South, then north

breakfast - yum!
breakfast – yum!

We got up early this morning and checked out of our Jerusalem hotel after one final amazing Israeli breakfast. We drove down through the Judean hills to Masada, the last stronghold of Jewish resistance after the Romans restored the Temple in 70 C.E. The story of the rebels’ last stand and ultimate suicide is well known and provided an important narrative for the early Zionists about Jewish heroism and sacrifice for the sake of a Jewish homeland. In

Frances showing us around Masada
Frances showing us around Masada

more recent times this narrative and its message are recognized as more problematic and Israelis are grappling with what Masada represents for the modern state. But what was unavoidable as we wandered the ancient ruins and looked out over the breathtaking views of the Judean Desert stretching below us was amazement at the simple fact that more than 1900 years after Jewish autonomy in the land of Israel came to an end it is once again a reality, a reality whose fragility and enormity have both been very present to us these past days.

floating in the Dead Sea

From Masada it was a short trip to the Dead Sea, so named because nothing can live in its intensely salty waters and the lowest point on earth, 1200 feet below sea level. The salt and minerals dissolved in the water are so concentrated that it’s impossible to sink. The concentration has increased in recent years as the waters of the Jordan River that feed the Dead Sea have been increasingly diverted further north for agriculture and as a result the Dead Sea is shrinking dramatically. In addition to being a profound loss for a unique natural wonder of the world, the recession of the sea is causing sinkholes to open up throughout the area, and our bus was diverted around an area of road that has collapsed in the last few months because of one such sinkhole.

When we arrived at the sea, many of the first-timers didn’t believe that you could really float without any effort and were amazed when the Dead Sea actually worked exactly as advertised. Some in our group figured out how to relax right away and let the water carry them and some had to work at relaxing – isn’t this always the case? – and needed a few minutes to stop wheeling their arms around desperately to stay afloat.  But eventually we all got there, and once we had floated to our hearts’ content (both in the Sea and the in pool filled with heated Dead Sea water) we boarded our bus and headed up the Jordan Valley toward the Galilee for our lovely guesthouse at Kibbutz Ma’agan on the banks of the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee.

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South, then north

Wow!

What a Shabbat!  Every Shabbat in Jerusalem is extraordinary, and yet there are some that just take your breath away again and again, as all of the strings seem to vibrate at exactly the right time in exactly the right ways to turn the individual notes into something much larger, into a song that seems to resonate with the universe.

getting ready to welcome Shabbat

As we headed to the Western Wall for services, the air and light took on a translucent quality that I have never experienced outside of Jerusalem, as though the whole city was holding its breath.  We arrived at the egalitarian section of the Wall – not the portion marked ‘men’s section’ or ‘women’s section,’ but ‘Israel’s section’ – and gathered beneath the ancient stones. We teared up as the ancient words about dwelling in God’s place took on new meaning and immediacy.  Just as we were ready for Barchu, the siren sounded signalling that Shabbat had come to Jerusalem.  After our incredibly rich service we exchanged hugs, then walked over to the main Kotel plaza to take in the scene of singing and dancing.  As we walked back to our bus, the muezzin’s call rang out over the plaza from the mosque above and, just for a moment, Jerusalem felt like a city that could actually function as a holy place for more than one people.

Kol HaneshamaIn the morning we went to Kol Haneshama, a progressive synagogue in the Bak’a neighborhood.  Surrounded by the congregation, we were honored with an aliyah as we presented the synagogue with a wall hanging that features the handprints of our younger religious school students as a gift to the synagogue’s preschool which Adir had attended four years earlier – a symbol of our relationship and shared values.  This morning was also the Bat Mitzvah of a young woman named Shani Kalaf, whose extended family was a mix of Jews from every conceivable corner of the world. Her father, Opher, had grown up in a Yemenite family in the Ein Kerem neighborhood of Jerusalem and after the service he spoke movingly with us about how he had been alienated from Judaism as boy because his mother and sisters could not participate in the service.  More than thirty years later, he said, Kol Haneshama had reconnected him with his Judaism. In a country that too often divides between Orthodox and secular, it was profoundly moving to see Shani and her family embracing a different option, one where they didn’t need to choose between affirming their values and being Jewish.

