100, 000 Cranes

My earliest association to the Hula Valley was hearing about its swamps, the rampant malaria that incubated there, and the heroic efforts to drain the swamps in the 1950’s. What I didn’t know was that the plan to turn that swamp-land into farm-land turned out to be a nightmare for the farmers, as that spot was a migration point for birds. The area has since been further developed to allow for both agriculture as well as bird migration.

The Hula Valley was at the top of my to-do list for this trip to Israel. Bird-watchers from around the world flock (pun intended) there in the fall and winter to experience the miraculous wonder of bird migration in this Syrian-African Rift Valley, one of the largest and most important flyways in the world, the meeting point between three continents. Over 500 million birds make their way from Europe and Asia to Africa via Israel in the autumn and head back in the spring.

We saw cormorants and egrets, shelducks, and spur-winged lapwings and many other unidentified birds, as well as water buffalo and beaver-like creatures called nutria, but most of all (because most of the other birds had already migrated), we saw CRANES — thousands of cranes! Over 100,000 fly over the Hula Valley each year, and about 15,000 of them winter there in January and February. In fact, we heard all 15,000 cranes before we saw them — a big ruckus of a cacophony, growing louder and louder as we got closer and closer. In two weeks, they will all take wing and fly away. I’m sorry we will miss witnessing that leg of their journey.

The trail around the property and the agamon (little lake) was 6-7 miles, including all the look-outs. Rather than rent golfcarts, bikes, or tandems, we used our own two legs, and it was wondrous! (By the way, future tourists: There is a second part to the Hula Valley, a more touristy nature preserve, that we did not visit. We visited the Agamon Hula.)

Cranes on the ground, cranes in the air, cranes are everywhere! They were so big, that I thought they were flocks of lamb at first!

Birds of a feather flock together.

Beautiful views

We could have travelled in one of these contraptions, but preferred walking.

Walking the trail

I thought this spur-winged lapwing was beautiful in flight, and I finally captured one on camera!

Chaim (his legs, in any case) and the “nutria.” This cutie-pie is a rodent!

Four cranes in flight against a beautiful sky

Posing in front of the “agamon”

We stopped for a scenic view on the way home to Haifa.


Let’s Go Tzfat/Safed!

“Messiah’s Alley” in the old city of Tzfat.


The city of turquoise, the Rabbi Moshe Alsheich synagogue

We heard more English spoken in the holy city of Tzfat than we did Hebrew. Tzfat is the hippie hang-out of Israel, home to spiritual seekers, mystics, artists, and  holy warriors awaiting the arrival of the Messiah, whom legend has it, will pass through Tzfat on the way to Jerusalem!

A view from Tzfat. The yellow flags hanging from the building on the left read “Mashiach” (Messiah)

For us, our bodies had to be fed before our souls, so our first stop was the vegetarian Elements Cafe, owned by Zev Padway, an old Berkeley friend of our friend Nancy’s. The dahl and veggie burgers were delicious! Zev and I played Jewish geography (when I lived in Santa Cruz, CA, I was a sometimes-visitor to the hippie Jewish community in Berkeley), and he gave us some great tips for our visit to the Hula Valley tomorrow.

With Zev Padway in Elements Cafe

Tzfat was already a richly creative and mystical Jewish community when Rabbi Isaac Luria (the “Ari”) — considered the father of contemporary kabbalah — settled there in the late 16th century. Joseph Caro (author of the Shulchan Arukh), Shlomo Alkabetz (author of  the hymn“Lecha Dodi”), Elazar Azikri (author of the hymn“Yedid Nefesh”), and Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (best-known for his kabbalistic Mussar text Tomer Devorah) were among those who lived there. The Jewish tradition of Kabbalat Shabbat with its psalms and the singing of “Lecha Dodi” was born in Tzfat. (A great article about this history by Noam Zion of the Hartman Institute can be found here.)

