Our Latest Travel Log – Israel 2016

We began our Shabbat by making our way to the Kotel, or the Western (or Wailing) Wall. Widely touted as the most sacred landmark to the Jewish people, the retaining wall of the Second Temple is also the spot where people put folded-up pieces of paper with prayer written upon them into the cracks between the stones. Many in the group found this to be another spiritually moving moment in our trip, as the Wall is one of the more visible landmarks in Israel. I would venture to say that this visit was among the most anticipated by our travelers.

Following the moments at the Wall, we made our way through the Old City to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  It was crowded and special and sacred.  We learned a little about the story of the events surrounding that location- the crucifixion of Jesus, his death and his burial.  I can say that, personally, it is always a highlight of the trip when we see the intersection of Judaism and other religions.  While we were struggling to understand the relationship between historical fact and religious meaning, I have come to understand this simple truth about Israel: in most circumstances, the history is reflected in the ritual.  But in this country, tradition makes the history.

The trip then continued with our Bnai Mitzvah service, where Zoe and Jolie Vandegrift, Simon Rappoport, Mandy Rappoport, and Haley Lieberman all read from the Torah. While the setting was beautiful, what was truly remarkable was the fact that each of these individuals has taken this process quite seriously, as have their families. It meant a lot to each of them, as reflected in their speeches, their parent blessings, and the tears that streamed down our faces.  Yes, I did use the word “our” previously, as, between the five of them, there was not a dry eye in the house.  It is hard to believe that, just over a year ago, many of the families did not know each other.  After the connections were made in Atlanta before we left, those connections were deepened throughout the last week.  And, this evening, we were one big family.  And it was phenomenal.  A Mazel Tov to Zoe, Jolie, Simon, Mandy and Haley- you continue to impress me!

The celebratory dinner began with the kindling of the 8th night of Hanukkah, thereby bringing to a close a current trend throughout our trip: gathering around dinner to light the Menorah. While sad to conclude the festival, the food was delicious and the company was fantastic. With about 15 minutes to go, a few folks held up a chuppah and…Jonathan and Rebecca Rice renewed their vows! It was a great surprise and a lovely and beautiful moment that I will never forget.

For New Year’s Eve, we went to a few different places. My group went to Ben Yehuda where the energy was high and ended up counting down with a couple hundred people in Kikar Zion at the base of the pedestrian mall.

It’s been a great day – Mazel Tov to ALL of us!

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Published in: on January 1, 2017 at 5:44 am  Leave a Comment  

Israel 2016 Day 2

What a wonderful day this has already turned out to be!

Today we began our first full day in Israel and I am happy to report that most of the folks were the beneficiaries of a much needed good night’s sleep. We gathered around breakfast for a delicious meal filled with fresh fruits and vegetables and delightful pastries. A great way to start the day!

 

We continued on for a brief visit to Yafo (Jaffa) before making out way to Kibbutz Gezer. At Gezer we participated in the Daffodil Project, planting daffodils to commemorate the 1.5 million children killed during the Holocaust. Our planting – the first on Gezer and perhaps even in Israel – was made even more poignant by the words shared by Hershel, a member of our trip who himself is a Holocaust survivor. We were honored to participate in the mitzvah and to do something so meaningful.

 

We were then able to meet with Rabbi Miri Gold and her husband, David Leichman. This combo may have been the highlight of the group today: David, who makes his own ice cream, had us try – no kidding – 8 or 9 different varieties of ice cream. We learned from him and enjoyed his humor, his integrity, and his ability to share something about which he clearly feels so passionate. We were also able to engage Rabbi Gold in a conversation about her court case, the one which led to her being the first non-Orthodox, female rabbi recognized by the State of Israel. Miri helped us to understand why our engagement with ARZA is so important and she inspired the activism in our group to help her and fight the good fight of recognition of Reform Judaism, Reform rabbis in Israel, and an egalitarian Israel. You don’t forget a meeting with a giant – and we will tell our kids and grandkids about standing side by side with Miri in her home.

 

I am sending this along a bit early tonight. In just over 30 minutes, we will begin our celebration of Chanukah and the Christian world will begin commemorating Christmas. Christmas is understandably different in the United States that it appears anywhere else in the world and experiencing Christmas Eve is Israel is not an exception to that rule. In Tel Aviv, there is an exuberance of lights and decorations…just not for Christmas! We see signs on windows advertising last-minute gifts for Hanukkah and wishes for a Happy Chanukah. There are chanukiyot (menorahs or lamps for the festival of Chanukah) in every public space we have visited today. We did see one Christmas tree- in the town of Jaffa. It turns out that Israel is 80% Jewish and 15% Muslim…and only about 4% Christian. Hence, Christmas is mentioned in densely populated Christian enclaves like the one we visited in Jaffa.

 

The most noticeable (for me) missing piece of Christmas is the lack of decorations. While I understand the commercialization of the holiday, there is also an element that is truly amazing and beautiful and wonderful about friends of mine being able to celebrate their holiday. Seeing the lights and the trees and the décor and hearing people wish me a “Merry Christmas” is incredibly heartening and is most certainly missed today in Israel.

