Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Last days in Israel, and stuck in NYC

After experiencing several Holocaust narratives, Yad Vashem's renovated museum gave us a thorough review with an Israeli flavor. Israel, the remedy for the suffering of European Jewry. After a week in Israel to be reminded of everything we had seen under the blinding sun and warm weather of a national homeland was not lost on anyone. From there we went to Har Herzl, the military cemetery that was intentionally placed next to Yad Vashem. From there, we heard another perspective from a West Bank settler/peace activist and then we headed south to Mitzpeh Gevulot, about five kilometers from the Gaza border. there we were hosted by Oren who announced that the group was going to cook their own dinner--grilling meat, baking pita, cutting salad, and providing entertainment for the feast. As always, everyone jumped in and were up to the challenge. Stuffed, and satisfied, we went to the Kibbutz Gevulot guest house where we rested for the night.

The following day we were introduced to what its like to live under Hamas's rocket fire and why people opted to stay. Susy, of the Moshav Netiv Ha'asarah, engaged us for over an hour about what made her still call this place home in spite of the challenges. Love of a place that is so complicated gave us insight into an Israel that we hadn't seen.

Back on the bus, and traveling to a final destination where we would have a final conversation and festive meal. We already were concerned about the storm on the east coast and started making plans. The concerns were well founded as we are now weathering the storm in a modest Staten Island hotel, with hopes of getting out tomorrow. Stay tuned!

All in all, we have had a profoundly meaningful experience.  Darkness and light, love and fear with relentless positivity all the way through. Rabbi Avi signing off.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Tourists for a day...

Taking a break from the intensity of the last two weeks, we headed south to Ein Gedi where we marveled at the beauty of the desert and the everflowing spring that created the oasis where we climbed and witnessed modest, but still majestic waterfalls.

From there to Masada where because of the heat and time of day we took the cable car to the top where we revisited the last stand of Eliezer Ben Yair, and his band of holdouts from the Jewish rebellion. If it wasn't for Josephus, the Jewish-Roman historian, we would not know of Masada as it does not appear in the Talmud. The idealistic rebellion turned out to be such a calamity, it was not spoken of. Also, the decision to take their own lives did not sit well with Rabbinic tradition. Once discovered, however, the modern state latched on to the symbol of Mesada, declaring that a second Masada will not fall.

Okay, so we had a little education today, but after Ein Gedi we went afloatin' in the Dead Sea, and then scurried back to Jerusalem to enjoy the Jewish market of Machaneh Yehuda. The day was waning when we retired to the hotel to freshen up and then go back into town for the obligatory visit to Ben Yehuda street's pedestrian mall, he Midrachov. A full day ended at around 10PM. Tomorrow, Yad Vashem, and Har Herzl.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Unfriendly Wifi in the North, now Shabbat in Yerushalayim

Thursday's first visit was to the cemetery on the Kinneret where many of Israel's founders are buried. What does a cemetery signify? Profound optimism that we will be here for generations. This was at a time when these early settlements were not guaranteed success. We sent students out to see which tombstones they recognized and, as usual, they didn't disappoint. Of course, special homage was paid to the iconic poetess Rachel, and, once again, the students' knowledge didn't disappoint.

From there, we went to Kibbutz Ein Gev, a Kibbutz that suffered from Syrian shells prior to the Six Day War. We were guided on a tram ride with one of the early Kibbutz members which have privatized for the most part, and now, all these secular kibbutzim have synagogues. Maybe the Mashiach is coming sooner than we think! From there, we made our obligatory stop at Kibbutz Neot Mordechai, home of Neot shoes. We also toured the factory. Now for the fun part--a jeep tour of the Golan Heights with off-road vehicles that made you regret your second helpings at lunch. This time, we saw the Israeli settlements from the vantage point of the Syrian bunkers. They could see everything.

The day ended with a drive back to Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov where we have been staying. A rustic environment replete with oversize hammocks which are students exploited to the fullest.

Friday morning began with a trip to the Amuka, the burial place of Rabbi Yonatan Ben Uziel who is the Tanna who translated the Prophets in the first century. He is also the grave you go to pray for shiduchim, a match for marriage. We had a discussion which was used as an introduction to Jewish mysticism.  From there--Tzefat! We toured the synagogues of Tzefat, and used some time to talk about the attractiveness of Jewish mysticism, and I even gave them my own Tzefat story. Ask me sometime, and I'll tell you.

After a quick felafel or shwarma, we're on our way to Yerushalayim.

