Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Golan Heights-- To Return or Not to Return?

Before the trip to Israel, I served on faculty as I do every summer at one of our Reform Movement summer camps in Great Barrington, MA. The educational theme this summer happened to be Israel, and with the older units, I ran a mini-course using films about Israel as a window into Israel’s past, present, and future. One of the films I showed was called “The Impossible Spy,” and today, we had the privilege of standing on the Golan Heights where that impossible spy, Eli Cohen, stood more than 40 years ago. (I’d recommend the film by the way, and I happen to know that one of our members owns it, if you’d like to see it!)

We took a bumpy jeep tour up to the Heights—an area that the Syrians held from 1948 to 1967 and used to bomb with impunity the kibbutzim of the northern Galilee. Finally in 1967, as the Six Day War was progressing so well for Israel, a group of citizens from the kibbutzim pleaded with Moshe Dayan, then Minister of Defense for Israel, to do something to defend them. Ultimately, Israel captured the Golan Heights, and it’s easy to see why it’s so strategically important when one stands there and looks back on Israel. We stood at the legendary Syrian military position called Tel Fahr, where 36 Israeli soldiers died during the Six Day War to capture one of the main sites from which Syria had hit Israeli civilian targets again and again.

Ironically, today Israel completed the latest in a series of indirect negotiations with Syria, exploring the possibilities for a peace deal which would involve giving the Golan back to Syria. As difficult as that seems to envision, such an arrangement might be the best possibility to neutralize Syria’s role in supporting Hizbollah in Lebanon and terrorism elsewhere; these decisions are never easy and we will all watch events carefully from back in the States, having now an even better understanding of what’s at stake and what’s being considered.

From the Golan, we headed to the mystical city of Tzfat, home to Lurianic Kabbalah. In our congregation, we know of the Kabbalists and their conception of Tikkun Olam, as well as the words of Lecha Dodi that we sing nearly every Shabbat to greet the Sabbath Bride. It is truly a mystical place—one that inspired conversation and debate well into the evening about what Jewish mysticism is and what role it might or should play in our Jewish experience and expression.

We ended the day with a glorious and fun kayaking trip down the Banyas and Hatzbani rivers, two of the three tributaries which feed the Jordan River. Folks always come to Israel imagining the Jordan River and its environs to be like the mighty Mississippi. Suffice it to say, it’s just a bit smaller than that. It’s more like a creek by American standards! But it was beautiful, shady, and cool—the first time any of us have used that word since we arrived! Such a dichotomy, though, of terrain and experience, from what we’ve seen further south. Here is a lush, green, verdant area with moderate temperatures all year round. Are we in the same country? We took the opportunity to splash each other; don’t believe a word you hear when they try to tell you that the rabbi started it!

Into the North

On our long drive to the north this morning, we headed back down to the Dead Sea, although unlike yesterday where we turned south for Masada and so on, this morning we turned north to drive along the Jordan river valley. We stopped first at Beit Shean, which has been inhabited for thousands of years and has gone through several incarnations. In the Bible, Beit Shean is mentioned in the book of Samuel at the end of King Saul and his sons lives. The Romans came to that Beit Shean, and found that the plateau of the older city was far too small. So at the base of that hill they built a huge city they called Scythopolis. At the founding of the modern state of Israel, Beit Shean became a development town like may around Israel—a place where immigrants were settled in the rush to find homes for them all. Beit Shean, like many of the development towns, became a largely poor and depressed place. Our guide told us that there was a time that Beit Shean was known as the theft capital of Israel. The joke was that one shouldn’t drive too slowly through Beit Shean lest your car get stolen from underneath you. The ancient site remained almost entirely unexcavated and the town a truly depressed place until the middle 1980’s, when archaologists discovered a masterpiece of a find. The process of clearing the site brought jobs to the town, and the incredible finds there brought thousands of tourists a day; now the town is fairly well off as development towns go, and the ancient site is truly something spectacular to behold.

From there, we went to Beit Alpha, home of a spectacular mosaic floor from ancient times that was uncovered accidentally by farmers in the late 1920’s.

After lunch in Beit Shean, we were invited for Tea eem nana v’ugot (mint tea and cookies) at the home of bus driver Nisan’s mom Batya. Batya and her husband came to Israel in 1951 from Iraqi Kurdistan, and they helped to establish Moshav Yardena on the Jordan river. Right next store to Moshav Ben Yosef, made of Turkish Kurds—they could live in adjacent moshavim, but not together! Our bus driver Nisan is one of nine children; when he was growing up on the kibbutz, that was the average number of kids families had!

