Two weeks ago today, Robin and I left New Jersey for Israel. Our first destination in Israel was the Hertz counter. We rented a car – my first Renault…diesel, no less! – pointed it south and headed directly to Eilat. We stopped for lunch at the Yotvata kibbutz, famous for dairy products, especially the incomparable Shoko chocolate milk.
Going to Eilat has become a Kulwin tradition. When we visit Israel with a Temple group, we try to come a few days early for some R & R, and at this time of year, Eilat is the perfect place. Mild weather, no rain, and amazing views of the Red Sea to the south, Jordanian mountains to the east and Israeli mountains to the west, the Negev desert to the north.
What do we do in Eilat? We read, walk around, eat freshly caught fish, and stare at the water. In other words, pretty much nothing. Except, of course, that we are doing “pretty much nothing” in Israel, which of course means it’s not nothing. It is special.
As is usual, we hear little English, but we hear lots of Russian. I assume the vacationers are Russian speaking Israelis – about 20% of Israel’s Jewish population – but some, no doubt, are Russian tourists from Russia. That’s right. From Russia. Nearly half a million Russian tourists visit Israel each year, and they especially like Eilat.
They are joined by many Arabic speaking tourists, Israeli Arabs from further north who want to enjoy the sun and water. And yes, there are Hebrew speaking vacationers, too. I have always thought that Eilat at this time of year is Israeli diversity at its best.
Friday morning we headed north to Kibbutz Tzuba, just outside Jerusalem. Robin oversees admissions for Heller High, an American accredited high school housed there. High school sophomores and juniors – plus a few seniors – spend a semester taking the classes they’d normally take at home – except that instead of 25 students in your Honors Biology class you’re one of five – plus a half day devoted to learning modern Hebrew and Jewish history.
Class days are long…from 8:00 AM until early evening. But that’s because the school sees all of Israel as just another classroom and the students go on numerous field trips. We arrived as the Kabbalat Shabbat service was beginning and the students called out “Robin!” when we walked into the room. She works closely with every student and they were excited to see her. In fact, she flies back here in January with the spring semester group, the lone adult with 75 high school students. (I think she’s a little nervous; well, if she’s not, I am!)
We spent Shabbat with the kids and Robin’s colleagues, and Saturday night drove an hour west to our customary home in Tel Aviv, the Dan Panorama, where a few others had already checked in. I drove to the airport Sunday to turn in my car and greet the bulk of the group.
In addition to Robin and me, there were four extended family groups: The Scheiers (Mindy and Greg were our trip chairs), Gallinsons, Klugmans and Colemans. I was reminded how close a community we live in: David Gallinson, Karen and David Klugman, and Gwen and David Coleman, all graduated from Livingston High School, and Sari Gallinson from Millburn High School. (Happily, they did not make the rest of us feel like outsiders!)
The trip was our standard for family groups largely composed of first timers or not-in-a-long timers. Two days in Tel Aviv, two days up north at the Kibbutz Lavi guest house, then a final few days here, in Jerusalem, where I am writing these words in the lobby of the Dan Panorama. (For the record, we also stayed at the Dan Panorama in Eilat. We like Dan Panoramas. Dans Panorama?)
Robin and I have been on more than fifteen Temple trips to Israel but they never get old. Each time we are with people who are seeing the country anew, and we get to see it through their eyes.
In Tel Aviv, we went to the amazing Palmach Museum, Independence Hall, where in 1948 David Ben Gurion declared Israel a state, and the hidden factory, which made millions of bullets during Israel’s war of independence and without which Israel would likely not exist today.
We also visited an elementary school in Rishon Letzion, a partner community of our own Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest, where our funding provides exceptional teacher training and family support in a neighborhood of diverse economic (upper middle class to very poor) and ethnic (many Ethiopians and Russians) backgrounds. While we were impressed with what we saw, we couldn’t help wonder why some of these resources were not standard, as they are in our own schools. As we were told, that is just not the way it is done here.
We headed north, visiting the Ein Shemer kibbutz museum, arriving at the Leo Baeck School in Haifa. I insist we visit here because the school embodies the very best of what Israel has to offer: rigorous academics, respect for pluralism, an appreciation of science and modernity, economic and racial diversity, and a commitment to Tikkun Olam. It is widely regarded as, academically, one of the best schools in Israel, and some students travel nearly two hours each way daily to get there.
While there, we met with half a dozen students who told us something about themselves and their hopes for the future. Their words about their own futures, like lunch the next day with young soldiers, transmitted a powerful message: these adolescents had an intense sense of purpose: they are proud of their country, and honored and dedicated to do their part to ensure its well-being. This was something beyond patriotism; rather, to them it is an absolute moral duty. The Leo Baeck students – more to the left than the right – were enthusiastic about entering the army to do their part. There was nothing hawkish in these attitudes, simply a desire to protect their country.
