June 25, 2017 •
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It’s Monday afternoon here, and I’m sitting in the business center of the Dan Panorama, at which I’ve logged enough nights over twenty years to call it a genuine home away from home.  This morning our group of thirty nine hit the Old City, walking from the Zion Gate to the Armenian Quarter, through the Jewish Quarter, and on to the Wall.  Along the way, it seemed our tour guide, Mark Goldberg, could have told a story about nearly every brick in every wall.

Mark knows a lot about Israel, and especially Jerusalem.  He’s now guided us on at least ten trips, and this New Orleans native and son of an Orthodox rabbi continues to delight and inspire Temple B’nai Abraham groups.  His love of and commitment to the country he’s called home for nearly half a century is apparent, as he shows us the Israel that really is.

I’ll begin at the beginning.

Robin and I left Newark two weeks ago.  Just us this time.  Noah and Molly are, alas, adults, and even at this time of year they actually have other things to do, like jobs that don’t permit them time off whenever their parents wish.  Personally, I find that outrageous.

Upon arriving at TLV we went straight to Hertz where a Kia just like one I used to drive awaited us.  Driving within Tel Aviv or Jerusalem can be unnerving but the rest of the country – especially using Waze in the land of its birth – makes it easy.  And to get to Eilat, well, just head south.  With the sparseness of the Negev’s population and the one highway that goes through it, it’s hard to screw up.

We had a one item agenda in Eilat:  do very little.    We succeeded.  We walked on the boardwalk, read, stared at the ocean and ate lots of amazing fish, having the relaxing time we wanted.  I looked forward to speaking in Hebrew, always a key part of a visit to Israel, but used it far less than I expected.  Many, many of the people we encountered in Eilat, whether locals or Israeli tourists (there were few international tourists) spoke Russian, yet another indication of the enormous impact of the Russian Aliyah of twenty years ago.

And after Russian, the next most spoken language seemed to be Arabic.  You guessed it.  Lots and lots of, yes, Arabic speaking tourists, I assume Israeli Arabs.  Something like a million and a half of Israel’s citizens are Arabs, the majority Muslims but many either Christian or Druze, and they, too, like vacations on the Red Sea.  But there was plenty of Hebrew around as well, and the cacophony of all these languages together was somehow really quite beautiful.

(I remembered being here years ago with the whole family, listening to an Israeli Arab hotel guest berate a Jewish desk clerk in Hebrew because the guestroom’s television wasn’t working, and thinking to myself, this is a future to yearn for.)

We drove back up to TLV to turn in the car, and taxied to our Tel Aviv hotel, the Dan Panorama Tel Aviv, which followed the Dan Panorama Eilat.  I like Dan Panoramas.

That night Robin and I had dinner with Luis and Ida Lederman, a couple I knew when I lived in Brazil over thirty years ago.  (BTW, dinner was at Blini, in TA’s Neve Tzedek neighborhood.  We’re fans.)  Luis is a nuclear engineer Brazil sent to get a Ph.D. at MIT, and they left Rio about the time I did, moving to Vienna where he worked at (and still consults for) the International Atomic Energy Agency.  Several years ago they made Aliyah, and live in Netanya, north of Tel Aviv.  All three of their daughters went to university here, and two of them still live in Israel.

Catching up was wonderful, as was introducing Robin to people who had been important to me before she and I met.  But what was really interesting, and would continue to be interesting with everyone we encountered during the days to come, was their take on the current situation:  President-elect Trump concerns them.  They consider him unpredictable and even unstable.  They would have preferred Hilary.  However, they are quite content to see the Obama presidency end.  This was a refrain I would hear often.

Israelis by and large do not like President Obama.  And it doesn’t seem to matter much what he did or did not do.  He has not made large segments of the Israeli population feel he has their back, regardless of the aid packages and the defense agreements that have only expanded during his tenure.  It’s not about party.  Israelis loved Bill Clinton and, it appears, would have preferred Hilary to Trump.  But this particular administration seems to have left Israelis cold; a situation only exacerbated by the December 23 UN vote the US failed to veto.

Now, of course, things are different.  The far right is pleased with Mr. Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to Israel, though the majority of Israelis are not sure what to make of it.  And there is concern about a Secretary of State whose career has been spent wheeling and dealing with the Arab oil producing countries, and with Russia.  Israelis, like the rest of us, are watching Washington closely.