From there, we made the drive up into what’s called “the finger of the Galilee” to Kibbutz Misgav Am right on the Lebanese border, where we heard from one of the kibbutzniks. We looked down on many places we’d heard of over the years, including Tyre and Shaba Farms; strange to be able to look at those places while standing in Israel… Our speaker expressed sharp and direct opinions about Israel’s need to stand on its own; from his perspective, Israel stands alone and always will. He speaks as a veteran of 3 of Israel’s wars, as well as living literally on the front lines. He represents an important hardline perspective shared by percentage of Israel’s citizens.

We spent the evening at Kibbutz Hagoshrim here in the north—a beautiful guest house in this mildest of climes in Israel. After a lovely buffet dinner, some of enjoyed an Israeli music sing-along in the lobby—a fun way to end another busy day!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Leaving Jerusalem is hard to do...

We have begun to hear from some of you in the congregation about the impact Israel has on you; we’d love to hear more about where these dispatches strike in your soul.

As we drive out of Jerusalem towards the north, I’m reflecting on the last two amazing days of our exploration of that magical city. Even though I know we’ll return at the end of the trip, I always feel that we leave part of ourselves there. If our hearts are truly in the east, as the medieval poet Yehuda HaLevi said, then the heart of the east must surely be Jerusalem.

Two days ago, we walked into the amazing western wall tunnels, only opened a few years back, where we walked almost the whole true length of the Western Wall down to the street level of Roman times. We went from the ancient to the modern as we toured the Knesset, Israel’s parliament building, and had the privilege of dialoguing with Gil Hoffman, the Jerusalem Post’s chief political correspondent. He provided us with a fascinating perspective on the current political machinations as well as the possibilities for the future; he’s been called by Israel Television “the most optimistic man in Israel”, and I’d love to have him speak in the congregation sometime soon.

Later in the day we explored the Jewish quarter of the Old City and shopped in the Cardo, a shopping street that dates back to Roman times; we walked down to the part of the western wall more well known to us as the Kotel or the Wailing wall, and we spent time at the Southern Wall excavations, a newly excavated area where pilgrims to the ancient Temple would change money and buy their sacrificial animals for offering. We sat on the very steps that those Jews of old would walk up to the Temple mount when they arrived to Jerusalem.

Yesterday, we descended to Herod’s mountain fortress at Masada. We heard the famous story of Jewish resistance at the end of the Jewish revolt against Rome, and saw the magnificent fortress that the paranoid King Herod built as one of his seven desert fortresses. We learned that even paranoid people had enemies, and that Herod’s nemeses included none other than Cleopatra! We explored the complexities of the Masada story, and our tour guide suggested that Jewish educators in Israel now teach that while the story of Masada is a part of the Jewish past, it’s not the Jewish future; where once Israeli armed forces were sworn in on Masada with the words, “Masada shall not fall again,” now the mantra is more “Let there be no need for another Masada.” It’s at once a subtle yet critical shift in the understanding and explanation and internalization of the story of what unfolded there.

Then we dipped our toes in the beautiful desert oasis of Ein Gedi, hiking up to the spring there in a lush area in otherwise desolate area.

From there, we stopped at the Ahava factory, home to facial and body lotions and products made with minerals mined from the Dead Sea, and then proceeded across the street to and floated and played in the mud at the Dead Sea—a truly unique experience—incriminating pictures soon to be posted at the blog site It was a long, hot, amazing day; we loved every minute of it, and we all slept well last night, too!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

short hebrew guide

glida=ice cream

Friday, July 25, 2008

An End and a Beginning

What an intense and beautiful first day in the Holy Land!

After a five-hour delay in arriving, our hearty band made our way to Jerusalem, driving up from the coastal plain up the majestic slopes of the Judean Hills and into the City of Peace.

I am continually amazed by how what is new can be made to appear old, and how what is old can be made new. On the first score, the city of Jerusalem has had an ordinance on the books since the 1920’s which mandates all new construction to be covered in a special limestone known as Jerusalem stone. When Naomi Shemer wrote “Jerusalem of Gold,” she wasn’t only speaking of the Old City walls; the entire city of 700,000 souls is built with a uniform look, so that even the most modern and colossal new hotels could possibly be confused with a 2000 year old structure (that is, had they built 30-story hotels in the year 100).

