From Intolerance to Simcha: Israel Sabbatical 2015 Post 1

It has been approximately one week since our arrival in Israel for my summer sabbatical, and over 3 weeks since my mother’s passing. I have entered this sacred land with mixed emotions…trying to find a balance between this mourning period and releasing from the tensions that have part of my life these past months. And yes, while the Jerusalem air, warm days and cool nights offers a sense of calm and shlemut (wholeness), truth told, it is a work in progress, and for today, I will label it: “dynamic tension”.   
I wanted to share an interesting encounter I had this past Shabbat while spending this time with our ultra orthodox cousins, who live in the city of Beit Shemesh. Beit Shemesh (for those who might not be familiar), is a sleeper community between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. These most recent years have found this community filled with tensions between secular and religious, religious and ultra religious, and the list goes on. Beit Shemesh, for me, has served as an incubator for such connections and subsequent tensions. 

  
For our first shabbat in Israel, we shared this experience with our cousins at their home in Beit Shemesh – a fully shomer shabbat, shome mitzvot experience – just what the doctor ordered! My cousin, an orthodox rabbi by smicha (ordination), but a computer programmer by day, knows my love for Carlebach music and prayer – so we headed to the Carlebach minyan. Shuls (synagogues) are a plenty in this community, and while the energy of this type of minyan was not his cup of tea, he was gracious in his offer to come with. 
The evneing started with such energy and beauty….singing and joyous momentum (on the men’s side) as we sang through the prayers of Kabbalat Shabbat – no less than 4 times of men being pulled up to dance around the service leader. Truly joyous! Yet, given the happenings of the past few weeks and tensions between these Jewish religious sects, something miraculous was occuring before my eyes: hasidim, religious zionists, and modern Orthodox were davening (praying) together – singing, clapping, and dancing. 

The height of my observation (as an outsider to this community) was the interaction between some of the Chasidim and immediate former MK (member of Knesset) Dov Lipman. Dov spent the past few years as a member of the Yesh Atid party, heading a ferocious campaign to enforce cumpulsory military service for the ultra orthodox community (they are not currently obligated). One might think it would be a challenging place for him to enter. Rather, what I witnessed were pats on the back, smiles, and positive and supportive conversation for Dov’s presence in this sacred moment. I witnessed, first hand, the joy of welcoming Shabbat trumping the feelings and challenges that have been clouding this community for quite some time.

For me, the gift of Shabbat is to leave behind the everday challenges we are obligated to/responsible for. Rather, barriers are removed, and we are ignited with the 3 flames: 2 are those that help us to make that sacred distinction between everyday and holy; the third ignites the best within us so that we may actualize our greatest human potential: v’ahavta l’recha komocha – love your neighbor as yourself. 
 

Getting ready to put a note in the wall at the Kotel

  
 
Though I am just at the beginning of this incredible journey, so may lessons have already been learned. I look forward to sharing more about my incredible learning time at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem….stay tuned! 

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Feet Don’t Fail Me Now! Israel Adventure: Days 5 and 6 

The last of the spring rains seem to be behind us, and the crisp morning air served us well as we had an intense day of hiking and biking ahead of us. 
After our delicious breakfast, we headed to the far reaches of the north of Israel, into the Golan – overlooking the Syrian border, not two miles from where we stand. While the border closest to us was quiet on this Friday morning, several weeks ago, mortal shells were landing as ISIS insurgents battled in nearby Syria. The group had a profound awareness and appreciation for not only how close the borders are, but how important the security needs are in the region. 
 

Overlooking the Syrian border

 
Soon after, we began our morning hike along the Zavitan hiking trail. We traversed the volcanic and rocky landscape into beautiful waterfalls. Along the way, we saw ruins of old Syrian bunkers, strongholds for their military operation pre-1967. The hiking was intense and awe-inspiring, getting us more excited for what would be waiting for us on our bikes in the afternoon.
 

