Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Thoughts from home

This was the most incredible trip! It allowed our group to look at Israel from a sociocultural and political perspective. I could not have anticipated the depth of the experience before leaving. Thanks to Laura and Rich I now have a very rich view of Israel's coflict between its Jewish and Arab citizens. I don't know what the solution is, but I've heard many opinions on the problem and am in a place where I can think about it in a meaningful way. The trip to Petra, Jordan was not to be missed. Walking down into this ancient city carved out of a mountain left me speechless. Veronica

Sunday, July 1, 2007

We'll be leaving Jerusalem shortly, a city of much beauty and complexity. Historical and contemporary narratives swirl around every corner... sometimes as gentle as a cool summer breeze, sometimes as violent as a tornado. So many extraordinary moments... so difficult to express... As one of the group said after a particularly moving Shabbat morning service at the Orthodox egalitarian (not an oxymoron) Shira Hadasha, "sometimes silence is the only appropriate response."

Walking through the Western Wall tunnels and touching stones that were put in place more than 2,000 years ago... Walking through the Shrine of the Book and reading Biblical texts also written more than 2,000 years ago... so much more fragile than stones, but somehow more enduring as well... or at least their messages are clearer, easier to decipher. Meeting with MK Michael Melchior and being challenged to lend our Diaspora hands to help deal with the issues which tear our Jewish hearts.

Some observations from members of the group:

"Spending time on Ben Yehuda Street on Thursday night was such an invigorating and exciting experience. The buzz, energy and enthusiasm was palpable... Friday evening, spending Shabbat at Kol Haneshama (one of the most successful Reform synagogues in Israel under the inspired leadership of Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman) is something I will always remember. Jews from all over the world gathered and prayed together as one...It is very difficult to articulate how special I felt."

Another: "Things that surprised me: 1)The amount of construction going on in Jerusalem; 2) the amount of traffic, 3)how few soldiers were carrying rifles."

Another: "The close proximity of the security wall to the Old City is jarring. The fact that relations between Jews and Palestinians have not improved over the decades is disappointing. Will there ever be peace? No signs point to it."

Another: "One little thing struck me as a big thing. The 40th Anniversary banner outside the walls of the old city (marking 40 years since the liberation of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War). It seemed to rub the Arabs' noses in their defeat and in the occupation and colonisation."

Another: "Something that surprised me: My feelings about davening at the Kotel have not changed over 30 years. The spiritual energy was powerful."

To end again with a poem by Yehudah Amichai:

Jerusalem is a port city on the shore of eternity.
The Temple Mount is a huge ship, a magnificent
luxury liner. From the porholes of her Western Wall
cheerful saints look out, travelers. Hasidim on the pier
wave goodbye, shout hooray, hooray, bon voyage! She is
always arriving, always sailing away. And the fences and the piers
and the policemen and the flags and the high masts of churches
and mosques and the smokestacks of synagogues and the boats
of psalms of praise and the mountain-waves. The shofar blows: another one
has just left. Yom Kippur sailors in white uniforms
climb among the ladders and ropes of well-tested prayers.

And the commerce and the gates and the golden domes:
Jerusalem is the Venice of God.

That's it for now... more later.


Friday, June 29, 2007

Erev Shabbat - Jerusalem

I think it will be impossible to do justice to the traditional "review of the week" during Kabbalat Shabbat services tonight. Too much happened in the past seven days. To even spend a few minutes on the highlights will take the entire service.

What stands out most of all right now are the contrasts... In Tel Aviv, we spent some time at the Jaffa Institute for at-risk kids... and heard from Mitch Chupak about the staggering degree of poverty in the country... estimated as high as 30% of the population... and about some of the heroic efforts which the Jaffa Institute and others in the country are doing to try to alleviate the worst manifestations of it. Later that afternoon, we were walking through the streets of North Tel Aviv with art-critic Smadar Sheffi, getting a tour of the eclectic architectural styles of the city... and noting the astronomical prices these houses were selling for.

Some places are self-contrasts. We visited a new site in south Tel Aviv... known as the Hiriya Project at Ayalon Park, it is a massive initiative to turn a garbage dump into an environmental education center and a vast park and public green space. The site is implementing cutting-edge technology for recycling... including turning organic matter into methane usable for fuel and construction debris into building materials... gives new meaning to the passage from Psalms that we read during Hallel... "the stone that the builders rejected has become the foundation" of the new building. And the park will provide green space for hundreds of thousands of people in the surrounding area... mostly the impoverished and underclass... turning what was an eyesore, a stink pit, and a health hazard into the Central Park of Tel Aviv.

We spent all too little time in Tel Aviv... a dynamic city pulsing with creative life... and soon found ourselves cast back thousands of years and into a totally different eco-system as we visited Masada and the Dead Sea. And then into Jerusalem.

In our first two days, we spent a morning studying with Mellila Hellner and Menachem Lorberbaum at the Hartman Institute (more below)... followed by the afternoon at the new Yad Vashem... a strange juxtaposition, yet somehow appropriate and even comforting. And today we had a security briefing from Uzi Arad, former head of the Mossad, who warned in no uncertain terms about the mortal danger posed by Iran's development of nuclear capacity, followed by a tour of East Jerusalem with Arik Ascherman, the head of Rabbis for Human Rights, who warned about the moral danger posed by Israel's ignoring its responsibility to treat all of its inhabitants with respect and decency.