So in light of this Jewish mystical history, I wasn’t surprised to see this stained glass rendition of the mystical “tree of life” just hanging out on a building, not even a synagogue as far as I could tell.

Mystical tree of life depicting God’s ten emanations/sefirot

Of course, we visited the Ari’s synagogue.

Side view of the ark in the Ari Synagogue

And the stunning Abuhav synagogue.

The Abuhov Synagogue from the women’s balcony. There were 3 arks!

Painted ceiling in Abuhav Synagogue

The synagogue of Rabbi Avraham Dov Auerbach of Avrush. In Europe he was a student of the Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev.

Sent on the recommendation of our mutual artist friends Nancy Katz and Mark Liebowitz, we visited the studio of mystical artist David Friedman, with his wife Miriam. It turns out that I own one of his pieces of art and hadn’t realized its provenance until I saw it in his studio!

David Friedman’s studio. I have a small version of his Tree of Life that appears both to the left of the door and in the foreground.

Our day in the lofty heavens ended with a parking ticket here on earth.

And so it is — the spiritual life can be so ephemeral and hard to maintain. Even driving in Israel (today was my first time ever) was a sort of gauntlet of holding the temptation of the spiritual landscape in its proper place while trying to keep my eyes on the road. How to balance the heavenly and the earthly is the eternal challenge.

A Church, A Mosque, 2 Synagogues Walked into Acco

Ten miles, 24,000 steps, and still standing after another full day of touring. We began by walking through Wadi Nisnas to get to the train station and head to Acco. It took us longer to walk to the train than it took to ride to Acco (a mere 20 minutes)! In Wadi Nisnas we saw a lot more street art than we’d caught on our previous walks through there, with surprises at nearly every turn.

Part of the art scene in Wadi Nisnas, a museum without walls.

Just before the Haifa train station, we stopped at the Elijah the Prophet (“Saint Elias”) Melkite Catholic Church to say hello. You may recall his association with Mount Carmel (I Kings 18). There are two different sites in Haifa that claim to be the cave in which Elijah took shelter (I Kings 19) and heard “the still small voice” following the wind, earthquake, and fire.

Elijah the Prophet in his chariot; the sculpture above the painting depicts him with a sword

Nut “cakes” of all varieties. Yum!

If all I’d done in Acco was see the Tunisian Djerba Synagogue, dayeinu/it would have been enough! This 4-story building is filled with spectacular mosaics (hundreds of millions of natural stones from Israel!) which recount the history of Israel and the Jewish people. There are also stained glass windows inside and metal sculptures outside.

One of several sculptures outside the Tunisian Or Torah (Djerba) Synagogue. This one depicts Jonah and the whale, with a verse from “Mah Tovu” on the archway.

Depiction of Acco and of Haifa side-by-side, mosaic

The musical instruments in Psalm 150, mosaic

Mosaic stairwell

View of the many arks (six!?), the skylight, and the inscriptions from the women’s balcony.

Mosaics of women adorn the walls of the women’s balcony. Here are Rachel and Leah with Jacob and some of the children.

The Synagogue was in the “new city” of Akko. From there we walked to the Old City, a UNESCO world heritage site.

On the way up to explore the walls of Akko’s old city

Up top of these walls were cannons and a history of Napolean’s unsuccessful invasion of Akko in 1799. Inside the walls is the Treasures of the Walls Ethnographic Museum.

Chaim is dress shopping in the Treasures in the Walls Ethnographic Museum. A myriad of collections were displayed including matchboxes, children’s games, furniture, scales, pottery, tools, and jewelry. The museum is IN the walls of the old city.

At the top of my Akko to-do list was to visit the Ramchal’s synagogue there. Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzato (Ramchal is an acronym) is the author of the beloved Mussar text Mesillat Yesharim/Path of The Just,  a text I both study and teach regularly. Displayed is a part of a Torah scroll he calligraphed with pomegranate ink!