Arriving in Yerushalayim several hours before Shabbat gave everyone a chance to re-organize before our first trip to the Kotel, the Western Wall. Now that Robinson's Arch is open for egal. services, everyone found their place, and we returned to our fancy hotel in good spirits. We were surprised with an upgrade which placed us in the new wing of the hotel. Fancy shmancy! Shabbat, after services was a day of walking tours both through the Jewish quarter, and the new city. We ended Shabbat with singing songs, and a student-led Havdalah.

Tonight, we will visit the Kotel tunnels, and tomorrow we're going to Metzada, Ein Gedi, and the Dead Sea. Everyone is well, happy and together.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Heading North--Seeing the Other

Day 9
Heading out on a Wednesday morning, bright, sunny and warm, but not hot, we began our day at Caesaria, a cosmopolitan city which was the jewel in the Roman crown. It was also the place where our most famous sages were martyred. Jewish religious life was never hermetically insulated from the outside world, however fraught, and interaction with the Romans was no exception.

We then went to the Arab city Um Al-Fahum, where we visited with the Sheikh and the local Imam who answered questions regarding Islamic belief. We were welcomed warmly and the students' interest and questions were extremely impressive. After meeting the Sheikh, we went to a local high school for activities with teenagers from a local high school. We thought we were just going to pick them up and go for some group activities, but we were blindsided with an elaborate welcome complete with a short lesson on the history of the town with the kids using their English skills.

After an afternoon of community building activities, we left what was heretofore an invisible and unknown entity that comprises twenty-two percent of Israel's citizenry. Um Al-Fahum looks prosperous and thriving. This was a pilot program that will certainly be tweaked in the future, but we were quite pleased with the encounter, the warmth of our hosts, and our students' response to it.

Tomorrow--the Golan!.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Tel Aviv, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Day 8
This morning we participated, along with the local population in Yom Ma'asim Tovim, a day of good works. Ofer, the Federation representative, met with us, and we went to a hospital to give a modest gift to the patients and cheer them up. From there, we rowed boats in an abandoned reservoir--quite fun and headed off to South Tel Aviv where Marina guided us through Neve Shaanan, a neighborhood that is a 10-minute walk from downtown, and a world apart. This is where the asylum seekers from Eritrea and South Sudan live. Israel's version of America's Dreamer crisis.After the tour we delved into the complexity of Jewish sensitivity to displacement, and the tensions that emerge when thousands of Africans converge on a poor area that is slowly undergoing its own process of gentrification.

From there, we went to the old city of Jaffa where we were guided by a Jewish and a Christian Arab guide and given a dual narrative of the Old City. We processed a tremendous amount of information in a short period of time. Jaffa is very beautiful. After dinner, we took a moonlight walk from Jaffa to the old port of Tel Aviv--a forty-five minute excursion. Once the walk was completed, people had free time at the port where cafes and shops are bountiful. Some of our students met up with friends and relatives. Our day ended at 10:15 and 20,352 steps.

This is a walking group who doesn't complain and is up for anything we do. They impress any guide who meets them, and even though this is by no means a typical tour, it is a meaningful one, and for my money that is a much more valuable experience.

Monday, March 12, 2018

From Treblinka to the Promised Land

Day 6, and Day 7

Sunday morning we drive about 90 minutes to Treblinka, one of three death camps the Nazis used exclusively as killing centers for Jews from the region. 800,000 Jews were murdered, and when the region could provide no more Jews to kill, the camp was dismantled and destroyed as if it was never there. This was all by design.

The entire site is a memorial to the victims and the towns from which they came. The stones go on forever, and the towns and cities number in the hundreds. Nothing captures the sheer enormity of the carnage as Treblinka does. If we weren't numbed before, we are struck dumb now.

It is an hour and a half back to the city. Back in Warsaw, we visit the Warsaw cemetery which tells the story of Polish Jewry from the nineteenth century on. We stop at the graves of Yiddish poets, dramatists and great sages who are buried there. tells the story of a once welcoming and tolerant society that sometimes erupted into anti-semitic outbursts. It was the cradle of Hasidic civilization and heralded some of the great centers of Jewish learning. Many gravestones tell a story of the person buried, while other wax eloquently over someone's piety, generosity or scholarship.

We stop at the monument of Janusch Korchak, the scholar, and leader of a Jewish orphanage who was much revered by Jews and Poles alike. He was offered a chance to leave the Ghetto but refused to leave his beloved children. According to testimony, even though he said it was forbidden to lie to a child when he was being deported with them, he told them they were going on a trip in the country where things would be better. He gave them a last nice day until the final moment when they were gassed in Treblinka.

We ended our witnessing in Poland with a visit to the Jewish Museum of Warsaw that tells the glorious story of Jews in Poland for the last 900 years. Poland had been very welcoming to Jews for much of that time, but under the surface, the specter of anti-semitic violence always remained. Finally, it's off to the airport, and boy are we ever ready for Israel!