I asked the group to give me some reflections of things that they have learned or that surprised them or that moved them. Here's a sample:

Commenting on Menachem Lorberbaum, an Orthodox Jew, reflecting on the problem of "Orthodox supremacy in Israeli society (in terms of religious rights). It surprised me that he recognized the problem and felt so strongly about it."

Another participant commented: "Waking up this morning in Jerusalem, walking outdoors, my eyes took in not only the beauty of the stonework and skyline, but the number of construction cranes which ring the city. The amount of construction surpassed my expectation and raises questions of political and religious motivations."

Another: "I was surprised to learn that the marital laws, based on religious practice, seems to promote a system which diminishes the value of marriage as an institution."

Another: "One thing I was surprised to learn was that Ben Gurion meditated for an hour a day, standing on his head, and would get furious if he was interrupted... for any reason."

Another: "The response to what is a simple question to us -- Where do you live? -- is often quite complex... easat or west of the Green Line... "settlement" vs "city" vs "community"... each has different meanings. It is fascinating to look at a map here and see cities which are omitted in those I've seen at home. There are no simple answers."

Another: "Israel is a country distinct and separate from the United States. One cannot apply United States values and perspective to events and circumstances in Israel. Issues in Israel are far more complex than I initially believed one week ago."

Let me end this post, as Shabbat approaches, with a Yehuda Amichai poem that Mellila shared with us:

Jerusalem stone is the only stone that can
Feel pain. It has a network of nerves.
From time to time the Jerusalem crowds into
Mass protests like the tower of babel.
But with huge clubs God-the-Police beats her
Down: Houses are razed, walls flattened,
And afterwords the city disperses, muttering
Prayers of complaint and sporadic screams from churches
And synagogues and loud-moaning mosques.
Each to his own place.

Shabbat Shalom... Next week, we'll figure out how to post some of our photos.


Thursday, June 28, 2007


It is very difficult for me to articulate how lucky I feel to have this opportunity to see Israel through the eyes of two brilliant teachers . . . Rabbi Laura Geller and Richard Siegel. They have put a lot of thoughtful planning into our trip and have opened several different pathways for us to dig deep into our souls, challenge ourselves, stretch and learn. We truly are "Living Judaism" (Temple Emanuel's slogan/logo) here in Israel. This trip has been incredibly inspirational and has stirred my feelings of why it is so important to choose to be proud to be Jewish . . . and for that I am grateful.
More Later,

Monday, June 25, 2007


The most remarkable thing about the start of the trip is how unremarkable its been.

No one missed their connections. Almost all the luggage arrived. There was no chaos at the airports.

We gave ourselves 2 1/2 hours to check in and get through security, given that this was an international flight. We were at the gate with 2 hours to spare.

Even the Continental Airlines security check in Newark before we boarded the plane for the Israel leg was routine -- even casual, one might even say sloppy. I almost missed the interrogation we used to get from the agents when we flew El Al.

The flight was uneventful... I even managed to sleep for 5 or 6 hours, although in 1/2 hour chunks.

Even the experience at Ben Gurion was uneventful, almost pleasant. With the new terminal, it seems that most of the challenging elements of arriving in Israel were eliminated. No more walking down the steps from the plane onto the tarmac and being hit in the face with the rush of desert heat and blinding light. No more shlepping from the place to customs packed like sardines into a shuttle bus. No more bedlam at the baggage claim.

Everything went smoothly. Walking from the plane through the attractive, new terminal was actually pleasant -- a chance to stretch the legs after the long trip. Going through Israeli customs was quick and efficient. We were met by the tour rep, gathered up our bags, got on the bus to the hotel.... and there we were. At which point, one of the veteran Israel travelers in the group asked: "When does the unpleasant part of arriving in Israel begin?"

An uneventful trip.

An unremarkable arrival.

And yet it is still Israel. Another member of the group, a first time visitor remarked in astonishment: "Everything's in Hebrew!"

And now the first full day is about to begin. More later...

Richard (writing on Sander's computer)

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Leaving on a jet plane

The night before we take off... a day in the air before the trip "begins"... all packed... all notes written... all errands run...

Feeling what?

Great anticipation for who knows what. Imagining a program in the mind is very different than seeing it on the ground... because there is always the unanticipated...

My first trip to Israel was in the summer of '65... 42 years ago... I arrived to start my second trip on June 14, 1967... two days after the Six Day War ended. Israel today is compelling for other reasons... not for the foundation myth of Ari Ben Canaan... but as the latest chapter in the millennial saga of competing historical narratives (see this past Shabbat's haftorah reading about Jeptha). Today there is guarded optimism as Egypt, Jordan and Israel are about to meet together later this week. But we are old enough to know that more than guarded optimism is not warranted.

I am looking forward to this trip... because of the interesting mix of people who are joining us, because of the curious juxtapositions which we will be encountering, and because of the serious issues which we will be grappling with.... about Israel and about ourselves.

More later...