Sunday, April 29, 2018

Some Final Thoughts About Our 5778 Congregation Albert Israel Trip

Having been home for 40 hours I have been thinking back on our Israel Trip. Here are some of my reflections:

1)  This was the most diverse group I've ever travelled with to Israel. Over two weeks I marveled as this disparate group morphed into a community. Some friendships were created, others deepened. Even those who will never be more than acquaintances watched over each other with care and concern.

2)  What made the trip particularly meaningful to me was meeting "ordinary" Israelis who are doing extraordinary yet simple things to transform their communities and the country for the better.

3)  Gratitude:
     To Michele for keeping me sane and pushing me to find even more new places.
     To my partner on this trip Rabbi Paul Citrin for making most of the arrangements.

     To our guide Frances Oppenheimer who shared her personal insights and stories. She was not just our guide but a treasured member of our community. Not to mention we share the same sense of humor.

     To our bus driver Shalom. I have had many bus drivers over the years but Shalom surpassed them all. Not just backing up a mountain with a hairpin turn or navigating narrow roads in a giant bus but for his kindness to everyone in our group.

     To the whole group for your appreciation, patience, and acceptance.

     To all of our speakers and guests who added learning and personal stories thus enhancing our experience.

     To my friends Michael and Sally for a wonderful dinner and 47 years of friendship.

     To my partners at Congregation Albert, especially Cantor Barbara Finn for holding down the fort.

4)  This was my umpteenth trip to Israel over 47 years including one for six months and one for a year. Each time I see new wonders and the same old problems. I see people who persevere, laugh, mourn, celebrate, and live their lives with dignity. America is my country and my home yet, while I cannot see myself living there, Israel is too.

Until next trip - L'hitraot.

An Undaunted Spirit pt. 3 - Israel Guide Dog Center

In the mid-1980’s Israel’s only trainer of guide dogs retired. From that moment Israeli blind and visually impaired people were told they needed to learn English and go to the United States to get a guide dog. Fresh out of the army, Noach Braun wanted to change Israel for the better and committed his life to creating a center for the training of guide dogs. Noach did not know blind people but he began a quest that took him to the United States, Great Britain, and back to Israel to learn how to train guide dogs and train others to do the same. Starting with next to nothing, today the Center has expanded to training 40 plus dogs a year with a goal of training 60 dogs a year within the next two to three years.

We have been supporters of the Center for over a decade so Michele and I decided to leave our group for a morning and visit the Center to see for ourselves the work they do. Of course the puppies were adorable. These puppies are four weeks old and will be sent out to foster homes in another 4 weeks where they will begin their socialization which will last about 14 months.

Upon returning to the Center,  the dogs begin their rigorous four to six month training to become guide dogs. Only 40% - 50% of the dogs are suitable to guide the blind or visually impaired. The vast majority of the rest are trained to be service dogs to people with physical impairments or  emotional support dogs for former soldiers or  terror victims diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Of course there is a small percentage of dogs who are not suitable to be working dogs and they are adopted out as pets.

After a long day of training the dogs get to play.

Noach Braun is one of my Mitzvah Heroes.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

An Undaunted Spirit pt. 2 - S’derot

S’derot is another development town. What makes it unique is that it sits a mile east of the Gaza border and about 10 miles from Gaza City.

We were there on the 17th anniversary of the the first Hamas rockets raining down on the town. For 17 years, every week, or several times a week the warning comes and the residents have 15 seconds to reach shelter. Over the years, the roofs of every school and all new construction have been reinforced to withstand the assault. All buildings have safe rooms and shelters dot the streets. Yet, not only are the residents not deterred but the city has a positive growth rate especially among young adults. How many rockets have fallen? Here is but a small fraction.

We met Shoshana and Adi at a preschool. Both have young children and described for us how they are raising them given the reality of life in S’derot. Combining lessons in safety and optimism they are part of a thriving, growing town. Imagine living on a border and being shelled year after year with no end in sight. How many of us could withstand the pressure, the possibility that the next rocket could hit your home or your child’s school? Yet here they live their lives with hope.