So, too, what is old can be made new. The western entrance to the city of Jerusalem has been transformed by the addition of a beautiful new suspension bridge that will be a part of the light rail system in development for the city. Of course, Israelis being what they are, there have been many arguments about what the bridge is meant to look like. It’s King David’s harp. No, it’s it an angel’s wing. No, it’s a goose laying a rotten egg. That last opinion comes from the skeptics who beg to know why the bridge was designed and built at great expense now for a light rail system that won’t be operational for at least 3 and possibly 7 more years! Anyhow, I think it’s beautiful.

We had, as you can see from the itinerary above, an emotional beginning to our first full day, starting at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum. It’s an incredibly moving and well-designed and totally rebuilt museum with 14 rooms of exhibits which couldn’t possibly be explored in depth in even two visits. Our tour guide is once again the great Julie Baretz. She gave a fascinating explaination as to why, now, 63 years after the liberation of Auschwitz was the time to turn Yad Vashem from a rather simple, academic museum filled mostly with black- and white pictures, into a truly world-class, stunning place. She reminded us that, in the early days of the State of Israel, there were more than half a million survivors living in Israel. There was little need for a complicated museum; a huge percentage of the population bore personal testimony—the best kind, after all—to the horrors and the heroism. Today, the first decade of the 21st century, there are fewer and fewer survivors, and the vast majority of those were small children during the Shoah. Now, more than ever, Israel needs a powerful holocaust memorial, and a powerful one they have.

We then continued on to Mt. Herzl, home to Jerusalem’s military cemetery where Herzl himself is buried, along with military and political leaders with names like Rabin, Golda, Chana Senesh and on and on. Generals and lieutenants are buried side by side on Mt. Herzl; no ranks are mentioned on the headstones; every life is precious in this country…

We continued from there to one of my very favorite places in the whole world, let alone Israel—Machane Yehuda, an open-air fruits and vegetables and just-about-any-other-staple-for-your-house market. And we went at the best time—Friday afternoon, as Shabbat approached, when Israelis of every background converge to but what they need in advance of Shabbat. It’s a hive of activity—jam-packed with shoppers, supply and demand at it’s best as shopkeepers yell out the prices—trying to outdo each other for volume and appeal—shalosh va’chetzi shekel agvaniot! (3 ½ shekels for a kilo of tomatoes!) calls out one. Ta-eem v’zol (tasty and cheap!) calls another. And everyone is racing the sun. Shoppers must get home before Shabbat; shopkeeps must get rid of every last agvanya and anav (grape) and challah before their shops close down until Sunday morning. I love it! We bought pistachios, grapes, delicious pastries, candy, knishes—oy—what did we need when we came in? Oh, yes, just something to bring our hosts for Shabbat dinner!

And so, after a few laps in the hotel pool in the roof overlooking the King David Hotel and the Old City (sigh—it’s a rough life!), off we went to Kehilat Har-El, the oldest non-Orthodox synagogue in the country, established in 1957. There we enjoyed a beautiful service with music that was not so unfamiliar to those of us from Beth Haverim Shir Shalom. Levadowski dances with Craig Taubman and tangos the Kol B’Seder—a hodgepodge of musical styles matching the eclectic membership of the community.

Finally, the members of the congregation hosted us for home-hospitality, which was a real treat. We had a wonderful time at the home we went to, and we’ll look forward to reconnecting with everyone tomorrow to hear about their experiences.

Whew! And that was Day 1!! So glad we’re sleeping in tomorrow before a walking tour of the Old City.

More, soon. Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem…

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Journey Begins...

Tomorrow we embark, we 13 pilgrims from Beth Haverim Shir Shalom, on a journey of spirit to what I consider to be our other homeland, Eretz Yisrael. I pray and expect that we will bring back reports, like the reports of Joshua and Caleb in the Torah; we will see extraordinary sites, meet with amazing and interesting people, and perhaps even do a bit of tikkun olam, of world-fixing, along the way.

We'll be reporting from this site daily, we hope, as we make our way through Israel from the north to the middle part of the country. Below is our itinerary if you'd like to follow the journey with us.

Day 1, Wednesday, July 23, 2008: Departure from the U.S.

Day 2, Thursday, July 24, 2008: Arrival Israel, Ben Gurion Airport… Meet our guide… Begin journey to Jerusalem…Stop atop the Haas Promenade for a special "Sh'hekiyanu!" ceremony overlooking the City of Gold…7 pm - Welcome dinner at Joy Restaurant in the German Colony…Overnight Jerusalem.

