Israel Family Trip December 2017

Nisiya Tova (bon voyage!) to Rabbi Jodie, Rabbi Lee, and everyone from the RSNS community that is participating on our congregational trip to Israel!!

Follow along on this wonderful trip through daily accounts from congregants and from Rabbi Jodie.

See photos in the Trip Photo Gallery.

Day 1 

We arrived at the hotel not long before Shabbat. Some of us chose to go to services, others to settle in, and even others went for a walk to explore the city.  This writer can attest to the beauty of Jerusalem’s many different minyanim (groups of people praying); with unseasonably warm weather and windows open, you could hear the wonderful sounds of congregations big and small praying on each street you walked through.

We met up just before Shabbat dinner to hear briefly from four young people who are considered “lone soldiers”: people who came to Israel to enlist in the Israeli Army who have no family in Israel.  They came from California, Philadelphia, Miami, and Toronto.

The lone soldiers then joined us for a delicious Shabbat dinner at the hotel, tasting all sorts of new and exotic cuisine (as well as some familiar) and afterwards had a fun and engaging get-to-know-you activity.

Tomorrow: to the Masada and the Dead Sea!

     Shabbat Shalom,

     Josh Blumenfeld


Day 1  

Met the RSNS Community at the airport. Had an easy flight, a few hiccups with baggage, still one is lost. The participant with the lost bag has a fabulous attitude. We met our wonderful guides, Julian and Eitan and two bus drivers, Moshe and Isa.

The drive to Jerusalem was with no traffic and we saw the amazing view as we rose up to the city. Aaron was waiting for us and he looked great! People made the choice to rush to services, take a walk or to have some more time to settle in. Some went to egalitarian musical services, while other went to the Great Synagogue and still others to the conservative movements minyan. A few of us joined Aaron at his shul and experienced a trihitza (seating for single gender and mixed seating). The Roah across each community was felt.

We joined our guides and 4 Lone Soldiers as we welcomed in Shabbat with a niggun (wordless melody). Lone Soldiers are people who join the IDF and have no family in Israel. 3 were Americans and 1 Canadian. All had interesting narratives as to why they choose this path. We had a plentiful Shabbat Dinner with the Soldiers.

We ended the night with a “speed dating” activity. Learning about each person through the values they hold close to their neshama (soul).

Off to sleep. Shabbat Shalom and Leila Tov!!

     ​Rabbi Jodie

Day 2

Early morning wake up!

Breakfast was an array of cheese and yogurt, my favorite being the famous “yellow cheese.” Off to Mt. Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As we traveled the path from west to east Jerusalem we encountered the people who live in these most talked about communities. From streimels to hijabs, we saw how the people of Israel live side by side. A beautiful vista overlooking the city allowed us to contextualize our historical connection.

We drove to the desert and experienced Ein Gedi and had a beautiful hike to the waterfalls. We learned about King David and the biblical connection to the land. We witnessed the natural habitat and felt the dryness of the land.

Half our group decided to climb the snake path at Masada (see photo in the gallery) and the other half took the cable car up. The climbers had more time to explore the ruins and both groups got a historical account that helped to reframe the Masada narrative.

Ein Gedi spa was a treat. With the mud, sulfur showers and trolley directly to the Dead Sea, it was a great place to visit. The group floated and saw the amazing salt deposits.

As we journeyed up through the outskirts of the West Bank, we drove through Check points and entered into Jerusalem. Aden Horowitz who has spent her first semester of Junior year in Israel met her brother and the RSNS crew for dinner. What a welcome homecoming.

A quick dinner at the hotel and havdallah with the RSNS Community in Gan Ha’Atzmaut. We entered the old city through the Jaffa gate and went to the light show that allowed us to experience Jerusalem through the ages by image on the Jerusalem stone and music.

Off to Ben Yehuda!!

     Shavua tov!    Rabbi Jodie


Day 2: Masada and the Dead Sea (lots of photos in the Gallery)

Upon waking up on our first morning of our Israel trip we were greeted with a lavish breakfast display from the hotel - from breads to yogurts, and cheeses to spreads. After hopping onto our tour bus for the day we set off towards the area of the Dead Sea. Our first stop was at a lookout over Jerusalem at the Hebrew University. Being together as a community listening to a few poems and about Jerusalem and learning a little about the city's history, I think we all began to feel how great the trip we were about to embark on would be. 

Our next stop was at the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve along the Dead Sea - a beautifully preserved area of waterfalls and nature trails.

Next we would head over to the Masada National Park, an ancient city atop a plateau far above the Dead Sea. We had the choice to take a cable car to the top or to hike up. I chose to take the hike up.

Tired and hungry after having most of us hiked and all of us having been in the sun for a while, we had a quick lunch before going for a "swim," or "float" rather, in the iconic Dead Sea.

The day was not over yet though - after an hour bus ride back to Jerusalem we took part in a Havdalah service in a park close to our hotel.

And afterwards saw an interesting "light and sound" show at the Tower of David in the Old City.

To top off the night some of the group wandered over to Ben Yehuda Street to do some Saturday night shopping and exploring, all of us eagear for the next exciting day in Israel to come.

     Zach Baecher


Day 2 Ein Gedi, Masada, Dead Sea, Jerusalem

Hineni (הנני)   I am here. 

A prolific statement begins our journey as our tour guide, Julian, helps us relive the story of Abraham being called forth to sacrifice Issac. Just as our forefather answered without knowing the ask, we are ready to approach our first day exploring this magnificent city. Rabbi Lee reads us a poem by Yehuda Amichai which sets us in motion . . . “Jerusalem is a port city on the shore of eternity”.

Before boarding the bus, we capture a spectacular view overlooking the city.

Next stop: Ein Gedi Nature Preserve.  We mingle with some Ibex and Hyrax. Would you believe this guy is a relative of an elephant? We took a short hike in this desert oasis to view waterfalls of various sizes and to explore the limestone faces that surrounded us.

Masada. Our group splits with some trekking the Snake Path with our tour guide, Eitan, while others followed Julian up on the cable car for a history lesson about King Herod and the fortress at the top. 

In the distance, you can see the Dead Sea. Our final bus stop for the day, and a relaxing way to let our troubles float away . . .

We arrived back in Jerusalem at 6pm, but our night was far from over!  After dinner, Rabbi Jodie led us in a beautiful Havdallah service in the middle of a large garden area. Arm in arm, we sang in unison as we welcomed the night. 
King David’s Tower was our next stop to watch an impressive light show that combined music and projection artistry to weave the tale from antiquity to today.  Many went back to our home at the Prima Kings, while others checked out the Saturday nightrumblings of Ben Yehuda street. 
We certainly made the most of every moment today. It is magical to watch members of the group connect with one another as they strengthen their bonds to our city, our congregation, and to each other. 

     Gillian Kolodny 


​Day 3

I am still amazes each morning that I get to eat a salad bar at breakfast!! The colors and the freshness of the vegetables add a sense of vibrancy to the day.