 

In a few minutes we will gather as our group was invited to the home of our bus driver (no joke!) for a candle lighting and jelly-donut eating before heading to dinner. Many of us will continue on to a Christmas market that is only a short drive from our restaurant and continue with an attendance at Midnight Mass at one of the nearby churches.

 

I do so love it when these two holidays converge. And so whether you are observing Chanukah or Christmas, may the lights of this season bring you peace and joy and prove to you that, united in celebration of our own faith yet coupled with others celebrating theirs, we can truly illumine even the darkest of times.

 

Chag Samayach!

Published in: on December 24, 2016 at 10:07 pm  Comments (2)  

Israel 2016 Day 1

The travel is not easy. 6 hours + from Atlanta to Paris; a 3-hour layover in Paris and then 4 hours + from Paris to Tel Aviv.

But a reward awaited us on the other side.

Our trip has finally begun! After a year and a half of planning and revising and, most importantly, dreaming, we assembled at the airport in Tel Aviv and met our tour guide, Ronnie. We are a group of 35 people and, before I tell you about our trip, let me tell you about our group:

  • We are mostly members of Temple Sinai, though we do have a few people who are not affiliated with the synagogue;
  • We are mostly first-timers to Israel, though we do have a few people who have been to Israel through school over the last few years and a few people who have been to Israel several decades ago.
  • We are a group with a few participants who will actually be returning to Israel in a few months with their school group but whose parents wanted to share the experience of a first-visit with them.
  • We are grandparents taking grandkids.
  • We are a 7-year old.
  • And now we begin to become one family.

Our Israel adventure started with a short bus ride around Tel Aviv on Friday afternoon, a moment that stands out due the sheer normalcy of it all; this is not Shabbat in Jerusalem where there is a calm that descends on the city. Already we are busting assumptions of the group and meeting not the Israel about which we have heard but rather the Israel that we will experience.

We had a nice Shabbat dinner in the hotel, a dinner filled with laughter and stories and wine and challah. The food was great – and abundant – and the sentiment was joyous. We are all happy to be here and it showed!

After the dinner, some participants went to their rooms to get a good night of sleep following our day of travel but a few of us went on a walk outside. This is NOT “summertime in Israel.” It was cool and breezy. But it was beautiful. And it was exiting. And it was Tel Aviv.

Published in: on December 24, 2016 at 10:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

Thoughts on the Iran Agreement

On Iran (Sermon delivered on July 17, 2015)

On Iran…

It is my favorite anecdote about Jewish historians, of which there are surprisingly few: in 1898, a German historian named Heinrich Graetz published a comprehensive history of the Jewish people. Titled, cleverly, “History of the Jews”, Graetz presented historical figures and historical events in grand detail, surprising in large part because his familiarity with these events would have been borne out of studying original source documents, many of which were un-catalogued at that point in history. At the conclusion of his six-volume set, he concluded that the Jewish experience was lachrymose, a downward trajectory from the highs of the Second Temple Period ending in the first century of the Common Era. Sure, he identified peaks of the Jewish experience – the writing of the Babylonian Talmud in 500, The Golden Age of Spain, and plenty of other events and figures. But, he concluded, they are “blips” on the overall downward spiral of the Jewish experience.

That same year, Salo Baron, an American, published, oddly enough, a six-volume set titled The History of Jews, detailing the historical events and presenting historical figures in similarly grand detail. Baron didn’t just present SOME of the same historical data as Graetz, he overlapped precisely: both men listed the same figures, the same events, with the same details. In his conclusion, Baron characterized the Jewish experience as one of magnificent highs, punctuated by lows from time to time throughout our history.

Two historians, the same information available to both, writing on the same topic, and coming up with completely different opinions.

Earlier this week, the P5+1 and Iran concluded negotiations meant to both disable Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and ease near-global sanctions on the regime. I have been wildly impressed by some of the commentary I have read, from some of the most thoughtful and articulate individuals of our time, weighing in on whether the agreement is good or bad; and I have seen some commentary, like many of us here, written from an ill-informed position, the author having made up his or her mind long before the agreement was made available to Congress. I suppose in the era in which we live that we can cherry-pick facts, or ignore them entirely, to better sustain the opinions we have generated. As a friend of mine put it, “God bless the internet, for thanks to the internet we no longer need facts.”

To offer clarity, I aim to present some of the conversations between those thoughtful organizations and commentators who have truly studied the document and whose opinion I believe carries greater weight. I am mentioning this at present, right off the bat, because I plan to ignore the fringe commentary: those commentators who decided that, because this agreement bears the fingerprint of the Obama Administration it is to be defeated, and those who believe equally strongly that, because it bears the fingerprint of the Obama Administration is must be celebrated.