After lunch we split up for a luxuriantly expansive Shabbat afternoon, with some people touring, some people visiting friends and family, and some people resting.  As we gathered on the hotel’s balcony for Havdalah overlooking the rooftops of Jerusalem, bidding good-bye to one extraordinary week and opening the door to a new one, I could feel the strings of our separate experiences coming together in a rich, complex, and glorious harmony.

Wow!

The realities of Jerusalem

The morning following Yom ha-Shoah was also very weighty and difficult, but this time for a different reason.  We took a tour of East Jerusalem with an organization called Ir Amim, which means ‘City of Peoples.’  Ir Amim seeks to show both the complexities and the injustice of the current political realities in Jerusalem because they know that no peace deal can be reached without a resolution to the crucial issue of the status of Jerusalem, which is the home of 500,000 Jews and 300,000 Palestinian Arabs.

Eiran showing us the neighborhoods of Jerusalem and the West Bank
Eiran showing us the neighborhoods of Jerusalem and the West Bank

We stood in the hills over Jerusalem and the West Bank, looking out over the settlements that have been strategically constructed between Palestinian villages to prevent the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state. We saw the decrepit state of the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and we saw the separation barrier that cuts across the landscape like a concrete scar. Hearing or reading about the problems of Jerusalem is one thing; seeing it with our own eyes is entirely another and it left us with both a deeper understanding of the profound obstacles to peace and a renewed appreciation of how vital it is to find a sustainable solution.  Our guide Eiran, a native Jerusalemite from an old Sephardi family spoke movingly about the need to find a way for the residents of this holy city to share it that isn’t based on walls and barriers but mutual understanding, and maybe even respect. He praised our group for having the courage to look at and engage with difficult issues that many American Jews choose to ignore or deny and spoke of the vital role American Jews can play in educating themselves and advocating for peace.  As i saw the openness and integrity with which our congregants considered and grappled with the challenging facts and issues he was presenting us with I was reminded yet again of what a rare and precious community this is of which I have the privilege to be the rabbi.

enjoying lunch in the shuk
enjoying lunch in the shuk

From the challenges of politics we moved to the challenges of moving in extremely cramped quarters as we paid a pre-Shabbat visit to Machaneh Yehudah with seemingly every other person in Jerusalem!  Machaneh Yehudah – also called the Shuk – is the open-air fruit and vegetable market where everyone goes to shop for Shabbat, hang out, eat, flirt, and people watch.  We split up to take in the scene, move among the throngs, taste, and enjoy, aware that the vitality of the Shuk is also an important part of what makes Jerusalem the wonderful and difficult place that it is.

Now we are back at the hotel getting ready for Shabbat.  In a little while we will head down to the Old City where we will pray at a section of the Western Wall that is designated for egalitarian prayer – by no means a perfect solution, but in itself a triumph of the work of Anat Hoffman, with whom we met yesterday.  Then it’s back to the hotel for dinner, an oneg, and some well-deserved Shabbat rest!

I hope you’re enjoying following our adventures in the blog.  Please be sure to read, pass along the link, and leave comments.  Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem!

The realities of Jerusalem

Yom ha-Shoah

Yitzhak Rabin's grave at Har Herzl
Yitzhak Rabin’s grave at Har Herzl

After yesterday’s perfect weather for our arrival in Jerusalem, today’s grey skies and rain seemed to fit the mood perfectly for Yom ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  We started the morning at Har Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery, where we recited Kaddish by the grave of Yitzhak Rabin and offered a prayer of remembrance for Israeli soldiers.

outside the Children's Memorial at Yad va-Shem
outside the Children’s Memorial at Yad va-Shem