Hiking the Golan

  

 

After a quick falafel fill, we got on mountain bikes and spent much of the afternoon biking along the mighty Jordan River (but if you blink, you’ll miss it)! Along the way, we witnessed every day Israelis, with friends and family, enjoying their days off, picnic-ing, some escorted by their four-legged friends. You might think you were in Pound Ridge Reservation or another domestic nature preserve, as all were going about their day, seemingly unengaged of the daily unrest that lies beyond their borders, or the at-large anti-Semitic global rhetoric. But for them, it was another day of living life and finding gratitude and sharing it with their loved ones. 
   

 

After a fantastic and tough ride, we prepared to welcome Shabbat. Nir, our guide, crafted a wonderful beginning to our Shabbat experience. We were invited to a local Israeli home, where we shared in preparing dinner and engaging in rich conversation. Before eating, we had a festive Kabbalat Shabbat service (complete with travel guitar) and lots of singing, followed by an incredibly delicious Shabbat dinner, both in meal and in dialogue. A wonderful evening was had!
We had a leisurely wake-up this Shabbat morning, and stretched our mind, bodies, and souls with Shabbat Yoga. New to some, but enjoyed by all! 
After some down time, we enjoyed another bike ride through the Galilee. This time, the terrain was hilly and meandering, but worth it for the many images we were able to acquire! As usual, we stopped for tea along the way (Israeli style), and even were able to ride through a kibbutz dairy farm. It was surely a day for new sights and smells!
As Shabbat came to a close, we made Havdalah overlooking the Hula Valley, and at truly authentic Israeli dude ranch/steak house.
The news came this evening of the earthquake in Nepal. Our collective prayers and thoughts are with all those who were affected by this natural tragedy. 
Tomorrow, we head to the ancient city of Tzfat and begin to make our way to Tel Aviv.  More to come….  

From Highs to Lows…and Back Again- The Heights and Depths of Israel Independence Day! Israel Adventure: Day 4

On Yom Haatzmaut, we had the fortune of celebrating Israel’s Independence with a stop at the Dead Sea. It was the first time for more than half of our group, and the smiles were abound as we descended the Judean Hills and came upon the sprawling visual of the north end of the Sea. It was early so we had the fortunate blessings of being the only group there. The temperature was brisk, but it didn’t stop our adventure participants from floating on their backs and snapping photos. It was so windy there were actually waves off the water, so much so that some of our sandals parted ways with their owners. 

   

 

We dried up and started our journey north, continuing our Independence Day celebration with a trip to Degania Aleph, the first kibbutz ever in Israel.  Celebrations were abound as we toured this treasured historical place and learned about the early settlers (many of them Russian), and how hard life was as they were determined to live in community, despite significant disease and health challenges, along with Syrian insurgents trying to eliminate their very existence from the Galilee. 
We ate lunch at the kibbutz, and (most of us) made it out before the rains came (very unusual to be raining at this time of year)!
In keeping with our ongoing Israel adventure, we headed into the Golan Heights and met our new friend, Ro’i, who led us to his jeep, taking us through the rocky terrain (vast understatement) of the Golan Heights. On the way, we had a visual teaching on the in depth understanding of the 1948-67 strategic challenges faced by Israel. Along the way, we sighted gazelles and wild boar (maybe some of us). Many of us have a new-found appreciation for the brave pioneers who gave their hearts and souls to build this beautiful nation.
   

   

We settled in to our B and B in Rosh Pina, overlooking the Golan heights and snow-capped (yes, snow-capped) Mt. Hermon.  

   

A Call To Remember and Celebrate – Israel Adventure: Day 3

I write to you from Jerusalem during Israel’s most sensitive hours – the time in which we are called upon to reflect and remember on this Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day), the 23,000 fallen IDF soldiers and victims of terror, and Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israeli Independence Day. During this varying 48-hour experience it has been impossible to avoid the mood that has set in throughout the country, and to not be enveloped in the national discussion of what those thousands of individuals gave their lives for, and what we wish for Israel’s future on her birthday.