Christmas Eve. We spent the day exploring the holiness of history and the history of holiness in the Old City in Jerusalem. From visits to the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Second Temple (516 BCE–70 CE) which is governed by the Orthodox Rabbinate, to climbing the walls of the Southern Excavations. From the Church of the Holy Sepulcher with the pilgrims singing at the stations of the cross to the Shuk. Shopping in Cardo in the Jewish quarter and eating lunch on Jerusalem stone.

We traveled the Kotel Tunnels, which were built under the Muslim quarter of the old city. We were walking in the midst of a live archeological dig.

All of this before lunch!

We visited the City of David and learned the history of where is all began and how a unified capital of the tribes of Israel was established 3,000 years ago.

With the evening free, people met relatives, friends or just relaxed. It was an exciting exploration of our past that we were asked to incorporate into our present.

     Rabbi Jodie


Day 3

Jerusalem: The Holiest of the Holies:  In the Yehuda Amichai poem Rabbi Lee recited yesterday, we are left with the sentiment that “Jerusalem is the Venice of God” and today we see that metaphor spring to life as we embark on learning the history of this place.

Our group split today, so I am sharing the perspective of those of us who spent the day learning with Julian as our guide.

We began at the timeline of history and witnessed how this land has been ruled by so many empires throughout the ages. The influence of this can be seen as we traverse the city. We are reminded that Jewish laws are even still based on three ruling powers. Some from the Ottomans, some British and the rest Jewish law. As we look out over the city, you can see remnants of the Ottoman Empire in structures, and the building of the Great Temple and the walls are in the Roman style as they ruled this land once as well.

Temple Mount area:  Walking among the ruins of the Temple Mount, we are brought to a section of the Western Wall. Evidence was found that proves Jews were indeed here 2,000 years ago. The words inscribed on the stone tell workers to lay their tools down and get ready to welcome Shabbat.

We are brought to the wide steps of this enormous temple as the young teens in our group climb to the top and descend humming the Rocky melody.

These steps are designed with intention. With an alternating short and long pattern, one was forced to be mindful as they entered the temple to pray. The only people to come in the OUT gates and Walk out the IN Gates are those in mourning. This allowed the congregants to know who needed comfort from their community at the time.

The Western Wall:  Continuing along through the gates, men and women are separated as we go down to pray and leave notes at this iconic site. It was quite interesting to see so many people from different nationalities and who clearly practice different religions praying together. On the men’s side, we can see dancing through the openings in the fence as they celebrate a young man’s Bar Mitzvah.

Muslim Quarter:  We stroll through this open-air market to see the many wares and smell the spices, roasted nuts and baked goods that are for sale.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher:  Shared by four different orthodox churches, this is the holiest place on earth for many Christians as they believe it is the site of where Jesus was crucified, where his tomb resides, and where he rose.

Kotel Tunnels:  The Muslim quarter was built next to the Western Wall, but on top of the old city. These tunnels have been excavated to show the remains of what was below that quarter at one time and represent one of the closest places you can get to the two temples.

We eat lunch on our own in the Jewish quarter; some grab street food at a variety of shops, and some choose to sit at the Holy Cafe.

Our day together ends in the City of David having a discussion about Israeli politics then and now. Julian is quick to remind us that there are two sides to every story and each has roots and rights to this land. He believes the only way to do so is to continue having a conversation, and to find ways, although extremely complex, to be able to live in this land side by side peacefully.

Dinner was on our own this evening. Some favorites from the group were the brick oven pizza close to our hotel or eating at a restaurant in First Station which is a new area that took over the old Ottoman railway station.

Another phenomenal day of learning, walking, talking, and understanding the history of our people.

     Gillian Kolodny 

Day 4

The rain arrived! It is hard not to be thankful for the rain because the country so desperately needs it. But it was pouring, last night and this morning. We stopped by Mt. Herzl Cemetery and learned that there were two sections. The area where significant founders and leaders of the State of Israel were buried and then the military cemetery. What an honor to hear the stories of the people who came before us who had the vision and passion to build this state.

The cemetery once again reinforces how small our Jewish community is in comparison to the world. All our current leaders of the State of Israel can be buried in one central place.

A few short steps from Mt. Herzl was Yad Vashem. We were asked to ponder not just the location but the intention of each exhibit. Even the name of the day that we commemorate the destruction of 6,00,000 Jews was wrestled with. The given name is Yom haShoah v’Gvurah. Remembering the Shoah and the courage.

Most of the RSNS crew explored the museum through the guided tours of Julian and Eitan as they expertly traversed the crowds and had our students who adopted survivors tell the story of their survivor. Some exhibits were closed off due to a Japanese diplomats visit to Israel. Each foreign state person who visits Israel needs to visit Yad Vashem before they engage in state business.

Some of the RSNS crew went to the Israel Museum in the morning after an introduction at Yad Vashem. We explored an architecture exhibit about Jerusalem, Jewish life cycle objects, Jewish ritual objects, 4 replicas of Synagogues from around the world, some modern artists and a quick look at the Dead Sea Scrolls.

We met up and journeyed to a Bedouin tent for lunch. Sitting on the floor on cushions and low benches was a wonderful challenge!

The group had a choice! Some chose to go to the archeological dig and other chose to go on a guided tour of the Israel Museum with Eitan. People love a choice. With Eitan they explored some of the same exhibits that we did and added some of the ancient rooms.

At the archeological dig we learned that a Tel is hill and they are digging out the Tel. This organization that we dug with allows people to see and experience what it feels like to expose objects from the Maccabean times. We dug, we found, we carried, we sifted, and we explored what it was like to be underground discovering history.

Some people explored an olive press while others climbed through caves that were lit by candles. All came out dirty and able to hold on to their connection to the past.

We had dinner at Eucalyptus, a biblical food style restaurant. There were multiple courses with vegetables and meat. The food had a Sephardic flare. We were all able to eat together! A table for 76!!! We celebrated the young adults in our community who had just become B’nai Mitzvah this year. They helped create one of the dishes. Everyone left full and satisfied!

Packing up to leave for up North tomorrow.

     ​Rabbi Jodie


Day 5

Waking up to the opening of the stalls at Machne Yechuda (Shuk) was a special treat. We walked through the neighborhoods surrounding the Shuk and saw how it has changed over the years. From hippie to religious, which is the trend in many communities in Jerusalem. From fish and meat to fruits and vegetables, marzipan rugelah and fresh baked bread to Israeli pants and beer. People tasted, smelled, touched and listened to what was going on around us. The shops that were not opened had interesting murals painted on there metal doors. Experiencing the Shuk as the market opening was a peak into the daily life of a Jerusalemite.

Checking out and packing up we then journeyed to a Druze village. The Druze are an Arab people that number between 1 1/2 to 2 million people. They live in many countries and pledge their allegiance to the country they live in. Israel has about 200,000 Druze citizens. They believe in reincarnation, absolutely no intermarriage or you are outside the Community, and you can at any point chose to be religious. We had a beautiful lunch in their village and had a gorgeous overlook of the north.

Safed was our next stop. A mystical, artist, orthodox city. We explored Synagogues, narrow alleyways, artwork, candles, Jewlery, and the locals living their lives in the old city of Safed.