An Undaunted Spirit pt. 1 - Yad L'kashish, Yerucham

A couple of people asked me “Why would a young person leave behind the life they know and make Aliyah?” Obviously, there are as many answers as there are individuals. But, our last few days in Israel add a most important answer as we met people who took and are taking advantage of Israel’s entrepreneurial spirit to create positive social change.

Yad L’kashish: Providing Dignity To Our Elders

In the 1960’s a few young people saw the growing number of elderly poor in Jerusalem. Rather than walking by with downturned eyes they opened a workshop to train these people as bookbinders to provide them with meaningful paid work and ensure they had at least one good meal a day. From that creative but humbling beginning Yad L’Kashish has expanded to teach people how to embroider, weave, make brass ritual objects, and most importantly, providing each of their clients with new creative skills and a deep sense of dignity. Today they have a shop where people can buy the goods the clients make and enable Yad L’kashish to help even more people. They sell beautiful items which thankfully many of our group purchased. Of course some of of what they make reflects the beginning skills of their workers.

Yerucham: From Developement Town To A Meaningful Place To Live

In the 1950’s, Israel created the so called “development towns” throughout the south to build the population of the desert and to provide homes for new immigrants mostly from the Arab world. Minimalist housing was built and whatever work there existed was minimalistic. With the mass immigration of the Russian Jews in the 1990’s these towns saw a brief influx of new residents and government resources and then found themselves abandoned again by the government and the exodus of their young. But in the last few years, a new generation arose who knew not, or cared not, the legacy of the past and determined to control the future of their homes. Yerucham is the vanguard of this new reality.

We were privileged to meet with two women leading the change. The first, Perach Lilach is a 25 year old woman who returned to Yerucham following her army service with a dream to change the lives of Yerucham’s residents left behind. After convincing her “big city” boyfriend to return to Yerucham, Perech works with Atid BaMidbar (The Future is in the Desert) Perech helping young people to find their to help build Yerucham while she attends school in nearby Be’er Sheva. Her enthusiasm for her home is contagious.

We also met with Deputy Mayor Tal Ohayon who became the youngest Deputy Mayor in Israel eight years ago at age 26. She started her adult life by returning to her family’s ancestral home in rural Morocco to work with the remaining Jews to build their work skills and improve their own communities. She returned to Yerucham with the same dedication to change her home town for the better. With a vision of a Yerucham filled with young people who return after college to build their home community and attracting new high tech businesses, or workers who can telecommute, she has been transforming her home. This week she announced her campaign for mayor so she can continue changing the community she loves.

One of the brilliant programs in Yerucham, Mevashlot Yerucham pays retirees to feed visitors like us. They open their homes and provide feasts. We were blessed to meet Jojo and Mazal who not only fed us but entertained us with their life story and leading us in song.

We were privileged to witness Ben Gurion's dream of Jewish life flourishing in the desert.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Transitioning From Sadness To Joy

It has taken me several days to process Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day), Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day,) and the transition from sadness to joy.

In America we not only do we separate Memorial Day and Independence Day by just over a month, for most Americans they have lost their prime meanings and have become days of sales and picnics. For most of us, the only thing that is different between these two days is the lack, or the presence of fireworks.

In Israel the opposite is true. Maybe it is because Israel is a mere 70 years old or because everyone has either lost a loved one or their next door neighbor has, these days have not lost their meaning. Maybe the adjacency of the two helps reinforce the power of the days and the difficulty of transition from mourning to life.

We began Yom HaZikaron by standing for the evening sirens. Cars stop on the road. People stand at attention and silence. Some with heads bowed. Others with eyes brimming. Others with both. We gathered in our hotel in Tzvat as our guide Frances talked about her life, read us Israeli poetry, and discussed with us the personal loss each Israeli feels. Quietly we returned to our rooms.