Day 3, Friday, July 25, 2008: Breakfast… 9 am - This morning we visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, Israel's memorial to the victims of the Holocaust… 11:15 am - Continue to the New Mt. Herzl Museum, where we learn about the life and work of one of Israel's most important historical pioneers… At the Mt. Herzl military cemetery we visit the gravesites of Golda Meir, Theodore Herzl and Yitzhak Rabin… Walk through the bustling Machane Yehuda Market, as Jerusalemites shop for the approaching Shabbat…5:00 pm - Special Kabbalat Shabbat and home hospitality with Cantor Evan Cohen at Har El (Tentatively confirmed)…Overnight Jerusalem.

Day 4, Saturday, July 26, 2008: Breakfast… Shabbat services this morning on own – a list of local congregations can be provided…Walking tour beginning with Montefiores Windmill in Yemin Moshe… Arab Shuk …lunch (on own) in the Christian Quarter… Visit to the Citadel Museum of History at David's Tower…Exit through the Jaffa Gate… Overnight Jerusalem.

Day 5, Sunday, July 27, 2008: Breakfast…11 am (arrive early for security/entrance)- Visit the Knesset where we tour the building, then meet with Gil Hoffman - chief political correspondent and analyst for the Jerusalem Post. Gil will speak with the group on the topic of “The challenges facing Israel and how they can be overcome”…Continue to the old city where we have time for lunch (on own) and for shopping in the Jewish Quarter and Cardo… Tour the fascinating tunnels under the Western Wall…Visit the Davidson Center and Southern Wall excavations… … Overnight Jerusalem.

Day 6, Monday, July 28, 2008: Early departure to the Dead Sea Basin, where we ascend Masada and explore the ruins of King Herod's ancient fortress – Option to climb for those willing to take the heat!… Enjoy an unsinkable swim in the salty waters of the Dead Sea… Hike to the waterfall at Ein Gedi…Return to Jerusalem…Overnight Jerusalem

Day 7, Tuesday, July 29, 2008: Breakfast… Depart Jerusalem, traveling north… Visit the Roman ruins of Beit Shean and view the intricate mosaic floors and the synagogue of Beit Alpha…Lunch(on own) in Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee…Continue north to Misgav Am (3 pm), where we meet with local kibbutzniks and hear about the challenges of life along the Lebanese border… Dinner and overnight at our kibbutz in the Galilee.

Day 8, Wednesday, July 30, 2008: Breakfast… 9 am - Morning jeep tour up to Golan Heights… Continue to Safed, center of Jewish mysticism, where we tour the Artist Colony and synagogues…2 pm - Participate in a special kabbalah learning experience in this beautiful city at the Kabbalah Center … 4:30 pm - Special kayaking trip down the Jordan River…Dinner and overnight kibbutz in the Galilee.

Day 9, Thursday, July 31, 2008: Breakfast…Visit Tzippori to see the ancient ruins, including a floor mosaic known as the Mona Lisa of the Galilee… Depart the Galilee for Israel's northwest coast, where we visit the Crusader city of Akko, exploring the fortresses and British Prison… Stop next atop Mt. Carmel in Haifa to view the amazing Bahai Gardens…As we journey south we stop in Caesarea, site of the Roman Theater and aqueduct… Arrive in Tel Aviv and stop for a moment of reflection at Rabin Square…Free time for dinner (on own)…Overnight Tel Aviv.

Day 10, Friday, August 1, 2008: Breakfast…9:15 am - Meeting with Rabbi Mickey Boyden of congregation Kehilat Yonatan in nearby Hod Hasharon (confirmed)… 1 pm - Travel to the Bet Guvrin region through Haella Valley where the battle between David and Goliath took place…Participate in a unique "hands-on" archeological dig in the caves of Tel Maresha… 5:30 pm - Return to Jerusalem, where we have time to freshen up before welcoming Shabbat at the Southern Steps in the Old City… 7:30 pm - Shabbat dinner at our hotel this evening… Overnight Jerusalem.

Day 11, Saturday, August 2, 2008: Breakfast… Shabbat services this morning at HUC… 12:00 pm - Shabbat Lunch at Beit Shmuel (confirmed)… 1:30 – 3:30 pm - Afternoon “Walking the Psalms” Old City walking tour, led by Rabbi David Wilfond (Confirmed). Walk or taxi back on own from the Dung gate, where the tour ends…Free evening to enjoy dinner on own as Jerusalem returns to life after Shabbat… Overnight Jerusalem.

Day 12, Sunday, August 3, 2008: Breakfast…Free day at Leisure –check out and store your luggage by noon…7 pm - Farewell dinner this evening Departure to airport for our flight home, arriving tomorrow morning.

Day 13, Monday, August 4, 2008: Arrive in the United States.