We ended the evening at Kibbutz Nof Ginosar on the Kinneret. A beautiful kibbutz hotel actually on the beach. The food was excellent and the rooms spacious. We ended the evening debriefing in small groups. We explored challenging moments, moments of surprise, areas or experiences that made us feel Jewish and when we felt a shechechanu (first time) moment.

Sleeping early because we have a 7 am departure.

     Rabbi Jodie


Day 6

We woke up extra early this morning since we were leaving the hotel by 7am to make the most of our only full day in the north.  As one of our guides, Julian, said: “I won’t say you’ll sleep when you’re dead - I’ll say you’ll sleep when you’re in New York!”

Our day began with half of the group going on a 4x4 ride exploring the Golan region and the other half hiking the Banias nature preserve.  The 4x4 riders learned about how Israel pushed back the Syrian Army attackers in the Six Day War in 1967 and secured the Golan Heights.  The group leader, Yaniv, lives in the same town his paternal ancestors have lived in since they escaped the Spanish Inquisition in 1492.  He loves the Golan and can’t imagine living anywhere in else.  The Banias preserve has the largest waterfall in Israel, beehives, and a wide array of trees and trails.  After about an hour at each activity, the groups met up at the parking area for the preserve and switched activities.

We then left to go further north to see the border with Syria from 1,165 kilometers above sea level.  We ate lunch atop Mt. Bental, which was once a volcano and is now a lookout point for tourists and U.N. peacekeepers, as well as a post for Israeli Army reservists.  We entered the reservists’ bunkers and learned that a group of reservists can spend up to a month atop Mt. Bental keeping watch, passing time, and trading watch shifts for cooking duties.

Next, we headed down to the valley for a stop at the Bahat winery and De Karina chocolate factory.  While some of us learned how to make chocolate, others learned how the region’s grapes get turned into wine.  The chocolate is done in about an hour; the wine, about 2 years.  Those of us who attended the wine tour then were treated to a wine tasting of: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and port.

Some had dinner back at the hotel and others went to Tiberias, the largest city around the Sea of Galilee.

Tomorrow: to Tel-Aviv by way of the old fortress city of Acre.

     Josh Blumenfeld


​Day 6

Earliest departure of the trip, 7:00 am!

Everyone experienced an amazing off road Jeep experience in the Golan. We all climbed in small jeeps and saw the cattle, the barbed wire denoting where mines could be and learned to stories of the people who live in this region. Yaniv told us about his family who immigrated to the land after expulsion from Spain in 1492. He grew up and still lives in Metulla. He spoke of the sacred nature of the land and how long his family lived there.

The Banias nature preserve was a wonderful nature walk along side the body of water. The natural beauty amidst the extraordinary conflict is a constant reality check. We learned about the many past attacks in the areas we visited and how essential it is for the Community to continue living. Ice cream, fresh squeezed pomegranate juice and honey combs were for sale in the nature preserve.

Katsarin or Mt. Bentel for lunch. We learned the history of Israel’s relationship to her neighbors. Lebanon, Syria and Jordan up North. The borders are within sight distance and on this clear sunny winter day you can clearly feel and see the closeness between the countries. We met the Australian UN Soldiers. Saw the snow capped mountain of Hermon and climbed in the bunkers.

De Karina had a chocolate making and a wine tasting experience. White, milk, and dark chocolate mixed with nuts, sprinkles coffee and coconut. We rolled and tasted it all. While we were wearing our chefs hats. From the eldest to the youngest we created and tasted the chocolate and the wine.

Back to the kibbutz. Some went to a chefs Arab (Palestinian) restaurant while most stayed at the kibbutz for dinner. Some sang outside with Rebecca and Solomon while others had a drink at the bar.

What a wonderful day, fabulous weather, engaging and eye opening narratives.

     Rabbi Jodie


Day 7

We packed up and loaded the buses and left the kibbutz. It was a lovely hotel. In the evening we were able to walk the banks of the Kinneret and see the lights of the city of Tiberius and the lights of the other neighboring countries.

We drove the entire width of the north. From the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) to the Mediterranean. Spending the morning exploring the castles of Akko. Knights and castles during the crusader time period. In modern day Israel they use the stages of the castle for a “fringe” theater festival. We had our own with participants from RSNS performing. We learned how challenged people were this past festival because the minister of culture wanted to censor the material of participants and anything anti Zionist was not permitted. Some went through the tunnels in the castle and everyone explored the Arab Shuk with the blue doors on each home and shop. The snaked path led us to the sea. A true small port there were fishing boats and restaurants on the sea.

We began our trek down South towards Tel Aviv. And took a turn off the highway to be dropped in fields that we would pick through the Leket project. These are fields that were planted for the sake of having volunteers harvest them for those people in Israel in need of food. This particular field was beets (sleek). The RSNS Community attacked the field and picked and pulled and twisted off the greens. We filled five huge containers with beets. Hands red with beet juice, finger nails with dirt under them we had a fancy boxed lunch at the local gas station. I am kidding about the fancy, not kidding about the gas station. Everyone was a good sport and we were able to have an authentic Israeli gas station experience. A full bakery, restaurant and convenience store right next to a bus station with soldiers trying to catch a ride.

An hours ride with city traffic we ended our touring in Jaffa. The ancient section of Tel Aviv. The old city on a Thursday night is always filled with brides and grooms taking pictures before their wedding ceremonies. The artists and the view of the city by sea were spectacular. Once again you hear the narratives of Arab and Jewish Israeli living side by side.

The discussions and insights of the guides as we traverse the landscape of Israel adds depth and breath to the overall picture. Learning about army service and privatization of kibbutzim adds to the flavor of the experience.

We had a night to explore Tel Aviv. Many people saw friends and family and some went straight to sleep!

     Rabbi Jodie


Day 8

We split up kids on one bus with Julian. Adults on the other bus with Eitan.

Julian took the kids to his kibbutz to experience the behind the scenes life of a kibbutznik. They loved the freedom in which kids ran around, the animals, the collaborative nature of this way of life. Julian and his wife opened their home to our children. They visited Julian’s grandchild, 2 of his 3 children have moved back on to the kibbutz with their families. Our kids ran and played and relaxed in the midst of a welcoming space.

With Eitan we traveled down south and met with the organization EcoPeace (aka Friends of the Earth Middle East). This is an organization our congregation has a relationship with. A joint venture with Israel, Jordanian, and Palestinian leadership working towards having clean water for their communities. Water is something that everyone needs. That we can agree upon. It is a non political way for these three groups of people to work together to better each society. We saw the wall that was recently built to separate the territories and Israel proper. We were at one of the few Check points from the West Bank to Israel. We saw the buses that take the Palestinian workers to Tel Aviv to work and the buses that take the families of those in prison to visit them. We learned that this Check point usually has about 5,000 that cross it daily and it is only about 5 women in that number that cross. The people that cross have to have the correct papers and often times wait from a half and hour-two hours to get through.

We learned about the water crises in the West Bank and how that has a direct impact on Israel proper. That although this organization is looking out for each community, they are also in it for themselves. We spoke about the history that led up to this time. The present day complications.

Lunch on a kibbutz with everyone! We have had such wonderful hospitality across the country.