Back to our trip.  Sunday we gathered in Tel Aviv:  Robin and me, the Scott and Randi Wolfson, Amy and Jason Esralew, Josh and Isabella Fiske, and Peter and Tamara Weisman families, and the extended Klein, Mayesh and Lieberman clans.  Thirty-nine in all.   Jay and Leslie Mayesh, with whom I have visited Israel before, came this time with their children and spouses and grandchildren.  This was my third visit with Peter and Ellen Klein; we were first here on 9/11 – a memorable trip, to put it mildly – and a few years later they came with daughterentire-group Amy and her Harrisburg, PA family.  This time they brought son Steven, his wife Gail, and their son Eli, who live in Portland, OR.  Andrea Lieberman and her children were joined by her sister Amy and her children…we were a lively group. ( Link to Photo Gallery)

(And a special shout out to Scott and Randi, our chairs, for wonderfully promoting and recruiting the trip, the second largest number of participants I remember!)

Opening night dinner at Maganda, the famous Yemenite meat restaurant, then an early and (hopefully) good night’s sleep.  The next morning we took off:  Independence Hall, sitting in the place where Israel was declared a state, listening to a recording of David Ben Gurion proclaiming it so; the Palmach Museum, interactively learning about the War of Independence, following the lives of several young soldiers, and the secret, underground bullet factory in Rehovot, where some especially brave young chalutizm (pioneers) ensured the young state could defend itself.

Any visit to Israel is an often jarring mix of old and new.  On our way to Rehovot we stopped at a mall – a very, very nice mall – where all could visit the food court for lunch.  Our winter vacation coincided with Hanukkah, which meant that Israeli children were not in school, which meant that during the day the mall was a madhouse!  A stylish madhouse, but a madhouse nonetheless.

On the other hand, Hanukkah meant there were special temporary stands everywhere selling innumerable styles of sofganiyot, the Sephardic fried jelly donut concoction which is the standard holiday treat.  Yes, there are latkes, but seriously.  If you could choose between a potato latke and a jelly donut with chocolate marble crème on top….

The days ahead followed the standard outline for a family trip devoted to first timers and those who’ve not been in a while.   Two nights in Tel Aviv, two nights at Kibbutz Lavi just west of the Kineret (aka the Sea of Galilee), four nights in Jerusalem.

We arrived to really ferocious rain, beyond anything I can remember.  The good news was that our weather issues were pretty much all in the first couple of days, when most everything we did was inside.  In the north, and around Jerusalem, while occasionally cold, the sky has been sunny and bright.

Col. Kobi Maron, retired head of the IDF’s northern command, took us from Israel’s northwest to northeast corners, moving along the borders with Lebanon and Syria.  Those who had never been here before were struck by how “close” the border is, and how literally close Israeli and Lebanese villages are.  Kobi told us about the tens of thousands of rockets that Hizbollah has hidden in southern Lebanon, a situation largely static for some time.

Especially significant was his pointing out how complicated things have become.  Hezbollah is supplied by countries, like Syria, that Russia is trying to grow closer to as it seeks to become the dominant superpower in the Middle East.  President-elect Trump has stated clearly he will stand by Israel in any situation, even as he continues to express admiration for President Putin of Russia.  Kobi’s right.  It is complicated.  And this hit us especially hard as we overlooked Lebanon, and later Syria.  It’s all so close.

Our traditional jeep ride on the Golan Heights took a different route this year as the rain had made things impossible even for the bulldozer-like jeeps we ride.  But, for me at least, that turned to be a good thing, as we followed the Jordan River through terrain I’d never explored, a stunning region of cliffs and valleys called Yarden Hahiri, the mountain section of the Jordan.  Though desolate now, it is filled with Israeli campers during the warm half of the year.  Our madricha (youth counselor), Kerem, told me she and her friends come there often.

Kerem, by the way, was a wonderful addition to the group.  An observant young woman from a village in the north, she had spent both a year of service before the army and was now doing the same thing after the army, before entering university.  She intends to study social work, and though she has lots of time to decide, is interested in returning to the army to work with soldiers facing personal challenges.  She is warm and sweet, devoted to Israel, and we all fell in love with her very quickly.

This past Friday night we held a service by the Wall.  Usually, we gather on the outer courtyard, but the juxtaposition of Hanukkah and Christmas, and the shorter holiday time due to Christmas and New Year’s both falling on weekends, resulted in a Jerusalem that was crowded beyond crowded.  We found a quiet spot south of the main wall, and enjoyed praying and singing together.  I emphasized how special it was to celebrate Shabbat in Jerusalem, and why it was important that we saved Jerusalem for our last stop in Israel, but my words were unnecessary.  Everyone clearly got it.  Saturday morning, our customary service just outside the gates of the Old City, with nearly a dozen of us reading from the Torah!