In the Ramchal’s synagogue, a Torah scroll he wrote with ink made from pomegranate peels! See how red the parchment is? After his death, the synagogue was named after him, Ohel Chayim.

From there we made our way to Sayid Hummus for lunch (with a line of locals so long, we weren’t sure we’d ever be seated) and some shopping in the shuk.

AlJazzar Mosque

Entrance to Al Jazzar Mosque, the 3rd largest mosque in Israel

Inside the mosque

Another must-see site in the Old City is the Al Jazzar mosque. But from there, a serious choice had to be made. Since we didn’t have time or energy to do it all, what would be the last visit on our agenda? Choices included the Baha’i Shrine and Gardens north of the city, or within the city, the Knights Templar Tunnel, The Knights Halls and Crusader Fortress, the Turkish Baths, or the Underground Prisoners Museum.

So it was that we moved to 20th-century Israeli history, the Jewish Underground’s (including the Haganah, Etzel, and Lechi) resistance to the British, and the conditions in the Akko prison where the British held (and executed some of) its prisoners. It was not an easy place to visit. Though the museum focused on 20th century history, this was the same prison to which the Baha’i prophet Baha’ullah was exiled in the 1800’s.

Gallows in Underground Prisoners Museum

Depiction of one of the ingenious ways in which notes might be smuggled in or out of the prison: on the inner cardboard of a toilet paper roll.

A view of Haifa across the bay from Acco. This is the view that Baha’i prophet Baha’ullah would have had from his prison cell when he decided to bury the Bab’s remains on Mt. Carmel (see yesterday’s post about this Baha’i history).

We are looking forward to a slower pace tomorrow to prepare for Shabbat and to Shabbat itself.








Valentine’s Day in Baha’i Gardens

We walked this morning from our apartment in Hadar haCarmel (the middle of the city) to meet the tour group at the top of Mount Carmel. This nearly hour-long walk just to get to our starting point (because we like to walk AND because we are gluttons for punishment) was quite steep, and included 7 sets of stairs up, up, up. In Haifa, a city built on the mountain, the fastest way to walk is by these shortcut stairways from one level to the next. They are all over and though they are only for pedestrian traffic, they have been assigned street names. I stopped one woman to see if she could point us to the Henrietta Szold staircase, and she and Chaim had a lovely conversation in Yiddish.

Chaim trekking up a staircase on our journey up the mountain

But our way up inevitably included a walk down, and that was done within the boundaries of the Baha’i Gardens. About 1150 stairs, I’m told.

We had our first view of the Baha’i Gardens from the Louis Promenade.

Gold-domed shrine can be seen on far left, a bit down the mountain.  One of the green-topped structures is the Baha’i International House of Justice and the other is the Baha’i World Center.

My favorite photograph of myself was taken in the Baha’i Gardens in 1981. Today I found out that the gardens I visited then were only on the lower levels, a small fraction of what exists today, which is on 19 different levels/terraces! The shrine itself is in the middle, with 9 levels above, and 9 levels below it. 19 is a holy number in Baha’i, and even this flowerpot pictured below contains 19 surfaces.

Holy number 19: There are 19 rounded protrusions adorning the pot.

In Baha’i, there are 19 months with 19 days each, which leaves 4 extra “days of generosity.” Months and days are associated with virtues. So a day of the week is not called “Wednesday” as it would be in English or “the 4th day,” as it would be in Hebrew, but “the day of Justice.” The month might be the month of “Honor,” or another attribute of God such as Speech, Splendor, Knowledge, or Questions! We are currently in the month of Dominion. Cool stuff for a Mussar practitioner like myself!

And how much must a Baha’i tithe each year for the upkeep of their holy sites? 19%, of course! Baha’is must come as pilgrims once during their lifetime, but only 10,000 are allowed to come each year, so there is  waitlist. Acco is actually the first holiest site, and Haifa is the second.