The kids left to go on a camel ride! What fun and no one fell off!!! The adult bus was supposed to go to Sderot. To see hands on what it means to live in missile distance to Gaza. How this Community lives their lives. At the moment we were to leave, our guides were alerted to the fact that missiles were launched near Sderot. The decision was to not make that stop and to have the discussion on the bus as we made our way back to Tel Aviv. We were definitely living in the “all of it.”

We had time at Shuk haCarmel and since it was Friday the art fair was open as well, Nachalat Benyamin. The adults had the opportunity to eat, walk and shop.

Those who went to Synagogue joined Beit Tefila. A wonderfully progressive Jewish Community that uses modern Hebrew poetry & music to punctuate the service. We sang and danced and prayed and spoke about how we are thankful.

Shabbat dinner at the hotel, we were joined by Maya, our Shinshin from last year. It was a joyful dinner that ended with a fun oneg. Solomon and Rebecca led us in song and then we debriefed about our trip by playing crossing the line. (Tel Aviv/Jerusalem? Salad for breakfast/NO salad for breakfast...). We ended with games in different groups. Each group had to pick a name, do a cheer, create a Masada was had by all.

Just some thoughts...Infrastructure is happening all over. A railway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem that will be 35 minutes!! The never ending conflict about the role of the Orthodox Rabbinate not allowing work on Shabbat came up when we spoke about the railway. As we keep reiterating, issues are not only what they seem on the surface. Jewish values of rest on Shabbat coupled with the traffic jams that construction creates are at times in conflict with each other.

On the bus ride we heard about some of the challenges going on in the political climate.

No constitution

No regional representation

No term limits-Bibi since mid 90’s

Buying bonds-money goes to government in power. Supporting the settlements.

We were asked to look deeper than the head lines, be critical, read the editorials.

AIPAC-keeping America connected to Israel, keep IDF strong

JStreet-bring to the forefront the difficult questions, bring the important issues to head, occupation, 

NIF-strengthen all aspects of Israeli society. Arab and well as Jewish Israelis. This is challenging for some in the community.

Shabbat Shalom!

     Rabbi Jodie


Last Day in Israel

We have two wonderful guides leading us through Israel. When it comes to the complicated issues, Julian has advised "not to listen to sound bytes, but instead be involved in conversation." Eitan introduces a complicated issue as a "machloket," a Hebrew word translating to a dispute, or an argument. This term dates back to the debates the rabbis were having in the Mishna and the Talmud. Jews have been wrestling with challenging questions for ages, and we preserve both sides. We may agree with Hillel, but we know what Shammai had to say. 
Our trip has allowed us to see the issues of Israel today up close, our guides have presented them in a way that includes both sides. We become a part of the conversation. We hear the Machloket instead of the sound byte.

We discussed the history and future of the Golan Heights while viewing into Syria and Lebanon. Through an organization called EcoPeace, we learned about collaboration on water issues between Israel and Palestinian communities while standing steps from the (recently built) wall that separates the West Bank. We explored questions about how the government should regulate what is permitted on Shabbat while experiencing Shabbat in Israel for ourselves. We asked ourselves how Israel should grapple with the shadow of the Holocaust while visiting Yad Vadshem. We learned about the experience of Arabs in Israel while eating lunch in a Druze village. We dissected the situation in Gaza as our bus was diverted from a visit to nearby Sderot due to rockets fired in the area. At a closing debrief, Julian asked us to consider whether we agreed with the decision of the Israeli Defense Force when they faced a dilemma during the second Lebanese war. They are both external and internal conflicts, religious and secular questions. 

What I appreciate about being here with the RSNS community is to engage in these conversations with a thoughtful, insightful and open-minded group of people. Many have spoken about a change in perspective after having a closer view, myself included. Rabbi Jodie often speaks about being in the "all of it" and the challenges that brings. Through this trip we have experienced the "all of it" together as a community. We have begun to probe the difficult questions, and we will continue the conversation in our larger community when we return to RSNS.

Personally, the weight of these questions has been heavy, but there have been certain spiritual experiences here where it all seems to disappear. Singing at a Kaballat Shabbat service in Jerusalem, praying at the Western Wall, hiking the snake path up Masada, walking the path of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem, and seeing the Bania Falls nestled in the Golan Heights to name a few. The feeling at these places is hard to describe in words, but I know it's a feeling you can only get from being here.

As I return to America I hope to take these experiences with me while delving into the challenging conversations. 

     Solomon Hoffman



​Afterwards: A Reflection on the Trip by Richard Skolnick


My wife Louise and I, along with our daughter Sari and our granddaughter Zoe, were together with all of you in Israel.  It was a remarkable journey, an incomparable learning experience which, given the number of people involved, along with the challenging logistics, came off remarkably well.

On the personal level, touring is uncommonly demanding and disruptive.  Removed from your usual comfort zone, required to forego many accustomed creature comforts, you are, moreover, obliged to conform to unfamiliar daily rhythms and expected to interact continually and cheerfully with others.  There are notable physical demands as well – dawn awakenings – long lines at inadequate bathrooms – repeatedly entering and exiting buses – packing and unpacking, etc.  Most of you appeared to take that all in stride and in good humor.  After all, we were highly motivated, eager to experience as much as possible, to learn all that we could about a land we were predisposed to embrace and support.

I offer the following account in the hope that it can contribute to keeping alive the wonderful adventure we shared.  Now that we all have returned to the familiar pathways of daily living, there is the likelihood that our encounter with Israel will fade from view, that we will forget what, at the moment of discovery seemed so vivid, vital and significant.  Hopefully a chronicle of this sort can serve to reinforce our recollections, preserve what we observed, heard and experienced well into the future.

I make no claims that this represents an official record or is a comprehensive account.  It is based upon what I experienced, reactions that some of you shared with me, chance encounters with Israelis along the way, visits with Israeli friends and reactions to information provided by our exceptional guides. In all likelihood, some of you will share a perspective similar to mine, though others will see things quite differently.  It is precisely this interplay and dialogue between contrasting points of view that can illuminate issues as well as encourage us to reflect upon what happened and how we reacted during our days in the land of Israel.

One should not ignore the fact that we were on the ground for just a handful of days, flitted from one location to another while treated to a somewhat sanitized review of affairs in Israel.  We were also in some sense cultural voyeurs, attempting to absorb the Israel experience while metaphorically “standing on one foot.”  Still, a lengthy journey must begin with the first step.  Let us, therefore, move forward. 

Would all that we encountered somehow fit together?  Might some unifying theme emerge?  That would, at first glance, seem unlikely.  There were clearly so many disparate elements that one could best describe it as a form of “cultural pointillism.”  Could we somehow manage to connect the dots?  It is to these “points” that we now turn in the hope that certain linkages emerge.  I present these in no particular order.  I encourage you to fill in the blanks, and if possible impose a design that meets your own sense of order and meaning.