Yesterday, just plain fun.  Out of the hotel early and straight to Masada.  Many of us walked the snake path up, the quickest reaching in just a bit over thirty minutes, an outstanding time.  All the walkers made excellent time, in fact, and Mark commented this was the fastest group he could remember.  Mark excels at telling the story of Masada, of Herod who built it and the brave Jews who 70 years later chose to die free rather than live as slaves.  The staggering beauty of the vista rivals the staggering power of the story; both made an impression on us all.

Leaving Masada, I told the group that until recently Masada been the locale where key IDF brigades and battalions held their inductions, the young soldiers running up the snake path to the stop.  However, much as the rebels on Masada 2,000 years ago are to be admired, a discussion began in Israel society if they were really the right image to dominate this sacred moment in an Israeli soldier’s life.  I don’t know the answer, but I pointed that this conundrum, this struggle to adapt and internalize a sacred part of ancient history while still consistent with real modern life, was so very Israeli.

The group headed across the street (almost literally) to the Dead Sea where we floated in the ancient waters and gazed across the sea to Jordan, to the mountain range where Moses, we are told, ascended on Mount Nebo to die alone.  And this, or course, would have been another two thousand years before Masada!

Writing this message lets me relive a wonderful experience.  However, in the process I constantly feel I am not explaining enough, leaving too much out, and not writing particularly well, with the clock ticking.  So let me just close with a few observations.

God told Abraham that his descendants his people would be God’s people…and they would be God’s people in this place, right here.  A connection with Israel is an inextricable part of being a Jew.  There is no other serious way to be a Jew.

My goal in bringing groups such as ours to Israel, therefore, is to help people connect to and engage with Israel.  We visit important and sacred places from our people’s past.  We relearn our sacred stories, stories all the more compelling by being in the place where they happened.  And we are constantly reminded each day that this is not just “history.”  This is “our history.”

And also each day, I ask everyone what they think about what they’ve seen.  A few answers.

One adult recalled the afternoon we were at the Leo Baeck School in Haifa, an enormous top notch academic high school that focuses on pluralistic education.  We spoke to a group of seniors and one girl was asked what she wanted to do after graduation.  Her response, “I want to be a warrior for my country.”

My friend found that terribly moving, as did we all.  This young woman is from a politically liberal background and a better translation of her intent may have been that she wanted to defend her country.  She was certainly no warmonger!  But there was something about her using the word warrior, and the intensity and commitment it conveys, that that caught us all.

She was eager to do her part to serve her country, and in the most important potentially dangerous way possible.  The group member who mentioned her said how different that was from what we see at home, and what a shame that is.  To be sure, the two countries’ situations are very different and that explains a lot.  But it doesn’t explain it all, and I think every adult in the room would have been honored to be her parent or grandparent.

Someone else remarked on the territories.  On the one hand, Israel won the territories “fair and square” in the 1967 war.  But on the other hand, what has a half century of occupation done to the Israeli psyche?  And those who want Israel to go ahead and annex the territories…what plan do they have to rule over a country that is 40% Arab and still keep it Jewish and a democracy?  Or do they believe the status quo can simply continue?

Another person mentioned the realization that, while the haredi black coated and hatted Jews who are so numerous in certain parts of the country further endow Israel  with a deep and meaningful sense of Jewishness, their political power also has grave consequences on civil rights for women, religious rights for non-Orthodox Jews, and creates an enormous segment of society which depends upon the welfare state for support so its members can study instead of work and serve in the army, creating resentment among those who sacrifice.

And someone else was surprised to learn how important environmentalism is in Israel, with the need to preserve the Dead Sea and the Negev, both in danger of collapse, and to see the Kineret strong and full and supplying water for the region.  Who knew Israel was an environmental cause?

These answers delighted me.  Because it showed me that the members of our group, while loving and reveling in and taking joy from our ancient heritage, also see Israel as a real place in the here and now, and, I hope, a place that needs them.  A place where they have not just the right, but the obligation, to engage, to do their part in seeing the Israel of our dreams continue to emerge.

Engage.  I desperately hope my fellow group members now engage in Israel – and as Jews – in some way they have not previously, whether through observance, or support, or learning, or activism, or all of those.  Put differently, what impact will this journey have on their own journey?  I know we all leave her tonight inspired and moved by all we have seen, done, learned and experienced.  But what comes next?

Okay.  For me, right now, what comes next is to close down the computer, return to the room, finishing packing, meeting the group for a final conversation before we had to dinner, and then the airport.  I’m always sad to leave Israel.  But there is always the excitement of the next visit, and it appears another group of families is already eager to come in a year.

I hope your Hanukkah and your winter break have been wonderful, and you and yours are beginning 2017 with a sense of optimism and hope.  As the Psalmist wrote, “let us pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”  And peace in all lands.  Wish me a safe and sleep-filled flight.  And I’ll see you soon.

Shalom,

Rabbi Kulwin

 

 

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