Since last night, as I turned on the TV in my hotel room, the faces and names of those who fell were broadcast on Israeli television to beautiful Israeli songs – songs which express a desire for peace. As today’s sirens wailed for a full two minutes, our group was in the midst of our visit to Yad Vashem – The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem. I can’t think of a more appropriate and profound place to be. In addition to the cars, buses and trucks that came to a halt on the streets and highways, those inside stood in silence and at attention. At Yad Vashem, the media displays quieted, and the hundreds of Israelis and tourists (Jews and non-Jews), fell into a silent memorial to pay testimony and witness to those who gave of their lives. In that very moment, I was aware that disagreements or arguments were silenced, and we were brought together to pray that our lives will be fitting to those who have passed.

The sirens, much like the shofar blasts of Rosh Hashanah, call for us to be alert to messages we were receiving at that very moment – and to move through this experience with a quiet intention that would illuminate our inner flames to NEVER FORGET. 

Upon our closing reflection, we stopped to eat a quick lunch and continue our day of memorial at the impressive Ma’aleh Film School. There, we were invited to screeen two important short films that illuminated some of the contemporary issues and struggles in today’s Israeli society.

We headed from there to share some prayerful moments at the Kotel (Western Wall), to allow a few moments to reflect on the day’s powerful takeaways. 

After a brief stop at Mea Sha’arim (one of Jerusalem’s oldest and religiously observant communities), we headed back to the hotel in order to shift our mental and physcial gears as we soon approached the beginning of Israeli Independence Day. Throughout last night and today, we mourned. And tonight, we celebrated Israel’s 67th birthday. Just 24 hours prior, the entire country knelt down in mourning only to then rise up out of the depths in celebration of what we cannot take for granted: an Israel of phenomenal growth and achievement; an Israel with the dream of being an independent sovereign Jewish state is indeed a reality. Tonight we walked the bustling and crowded streets of the city center, where young and old are sing and dance, eat and rejoice. It was awe-inspiring scene, one that will be etched in our memories. 

Through the rollercoaster of the past two days, we have come to realize that here stands a powerful, magnificent Jewish state, and together we stand united remembering our heroes — sons and daughters who died in the long battle protecting our homeland. And as we do in our prayerful moments, we must remind ourselves of the words we ask of God:

עושה שלום במרומיו הוא יעשה שלום עלינו ועל כל ישראל ואמרו אמן

May God who makes peace in high places, make peace for us and for all Israel, and let us say, amen.

   

             

A Day Filled With Hills, Humor, and Honor- What A Day! Israel Adventure: Day 2

We began our day with a delicious breakfast, in order to fuel up for our inaugural Jerusalem bike tour. We didn’t know what to expect, but were excited to see this city of gold in a new and thrilling way! 

Jerusalem is now home to miles and miles of new bike paths that traverse the city from east to west and north to south. From the city center to Talpiyot, Neve Tzedek and beyond, we experienced the heights and depths of the Judean Hills, which gave us greater insight into the smaller cityscapes along the way. When was the last time you could say you were able to ride your bike through the Supreme Court and city hall? We learned that these spheres of justice are accessible to all- and they certainly were!

After our exciting morning, we headed to mahane yehuda (the Shuk/marketplace) for a festive lunch, and to enjoy the smells and tastes of Israel. And let’s not forget our dessert stop at Marzpan (world famous hot off of the oven rugeleach). We felt deserving given our intense morning ride!

We left for the old city, where we started our afternoon in the ancient City of David- an archaeological site recently uncovered adjacent to the city walls. Our adventure certainly wasn’t done- we headed a few hundred meters below ground and trekked (in darkness) through thigh-high water from the springs that served as the primary water supply for the Davidic Empire over 2000 years ago. 

Upon experiencing this 500 yard water system, we headed up the ancient sewers of the city, which gave new-found meaning to the Willy Wonka line: “Taste the wallpaper- the snozzberries taste like snozzberries”.  Needless to say, shoes were changed and cleaned later in the day!

The sewer concluded right under the old city walls and under Robinson’s Arch. We visited the southern wall excavation, had some exchanges with soldiers, and got close, but not up to the Kotel, as it is closed this afternoon and evening in preparation for a national Yom HaZikaron (Israel Memorial Day) service. 

Dinner was another win win, and now we wait, in great anticipation, with the cold Jerusalem air to our backs, at city hall for a special Memorial Day commemoration. 