GUIDING LIGHTS                 

Of course, you can go on your own, visit the sites, maybe read a guidebook account or two beforehand.  But this trip made me realize how much added value guides can bring to the experience.  (Guides in Israel must undergo rigorous preparations and meet exacting standards.)  We were fortunate indeed to have two exceptional and knowledgeable escorts accompanying us (neither of whom was born in Israel - one in South Africa, the other in the United States).  There was Julian, the “father figure,” and Etan a former rabbi, “our buddy.” They pointed out what we should know and understand, providing context, offering historical antecedents and encouraging us not to be passive observers, but to engage with, and reflect upon, what was before us and to assess its significance.  We received no academic credits for our trip, but most of us, I believe, came away much better informed and intellectually well nourished.  (And one must add, intact, thanks to our very professional bus drivers who, even when maneuvering through numerous tight spots, kept us out of harm’s way.)

A TOUGH NEIGHBORHOOD                   

Why did God have to choose that strip of territory along the Mediterranean as the “Promised Land”? Was God simply being mischievous?  Why is it that so many others showed up?  Didn’t the Almighty foresee how crowded a neighborhood it would be, that it would serve as a crossroads of the Middle East, and became a hotly contested region.  Any surprise then that we encountered all that tsouris?  The Assyrians, Babylonians, the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Ottoman Turks all came by, some staying on for centuries.  Plus, the crusaders had to butt in as well, rampaging clear across Europe to “liberate” the Holy Land from the unholy Saracens.  It leaves your head spinning.  Contrast this with the U.S.  No one ever invaded (though the British did burn Washington, D.C. in the War of 1812, and Pancho Villa, the Mexican “bandit,” staged some cross-border raids on the United States early in the 20th Century).         

By the way, let’s not forget Great Britain, long our closest ally, is the “heavy” in this drama during the period of the British Mandate (1917-1948), even though the Balfour Declaration (1917) promised support for a Jewish State in Palestine.  Nonetheless, England consistently attempted to restrict Jewish entry.  This policy assumed tragic dimensions in the 1930’s and beyond when our people attempted escape to Palestine from Nazi Germany and elsewhere.  Louise and I, while walking along the boardwalk in Tel Aviv, came upon a park where a permanent exhibit documented the many ships that tried to “run the blockade” in the 1930’s and thereafter, including the “Exodus.”  Some succeeded, including several that discharged their “human cargo” along the Tel Aviv shore, but quite a few were apprehended by the British and the passengers returned to Europe.  By the end of the mandate, the British and the Jews were battling each other, the deadliest attack being the bombing, by Jewish “extremists,” of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem (where British administrative officers were located) in which over 90 were killed.

Now what are the odds that all three of the major Western religions would “collide” in that same limited, confined place?  A cosmic joke, no doubt.  Has that created problems?  It sure has.  But also evidence of tolerance and a live-and-let live arrangement.  Israel, we were told, has been especially careful in respecting and protecting Christian and Moslem religious sites.  That concern apparently has not always been reciprocated.

Israel, as we well know, still resides in a crowded and dangerous neighborhood, a situation altogether foreign to Americans (anyone afraid of the Canadians, though for a long time we worried about Cuba).  Sarah Palin did claim foreign policy expertise based upon her ability to see Russia from her Alaskan vantage point, but all of us, when we were up North, did in fact see Lebanon and Syria right there, even Damascus.  Of course, Jordan and Egypt are also in the neighborhood (while ISIS has grown deadly in the Sinai) while beyond, an Arab phalanx beckons - no friends of Israel here.  With neighbors like these, is it any wonder Israel feels embattled?  If that wasn’t bad enough, consider the fact that Israel has few supporters across the world.  Endless U.N. resolutions testify to that fact, as does the ongoing BDS movement.  Incidentally, just as we left, Israel announced that a well-funded (government and private monies) effort would get underway to counter this BDS movement with a carefully targeted information campaign.  Anti-Semitism, anti- Israel – often they’re one and the same.

NO SIMPLE SOLUTIONS                               

Often along our many travel routes, we were directed to an area adjacent to the highway and informed that it was situated in the “West Bank.”  It seemed to be such a crazy quilt patchwork .  How, one wonders, could authorities possibly create a geographically unified area, separate and distinct from Israel that could become the basis of a viable independent Palestinian state?  As we were reminded again and again, slogans are one thing, but there are, alas, so many details to consider and work out for each situation.  It’s unimaginably complicated.

ANCIENT AND MODERN                          

In most every nation we find a jumble of the old and the new, remnants of what once was together with what has just recently emerged, of old paths and new thoroughfares, of ancient crafts and new technologies, of time-honored ways and recent cultural shifts.  In Israel that is taken to extremes.  In Jerusalem we find a modern city but in its bosom a walled enclave originally built back at the dawn of civilization.  In Safed we are transported back in time while in Tell Aviv we gawk at shining new residential towers penetrating skyward.  We view the traditional market stalls in many a location and pass by the high end boutiques on our way to the Tower of David or on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv.  We stroll cobbled streets and whisk along well-paved super highways.  We ascend in elevators and also peer down into bottomless excavations that expose ancient civilizations.  We encounter Israelis dressed most fashionably alongside the Orthodox, garbed in a manner unchanged for ages.  We examine traditional craft products and are informed that Israel’s hi-tech sector is world class.  We ponder the precariousness of life when passing through dessert terrain and observe austere Bedouin encampments, but also delight in bountiful Israeli breakfasts and hear tell of wondrous new solar power possibilities.  Sometimes the old and the new clash, with demands that people make choices, take sides.  On other occasions they become part of a rich tapestry that gives depth and adds dimension and meaning to our lives. 

KEEP ON DIGGING                              

Dig underground in the United States and you’re not likely to find much of historical significance; maybe some Indian arrowheads, a burial ground or two, prehistoric animal skeletons, but not much more.  Dig down deep in Israel and there’s no telling what you will uncover.  Here, archeology is a national passion.  The search is on, not for gold or precious metals, but for evidence of ancient artifacts, documents, structures from any number of cultures and civilizations that took root in the land countless centuries ago.  The point was illustrated most vividly in the vicinity of The Wall, where we could peer down into the depths into an area where continued excavation was underway.  History, once assumed to be lost, is being rediscovered and reinterpreted piece by piece.  It’s a slow, painstaking process, but the rewards can be spectacular.  Yesterday’s rubble has the potential of revealing secrets that are of great consequence today.

SCENIC DELIGHTS                                              

If asked beforehand to describe the topography of the land of Israel I believe may of us would have focused upon the Judean Hills, the Negev, the Golan Heights, Mt. Hermon, the Dead Sea and the coastal beaches.  What surprised and impressed me during our many bus excursions was the diversity of the land.  In fact, one of you observed how remarkable it was that so many different landscapes could be found in a country so small.  What I saw were rolling hills and formidable mountain ranges, deep valleys and densely forested areas (not many rivers or lakes, however).  Most impressive were the orchards and the sizeable areas of cultivated fields efficiently planted with rows of young plants, covered for their protection and to retain moisture.  However, you define a land of “milk and honey,” I discovered Israel to be not at all drab and uninviting, but rather saw nature in all its many splendors.