So I guess we should begin with the agreement itself, which, yes, I have read, all on Politico.com. And I must admit that it was not an easy read; it read like a foreign policy agreement, similar to the papers I read through college as I was earning my Bachelor’s in International Relations. The most jarring piece of the text is the level of ambiguity – it actually is fully permissible to draw a few very different conclusions based upon the text. For example, and I promise I will only use one example, the agreement states “…if the International Atomic Energy Agency has concerns regarding undeclared nuclear materials or activities…the IAEA will provide Iran the basis for such concerns and request clarification. If Iran’s explanations do not resolve the IAEA’s concerns, the Agency may request access to such locations…The IAEA will provide Iran the reasons for access in writing and will make available relevant information. Iran may propose to the IAEA alternative means of resolving the IAEA’s concerns; those alternatives will be given due and prompt consideration. If the two sides are unable to reach satisfactory arrangements within 14 days of the IAEA’s original request for access, a Joint Commission, by consensus or by a vote of 5 or more of its 8 members, would advise on the necessary means to resolve the IAEA’s concerns. This process would not exceed 7 days and Iran would implement the necessary means within 3 days. “

Now, some could conclude that this agreement would leave Iran time to clean a facility – the concern is raised on day 1, Iran takes a few days – really, an unspecified number, so Iran could argue for 10 days, or 20 days, or 6 months – to consider the concerns before responding. After which point the IAEA can request access, giving Iran 14 days to grant access. If they do not, a committee assembles and has 7 days, from the 14, to respond, and Iran then has 3 days to either grant access or provide the means to resolve the issue. The problem is that the time is not specified for the initial stage. And this ambiguity raises some red flags.

From the outset, there were challenges from the Right. I am including in these challenges some of the more often repeated challenges from commentary originating with journalists, opinion makers, politicians, and right-leaning Pro-Israel organizations, many of which I imagine we have all read and pursued via our inboxes or Facebook pages. Among those challenges were these major issues:

  1. We can’t trust the Iranian regime – they will cheat their way to a nuclear weapon;
  2. Lifting sanctions rewards Iran before they have done anything;
  3. The deal only lasts for 15 years, after which Iran can move forward with uranium enrichment for military purposes;
  4. The deal allows Iran to keep its nuclear infrastructure;
  5. The US should insist on a better deal and put forward tougher sanctions.

The President, on behalf of his negotiating team, ably led by Secretary of State Kerry, addressed the nation earlier this week and defended the agreement. I have selected parts of his comments that I believe address some of the larger criticisms, and I will articulate that some of these same points have come from Left-leaning commentators and left-of-center pro-Israel organizations:

  1. In response to the lack of trust and the belief that Iran will lie…they point out that the agreement is not about trusting Iran; it is about verifying compliance. They argue that we now have constant monitoring by inspectors at all nuclear sights, tracking on all uranium containers, and constant surveillance on centrifuges.
  2. Regarding sanctions that would be lifted, they argue that the lifting of sanctions only occurs when inspectors verify compliance, and should Iran be in violation, sanctions will snap-back into place.
  3. While the agreement may only last 15 years, embedded in the agreement is a constant state of monitoring.
  4. Regarding the nuclear infrastructure, Iran would need to remove 2/3 of its infrastructure, leaving only outdated machines whose purpose can only be peaceful enrichment.
  5. The final response has to do with the sanctions. Should Iran fail to comply, sanctions would snap-back into place.

The big argument from the Administration is that the agreement accomplishes the goals of the talks, which is to monitor and curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Beth Schafer and I were able to participate in a conference call yesterday sponsored by our friends at AIPAC that also raised some questions, offering a different lens through which to view the agreement. The policy analysts at AIPAC placed the agreement with Iran in the context of 20 years of diplomacy, including the historic use of sanctions in this case. What they identified was quite compelling, and I would like to share some of those findings with you.

Regarding the nuclear agreement, AIPAC argues that the current plan legitimizes Iran’s nuclear project. Currently, the International Community has objections to Iran’s nuclear activity over the past 20 years. With this agreement, those objections would need to be withdrawn. Further, given 15 years under the present agreement, when it expires, Iran would have the ability to produce enough fuel for a nuclear bomb in days.

Further, the program challenges the global move toward nuclear proliferation. With Iran closing in on nuclear threshold status, they argue, more than a dozen Arab states have expressed interest in similarly designated “peaceful” nuclear programs. We would be reckless to assume that other Arab nations would allow Iran to be the only nuclear capable state, with the fear being a race in the Middle East to explore uses, including for arms, of nuclear technology.

But AIPAC also looks beyond the nuclear components of the agreement. Part of the agreement is to grant Iran access, within a very short timeframe, to an estimated $150 billion held in seized Iranian accounts abroad. Once the sanctions are lifted, Iran will receive this money. Coupled with the increased revenue from sales of oil and foreign investment, Iran looks to receive a tremendous amount of money almost immediately. This component of the agreement is quite appealing to Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as other terror groups, who already receive much of their funding and training from Iran.

AIPAC also fears interrupting the regional balance struck with allies of the United States, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, who have relied on the sanctions and the international community to prevent Iran from becoming the leading regional power. Further, while the plan calls for a lifting of economic sanctions almost immediately, the arms embargo would be lifted after 5 years and the embargo against missile development would be lifted after 8 years. Iran would find the immediate funding and, in a very short time, the military might to threaten regional stability, or what little stability, predictability and “norms” are sustained with the current balance of power.