Despite the centrality of these holy sites to Baha’i, they have a complicated relationship with Israel. Because Baha’i is a peaceful religion and they associate Israel with conflict, visiting in Israel cannot be more than 3 days in duration. (The 600 Baha’i volunteers living in Israel are exempt from this ruling.) What this also means is that anyone in the world can be Baha’i EXCEPT an Israeli. What?!?!

View from above

The red terra cotta ground covering in the gardens upon which we walked matches the red terra cotta Templar roofs of the German Colony below.

The Gardens are perfectly manicured, thanks to the help of 100 gardeners, Baha’i volunteers from around the world. (It takes three gardeners to maneuver one lawnmower on the steep hills, tied with ropes!) There are 460 different flowers and plants in the gardens.

One of many fountains

Terraces being irrigated

Aside from the above, follows is what I learned about the Baha’i history and faith. I have a desire to learn even more, as this clearly only scratches the surface. In full disclosure, I’ve wanted to learn more for quite some time, as my mother, in a desire to leave her strict Orthodox upbringing for something more pluralistic/universalistic (in what must have been her early 20s), considered briefly to convert either to Baha’i or to Unitarian Universalist!

1. The first prophet was Bab. He was executed in Iran in 1850.

2. The second prophet Baha’ullah was exiled to Acco in the late 1800’s, just across the bay from Haifa. He saw Mount Carmel and decided to bury Bab there. (Chaim and I plan to visit Acco and the Baha’i Gardens there, as well.)

3. Baha’i is a peaceful, pacifist  religion. Our guide joked that no one ever heard about them because they never killed anybody. However, because they also believe that “the law of the land is the law” (what Jews call dina d’malchuta dina), they can be conscripted into an army if there is no other alternative (like community service) for them.

4. Important  values for Baha’i are equality, nature, and volunteering.

5. It is a private religion with no intermediary or priest.

6. Their holy book is called “The Holiest Book.” It can be read in any language (there is no privileged, holy language).

7. There are Baha’i temples on every continent: N. America (Chicago), Australia (Sydney), Europe (Frankfort), Asia (the Lotus Temple, Delhi),  South America (Chile), Africa. Take a peek at their beauty, particularly in India and Chile.

8. You can convert into the religion. Intermarriage is allowed, and conversion of the non-Baha’i spouse is not a pre-requisite. Children are allowed freedom of choice and can opt-out of the religion until age 15.

9.  Lest you think they sound too good to be true, they are anti-LGBT. Also, no alcohol, drugs, or premarital sex.

10. Everything in this life prepares for afterlife, the next spiritual sphere.

We are still above the shrine in this photo. This place is massive!

We are getting closer. The Bab’s remains are buried within. Can you see how perfectly manicured it is?

We are now below the shrine. Our guide Daniel explaining this Baha’i symbol connecting God to earth, with the will of God as the vertical line connecting all levels.

Our guide Daniel was pretty awesome. He told us how his father, as a Jew, couldn’t get into university in the former Soviet Union, despite winning all kinds of math awards. He wanted to emigrate to Israel, and it was a condition of his marriage to Daniel’s mother. They had one picture of Israel, a view of the Haifa Bay from the top of Mount Carmel. So that’s where they wanted to go, and, thankfully, succeeded in doing so. Daniel himself has a degree in computer science but loves guiding!

Below the shrine looking back up from whence we came! About 1150 steps top to bottom (or bottom to top, if you are so inclined!)

Cactus garden

It is Valentine’s Day, so as we walked through the German Colony of Templar homes, we heard about the fateful love affair between the already-married German Templar Alice Oliphant and the poor Jewish poet Naftali Herz Imber, author of the poem on which the Israeli national anthem “Ha-Tikvah” is based. She died, and when he attended the 3rd Zionist Congress in Basel, drunk and in despair, he wasn’t allowed in. From outside, he learned that HaTikvah would be the national anthem.

We passed under this archway of two lovers.

Baklava heaven in Wadi Nisnas, a Christian Arab neighborhood of the city.

