Israel Trip 2008
We are back from another great congregational trip to Israel, and I thought that all of you who were not able to join us might enjoy a brief report on some highlights from our trip. (And it is going to be very hard to be brief!) This was the 5th time I have led a congregational tour to Israel, and we once again packed in as much history, politics, archaeology, nature and spirituality as we could into the short time we had together. We were a sizeable group of 34 travelers, with 6 wonderful kids in the mix, and many new friendships were formed as we rambled around Israel together. Some verbal “snapshots”:
Monday, March 17: After hiking up Ein Ovdat, a stunning canyon in the Negev with a year-round stream, we traveled to the dusty desert town of Yerucham. There we met with the interim mayor, Amram Mitzna, who described the efforts being made to make Yerucham a place where people would want to move to, and not just move away from. What made this meeting unusual is that Amram Mitzna’s previous job had been as head of the Labor Party and candidate for Prime Minister in 2003. I asked Mitzna what he was doing in the middle of nowhere after being in the highest echelon of Israeli political life. Mitzna gave an answer I tended to believe, based on his reputation as an idealist: he wanted to make a positive difference in his country, and Yerucham was a town that really needed some help.
Photo by Ruth Hirsch
Wednesday, March 19: We visited an Israeli army base directly on the border with Lebanon. The former commander of part of the Israeli forces in Southern Lebanon gives us a very frank briefing on what he sees as the chief failings of the IDF and the Israeli government in their execution of the war with the Hezbollah in 2006. Interestingly, the unit manning this base is made up entirely of Druse, an Arab sect who have chosen to throw their lot in with Israel and who all serve in the armed forces. We then ate lunch at the former commander’s steakhouse – that may have been the price for our tour, but the food was good!
As these vignettes indicate, Israel is a very small country, with very few degrees of separation between anyone. Just as we traveled from the south to the extreme north in a matter of 3 hours, we also could meet with a former candidate for prime minister or army commander without difficulty.
Thursday, March 20: On a veranda in the mystical hilltop city of Tzfat, overlooking a gorgeous view of the Galilee, Max Radel was called to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah. I want to thank Max and his parents Ellie Kramer and Rick Radel for being the instigators of this trip. It was a very moving simcha for all of us to celebrate Max’s Bar Mitzvah together in Israel.
Photo by Ruth Hirsch
Friday, March 21: Now we are in Jerusalem (I told you it was a small country) and it is Purim! Purim in Israel is sort of like Halloween here in the States. Costumes everywhere: kids, adults, secular to ultra-orthodox. Municipal fairs and costume parades. Firecrackers and shaving cream. Folks carrying Shlach Manot gift baskets to neighbors and friends. Here in Jerusalem Purim extends from Thursday night all the way through Sunday. After exploring the fascinating dig of the ancient City of David, enter the walled Old City. Today is not only Purim, it is also Good Friday, and a 5 minute walk from the Jewish Quarter it is no longer Purim: we are surrounded by Christian pilgrims from all over the world retracing the steps of Jesus, here in their holiest site and season of the year. Jerusalem is mind-boggling.
In the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre our kids are pulled aside by a television reporter to be interviewed on, it turns out, a Mexican broadcast. Sequoia, one of the children, later tells us that her prayer that she squeezed into a crack of the Kotel was asking that she might appear on TV! How many of our other prayers will be answered?
Photo by Ruth Hirsch
Friday evening we walked through the Old City of Jerusalem down to the Kotel, the Western Wall, and joined the throngs of Jews singing, dancing, and welcoming Shabbat at this most ancient holy site of our people.
Shabbat, we rested.
Sunday, March 23: Our group spent the morning at an inspiring soup kitchen by the Jerusalem central bus station run by an organization called Meir Panim, or “Light Up Their Faces”. First we went into the supermarket across the street to buy goodies for the Shlach Manot baskets we were planning to give away. The baskets of Purim goodies lining the supermarket aisles put American Halloween candy displays to shame! We then assembled our baskets for the soup kitchen clientele. While the kids in our group eagerly served lunch to the customers, we adults had the privilege of meeting the ultraorthodox couple that founded this organization in memory of their son Meir. This couple’s faces were truly alight, open, beautiful. Their initiative has grown into the largest social service organization of its kind in Israel, serving all regardless of race or creed. Serving as their translator while they spoke to our group was for me a highlight of the trip.
Later that afternoon, an unexpected encounter. As we gathered at a stunning overlook of Jerusalem, our guide Yitzhak elaborated on his perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A gentleman nearby listened carefully, and then he could no longer restrain himself. He was an Israeli Arab, a Jerusalemite. He interrupted Yitzhak and in flawless English made his own impassioned case for the injustices he and his people had incurred at the hands of the Israeli government. The dilemma of life in Israel and Palestine was brought home to our group: competing narratives, each bearing just claims, do battle for supremacy and control. Real compromise does not appear to be within reach. And at the same time we were sharing a civil conversation with this man, in a beautiful park filled with both Israeli Arab and Jewish families, coexisting if not interacting, tense but simultaneously lovely and pleasant. Israel is a land of impossible contradictions, and also a land of incredible vitality. This was a chief reason why I always want to bring Americans here: no sound byte or television report or magazine article can come close to capturing the lived, exhilarating, heartrending intensity of this place. I love it here, despite it all, or perhaps because of it all – I’ll never be able to separate it out.
Monday, March 24: We visited Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust museum and memorial. Yad Vashem exists for Israelis even more than for tourists. It stands as a witness to the need for a State that will be both a haven and a defense for Jews everywhere.
Tuesday, March 25: I am leaving out so much! But I will only share one more of many moving and important encounters. We visited the Yad B’Yad School, one of four schools in Israel where Jewish and Arab students study and grow up together. It is a remarkable endeavor. The students study both Hebrew and Arabic, they learn about Judaism, Islam and Christianity, they celebrate each other’s holidays, and do not avoid the difficult issues inherent in their coexistence. I find the effort that the Jewish and Arab parents and teachers are investing to make this place happen to be awesome and inspiring. The school currently has a waiting list in both the Jewish and Arab communities. This is happening in Israel too.
Tuesday evening: Tel Aviv, a swim in the beautiful Mediterranean, and a final night in Israel before flying home.
Oh, I didn’t speak about the complexities of the security fence/wall, the Ethiopians we met, our brief visit to the West Bank, the new archaeological finds we explored…but for now I will sign off. I hope this partial travelogue lets you share a bit of the flavor and depth of our journey. I hope you will be able to join me the next time, hopefully soon.
Photo by Ruth Hirsch
ORIGINAL ART © DURGA BERNHARD