AIPAC also fears that this agreement is based upon time, not performance, benchmarks. Finally, they caution that the lifting of sanctions and the snap-back clause as written is designed to fail. They cite two arguments to justify this conclusion: the first, that snap-back sanctions would exempt all contracts established from the lifting of sanctions to the imposition of snap-back sanctions. Essentially, should sanctions lift tomorrow, and dozens of countries strike deals with Iran on Sunday, and on Monday the sanctions snap-back into place, the deals struck during the interim would not be impacted by the sanctions; those deals would continue unabated. And, secondly, they identify how very difficult it will be to get Russia and China, two key players in the international sanctions game, to hop back on to the sanctions bandwagon. Thus, sanctions, once lifted, will not snap-back into place.

AIPAC has called for all concerned constituents to go to the AIPAC website, procure the script, and contact our congressional representatives, urging them to express congressional disapproval against the bill. While AIPAC acknowledges that it is not the purview of congress to approve the treaty, they are hopeful that a strong show of discontent from Congress will compel the administration to seek another option.

To this point, I have restricted commentary to concerns of a global community. Obviously, as a Jewish community, we have a vested interest as well in the safety and security of Israel. It should be noted that Israel’s government and opposition are largely united in their sense that this agreement is not acceptable. The skeptics among us, myself included, question whether ANY agreement with Iran would have been acceptable, as the voices from Israel concerning Iran have been pounding the drum for war for now several years. The question that only time will answer is…were they right?

I can’t tell you how to feel. I can’t speak for you, I can’t speak for my colleagues, I can only speak for myself when I conclude my remarks not by coalescing the commentary but by sharing my own thoughts. We have all heard the adage “Two Jews, three opinions?” Well, I am one Jew and I have two opinions. And both are rooted in my Yiddishkeit. I am the heir to thousands of years of history, not all of it joyous, much of it, as Graetz would say, lachrymose. I fear that, as a result of this agreement, my children will grow up in a world that looks back upon these days as the start of a much darker period of human history, or at least, of Jewish history. I fear for the world that they will inherit if the critics are correct and I fear that the critics may be right.

But I also recognize that I am the heir to thousands of years of Jewish optimism, of a belief that things can be great, that the world can be once more made whole, that our best days lie ahead. I choose to govern my behavior with this philosophy and this approach colors the way I see international relations. In my optimism I believe that the agreement will indeed pave the way for a safer and more joyous tomorrow.

A friend recently recommended a book which I’ve not yet read but whose title has become particularly relevant to me this week. The book is by Sidney Zion and is titled, “Trust Your Mother but Cut the Cards.” I love that title. Trust your mother but cut the cards. Trust the Obama Administration…but scrutinize the document, for they may be too close to see some of the red flags and unresolved issues. Trust the Israelis…but understand that they come from a place of fear and not hope. Trust the intentions of the Iranians that they want to step in from the cold…but watch their every move.

Just last week, in our Torah portion of Pinchas, Moses was told to ordain Joshua as his successor. A legend explains that Joshua, when he learned of his new role, was filled with fear and skepticism about the days and challenges that lie ahead. It was then that Moses offered his first charge to Joshua, which he repeated at the very end of his life for all of Israel to hear: Be strong and resolute, be not in fear or in dread of them, for the Lord your God marches with you; God will not fail you.” Chazak ve’ematz. Be strong and resolute.

We have offered this charge collectively to us as a people: In days where we are hopeful…Chazak ve’Ematz, In days where we are hesitant…Chazak, ve’ematz. In days where we are scared…chazak, ve’ematz.

And so on this day, I offer these words to you…and to me. Chazak Ve’ematz. May we be strong and resolute in working tirelessly for a safer world. And I conclude with these words: Chazak, Chazak, venitchazek- may we be strong and may our steps forward strengthen each other.

Published in: on July 18, 2015 at 12:10 am  Leave a Comment  

From The Group!

Okay, not everyone in the group has written something. But many have. You have heard from the leaders how we felt about the trip…now hear from the travelers!

Michael Streger

How could a place to which I have never been feel so familiar? Entering this trip I promised myself I would not have any preconceived ideas of what Israel would be, and I have discovered that Israel has been so much more than I could ever have imagined. I discovered an Israel that is filled with proud people, that possesses landscapes that enfold and embrace us, and a rich history that tells OUR story. As if that was not good enough, standing next to LaWana as she beautifully read Torah, and knowing Abigail and Edyn will one day do the same, was a high of a lifetime. It has been so great to share all these special moments with all our newfound friends.

Cathy and Alan Gottlieb

Thank you to Rabbis Levenberg and Perry and 28 of our fellow congregants for helping us realize our dream of traveling to Israel. The experiences we shared, the knowledge we gained and the friendships we formed are memories we will always hold close to our hearts. We feel truly blessed to have taken this journey with you.

Akbar Kassam

As a Muslim, my eyes and mind opened on this lifetime experience. It will be my honor to show my friends and family back home that Israel is truly a land of peace, acceptance, and open arms to all. I am humbled by Temple Sinai for the love it showed to my family, and we will keep these memories forever.