Some facts fall out of favor, replaced by new versions undergirding alternative perspectives.  This became apparent when our guides related the story of Masada.  We had long viewed this example of Jewish resistance as an undeniably heroic episode in our history.  Jews standing up to, defying and holding out bravely against the mighty legions of imperial Rome.  Too often our people had been pushed aside, crushed by powerful enemies, able to offer but token resistance.  This time it was different.  A band of Jews kept the Romans at bay from their redoubt at Masada.  And just when the siege was about to succeed, instead of submission and surrender the Jews chose death at their own hands, thereby depriving their adversaries the ultimate satisfaction of conquest.

All this, in fact, happened:  the basic facts have not been challenged.  And for years proud Israelis and Jews everywhere celebrated Masada as a prime example of Jewish grit and a determination “to live free or die.”  Nowadays, not so much, we were told by our guides.  The Jewish group fleeing to and holding out atop Masada (one of the luxurious residences of Herod) was described to us as a band of religious zealots, irreconcilables.  They opposed any negotiations, any concessions.  They were a group separate and apart and at odds with the larger Jewish community.  What about their decision to sacrifice their lives rather than wait to be overrun?  The choice was made, we were told, by a small group and imposed on all (women obviously had no voice in the outcome).  Men were assigned to kill family members, including children, and then each other.  Truly a gruesome undertaking.  Heroic?  A rallying cry for Jews?  Certainly it can be construed this way.  But we were led to believe that is not a point of view that goes unchallenged these days.  Still, it’s quite a riveting tale, however you spin it.  Anyway, the view from the summit – spectacular.

DON’T MESS WITH THE ROMANS                      

Nonetheless, some Jews had the chutzpah to try.  There were actually several uprisings, but the two most prominent were in 66 A.D. and again in 132 A.D.  In the first instance, Titus, a future Roman emperor, in a struggle lasting nearly four years, conquered Jerusalem and utterly destroyed the second temple.  Recognizing the size and enormous weight of the temple stones as we did, it is a wonder and a measure of Roman unrestrained fury and destructive expertise that they accomplished this feat.

The other Jewish rebellion led by Simon bar Kokhba, after initial successes against Roman soldiers, was crushed once Emperor Hadrian dispatched a very substantial force to the area.  In addition to a largescale depopulation of Jewish communities, Rome’s vengefulness assumed the form of a name change designed to erase memory.  No longer would the region be known as Judea or Israel, but rather as Palestine.  And Palestine it remained until the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.  And where are the Romans today?

YAD VASHEM                                 

Visiting Holocaust memorials can be an overwhelming experience, emotionally eviscerating, inducing endless tears and anger barely suppressed.  But somehow that did not happen this time.  Why, I wondered was this so.  Part of the answer had to do with the dense crowds that milled about (in some areas replicating conditions in the concentration camps themselves, where Jews were herded together, uncertain of what would come next.  Whenever I wished to stop and examine an “exhibit” or read a lengthy explanation or description, I felt pressure to move on as others present pressed forth to take my place.  As is the case with such memorials, some presentations were too ghastly to take in.  And there was simply too much of it, too much to sort out, to absorb.  One needed a quiet place to gather one’s thoughts.  Thankfully we found it in the hall where the names of the three million identified victims were housed.  Here the centerpiece was profoundly moving, consisting of a bottomless well or pit, eloquent testimony to the gaping hole and void the Holocaust had produced in the ranks of world Jewry.  I believe a visit to the exceptionally moving Children’s Memorial would have reclaimed the morning’s experience for me, but it had been closed to the public so that Japanese dignitaries could visit undisturbed.  I consoled myself with the thought that it was well that the Japanese were present.  Their atrocities in China (Rape of Nanking), as well as during World War II, have been obscured by the Nazi’s murderous onslaught.  Perhaps their visit would remind them that they also have much to atone for.

BATTLE GROUNDS                          

At one-point Julian offered the view that all Israelis to an extent suffer some form of PTSD.  Such a diagnosis is not unreasonable.  (A point confirmed in a conversation with a friend of ours.  She had been living near Israel’s northern border during the “troubles” with Lebanon and became traumatized in response to the daily toll of living dangerously.  For one year she remained in a state of shock.  Subsequently, she moved further south, has made an effort to divorce herself from the news of the day, and has attempted to create an emotional cocoon around herself.  Today, she has become a painter who has become notably successful.)   Israel probably has the dubious distinction of being involved in more wars and conflicts than any other country in the years immediately following the nation’s creation.  (The United States fought an undeclared naval war with France [1798] and later the War of 1812 against Great Britain.)   In Israel 1948, 1967, 1973- everyone knows these are war years.  Throw in some intifadas, Lebanon conflicts and sporadic terror attacks to round out the grim picture.  Add to this the unrelenting pressure of countless missiles in Lebanon and Gaza, all aimed at Israel, prepared to launch at any time.

What has been Israel’s response?  The creation of armed forces that are world class – well trained, highly motivated, well equipped (guides pointed out several arms depots along our bus routes) and rapidly mobilized.  The army is perhaps the most popular institution in the country.  Israel has its own defense industry and also relies on American counterparts (e.g., Raytheon) for an assured supply of modern weaponry.  Israel possesses sophisticated intelligence services, the Mossad considered to be highly professional and efficient.  We must not omit Israel’s nuclear capabilities.  How many such weapons are in its arsenal?  “No comment” is the official response.  Israel must, however, continue to win all of its serious military engagements.  A major loss could threaten its very existence.

How does this all translate?  Many of us were a bit apprehensive when, just days before our departure, Trump announced his intention to begin planning to shift the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  Would the Palestinians erupt and create a dangerous condition across the country?  Some unrest did follow, but it appeared to be more ritualized than real.  On the other hand, one of our buses heading toward Gaza was obliged to turn around when news arrived of the launch of three missiles from Gaza by Hamas (two of which were thwarted by the Iron Dome) and the movement of Israeli tanks into the area.

A shopkeeper in Tel Aviv informed me that the tourist trade had slackened somewhat, a situation he attributed to fears about violence.  How cautious were we walking the streets?  Did we consider the possibility of “lone wolf” assaults?  The few people that I spoke with about the issue said that, while they mostly felt at ease, they stayed alert and avoided areas that were isolated and unoccupied.

“Good fences make good neighbors,” the poet Robert Frost once opined.  In Israel’s case they seemed to have kept the peace.  We were informed that the walls (and fences) have succeeded in sharply reducing infiltration activity and the resultant violence.  Predictably, Palestinians regard them in a different light, especially when enduring lengthy delays when passing through.  On the occasions when a security threat is declared, West Bank workers are unable to reach their jobs.  Centuries ago, walls were the rage around towns and castles.  Today, they’re a relic of nastier times – except that conditions do get nasty with some regularity in Israel. The Great Wall of China, once a defensive fortification, is today a World Heritage site and a major tourist attraction.  Hopefully, Israel’s walls one day will fall into the same benign category.

MADE IN ISRAEL                          

If there were any murmers of discontent during our trip it related to the amount of time allotted for shopping.  Tourists, after all, are reputed to be inveterate shoppers.  To curtail such activities places tour leaders at considerable risk.  Inevitably there’s tension between those who want to go shopping and others eager to see the sights.  One must move with exceptional caution between these polar opposites.