Street art in Wadi Nisnas

Jewish artist Chaya Touma in Wadi Nisnas. She married an Arab in the 50’s. Together they started the Communist party in Israel.

And so ends another full day. Happy Valentines’ Day!

Shalom, Jerusalem! Shalom, Haifa!

Leaving Jerusalem and saying good-bye to my dear friend Billy

Chaim arrives, just off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport

View of the Mediterranean/Haifa port from our street. My first visit to Israel in 1981 was via ship from Brindisi, Italy to the Haifa port.

Skiing! Outdoor gym equipment in the middle of the city.

Street graffiti, Haifa

More street art

Beit HaGefen Arab-Jewish Cultural Center. Note Jewish star, cross, and crescent moon

From the fake (satiric) archaeological site “Tel Nona” in which these keys are labeled “Collection of Prayers,” Beit haGefen Art Gallery exhibit by Nona Orbach

Distant view of the Baha’i shrine at sunset

Yesterday I said good-bye to Billy, Mats, and their sweet dog Hunter, took a sherut to the airport, waited for Chaim to de-plane, greeted him with hugs and sandwiches.

We grabbed the train to Haifa, a Gett (Israeli Uber) to our Airbnb, settled in. Chaim went to sleep early, I went out to market in Hebrew: tapuchim, adashim, beitzim, agvaniot, hummus, lechem, orez, chalav.

This morning it poured, we got a late start but walked and walked.

In case you didn’t know, Haifa is hilly! We visited two art galleries, street art, two outdoor markets (Wadi Nisnas, Arab, and Talpiot, Jewish), and unexpected finds like The Women’s Courtyard, Beit haGefen: the Arab-Jewish Culture Center (which includes a children’s art museum in one building, an art gallery in another building, and an Arab-Jewish theatre in a third building), great views of the Mediterranean, an outdoor gym, and the Al Carmel Center: Education, Culture and Human Rights, housing organizations Humanity Crew (“Untreated trauma becomes silence. We are here to break that silence.”) and The Coalition Against Racism in Israel.

Did you know Haifa is the most integrated city in Israel? That that’s why I wanted to be here?

Today was unofficial touring by our wits and our whimsy. Tomorrow we take an “official” city walking tour, including the Baha’i Gardens which I haven’t visited in over 35 years.

Prayer, Poetry, Art, and Music

Our Shabbat began at Birkat Shalom on Kibbutz Gezer, the congregation that Rabbi Miri Gold serves. She was the first non-Orthodox rabbi in Israel to have her salary paid by the government after petitioning the Israeli Supreme Court (a case that took 7 years to resolve).

Rabbis Miri Gold and Steve Burnstein lead services at Kehillat Birkat Shalom on Kibbutz Gezer





After a lively musical service, I had the honor of attending Shabbat dinner at Miri’s home with a number of other rabbis from my trip, as well as other guests. While helping wash dishes in the kitchen, Miri reminded me that I had taught her a number of years ago while on a healing center work trip (sponsored by UJA Federation of NY), in which we had brought some of our best pastoral practices to rabbis and social workers on the ground in Israel.

Miri’s husband David is a gourmet ice cream maker (I counted three ice cream makers in the kitchen, but I think there are others, and he spoke about 3 different freezers!). We had such fun tasting his many extraordinary flavors.

Miri’s husband David serving up his gourmet ice cream

On Shabbat morning, several of us attended services at Kol HaNeshama in Jerusalem. There I was delighted to see my friend Yosef Abramowitz again, as well as my friend Rabbi Arik Ascherman, social justice activist extraordinaire. Arik currently runs a new interfaith human rights organization called Haqel —Jews and Arabs in Defense of Human Rights.

The service was lovely with a siddur all its own (Kehillat Birkat Shalom also had its own siddur with lovely readings). One of the changes that made me chuckle was the use of the word “chalutzim” (pioneers) rather than “chasidim” (pious ones) in the Shochen Ad prayer, since Chasidim hold such negative connotations for the Reform movement in Israel.