Philip Karlick

As a first timer to Israel, having grown up with Zionist grandparents and family, having friends that come to Israel for years…nothing did prepare me for the wonders of Israel we felt and saw together. I loved being with Susanne for my first trip and made many strong friendships.

LaWana Streger

While on the Family Track in Israel, we met a lovely family. Ayva and Abi hit it off right away! While in Jerusalem I took a picture of the two of them sitting next to each other in front of a beautiful pink flower garden. This picture – two little girls, one Muslim and one Jewish. This, to me, is what childhood innocence looks like!

Marc Cohen

I am sad because it is the last day of the trip. One of the highlights for me was watching my son floating in the Dead Sea and seeing the grin on his face from ear to ear.

Susan Barry

After a day of climbing Masada and lathering up with mud at the Dead Sea, I am so RELAXED! Shared experiences in this incredible country with our Temple Sinai community and new friends as well has made this trip so great! What a life trip! Aha! As we kept saying to one another: “now we are family.” I return more informed, more recharged than ever to embrace Judaism and to be a supporter of Israel. Thank you (todah) to our dear rabbis Brad and Elana! And thank you to our incredible guide Ronnie; you taught us so much!

Simie Faskowitz

I was awestruck by the contrast of the beautiful old ancient and biblical sites along with the amazing modern infrastructure all around the country. I loved interacting with the Israeli people and was so happy to see Arabs and Israelis getting along and living normal lives. It felt extra special getting to spend this special time with my husband Larry for our 30th Anniversary along with our Temple Sinai family. I certainly won’t wait another 15 yrs to return to Israel.

Ron and Maxine Rosen

This was my 7th and Maxine’s 5th trip to Israel. We had many experiences, which were outstanding. The Shabbos service and the dinner were very special. The B’nai Mitzvah ceremony was a very emotional experience. The love in that room was palpable. Ronny and Asher did an outstanding job. Many thanks to Rabbis Brad and Elana for leading a wonderful trip.

Larry Faskowitz

It has been 15 yrs since my last visit to Israel. I can’t believe how much growth and western comforts and modernization has taken place since my last visit. Also I felt SO SAFE everywhere i went. Being able to walk alone thru the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem late at night is not something I would feel safe doing in Atlanta. Seeing first hand what Israelis have accomplished technologically, socially, and culturally was inspiring and makes me feel so proud to be Jewish. Being able to share this experience with my wife Simie and Our fellow Temple Sinai members on the special occasion of our 30th Wedding Anniversary made this trip even more special. Can’t wait to return ( less than 15 yrs next time)!

Terri Heyman

This was my 5th trip to Israel. I was so excited to see and do so many new things, especially with my boyfriend, Marc and his son Alex. The most meaningful part of the trip to me is the friendships and memories I have made. Some of the memories include dining and watching the sunset on Tel Aviv beach and over Jerusalem, watching all the men and woman turn into children climbing on a tank at the an IDF base, floating in the Dead Sea and covering ourselves in mud like little children. The friendships will last a lifetime.

Phil Klein

Our trip to Israel has been the most moving experience I can remember. So many wonderful places that we as a family that were both beautiful and emotional. Being able to have our son Ty’s Bar Mitzvah in Israel was probably the highlight of our trip. Yad Vashem was an incredibly moving experience as well as a powerful reminder how easily history can repeat itself.

Betty Klein

Sharing our son’s Bar Mitzvah overlooking old Jerusalem with our Temple Sinai family will always be one of the most memorable nights for our family. The entire ten days were filled with one after another sacred and amazing site visits, bringing us closer to our Jewish identity. We’re so glad that we had this time to spend together as a family and with our rabbis guiding and teaching us.

Ty Klein

The trip to Israel we took with our parents was exciting and fun. For us it was my Mom’s and my first time, and for my Dad and sister it was the second. My sister went in 8th grade and my dad over 40 years ago. I heard from my sister about her trip and I was really excited to go. However, I was excited because it was for my Bar Mitzvah overlooking the old city atop of the Hebrew Union College; it was amazing and breathtaking. I told my mom I want to live in Israel. I had a great time and wish to go back some day.

Susanne Katz-Karlick

It’s so complicated.  This idea and this belief.  Being, practicing, believing as a Jew.  What is easy is traveling through this maze with friends I love to be with, learning and bewildering together.

Cindy Derso

I heard said before I went that,”Israel will change you.”  I’ve traveled pretty extensively in my life & each experience out of my environment has somewhat “changed me”.

However, as a Christian, going to where Jesus walked, taught, lived, & died, enabled me to receive Israel with all its sights sounds, smells, & tastes with a heightened sensitivity. Kneeling & touching the stone slab over where Jesus was buried, powerfully connected me & my humanness to my spiritual Father & Lord.

That’s an experience only Israel can offer & I am very grateful.