Day 7
At 2:30 in the morning, beleaguered, and bleary-eyed we disembark from our ElAl flight. On the other hand, we cannot contain our excitement. Many of our numbers have never been to Israel, while others are thrilled to be back.

Our first stop is Neot Kedumim where we stroll through grounds that have recreated the flora that was recorded during Biblical times. Our guide masterfully weaves the plants we see with Biblical and Talmudic passages. This sojourn ends by us supporting the enterprise by planting oak saplings. It was not the conventional go to the Kotel choice, but sometimes it's good to get your hands dirty instead of lifting them toward the heavens. Certainly, there is a place for both.

Next stop, Tel Aviv neighborhood Ts that have many old buildings done in the Bauhaus style of architecture as we walked to Shalom tower and viewed a model of old Tel Aviv. Hard to imagine that one hundred years ago, it was nothing but sand.

For lunch, we are on our own and given an hour for well-deserved free time. On to the building where Ben Gurion declared the State of Israel. A very lively docent did her best to engage an exhausted group that me with only partial success. We are done--but not quite. A brief but solemn visit to the site where Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated ends our touring in Tel Aviv.

Time to check into our hotel, shower, chill and get ready for the evening discussion regarding the geopolitical history of Israel led by the tour educators who were our partners in planning this trip. I daresay that many gaps were filled in a very short time--even for me. Dinner at the hotel was welcome, and everyone was encouraged to get to sleep immediately for the only early night we have this week.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Day 5 Lublin, Majdanek & Warsaw

This morning, we prayed at the iconic Yeshiva of Chochmei Lublin (The Sages of Lublin), an elite institution founded by Rabbi Meir Shapiro who also instituted the practice of learning a folio page of Talmud a day. People who engage in this discipline can expect to finish the Talmud in seven and a half years, after which they celebrate the completion with a joyous ceremony. WHo would embark on such an endeavor? Last time the cycle ended, there were enough to fill Met Life stadium which is what in fact they did! Tragically, the Yeshiva ended her glorious, but brief tenure with the Nazi invasion of Poland.

Joe Porter and Eliana Schuster gave a lesson about the life of the Yeshiva, and Rabbi Shapiro followed by the prescribed page of Talmud for that day. Then it was on the buses to Majdanek, a notorious place that was a labor camp, a transit station, and a killing field. Unlike Auschwitz, Majdanek was left intact and the barracks, the crematoria, and 400,000 pairs of shoes from the sorting station were left behind for us to see. It was bitterly cold, snowing, as we spent two hours, walking, crying and praying. Jed, our magnificent Polish tour guide said that it's always cold in Majdanek.

Slowly, we ascended our bus and we were on our way to Warsaw before sunset. We had earned a Shabbat.Friday night we went to the only active synagogue in Warsaw where our group and a group of two hundred Israelis enjoyed Kabbalat Shabbat services. The Israelis were not so engaged in the prayer which some of us found distracting, but I reminded them that it may be noisy but the shul is packed with young, living, breathing Jews and I'll take that any day. Our Shabbat dinner was the first meat meal we had, and most everyone enjoyed the chicken, and the chicken soup while the vegetarians were served alternative fare. There was lots of singing, some Divrei Torah, and a special talk about the recent situation in Poland by HBHA alum Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis who serves as a rabbi in Warsaw. Back at the hotel, we gathered to share feelings and emotions of the past couple of days. Reactions that ranged from a feeling of heightened empathy to a renewed appreciation for their heritage, to just being unprepared for the gut punch that kept everyone wondering why?

Shabbat morning we were back at shul for an exceedingly long Torah reading but our kids were troopers and stuck it out but ready for another abundant meal. After a couple hours break, Jed rejoined us and we did a walking tour of the Warsaw Ghetto ending at Mila 18, the last stand of the Ghetto fighters. The physical resistance and the spiritual resistance of the Ghetto amid the squalor, the hunger and disease were inspiring. The code name, Oneg Shabbat group under the guidance of Emanuel Ringelbloom who assiduously documented all that transpired and then buried the reports in milk cans to bear witness to what had transpired. The documents, recovered after the war, are in the Jewish archive center here in Warsaw and are available for anyone who wishes to see them. It is stunning that even with testimonies, documents from competent historians, that Holocaust denial emerges so soon after these tragedies occurred. Saturday night, although we had walked over 17,000 steps, we still had enough energy to visit the "Old Town" of Warsaw--after Havdalah, of course.

Tomorrow is our last day in Poland--and I dare say, that missing Poland will not be a sentiment often heard from this group. The kids are fantastic, and so much fun to be with, but I'll sign off now and prepare for our next and last slaughterhouse, Treblinka.