Back in the United States

It’s hard to believe it’s been just ten days since we boarded a plane from Newark for Israel. The time we spent has been so rich, so meaningful, so full of encounters and emotions. It was especially meaningful to spend the ‘yemei todah‘ – the ‘days of gratitude’ from Yom ha-Shoah, to Yom ha-Zikaron, to Yom ha-Atzma’ut – in Israel. The term is a play on the aseret yemei teshuvah between Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, and just as that time is supposed to be one of consideration and reflection, so too the period of these three observances is an opportunity to reflect – in this case with gratitude for the unprecedented blessing of a modern Jewish state, as well as the terrible losses that both preceded its formation and have sustained it.

Of course, part of that reflection is the realization of how much more still needs to be done and the important role that we can play in working toward a country that is fully free and fully secure.  As we gathered in the airport before our return flight, I read once again the prayer for a safe journey that I had offered as we departed Or Hadash ten days earlier. The prayer had been formed from a list of our own hopes and aspirations for the trip – what we hoped to see, experience, do, and feel – and I read the prayer now one more, inviting us to consider how many of our goals for the trip we had accomplished. As I read off each item, participants called out their affirmations to indicate that we had meet that goal; there was an especially strong shout out when I read ‘experience comradery with our fellow congregants’ because the group connection we had formed over the course of this trip was so special and close. It was only when we came to the last item on the list that we paused.  This was the part of the prayer that spoke about bringing back what we have learned to others in the community: “And may we return in peace to our homes and to Or Hadash to share these experiences and insights and help people connect through us, and bring Israel to a more central place within the life of our congregation.” This part of our prayer, of course, is yet to be fulfilled and it requires all of us in the community to help bring it to fruition – which I have no doubt we will do just as surely as we accomplished all our other hopes for this incredible trip.

I hope you have enjoyed reading the blog and being a part of our congregational trip as well.  To hear more about our trip and make good on our promise to share what we have learned, please plan to join us on Friday night, May 29 at 8:00 where those congregants who were with us will relate their impressions and experiences. May this trip lay the groundwork for many future congregational visits and lead to a deepening of our connections with Israel as individuals and as a community.  As the country begins its sixty-eighth year of existence may we grow in our appreciation and love of Israel and all it can be – for us, for the Jewish people, and for all the world.

Amen.

Back in the United States

Yom ha-Atzma’ut

Smiles, laughter, young children sitting on their fathers’ shoulders, music everywhere, groups of friends and relatives grilling – all of Tel Aviv is celebrating. Israel’s sixty-sixth year was a difficult one in many ways, as fears of a nuclear Iran loomed, as cost of living for the average Israeli went up, and as tensions increased with the international community. Deep tensions and divisions run through society but as Israel marks its sixty-seventh birthday on this Yom ha-Atzma’ut there is so much here that is amazing – energy, idealism, warmth, creativity,kindness, and strength that it is impossible to believe Israel will not only rise to meet all the challenges it faces, but will thrive.

We walked down the beach from Tel Aviv to Yaffo (Jaffa) which was a port in ancient times (it’s where Jonah sailed from to try to escape God’s charge) and is now a chic artsy adjunct to its much larger counterpart in the Tel Aviv-Yaffo municipality. We took our bus back to the beach front were treated to a military flyover and aerial maneuvers over the Mediterranean. It was a little windy for swimming (gusts at 45 mph) but the beach was still filled with Israelis hanging out, soaking in the atmosphere, and engaging in the national Israeli pastime of mongol – roasting skewers of meat over charcoal grills.  We then split up to enjoy the different options for the holiday and our last afternoon in Israel – visiting one of the many museums that are free to visitors today, going to the beach, or enjoying lunch in an outdoor cafe.

enjoying lunch at an outdoor cafe
enjoying lunch at an outdoor cafe
Israelis watch the flyover on the beach
Israelis watch the flyover on the beach

Now we’re sitting at Maganda, a Yemeni restaurant for our farewell dinner before heading to Ben Gurion airport and our flight back to Newark. It’s hard to believe how quickly these nine days have flown by and how much we’ve packed in, as well as how much we have all grown from the experience. It’s hard to believe we’ll be on an airplane soon, so full of the sights, sounds, and feeling of Israel and its people, buoyed by the national observances we shared with them. As we piled back on to the bus we were already talking about planning our next trip, and the next and the next…