Up early the next morning we began our journey to Jerusalem, aware of the pall in the air. At 11:00 a.m. the bus stopped and again we stood for the sirens marking Yom Hazikaron. We drove through Tiberius, where Rabbi Judah HaNasi compiled and published the Mishnah around 200 C.E. in order to reinforce the unity of a Jewish people scattered throughout the world. The Mishnah represents both a final acknowledgment that Israel had been lost to the Romans and, the understanding that while they needed to mourn, they understood the need to ensure the Jewish people would survive and, if possible, thrive.

Just south of Tiberius we stopped at the Kineret Cemetery. There, overlooking the waters of the Kineret, the Sea of Galilee, we visited the graves of Moshe Hess, Rachel, and Naomi Shemer. Hess, a founder of Labor Zionism in Europe, died and was buried in Cologne in the late 1890’s. In 1961, his remains were moved to the land of his dreams. A dream fulfilled after death but, nevertheless, a dream fulfilled.

Rachel, a great Israeli poet, lived her life with depression, however, she wrote some of the most moving, soulful poetry. Her poetry touches the depths of the heart as it came from the depths of her heart.

Naomi Shemer, the voice of Israeli music in the 60’s and 70’s, set the words of others, and her own, to music that touches the heart. Her renditions of Eli Eli, and Yerushalyim Shel Zahav, are her best now works but, barely scratch the surface of her work.

Hess, Rachel and Shemer now rest near each other in the peaceful green overlooking the waters of the Kineret.

Driving to Jerusalem marked our early transition from Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. No drive is more powerful for me. Driving along the Jordan River with Palestinian towns and Israeli checkpoints, reinforces the complexity of Israel. Understanding, the need for security and the need to uphold the highest Jewish values of understanding the heart of the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt, tears at the mind and the heart.

Our arrival into Jerusalem on Mt. Scopus, which, between 1948 and 1967 was an Israeli “isle” in the midst of Jordan echoes from the past to the alternate reality of today. But, doing Kiddush and Shehechiyanu overlooking the city of our past, present, and future, makes the heart soar like few other places/views can. 

After checking into our rooms we met with my classmate and friend Rabbi Bill Berk who led us through a transition from the sadness of Yom HaZikaron into the joys of Yom Ha’atzmaut. We then left the hotel to find various celebrations around Jerusalem before the conflicted message of our next day, visiting Masada

The Zealots of Masada decided it was better to die than to live as a defeated people, perhaps as slaves. If all had taken that path Judaism would have ended there and then. 

Thus, celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut on Masada seemed odd to say the least. Our guide for the day, Doron, Rabbi Citrin and, I each gave our own perspective on Masada and Yom Ha’atzmaut. As we prepared to descend, three squadrons of fighters flew overhead putting a final explanation point on the holiday. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Days Two and Three in Israel

I’m having a harder time than usual putting into words the past two days. I think it is a combination of being here for Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day and in contrast watching our group get to know each other and begin to bond.

Yom Hazikaron looms large over Israel and me. We began yesterday two kilometers from the Syrian border listening to Nir Atir who, at that very spot, with three tanks and 27 fellow Israeli soldiers delayed dozens of Syrian tanks and hundreds of troops until reserve forces could arrive during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He told part of his story in the bunker where he and the other wounded survivors waited with the bodies of their dead comrades spent hours waiting to be captured or killed. Hearing his story while in that bunker touched each and every one of our souls. 

Part of the story was of the soldier who volunteered to leave the bunker waiving his white tee shirt and lead the surrender to the Syrians. After he left the bunker, shots were fired and they assumed he was dead and the Syrians would kill them too rather than take them prisoner. After the Israeli reserves arrived and pushed back the Syrians, the wounded were taken to hospitals. A year later, Nir went to visit the parents of his friend who tried to surrender. After knocking on the door, his friend answered. He had been taken prisoner after all and survived. We were uplifted and our eyes brimming as we heard his tale.