Marcie Reale

I can not put into words my impressions of Israel because the biggest impression I have is a feeling. I was not expecting nor was I prepared for the incredibly deep emotions I experienced on my first visit to Israel. I have traveled enough of the world to many various places spanning several continents, but never have I felt the way I did in Israel. It was a bond and a sense of belonging that I can’t explain. It was like coming home even though I was far far away from home. I don’t know if I would have felt this as strongly had I not been with the group I was with or the particular trip/itinerary I was on. I was able to connect by experiencing Israel through the young at Yemin Orde, the old at Yad LaKashish, and all my ancestors who came before me at every historical sight we visited. To walk the paths of Abraham and Isaac, Sarah and Rebecca was an experience that cannot be put into words because there are no words that are enough for the feeling I had.

Published in: on June 19, 2015 at 3:50 am  Comments (2)  

An Ending…and A Beginning

In many ways, it ended where it all began. Our Family Tour group started the morning at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial and Museum. Needless to say, it was a very emotional morning as we were masterfully led through the museum by Yoram, our guide. We began by walking into the museum and gazing upon a film – actually, a collection of films edited together – depicting Jewish life in Europe on the eve of the Nazi rise to power. These home movies were of individuals and families and school groups just enjoying normal life. And then we turned to walk to to the exhibit – actually, Yoram said, “We literally turn our backs on them, and their way of life. We will now immerse ourselves in the world that they didn’t know would be their future.”

Yad Vashem, in a controversial move, ended the formal museum experience by steering visitors into a room dedicated to the birth of the modern State of Israel. There are really two camps- one camp that states that the western world was experiencing a simultaneous refugee problem and guilt over not interceding to assist the Jews. Thus, the solution was to establish a State for the Jews. There are others who argue that the mechanics were already in motion to build a State and that Israel would have come about even without the tragedy of the Holocaust. By including a room about Herzl and Ben Gurion and the Declaration of the State at the end of the exhibit, it is clear where the Museum stands.

Which is why I opened the blog as I did above. We started our journey on day one with a visit to Independence Hall and now, on our last day, we end looking at, and discussing, the same images, speeches, and historical events.

We also spent some time at an Archaeological Dig, where the majority of our group got down and dirty with our history. In fact, we were excavating a cave dating to the days of Judah Maccabbee…and the Hanukkah story! Our amazing guide at this site helped us to understand the dig and what we accomplished today.

In all, the dig proved to be the ideal final stop on our tour before a celebratory dinner. The purpose of the dig, at least for volunteers like our group, is to help us connect with Jewish history in a tangible way. And that was a major part of the purpose of this tour: we have studied the history of our people, we have engaged with words of Torah that were lived in this land, we have celebrated holidays intended to (partially) connect the people to the land. And yet there was a disconnect for many of us. That disconnect, as a result of our directly touching the Land of Israel, is no more. We have immersed ourselves with Israel and Israeli culture and the ancient struggles and contemporary challenges of the State of Israel.

On our way to the airport, I offered this prayer, a reflection on our collective Sinai path through the winding ways of Israel. I include it below as a fitting conclusion to my own journaning through this trip. Our next posts will be written by members of the group as I share their reflections.

From the flight,

Brad

A prayer for our Journey Home

It was that kind of Israel day

When our feet were sore from walking;

When our eyes wanted to close;

When our heads were full-

Of information. Of questions.

When the sun painted the buildings gold,

When it rested on the mountains of the Golan or the Mediterranean Sea or the rooftops of Jerusalem.

And it was in that moment that I realized my trip had become a journey, a pilgrimage, to re-claim something I thought I lost or to take possession of what has always been intangible and is now to me important.

I breathed a sigh unheard by others, just for me, just my release.

I cried tears of joy and of sadness.

I laughed at jokes and at my companions.

We fought. We laughed. We grew.

They said that the trip would transform me.

And it has.

I have been impacted by the stories.

I have been inspired by the land.

I have been transformed by the encounters with others.

It was that kind of Israel day,

When the world was full of possibilities.

And I lowered my head and I lifted my eyes;

I thanked God for this amazing and beautiful life that has led me to this moment.

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, Shehechiyanu, Vekiyamanu Vehigiyanu Lazman Hazeh.

We praise You, God, who has given us life, who has given us health, and who enabled us to reach this very moment in our journey.

The view from the end of the Holocaust Memorial Museum's main exhibit. Looking down upon a beautiful and bright Israel.

The view from the end of the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s main exhibit. Looking down upon a beautiful and bright Israel.

The view from atop as our excavation begins!

The view from atop as our excavation begins!

Our last presentation of the tour, highlighting that the dig, and the tour, used the history of Israel (both the people and the land) to make modern Israel come alive. Our Judaism...is now tangible.

Our last presentation of the tour, highlighting that the dig, and the tour, used the history of Israel (both the people and the land) to make modern Israel come alive. Our Judaism…is now tangible.

Published in: on June 17, 2015 at 7:30 am  Comments (1)  

Time

We all know what this means…

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Time to go from one home to the other. I will blog again in a day or so.