At 10:00 an air raid siren sounded throughout the entire country for two minutes in commemoration of the victims of the Holocaust. We stood on King David Street, a major Jerusalem thoroughfare, and watched all the passing cars come to a halt in the middle of the street for the sounding of the siren, with the drivers getting out of their cars and standing in remembrance and workers standing in silence outside their office buildings – a powerful demonstration of the way the memory of the Holocaust still infuses and informs both the identity and purpose of the state of Israel. After the siren we shared a moving memorial ceremony with teachers and students at the Reform rabbinical seminary including Ira Rosenberg, son of or own Manny and Elley.  From there we continued our remembrance of victims of the Shoah at Yad va-Shem, the brutally powerful and wrenching Israeli Holocaust museum.  After emerging from the deliberately cramped and claustrophobic interior with its account of the horrors of the Holocaust, we stood outside of the Hall of Remembrance overlooking the city of Jerusalem and conducted a brief Yizkor service during which we shared names of family members who had perished in the Shoah.

Anat Hoffman in a Women of the Wall tallit
Anat Hoffman in a Women of the Wall tallit

In the afternoon we met with Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center and one of the founders of Women of the Wall.  She spoke passionately about the vital work her organization does to combat the Orthodox monopoly over Jewish religious expression and to uphold the fundamentals of equal treatment under the law.  She related visiting the United States where an American asked her if it’s true that equal rights are not guaranteed because Israel does not actually have a constitution.  When she confirmed that was the case he told her, “You can take ours, we’re not using it anyway!”  In the context of all we had seen and felt on this Holocaust Remembrance Day, her inspiring fight to promote equality, tolerance, and pluralism in Israel had particular resonance and urgency.

Finally, after sunset brought an end to Yom ha-Shoah, we visited the Tower of David in the Old City to watch an impressive sound and light show projected onto its iconic walls – a welcome diversion following a weighty and somber day.

Yom ha-Shoah

Arrival in Jerusalem

After a smooth flight we landed at Ben Gurion airport, with the early-morning light shining over the Mediterranean on our approach.  We met our guide, Frances, who is originally from New Zealand but has been in Israel for more than 40 years, and our driver, Yoram.  On the drive to Jerusalem I was amazed to see all the expansion projects underway and all the changes even from four years ago, when I lived here while on sabbatical.

at Jaffa Gate
at Jaffa Gate

We stopped at the Haas Promenade for a panoramic view of the city and a blessing of gratitude for standing in the place so many generations of Jews dreamed of.  We entered the Old City through Jaffa Gate, then walked down through the Armenian Quarter to the Jewish Quarter.  At the Kotel, we saw soldiers preparing for tomorrow’s Holocaust Remembrance Day observances and we placed the prayers that you had given us to carry with us to Israel in the Western Wall.  As we looked up at the stones, we could see the plants growing out of the wall, birds roosting in the crevices, and lizards scurrying over the rock – a powerful symbol that the Wall is not merely a historical artifact but a place that is truly vibrant and alive.

After an archaeological exploration of the Temple site, we returned to our hotel where we met with Dr. Gershon Baskin, a negotiator and peace activist of more than 30 years.  He told us

Dr. Gershon Baskin and Jeff Chebot
Dr. Gershon Baskin and Jeff Chebot

about meeting with Hamas to negotiate for the release of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and about private meetings he had arranged ahead of the recent election between Isaac Herzog, leader of the Labor party, and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority.  The two leaders, he told us, had agreed to the framework of a peace plan that never had the chance to be implemented because Labor lost the elections, and he emphasized the importance of building connections and relationships between Israelis and Palestinians as the only sustainable foundation for peace.  All in all, an incredibly full and rich day that gave us a lot to consider about identity and hope as we head into Yom ha-Shoah.

Arrival in Jerusalem

And we’re off!

At 8:15 this morning, our van – arranged by the inimitable Rob Klotz – rolled out of the Or Hadash parking lot en route for Newark airport, where we’ll board our plane.  Despite the rainy weather everyone was all smiles. We said a brief prayer for a safe, moving and – who knows? – maybe even transformative trip and set out on our journey.  Now we’ll see how long it takes to clear El Al security, a whole adventure in and of itself…

And we’re off!