbat eve. Looking down at the clock on my computer, I realize that Or Ami in Calabasas is just finishing up its services right now. Time for breakfast here… Shabbat Shalom.