We were all in awe as the sirens wailed at 8pm, and everyone stood in silence and attention, to honor those who gave their lives for the State of Israel. It is an honor to be present for this most important and sacred commemoration. Until tomorrow…. 

       

You Want Me To Do What? Israel Adventure: Day One

One might think that a 10 hour flight and all that comes along with preparing physically and mentally for an Israel experience would be enough for a first day….think again! Our group hit the ground running, surprised to learn that they would begin their experience as herders in training – “the amazing graze”. Our first stop was at Neot Kedumim, overlooking the amazingly lush Judean Hills. There we ate lunch and tasted the first fruits of the rainy season , learning about the connection of our tradition to the land.

It was there that we started coming together as a group by learning the art of goat and sheep herding. Through a “friendly” competition of herding scenarios, it became evident the true winners were the men of the group (just don’t tell the ladies)!

We then ascended, making our way up to Jerusalem, learning (visually) about the challenges that continue to persist as we traversed both sides of the green line and the West Bank. 

We made our way to hotel, ending of very busy day with a delicious dinner and walk in the city center.

After a good night’s sleep, we will be getting up early for a morning bike ride around the entire city (a first for all of us). More to come. Laila tov from Jerualem!

     

Words from My Friend…NIR

This picture was taken on our first Israel Bike Trip in 2008

This picture was taken on our first Israel Bike Trip in 2008

These past years, I have been leading a number of congregational trips to Israel, all of which have involved rigorous biking. To guide us through these incredible journeys, we have been in the hands of someone who has come to be a trusted friend, Nir Nitzan. He is an incredible tour operator and guide, yet he also served as a commander in the IDF. Over these weeks, Nir has been sharing incredible insights with me, along with a number of other friends from our Temple and throughout the country. I share with you his most recent emails, which I believe help to articulate some of the challenges that Israelis have been living with as of late. I welcome your thoughts and dialogue:

Received on January 24th: THANK YOU ALL
The last few days are not working days … no tours at all as most was canceled … though I did have 1 tour that did not run home asap… a private tour of mother and daughter from NY , the mother about my age and the girl a bit younger then my youngest who simply asked for my opinion.. “Is it safe to stay??” and my respond … that since we do not go down to the 25 miles range and since we have this iron dome it is safe …and with the MOST naïve trust in me we ended the tour as planed …
BUT the support I get from you all my very dear friends abroad is not natural or obvious and it is accepted with very deep thanks and excitement …
I get here daily mails and notes of support in almost every channel … this is very moving… the Old song we use to sing here when I was a kid = “the whole world is against us – Never mind we shall overcome” – this song is proved wrong once again … we are fighting a very cruel war here against a very vicious enemy that fights as dirty as can be, and violate every possible international law and decent rule while we are criticize by most the world though for “our actions”…
Mayor Blumberg came for few hours of support visit and between the alarms I was hosting in my house a friend – last week Rabbi Howard Jaffe from the Boston area who is in Israel for studies and got “caught” in Israel without planning to be here in such strange days…He said he would not have changed it even if he could… it is like a miracle in Israel this days ..the unity in most places … yes we do have some bad fringes on the left and the right but they are so small…
SO thank you SO much our friends across the Ocean … we need you support and we are blessed to have it
Nir

Day 18
Just before shabbat ..
this morning I drove Noa back to Gaza headquarters ..
Unlike yesterday that there was heavy fog and nearly 0 visibility this morning driving south along the border we could see the smoke of the bombing and the heavy dast up in the air made by the tanks, this few minutes under 1 hour drive was quite surrealistic …
we could hear the shootings and see the war 1-3 miles away from us and it felt really wrong to live here there …
As Noa walked out of the car I met there in the headquarter a friend who is the commander of one of the tank brigade … he just lost his G3 and radio man 3 days ago and came in all dusty for a short break and shower … I gave him a hug too and asked him to stay safe …
It is almost Shabbat … this day was relative quite … it also looks like the end of this is closer than ever …
Israel’s leaders are locked up in the room with Kerry , discussing the possible end of this bloody round .
I just baked Hallah for shabbat … you are welcome for our shabbat Dinner
Hanna did all other cooking so NO WORRIES at all it will be great food…