From the Golan we drove to Tel Dan, one of the oldest cities excavated in Israel and now an incredible nature reserve. The city dates from the 8th Century B.C.E.. It was built on that spot because it was near the Dan River, part of the head waters of the Jordan River. It was at Tel Dan that the oldest mention of King David was discovered.

The fortifications of this 3000 year old city are amazing but pale in comparison to the power of the river itself. Watching the river flow, bringing life to the land served as the symbol of life we needed as Yom Hazikaron was approaching. Sitting by the water, our wonderful guide Frances read to us from Psalms connecting our deep past with our vibrant present.

From Tel Dan we headed toward Magdala to see the excavation of a Second Temple synagogue. A woman named Miriam is the most famous person from Magdala. Better known as Mary the Magdalen, this would have been the synagogue she attended. 

Notice the symbols in the pattern of the floor

Returning to Tzvat we visited the synagogue of Isaac Luria. Notice that every light fixture is dedicated to someone’s deceased relative. Donating lights to the synagogue morphed into the tradition of lighting a candle at home on a relative’s yahrzeit.

A “quick” walk through the shops of Tzvat brought us back to the hotel to prepare for Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Our First Day In Israel

It is hard to believe that it has been nine years since we were last in Israel. Being here in anticipation of Yom Ha’atzmaut - Israel Independence Day, Israel’s 70th birthday, is invigorating.

After the normal endless flight to arrive in “Ha’aretz” (The Land), we met up with our group in Herzliya. The last time I had spent time in Herzliya was in the late 1970’s. Then it was Israel’s Beverly Hills. Luxury condos  and homes. Israel’s first golf courses. The home of wealthy Israeli’s and long term visitors. Today Herzliya is a hub in “Start-Up Israel.” Computer companies abound. The streets are full of commuters. Change comes even to the enclaves.

After dinner and a good night’s sleep, at least for me, we headed up the coast and a bit inland to Pardes Hana.

At Shabbat services Friday night in Albuquerque, we began by singing Eli Eli. While the music was written by the iconic Israeli singer, Naomi Shemer, the words were by the poet and hero, Chana Senesh. Senesh lived in Israel during WWII and the Shoah. She, along with other members of the the Haganah, parachuted behind Nazi lines to try and rescue at least some of Europe’s Jews. She was captured, tortured and killed by the Nazis. Not only does she live on through her poetry but, through this village named in her memory and the incredible organization there, Nevei Michael.

Nevei Michael is a home, school, and crisis center for Israeli children, Jews, Muslims, and Christians, from the most severely broken homes. Some were victims of abuse. Others, had mothers who were murdered by their fathers or fathers murdered by their mothers with the murderer now in jail. Nevei Michael provides them not only the basics, food, clothing, and shelter, but life skills, self-esteem, parenting models to break the cycle of violence , and most importantly, love. Outside of the school building is this sign:

My translation goes like this: “We believe that every child has the power, to learn to be self-aware (open) and to go be strong. We work to identify and cultivate the strengths and skills unique to every child. Thus, at the conclusion of his/her studies, s/he will graduate with values and be well grounded, and will see him/herself in the best possible way.”

Hava and her daughter Rachel have worked for decades and have seen the success of their children. Some have become professionals, others laborers, but each has become a mensch.

Of course, they treated us with the same kindness they show the children in their care. From their limited budget they set out food and drink for us.

Leaving Pardes Chana we continued north to two places of Jewish resistance, Zichron Yaakov and Atlit. Zichron was the home of the Aaronson family who established a spy ring in WWI to help the British oust the Ottoman Empire from Palestine. Ironically, at Atlit the British established a detention camp to imprison Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi and post-Nazi Europe.

Finally, we arrived at our hotel in the mystical city of Tzvat in time for a beautiful view of the holy mountain Meron and a pre-dinner nap.