The last update will be posted from America.

leaving Tel Aviv

Yom ha-Atzma’ut

m’Evel l’Yom Tov

near Kikar Rabin
near Kikar Rabin

The Hebrew phrase ‘m’evel l’yom tov‘ – ‘from mourning to festivity’ – captures perfectly the feeling of the move from Yom ha-Zikaron to Yom ha-Atzma’ut. It’s part of the brilliance of the Israeli calendar that we move directly from the emotional lowest of lows to the highest of highs. The message of the twinned observances is that the state of Israel did not come easily, that it was born from and is sustained by the sacrifices of the soldiers who fell in the country’s battles and this make it all the more precious. We gathered in or guide’s room and watched the live broadcast from Mt. Herzl, where we had stood last week and where the country observed a solemn ceremony to mark the transition between the two days, acknowledging the enormity of the loss and expressing gratitude for the miracle of this magnificent and indispensable country, now making its sixty-seventh birthday. Various luminaries were called up to give short speeches and light ceremonial torches, including Arab-Israeli television personality Lucy Aharish, pilot Gal Luski who organizes airlifts of emergency aid to countries that have suffered natural disasters, and inventor Daniel Gold who developed the country’s defensive Iron Dome system. The ceremony concluded with the singing of Hatikvah and we sprayed each other with the traditional celebratory silly string (seriously) before heading out to the streets of Tel Aviv to party in the beautiful night air. Chag Sameach!

m’Evel l’Yom Tov

Tel Aviv

broadcasting on Israeli television on Yom ha-Zikaron
broadcasting on Israeli television on Yom ha-Zikaron

As with Yom ha-Shoah, the weather turned strikingly grey and cloudy in the morning again for what is only the second time in our trip, almost as if the skies above Israel are joining in the sense of sorrow and solemnity that is all around us.  As I mentioned in my last post, for twenty-four hours Israeli TV channels carry only programming related to Yom ha-Zikaron; other channels simply show a picture like the one at right that reads “Broadcasts will resume at the end of Yom ha-Zikaron.”  For members of the trip, the sadness of Yom ha-Zikaron is also accentuated by our sorrow at the untimely loss of our own Ben Fields and we are keeping him and his family in our heart and in our prayers from Israel on this day of mourning.

people standing during the Yom ha-Zikaron siren.  Notice the driver standing inside his bus.
people standing during the Yom ha-Zikaron siren. Notice the driver standing inside his bus.

We began the day walking through two important Tel Aviv areas, the neighborhood of Neve Tzedek where Tel Aviv got its start as the first Jewish neighborhood to be built outside the ancient port of Yaffo (Jaffa) in 1887, and Shuk ha-Caramel, the Tel Aviv fruit and vegetable market whose usual bustle was noticeably subdued on this Yom ha-Zikaron. When the siren sounded at 11:00 we stood near a children’s preschool and witnessed the remarkable phenomenon of an instant hush falling over a crowd of young children, who instantly stopped their playing and their games and stood at attention in silent respect. Their silence spoke more eloquently than any words about the personal loss that all Israelis feel on this powerful day.

at the Rabin memorial, decorated for Yom ha-Zikaron
at the Rabin memorial, decorated for Yom ha-Zikaron

After lunch in the market we visited the phenomenal new Rabin Museum, opened just five years ago documenting with remarkable early footage the history of the state of Israel and dedicated to the life of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (1922-1995) – a hero first of Israel’s War of Independence and then the Six Day War, the battles that first formed and then secured the young state. He of course continued to serve his country and to attempt to ensure its future by fighting next for peace, signing the Oslo accords in 1993 with Yasir Arafat and paving the way for a state of Palestine next to the state of Israel. As we know all too well, this brave effort tragically cost him his life in 1995 when he was assassinated by right-wing yeshivah student Yigal Amir in an unfathomable act that shattered the country’s innocence and hopes for peace and whose tragic echoes still reverberate to this day. We had prayed at his grave on Mt. Herzl last week and now we visited the site of that fateful peace rally where he was gunned down, since renamed Kikar Rabin (Rabin Square). There we recited a prayer on this Yom ha-Zikaron for Israel’s foremost fallen warrior, who risked his life for Israel so many times in battle and ultimately lost it in the quest for peace, mourning the man and all that might have been.