The round wheel stone on the left would have been rolled in front of this crypt, believed to be that of King Herod’s family

After services, we met the rest of the group plus our superlative guide Uri and his wife Meryl for a literary walking tour, during which we read some of Yehuda Amichai’s poetry at opportune spots. Meryl apparently was an old camp friend of one of the rabbis in our group (as I said previously, all roads lead to Jerusalem!)

Yemin Moshe neighborhood with view towards Old City. Yemin Moshe was the first Jewish neighborhood outside the Old City.

“Yizkor” Memorial for soldiers who died in ‘67

For instance, at this memorial we read and reflected upon the following poem:

The Little Park Planted
By Yehuda Amichai

The little park planted in memory of a boy
Who fell in the war begins
To resemble him as he was twenty-nine years ago.
Year by year they look more alike.
His old parents come almost daily
To sit on a bench
and look at him.
And every night the memory in the garden
Hums like a little motor:
During the day you can’t hear it.

At the remodeled Tachana (old train station)

Ai Wei Wei exhibit at the Israel Museum (these are not photos — he made these images of himself with LEGOs!)

After lunch, some of us went to visit the Israel Museum. (If interested in more of the museum and its permanent holdings, you can read my post from January 2013 entitled “A Day in the Museum.”) This time I was very interested in viewing the temporary exhibit of Chinese dissident artist/political activist Ai Weiwei. You may recall a 2015 news story when LEGO refused to sell him their product because they didn’t want to be associated with politic artwork. As a result of this news coverage, Weiwei received donations of LEGO bricks from supporters all over the world! I found the exhibit as a whole to be exciting and breathtaking — he uses a plethora of media and to make his important political statements.

I also saw a humorous temporary exhibit by Russian immigrant artist Zoya Cherkassky in which she satirizes her community. (Note the bread and the pork, with the title “Passover in Bat Yam.”)

“Passover in Bat Yam” by Zoya Cherkassky

Farewell dinner, our last group photo

Over our farewell dinner (where one of our waiters was Sivan, a typical Jewish Israeli name, and one was Ahmed, an Arab name, indicating yet again how diverse the mosaic of Israel is) before half our group departed for the airport, we reflected on this rich experience we shared in Israel and how to bring it home. (And offered our gratitude to Uri who was a magnificent guide.) This trip so intensified my love for Israel and its complexities. As Uri reminded all of us (none of whom are right-wing extremists by any stretch), we all have skin in the game and we are all on the front lines — whether we serve in the Golani Brigade or are supporters of the Israel Religious Action Center. Loving Israel, being a Zionist, does not mean having to treat Israel as a sacred cow that does no wrong. Israel is a vibrant democracy with a diversity of opinions — we all need to get in there and hold its feet to the fire, just as we do in our own imperfect country.

The following piece by Amos Oz seems opportune:

Loving the Land
By Amos Oz

The Land of Israel is not a museum of God.
No place is a museum of God.
No person and no inanimate object is a thing of worship.
It is permissible to both touch and change these things
on the condition that you yourself are prepared
to be touched and be changed.
The condition is love.
I know: it is impossible to “educate to love” —
You cannot “educate someone to love the Land,”
nor can you “educate someone to love the scenery.”
With love, you can “infect” someone else.
Sometimes love can be awakened,
Sometimes but not with a strong hand,
not with an outstretched arm,
and not with burning anger — rather through an approach of mutuality.
You come to a place — a hill, the desert, a spring, a house…
You can change it and make your mark upon it,
but it is also important to be open
and give it the opportunity to leave its mark on you.

And so it is that Israel has once again left its indelible mark on me. I do hope that some of you who have never been will consider coming to Israel. I’d love to lead a trip one day in the not-too-distant future with Uri, especially for newcomers (but not exclusively so).