This sense of purpose moved us, and we could not help but note, in this way at least, how different these young people were from our own. Keep in mind that different is not a value judgment; quite simply, it is just different.
We spent a full day with Col. Kobi Marom, another regular on TBA trips. Kobi, now retired, has lived in the very north of Israel all his life. He commanded the Israeli military’s northern sector for several years. He met us at Metullah, at the northwest of the border with Lebanon, and took us across the northern border, through numerous Druze villages, along the border with Syria, on up on the Golan.
It was a fascinating journey. The day was cloudy and the views often limited, but our key goal was easily accomplished: to grasp how close Israel’s neighbors are and how vulnerable Israel in the north is to attack. This was underscored when Kobi pointed out the work sites where soldiers were exploring and filling in recently discovered Hezbolla tunnels from Lebanon into Israel. (We asked if we could go take a close look. He said, “no.”)
Despite this riveting lesson in geo-politics, the highlight of the day was the lunch Kobi arranged with young soldiers, actually, young officers. They were dispersed among us so we all had a chance to visit and learn from them. And again, their sense of mission and purpose was palpable. As new officers, at an early age they had taken on great responsibility. They were proud of it. They were totally committed, and it was clear that Israel’s safety depends upon them.
Our guide was the incomparable Mark Goldberg, the Orthodox rabbi’s son and New Orleans native who has guided almost every TBA family mission. There is likely nothing about Israel he doesn’t know, and while himself observant, his respect for any thoughtful approach to Judaism is deep, meaningful and endearing.
Mark is the ideal guide: knowledgeable, enthusiastic and funny. He knows when we have reached information overload, when to be dramatic and engaging in his presentation, and when to lay back and let what’s before us speak for itself. Mark said he is thinking about retiring; if he does, it will be a great loss for Israel and the many visitors who will not be privileged to be taught by him.
And now, we are in Jerusalem. At Har Herzl, Israel’s Arlington Cemetary, Mark pointed out particular graves and told us what was written, generally, the man or woman’s name, when and where they were born, and when and in what conflict or battle they died. (Or, in a literal translation from the Hebrew, where and when they “fell.”)
Mark also pointed out that missing from every grave was a rank. The markers don’t say if someone was a private or a general. The graves are identical. This was deliberate from Har Herzl’s earliest day, and somehow, that made the place all the more meaningful.
More in Jersualem: a visit to Yad V’Shem, Erev Shabbat at the Wall, and morning services overlooking the Old City. Yesterday we headed into the desert to ascend Masada and swim – well, float – in the Dead Sea.
(By the way, a shout-out to Alan Gallinson, who climbed Masada via the Snake Path, along with David and Sari, and grandsons Ben and Cooper. I have been to Masada with hundreds of congregants, but seeing three generations climb together was truly moving.)
The clock is ticking. I have to stop writing soon because, I guiltily admit, I have yet to pack. So allow me a few final thoughts.
When we were at Independence Hall, Mark was asking the kids some basic questions of early Israel, like who was Israel’s first prime minister. One parent, disappointed at the lack of responses, said, “How come our kids don’t learn this in the JLP?”
I told her that I was pretty sure they did, but for them, Israel was an abstraction. It was not “real,” like Hebrew that they used for prayer or holiday rituals, which they celebrated with their family. I said, let’s be candid…how often was Israel a subject of discussion in your home?
Now, of course, it is different. Coming here, spending ten days immersed in the land, Israel becomes a real place. We explore our own roots. We begin to understand its role in Jewish history, in our personal history. We develop a connection. Israel becomes part of us. Being here is the way to make that happen.
And, the Israel we get to know is real Israel. We talked about the miracle of Israel’s founding, the bravery of its soldiers, the good that Israel does around the world. We also talked about growing economic disparity, prejudice against Israel’s Arab citizens, the struggle for women’s rights and the stranglehold of the religious establishment.
And we understand – that some things are less than perfect has nothing to do with our commitment to Israel. We don’t have to see the country through rose-colored glasses to be committed to Israel. We should be committed to Israel because are Jews. Period.
Tonight’s flight lands at EWR around 4:00 AM. We will grab our suitcases, text Uber, and head home.
I am feeling a little emotional – ferklemt – because this is my last trip to Israel as rabbi of Temple B’nai Abraham. These journeys have been one of the most meaningful parts of the last twenty years and the wonderful people in this particular group have made the last ten days truly special.
On the other hand, I know we will be back soon. Robin and I have even talked about spending a month or two here next year, perhaps on Kibbutz Misgav Am in the north, high above the Hula Valley and with some of the most amazing views anywhere.
For now, we’re ready to come home, see our children, and make a New Year transition back into real life.
Shalom to you from Jerusalem of Gold. In our own day, may we, and all touched by this eternal city, be blessed with peace.