Guy presenting street art in Florentin
Guy presenting street art in Florentin

Finally we took a fascinating tour of the south Tel Aviv district of Florentin with local guide and linguist Guy Sharett. We explored this grittier neighborhood of the city through the lens of the ubiquitous graffiti that Israeli street artists have sprayed on the walls in a constantly evolving display of self-expression. Young hipsters have appropriated popular icons and symbols in inventive and ironic ways, making political statements and reinventing the vernacular by incorporating elements of English, Aramaic, Yiddish, and other languages. On the verge of Yom ha-Atzma’ut, it was a perfect and hopeful demonstration of the energy and vitality of Israeli life that make this country so vibrant.

Tel Aviv

Erev Yom ha-Zikaron

Yom ha-Zikaron display in our hotel lobby
Yom ha-Zikaron display in our hotel lobby

We finally arrived in Tel Aviv, the final stop in what already feels like an incredibly full journey. As we drove down Highway 2 from Caesarea, the posts on both sides of the roads were festooned with Israel flags in anticipation of the two most important days in Israel’s calendar, Yom ha-Zikaron (Memorial Day) and Yom ha-Atzma’ut (Independence Day). Yom ha-Zikaron recalls and honors those who lost their lives defending Israel in the IDF or as victims of terror attacks.  One of the things that makes Israel so intense is how close-knit and connected everyone is and because of this virtually every Israeli has been affected by this sort of loss – if not of someone they know directly, then of someone who is close to a person they know.  The loss radiates outward, an idea that the iconic Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai (1924-2000) captured when he wrote:

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making a circle with no end and no God.

At 8:00 we stood on the streets of Tel Aviv as the two-minute siren that we heard last Thursday on Yom ha-Shoah sounded once again throughout the country.  Once again we witnessed cars and traffic come to a halt, pedestrians stop on the sidewalk, drivers get out of their cars and stand in silent homage.  On television this evening, there is nothing but documentaries about soldiers’ lives, broadcasts of ceremonies marking the occasion, and the names of the many, many Israelis who died far too young.  The country is caught up in one giant sob.

Erev Yom ha-Zikaron

Encounters

We checked out of our guesthouse at Kibbutz Ma’agan and headed west toward Ein Shemer, a kibbutz that is devoted to building connections between Jewish and Arab communities in the Galil (Galilee). Every week Ein Shemer brings more than 700 Jewish and Arab teens to work cooperatively in the kibbutz’s greenhouse. The students use their shared interest in ecology – a crucial issue for all residents of the water-starved Galil – to build relationships as they work side by side on experimental projects.  We heard from an Arab Israeli staff member in the program named Faisel who spoke about issues of equity and co-existence from his perspective.  Then we were joined by other members of greenhouse staff and broke into small groups for a mifgash, a Hebrew word that means ‘encounter’ and which provides a special opportunity for genuine exchange and connection.  We were deeply moved by the passion and commitment of these idealistic young Israelis.  In the words of one of the participants named Iris, “When I think of Arabs, I have a response of fear.  I don’t want to live that way and I want to change the reality so that when I have children they won’t have that same response.”  In the face of all the issues and challenges that contemporary Israel faces, we keep being struck again and again by the commitment of people and organization that want to look these challenges squarely in the eye and rise to meet them.  It’s the same dedication and idealism that led to the creation of this state which we celebrate tomorrow night and it is what will help that state most fully live out its promise.Ein Shemer 2

mifgash at Ein Shemer
mifgashim at Ein Shemer

From Ein Shemer we visited Zichron Yaakov, a settlement that was settled by Romanian immigrants during the First Aliyah, which began in the 1880’s and laid the foundations for the future Jewish state.  The famous Rothschild family helped fund the enterprise and set up vineyards for the new immigrants to cultivate; today it is the home of the Carmel wineries. Zichron is also a quaint town, a favorite site for Israeli tourists and we enjoyed wandering among the historical streets and stores filled with crafts (think Peddlers Village in the Galil!).

CaesareaFrom there we headed west toward the Mediterranean, which will form the backdrop for our final days in Israel.  As we looked out over the sea we recited the blessing the rabbis prescribed for the occasion: “Blessed is the One who creates the Great Sea.”  It was on the shores of the ‘great sea’ that King Herod built the magnificent city of Caesarea in the first century B.C.E. We walked along the streets of the ancient city, a stunning accomplishment of engineering and beauty in what was clearly a cultured and refined metropolis in its time. Now, of course, we are headed toward a very modern city which makes the same claim and serves the same purpose, Tel Aviv, which is the capital of Israel’s vitality and innovation.