Dancing to “Miriam’s Song” at Debbie Friedman Memorial Concert at Hebrew Union College

Last night happened to be the memorial concert for my friend singer/songwriter Debbie Friedman (of blessed memory ) at my alma mater, Hebrew Union College. So a few of us headed over there for music and dance and to memorialize someone whom we all miss so much. (Debbie had given me and Chaim a beautiful silver mezuzah to honor our marriage, a cherished gift.)

View of the Old City by night from Beit Shmuel

One of the unexpected gifts of this trip was meeting two rabbinical students from the Abraham Geiger Rabbinical School in Germany who are studying in Israel this year. Anita (unpictured) is from Hungary, and David from the Czech Republic, each with unique stories of their Jewish upbringings in Eastern Europe and finding their way to rabbinical school. Both are dealing with interesting pastoral care situations for which they sought my advice.

With David and his wife Juditka. David is a rabbinical student from the Czech Republic on his year in Israel from the Abraham Geiger Rabbinical School in Germany.

Chaim arrives to Israel tomorrow, and we will head up to Haifa and the Galil for two full weeks. More to come…

The Old City of Jerusalem

A view of the Mount of Olives from the Archeological Park

Robinson’s Arch

The Western Wall extension by Robinson’s Arch

Uri humorously demonstrating King Herod’s building of the Second Temple

Intrigued ultra-Orthodox youth watching women lay tefillin in the new egalitarian section near the Wall. Maybe his worldview has been expanded?

Walking in the Arab Quarter of the Old City

Shmoozing and selling.

A view of our group with Al Aqsa behind us, roof of Austrian Hospice (Uri Feinberg, and Rabbis Adena Blum, Michele Paskow, David Edleson, Me!, Brian Leiken, Mark Kaiserman, Dennis Ross, Debbie Zecher, and Don Goor)

A view of Al Aqua mosque and Jerusalem from the roof of the Austrian Hospice in the Christian Quarter

Incongruity: he was singing “Hotel California!” Mamilla Mall

They played a mean klezmer, Mamilla Mall

I played David while he played the harp.

A wonderful day of walking in the Old City, digesting rich history and archeology, then walking the Mamilla Mall with its art installations, street musicians, and shops. Preparing now for Shabbat. We will go this evening to Kibbutz Gezer and its Reform congregation with Rabbi Miri Gold, and have Shabbat dinner with her in her home.

Shabbat shalom!

Israel’s Political/GeoPolitical Maze + Food+Art

The pool at our hotel wasn’t going to open until 8, so I walked up the road to the Jerusalem YMCA for my morning swim. Their new sports facility opened in November, and it was quite impressive — a ten-lane pool! As always, it is part of my embodied prayer/meditation time, though now that I have started learning qigong, I have another embodied practice, as well.

Swimming at the brand-new YMCA in Jerusalem

A small section of the breakfast buffet at the Orient Hotel

I returned to the hotel, grabbed a quick breakfast at yet another amazing buffet, and proceeded to our morning lecture with Professor Reuben Hazan from the Political Science Department of Hebrew University whom I had previously heard speak a number of years ago. He offered us a comprehensive comparison of Israel’s parliamentary and America’s democracies, an up-to-date analysis of Netanyahu’s political and legal troubles, an Israeli view of Trump, and a sobering analysis of Obama’s legacy in the Middle East.

Prof. Reuben Hazan, Hebrew University

We then hopped our bus and proceeded to Gilo, a Jewish suburb of south Jerusalem which was not part of pre-‘67 Jerusalem. Uri offered maps and a nuanced analysis of the issues related to the occupation, with threats are both internal and external. Are all the settlements the same? To what extent is the “security barrier” an “apartheid wall” or a “ghetto wall”? Would pulling out of the West Bank create the same kind of untestable vacuum politically that it did in Gaza? What about a one-state rather than a two-state solution? We were all left challenged by the many complexities and how to translate them to our larger communities that may only know sensationalist headlines.