What is it that activates the shopping gene on trips such as ours?  Shopping confirms and validates travel, provides tangible evidence that one has been abroad and recognized the unique products associated with particular locales.  How can you visit Russia, for example, and not buy a nesting doll?  Or travel to Ireland and avoid purchasing a hand knit sweater?  Certain countries, it is assumed, produce products unlikely to be found elsewhere and presumably at a “good” price.  So, one would be remiss in not purchasing them.  Then, too, unlike in the U.S., bargaining is acceptable, even expected in many foreign countries, so there is also the allure of haggling, of emerging victorious.  (A member of our group noted that he’d entered into the bargaining arena only to discover the back and forth involved but a few shekels – hardly a high stakes contest.)

Speed dating has come of age, but “speed shopping” remains untested and probably unwelcome.  Shoppers, after all, like to examine the goods, make up and then change their minds, consult with others before taking the plunge.  None of this can occur when your group is moving rapidly along a street and through serpentine alleyways.  Such fly buys can be very upsetting to shoppers.  I noted this when we moved through the succession of market stalls in Old Jerusalem, Accra and Jaffa.  To stop and shop or make an instant purchase risks losing contact with the group in motion.  One, therefore, would simultaneously both gain and lose.  You can, of course, back Israel by planting a tree, or buying a bond, but most of us would prefer to demonstrate our support by shopping in Israeli stores.

Remember – Whatever you buy, be it a religious object, a piece of jewelry, a painting, you will always receive compliments upon showing it to others.  No one, after all, would dare criticize or comment critically on your poor taste or pedestrian purchases.

GOODS APLENTY                         

In America we have our flea markets, outdoor bazaars, giant garage sales and other multi-vendor happenings, but nothing quite like the beehive of commerce we entered when tramping through the winding narrow paths of Jerusalem’s Old City or the stores and stalls in Accra, Jaffa or Safed.  It is both an exhilarating and dizzying experience, with storekeepers aligned cheek by jowl in a seemingly unending warren where are offered goods of bewildering variety.  We hear invitations to enter, pleas to stop and shop, offers of bargains, but we are on the move, unable to stop.  I take note of the disappointment on the faces of the merchants once it’s apparent that we will not be shopping.  I wonder how all of them can make a living, given the multitude of shops, many offering similar goods.  I comfort myself with the thought that they’ve occupied these same stalls year after year, apparently doing well enough to carry on.  Or is that just wishful thinking on my part?

THE COST OF LIVING                 

Israel has a world class airport, a dramatic upgrade from a once humble aerodrome.  New construction appears to be the order of the day, a major national highway currently underway, a railroad network being extended, and a light rail project well advanced, plus new residential construction nearly ubiquitous, the “crane” having become, according to Julian, the national bird.  When I asked for an explanation he made reference to an emergent affluent class of Israelis, most related to high tech enterprises.  These were the folks who were filling these expensive apartments.  He was also quick to note a rapidly widening economic gap in Israel, an inequality of income that placed the nation among the worst performing countries in that category among advanced developed nations.  Contrast this with the earlier Kibbutz ideal and its commitment to a rough equality.  Julian also referred to the decline of Histadrut, the general organization of workers in Israel (founded in 1920 by David Ben-Gurion).  No doubt its weakness is related to the widening income gap (after all they didn’t even protest the harvesting of beets by us- non-union “foreign” workers from America!).  By the way, did you notice the extraordinary proliferation of beauty parlors on Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv? That is not, I imagine, unrelated to the rising affluent class already noted.  While on the subject, Louise and I did some browsing about in local supermarkets and discovered that prices of ordinary items were notably higher than in the States.  That would seem to underscore how difficult it must be for the average Israeli to get along.  (My daughter Sari’s friend, who drives a small car around Tel Aviv, told her it cost $120 to fill the tank.  Were that the case in America, there’d probably be a revolution.)  To tourists looking in from the outside much of the demands of daily life, I suspect, goes unnoticed.  On the other hand, I did not encounter that many beggars along the way.  Does that square with your experiences?  I’m not sure what it meant but why not consider it a positive sign?      

STAYING IN TOUCH                    

The cell phone has introduced a new dimension to touring.  The trip proceeded as smoothly as it did because our guides were constantly on their phones, communicating with each other, and calling ahead to confirm reservations and adjust schedules.  It’s hard to imagine how all of this got done in pre-smart phone days.  Additionally, lengthy bus rides were rendered less tedious when young and old alike took to their phones for diversion.  Back in the day, to make a call to the States from overseas generally was both complicated and costly. No longer.  Just by “dialing” the number my wife was, in an instant talking to our son on the West Coast.  When she fell sick she simply text messaged her physician on Long Island and, in no time, he responded.  This is all to the good, except that it tethers you to home, allows you to remain comfortable, diminishes the sense of being away, on your own in pursuit of adventure.

And your phone is also taking pictures.  For most there was no more lugging around a camera, stocking up or buying film, waiting to get back home to view scenes you’d captured.  It was so simple – aim and press.  Again and again.  No doubt our collective pictures totaled in the thousands.  No one, however, was more avid in this pursuit than Michael Cohen, who each day devoted himself to capturing every imaginative place and face, the minutiae and the majestic.  He will have much to show for his tireless efforts.

THE PALESTINIANS                    

This was unquestionably an Israeli-centric tour.  I can’t recall learning much about the Palestinians.  Did I miss something?  Was I absent when such discussions occurred?  I did hear Julian note that while Jewish towns usually altered the topography to suit their needs, Arab villages on the other hand tended to conform to the configurations and dictates of the landscape.  He also commented upon the generally poor level of Palestinian leadership over the years; leadership given to showboating but seemingly indifferent to upgrading the daily lives of their people.  He also offered a “corrective” regarding the War for Independence in 1948, related to the exodus of tens of thousands of Palestinian residents.  He acknowledged that many left to get out of harm’s way, or were driven out by Israeli soldiers.  But, he added, many departed once assured by Arab leaders that, in the aftermath of an Israeli defeat, they would be allowed to return to their homes and to take possession of the residences of the Jews who were driven out.  

Perhaps others in the group acquired more information about the Palestinian issue.  For me there was a notable gap of information and analysis (notwithstanding Julian’s reference to the “Walled-Off Astoria Hotel in Bethlehem”).  It was, however, somewhat compensated for by the daily presence of our delightful Israeli-Arab bus drivers. They were genuinely sweet and pleasant fellows.  Maybe that’s all I needed to know.  And, by the way, all our Arab cab drivers were uniformly courteous and on every occasion got us to our destinations.

Addendum:  There was reference to a Palestinian Diaspora, a clustering of populations in such places as Lebanon, Jordan, Chile, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Honduras, as well as Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan.  Also noted:  an unexpected factoid regarding the investments in an Arab village just outside of Jerusalem by Moslems in Chechnya.    


Just as with the Palestinians, we had scant contact with, or received much information about, Israel’s influential orthodox community.  We did encounter Shabbos elevators and experience Sabbath lockdowns in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but that added little to our understanding of this population.  Our first day of touring was early Saturday morning (off to Ein Gedi).  The streets were nearly deserted, except for black garbed men moving helter-skelter, heading off to pray.  While watching them it became apparent they were going in various directions, probably to different shtiebels.  We were told that the Orthodox divide into separate sects and follow particular rabbinical leaders.  Experienced observers are able to determine, depending upon their unique headgear and distinctive garments, their particular affiliations.