Warmly,

Brad

Published in: on June 16, 2015 at 9:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

Our Little Day Trip

With an early start to our day, we boarded the bus and made our way to Masada. A Herodian fortress in the desert not far from Jerusalem, the site was actually the last refuge for Jewish zealots who were fleeing the Roman conquest of Jerusalem. The zealots made their way to the top of Masada – 960 of them – with Rome not too far behind. They held out for months atop this desert oasis, aided by cisterns filled with water and a fear of Rome beneath the mountain. But Rome did not give up, and when they eventually broke the retaining walls to the fortress, they found that almost all 960 Jews had committed suicide. It was a terrible and sad chapter in the history of Israel and symbolized the end of the Jewish revolt.

A number of members of our group actually climbed Masada, following in the footsteps of our ancestors who sought refuge from the destruction of Jerusalem. We sought understanding, as this controversial site is both revered and disdained. There has been a shift in recent years in Israel to de-emphasize Masada; the truth is, we are not dieing for Israel, we are LIVING for Israel. So marking this site, while important, should not be the site of the swearing in ceremony for the IDF (which it once was), nor should it be the battle cry of modern Israel. A better slogan than “Masada will not fall again” would be “If you will it, it is no dream.”

We then experienced Bedouin hospitality and a delicious lunch, followed by a trip to…The Dead Sea. The lowest point (above ground) on earth, we had a blast painting ourselves in the healing mud and floating in the salty sea. Truly a wonderful experience that brings to a close a major item on our group’s “to-do list.”

Tomorrow we will close our trip. It is hard to believe that the trip is coming to an end…

Warmly,
Brad

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Craig and Phil enjoying Beduin hospitality

Craig and Phil enjoying Bedouin hospitality

IMG_1041 IMG_1053 IMG_1047 BOORing....! girls IMG_1039-1 6

I'm going to climb WHAT?

I’m going to climb WHAT?

Climbers from our group take a break before reaching a sunny stretch up Masada.

Climbers from our group take a break before reaching a sunny stretch up Masada.

Michael and Phil join me in a pose during our climb.

Michael and Phil join me in a pose during our climb.

Published in: on June 16, 2015 at 3:11 am  Comments (1)  

A Blessed Day, A Challenging Day, But A Good Day

As the morning began, we were all still spinning from the wonderful and meaningful Bnai Mitzvah service last night. I have been to a fair number of services, and for sure each of them is special and memorable in their own way. But there was something about the way this community came together and embraced our three Bnai Mitzvah, that something truly sacred was created. And, thankfully, the luster did not wear off over night and people were still speaking about the most significant moments from the service the night before. I count myself as truly honored to have been a part of such a moment.

Our family track assembled on the bus after breakfast and made our way to the City of David. This is an archeological park that enabled us to better understand how King David captured a small Jebusite city called Jerusalem and how that seed has blossomed over the years to become the Jerusalem with which we are all familiar. Of particular significance to me was the moment when we assembled atop of what would have been one of the houses reserved for the elites in the society, just below where King David’s palace would have been, and gazed upon the homes built into the side of the hill across the short distance of the valley. It was there that the story of King David and Bathsheba came to life, for we could see how easily he would have been able to spot the beautiful Bathsheba had she been bathing on the rooftop of her home. And it brought to live the Leonard Cohen lyric from his song, Hallelujah: Your faith was strong, but you needed proof/you saw her bathing on the roof; her beauty in the midnight overthrew you.

I have to admit my own discomfort with visiting the City of David. A privately owned area, under the administration of the Settler affiliated Elad group, the behavior of the administrations has been utterly distasteful. While years ago they began purchasing homes from the Palestinian population living near and, at times, on the property, they have since taken to engaging in scare tactics to intimidate those still residing in the neighborhood. They have even used the military and the local police to challenge the safety and security of the Palestinian populace. Our group saw none of this, but my knowledge of their practices makes me conclude that it was a mistake for our group to visit this spot. I don’t want to reward those behaviors and will strike this spot from any future visits to Israel until the intimidation stops. My own minor decision may not change much, but at least they won’t receive any funding from my groups visiting their city and paying the admission fees to the park.

Many of us in the group walked through Hezekiah’s underground water tunnel, the tunnel originally used to deliver water to the inhabitants of the city from the Gihon Spring. The tunnel was a fun experience and we learned a great deal about how King David used the tunnel to bring his soldiers into the city to ultimately capture it. He did not have to scale the walls and it proved to be an excellent military move.

We were then able to board our bus and make our way to the Kotel, or the Western (or Wailing) Wall. Widely touted as the most sacred landmark to the Jewish people, the retaining wall of the Second Temple is also the spot where people put folded-up pieces of paper with prayer written upon them into the cracks between the stones. Many in the group found this to be another spiritually moving moment in our trip, as the Wall is one of the more visible landmarks in Israel. I would venture to say that, before we knew as much about Israel as we now know, this visit was the most anticipated by our travelers.

Following the Wall visit, our group ventured to the Western Wall tunnels and many of us stayed behind to play a fun scavenger hunt in the Old City. It was a fun way to learn about the city as we ran around answering trivia about this amazing place. Needless to say, we earned a much-deserved trip back to the hotel and a relaxing night.