Encounters

Exploring modern (and a drop of medieval) Israel

Rabbi Yoav Ende at Kibbutz Hannaton
Rabbi Yoav Ende at Kibbutz Hannaton

We started the morning by visiting Kibbutz Hannaton in the Galilee, a remarkable place that is dedicated to thinking about what an Israeli identity that meets the complexities and challenges of the modern state should look like.  Its Executive Director, Rabbi Yoav Ende, spoke about the original kibbutz pioneers who built up the land, driven by a mission of creating a Jewish state and a vision of a homeland that Jews could call their own.  In our time, Ende said, Israelis have lost a coherent sense of mission and so a new generation of pioneers must help to forge an understanding broad enough to include young and old, religious and secular, and compelling enough to keep Israelis connected to a country full of dangers and challenges.  In this sense, Ende echoed Israeli author and thinker Ari Shavit, whose remarkable and challenging book My Promised Land I encouraged everyone on the trip to read and which concludes that Israel can only find the strength and will to overcome its external challenges (Palestinian nationalism, radical Islam, an Iranian nuclear threat, increasing marginalization on the global stage) if it can find a way to address its internal challenges (segmentation and division among Israeli Jews, division between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs,  the rise of an individualistic ethos that undermines shared sacrifice and purpose).  The way he put it was, “Politicians are thinking so much about what will be the borders of a future Israel, but we need to care about what lies within those borders.”

We stood on the edge of the kibbutz overlooking the Arab town of Kfar Manda and the Bedouin village of Bir el-Maksur.  The Galilee is the one region in Israel where Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs live in close proximity (more on that tomorrow) and Hannaton is trying to forge relationships with its neighbors, working together on shared projects and having kibbutz members serve as volunteers in the Arab communities.  As part of this project of building a new Israeli identity, Hannaton accepts forty Israeli eighteen-year olds as part of a highly selective and prestigious year of study and leadership training before the army, which includes engaging the issues I’ve mentioned and having graduates bring their training and their sensibilities into the army, building this new community in the best pioneering spirit.  Another aspect of Hannaton’s principle of inclusion is a commitment to pluralism, which is still a very unusual and suspect idea in Israeli society, even as it is long settled in America.  As part of their work one key initiative in the past few years was opening a community mikveh (ritual bath) – the first one in the country that isn’t run under Orthodox auspices. All in all, the kibbutz represents a visionary and ambitious project that is vital to renewing Israeli society.

The divisions in Israeli society, by the way, were on display that same morning as Anat Hoffman and Women of the Wall succeeded for the first time in reading from a full-sized Torah scroll into the women’s section at the Kotel as they gathered for services for Rosh Chodesh.  Anat had revealed the plan to us when we met with her last week but had made us promise not to write about it because it is illegal(!) to bring the Torah into the women’s section and involved a fair amount of subterfuge.  Unsurprisingly, the initiative lead to scuffles and arrests but was also an important milestone in the fight for equality and shows how much work still needs to be done.

Tzfat street scene
Tzfat street scene

From Hannaton we went to Tzfat, center of the kabbalist movement in Israel, beginning in the 16th century.  We walked the ancient streets and visited one of the synagogues of the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria, who developed a new version of Kabbalah, and the synagogue of Rabbi Joseph Caro, codifier of the seminal book of Jewish law the Shulchan Aruch. On our way down into the valley we looked out over the fields where the mystics went out to greet Shabbat singing a brand new song of their own composition, Lechah Dodi.  From there we headed into the Golan, whose vital strategic importance has only been underscored

doing painstaking research into Israeli wines at the Ramat Golan Winery
doing painstaking research into Israeli wines at the Ramat Golan Winery

by the ongoing civil war in Syria, and we visited the Ramat Golan Winery for a tour and tasting, which came in very handy for our next stop, at a fish restaurant on the shore of the Sea of Galillee where we enjoyed our wine purchases as we watched the crescent moon of the new month of Iyyar rising over the Sea of Galilee.

Exploring modern (and a drop of medieval) Israel