All of us understood beforehand that the Orthodox community wields immense influence (despite constituting a relatively small percentage of the population).  Our guide mentioned that on Saturday they even assume the authority to close off various streets in their communities to outside traffic.  In addition, they call the shots regarding marriage, conversions, etc.  Their influence is seen most openly when it comes to the Wall, where they enforce strict gender separation.  A struggle of long standing relates to creating an egalitarian section at the Wall where men and women may mingle and pray (a campaign spearheaded by Women of the Wall).  Concessions on this issue for a time seemed likely but foot dragging by the government and pressure from within Orthodox circles has arrested the process.  You may have noticed just before we headed into the main plaza, a small platform erected in a far off corner alongside the Wall where Bar Mitzvah services were underway, attended by both men and women.  There is still a long way to go.

Of course, the issue of the settlements on the West Bank and their incorporation into a greater Israel (Judea and Samaria), a highly charged subject (to my knowledge not discussed)), remains a goal high on the agenda of certain Orthodox groups.

We probably knew beforehand that there is a fair amount of resentment in Israel toward the Orthodox community (while we were there the Knesset was wrestling with the issue of enforcing Sabbath closings in towns where, by local ordinance, stores were allowed to stay open).  The only insight I gained came from speaking to a friend who has lived in Israel for the past fifty years.  She preferred, she observed, not to be around in August, a time when Orthodox families and groups head into her area up north to camp out.  She considered them as unwelcome intruders who made a mess of things and left piles of garbage in their wake.  Other Israelis, I imagine, are critical of the Orthodox because of their disproportionate influence, the subsidies they receive from the government, their general avoidance of military service, and the fact that their world view and way of life diverges sharply from that of the majority population.  How a secularizing society relates to and reckons with an aggressive religiously orthodox population is not readily apparent.

Still and all, the most unforgettable moments of the entire trip for me each occurred, believe it or not, at the airport in Israel and later at JFK.  I’m sure many of you saw what I did.  Walking by us in a slow stately manner, as we lined up at the gate at Ben Gurion was a procession of Orthodox men in black, flanking a personage who was doubtlessly a prominent rabbi.  Ancient looking, bearded, diminutive, there was nevertheless an unmistakable aura of reverence about him.  The same scene was repeated at JFK while we gathered around the baggage carousel.  Once again, the procession moving slowly, the rabbi enveloped by his followers, headed toward the exit, a police presence alongside.  The Rebbe had been to the Promised Land, and was returning to his people.  

Addendum:  Besides commenting on the Orthodox Community I should mention the two occasions when my wife and I attended religious services, first at a Conservative Synagogue in Jerusalem and later in Tel Aviv at a Progressive Temple where most of you also were present.  In the first instance there was just a handful of worshippers and at the second, other than our group, just a few “members” present.  Either that speaks to a lack of interest, or perhaps it is on Saturday mornings that the “crowds” gather.

MATTERS OF FAITH                  

A number of interesting insights emerged as a result of our visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  The place is central to the story of Jesus’ death and the belief that he was the Son of God.  We were informed that the church belonged to and was administered by seven different Christian denominations that mistrusted one another to manage the affairs of the holiest of sites.  To resolve the impasse, authority over the church was handed over to Moslem officials or clerics in the belief that they would act impartially.  Presumably, this arrangement has proved satisfactory.

Julian made certain that we understood the significance of two wall illustrations.  One depicted the near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham at the request of the Almighty, an action forestalled at the last minute by the appearance of a ram, which was sacrificed instead.  The other illustrates Jesus, having just died upon the cross, lying upon the ground. The implied message, we were informed, was that Isaac had not died but Jesus in fact had been sacrificed; it is, therefore, through Jesus, the son of God, that the almighty wishes to convey his truths to the world.

Finally, we learned that consistent with the fact that Jesus was a Jew all his life,

customary funeral rituals were followed; namely that his body first was washed, then placed in a cave in accordance with Jewish practice in which, once a year had passed, required that it be removed and buried (underscoring the latter day Jewish practice known as the unveiling).  Had we wandered through the church on our own, we would have missed these illuminating explanations from our guides.


Every nation produces an endless supply of cheap tchotchkes, ready to sell to visitors.  Souvenir stores are everywhere where tourists are likely to congregate.  Israel is no exception.  After all, when we go overseas we feel obligated to return with some small tokens of our travels.  There are, after all, friends, family members, grandchildren who presumably are eager to acquire “unique” items emblematic of a particular country.  Magnets always seem to be available featuring easily identifiable symbols of the place.  In this instance, cute stuffed camels were widely available, as were the tee shirts (“Don’t Worry America – Israel has your Back;” “Israel Defense Forces”.)  In Israel, religious themed items were everywhere – kiddush cups, dreidels, yarmulkas, menorahs, tallit, rabbinical figurines, the Wall, Hand of God.  They were inexpensive, some even tasteful, and they packed easily.  I imagine very few of us headed home without purchasing some of these ready “reminders” of our trip.


Like shepherds of old Rabbi Jodie and Rabbi Lee kept tabs on their flock throughout the entire trip.  And what a remarkable job they did.  No one was left behind or abandoned; no one was lost.  Do rabbinical training programs include this sort of instruction?  During religious services, after all congregants sit quietly in their seats, are attentive and do not wander off.  Touring, however, is another matter.  Both rabbis took their responsibilities most seriously, attentive to our needs, responsive to our requests.  They kept us informed and provided up-to-date bulletins relating to schedule changes.  They respected our need for frequent bathroom breaks and made certain we all had an opportunity to use the facilities before moving on.  They were gentle but firm when laggards failed to keep pace with the main body of strollers.  They kept those intent upon shopping during our many wanderings from disappearing from sight.  And we were counted repeatedly, more often than a miser his money.  Rabbi Lee, with an exactitude and seriousness worthy of a jail warden, counted and recounted his passengers and insisted that family units keep tabs on one another.  It was surely a great source of comfort to all of us knowing that two rabbis were looking out for us, concerned with our physical wellbeing.  I can imagine their enormous sense of relief watching us all board the plane and depart Israel.  And we now better understand and appreciate how their pastoral responsibilities expanded and how well and gracefully they entered into their new roles.  Many thanks. 


During the last dinner, Etan in his remarks urged us to consider how our journey, just concluding, will affect our ongoing relationship with Israel.  What have we learned about our heritage?    While all of us have multiple identities, to what degree will the Jewish component be strengthened by our relatively brief stay, and by our understanding and possible re-examination of the Jewish mission there, made all the more urgent in view of the rekindling of anti-Semitism around the world and in our own country.  While we all return to resume our “real” lives, what of the residue of our time in Israel?  How will we choose to discuss it with others?  Hopefully, this account of our visit, though a partial and obviously personal survey, will assist in recovering memory, help provide a partial foundation for finding meaning in the fact that we are a people with an ancient heritage, finally gathered in a land of our own with a God-given purpose that has endured to this day.

               Richard Skolnik

               January 2018