Following dinner, Rabbi Perry and I made good on a promise we made to the adult-only track and took them to the Waffle Lady. Enjoy (and salivate over) the pictures below.

Warmly,

Brad

Pomegranates!

Pomegranates!

Hezekiah's Tunnel

Hezekiah’s Tunnel

Brad and Sarah-Anne Seligman Kotel Selfie

Brad and Sarah-Anne Seligman Kotel Selfie

Craig and Preston Seligman at the Kotel

Craig and Preston Seligman at the Kotel

Craig and Preston Seligman at the Kotel.

Craig and Preston Seligman at the Kotel.

Dinner with the Gottliebs, Barrys, Blooms, and rabbis

Dinner with the Gottliebs, Barrys, Blooms, and rabbis

Alan and Cathy Gottlieb's Waffle

Alan and Cathy Gottlieb’s Waffle

Jon and Susan Barry say

Jon and Susan Barry say “yum!”

Larry Faskowitz enjoys his waffle as Maxine Rosen awaits delivery of hers.

Larry Faskowitz enjoys his waffle as Maxine Rosen awaits delivery of hers.

Marc Cohen and Terri Heyman enjoying waffles

Marc Cohen and Terri Heyman enjoying waffles

Judie Jacobs and Eleanor Schwartz enjoying waffles

Judie Jacobs and Eleanor Schwartz enjoying waffles

My waffle!

My waffle!

Published in: on June 14, 2015 at 11:33 pm  Comments (1)  

Shabbat – Jerusalem Style!

The Waffle Lady Riseth. But more on that in a moment.

Our Shabbat in Jerusalem started by imitating the behavior of God: we rested, at least a bit, sleeping in and enjoying a later breakfast. After we had another nourishing breakfast, we made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the church is actually on three spots that are imperative to an understanding of Christianity: the spot where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, the slab of rock on which Jesus was placed to be purified for burial, and the cave into which his body was placed. The place was mobbed – on Shabbat, with not many Jewish options, tour groups often seize the opportunity to learn about Christianity.

Rabbi Perry and I insisted that our tours visit this spot, the most sacred spot in Christianity, for two reasons: first, it will help us to understand our neighbors, as being in an historically relevant spot often provokes questions and provides a more detailed understanding of others. And second, because we believe that many of Christian friends back home will naturally wonder about our trip, and while they may have a passing understanding of the Wailing Wall or the Golan Heights or Tel Aviv, they will most certainly have a personal connection to this church. Thus, by our visiting, we have given our tour the opportunity to connect with others back home in a more meaningful way.

While we were in separate groups, and I am with the family group. Some of our members are Christian, and while the Jews in our group made their way through the church with ease, asking some questions but experiencing the site as tourists, our Christian travelers had an altogether different experience. I spoke with one member about her thoughts and, with tears streaming down her face, she told me that she could not find the words to express what she was so profoundly experiencing. But you know what? She didn’t have to – her tears said it all.

We then had some down time in the Old City, taking lunch and doing a bit of shopping. But before we knew it, it was time to head back to the hotel to get ready as LaWana Streger, Preston Seligman, and Ty Klein were becoming Bnai Mitzvah!

We gathered at Blaustein Hall at the Jerusalem campus of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. It was a wonderful bookend to our Reform experiences – first meeting with Rabbi Miri Gold, then attending Shabbat services at Kol Haneshamah, and finally uniting our two tracks where my path, as well as Rabbi Perry’s path and Rabbi Ron’s path, to the rabbinate all began. It is a beautiful space, overlooking the old city, and Rabbi Perry and I both enjoyed seeing the collective “gasps” as our groups entered the room. It really does take your breath away.

But the beauty of the space honestly and truly pales in comparison to the beauty on the bima. This was one of those amazing ceremonies. Three incredible students, each a wonderful personality and each with an inspiring story, and each with a support system that was enviable. Our students (two teens and one adult) and the family members who blessed them from the bima were open and honest about the blessings and the challenges that they have each addressed to get to this point. Needless to say, the tears were streaming. After the ceremony we had a lovely dinner and, though it was scheduled to end at 8:00, the majority of us stayed well beyond and chatted about the ceremony, the people, and the trip. Our guards down, we embraced each other anew.

A few of us went out later to one of my favorite haunts, the Waffle Lady. And, yes, she did once again rise to the occasion, recruiting 10 new adherents to her tasty treats. A fitting and delicious end to a wonderful (and delicious!) day.

Shavua Tov from Jerusalem,

Brad

With the Bat Mitzvah! Yay LaWana!

With the Bat Mitzvah! Yay LaWana!

Mazel Tov to the Bar Mitzvah boy; have a waffle!

Mazel Tov to the Bar Mitzvah boy; have a waffle!

Waffle Ladies! With Brooke, Sarah-Anne, and Grace!

Waffle Ladies! With Brooke, Sarah-Anne, and Grace!

Abi and her Waffle!

Abi and her Waffle!

Love and Waffles!

LaWana and Michael enjoying a post-Simcha treat!

Published in: on June 13, 2015 at 10:21 pm  Leave a Comment