Uri sharing maps of Jerusalem pre- and post-1967, while standing on a lookout from Gilo

View of Jerusalem from Gilo lookout

Raz from Moshav Netiv Ha’asarah on border with Gaza

We travelled to a beautiful moshav on the border with Gaza and met with a man named Raz who spoke about the ongoing trauma that they all live with due to the rockets and missiles that are launched. Previously, they have had to contend with tunnels that have been built from Gaza into the moshav (initially for smuggling, now for attacks; they had to block one up with concrete which then created a toxicity problem for them).

The furthermost home on the moshav is only 200 feet from the border with Gaza. At one point they received 386 alarms in two days — and only have 7-9 seconds to get to the bomb shelters once the sirens blare. The government offers a lot of psychological services for adults and kids, and everyone is trained, including bus drivers. They even have surfing therapy for the kids! He spoke about resilience being community-based and about their Tu B’shevat celebration two weeks ago at which 400 of them went out biking. “My victory is living a normal life,” he said.

Raz spoke of the days when they hired Palestinians from Gaza to work on the moshav before the disengagement in 2005 and said he and his family had kept in touch with some of them for a time, and sent them money. He is well aware of the humanitarian crisis that is happening in much of the Gaza Strip and believes that it is self-preserving to help the Palestinians, that desperate people do desperate things. “If this is difficult for us, it’s much more difficult for them.” He also said that because he has never seen or touched peace, the only thing he can believe in is co-existence.

A home-made missile and the head of an Iron Dome that landed in Netiv Ha’asarah. The army tries not to use Iron Domes too close to the border for fear of them landing in Gaza and the Palestinians getting hold of sensitive technology.

Netiv Ha’asarah decorated the security barrier at the Gaza border

From Netiv ha’Asarah we travelled to Sederot, another border town with Gaza which I had visited five years ago. During that trip, Chaim and I had seen an indoor playground that was equipped with several specialized bomb shelter rooms — one for computers, one for soccer, as well as a climbing wall that only went up half the wall so that the kids could fulfill the 15-second rule should the alarms sound there.

Today we visited an outdoor playground that also has innovative shelters — long colorful serpent tunnels.

Waving from a bomb shelter/play tunnel at an outdoor park in Sederot

We left Sederot, returned to Jerusalem and met with Noa Sattath of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the Israeli equivalent of the Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement in Washington, DC. She spoke about the 4 major issues that they focus their attention on: 1. Equality for non-Orthodox movements in Israel
2. Ultra-Orthodox monopoly on Jewish life in Israel
3. Gender segregation in public sphere
4. Racism, including starting a racism crisis center!

After a brief rest back at the hotel, we went out for an evening at Mahane Yehuda market, which has become a hip place for new cuisine after dark. We tasted Syrian tahini, Israeli beers, Georgian pizza, and Lebanese knaffeh. We also saw some of the art of Solomon Sosa, a street artist who has painted about half of the 360 shutters in the market, only seen at night!

So another day ends with a full stomach and a full heart and mind.

This wheel for making tahini was smuggled out of Syria, and is based in the Mahane Yehuda market at Tahina haMelech (Tahini the King)

Solomon Sosa started making street art on the closed shutters of the market.

Boutique beers from all over Israel at Beer Bazaar. They have over 100 beers, including 7 they make themselves.

Etrogs are not just for Sukkot anymore. Etrog Man to the rescue!

The other night I went to see an Israeli film called “The Baker from Berlin” and this was one of the specialities featured, pull-apart chocolate rugelach that made my mouth drool. Now I saw it at Marzipan bakery, and we bought some for Shabbat!

Along Israel’s Borders

The not-so-distant mountains beyond the jeeps are Lebanon

Today was a day for learning some of the geo-political realities along Israel’s borders. Two jeeps met us at Kfar Blum to take us on a dirt road journey to the Golan Heights. On the way we came across a number of tanks and other military installations. Tank gunner Emanuel came over to tell us that we could not take photos of their equipment, and we engaged him in conversation. Before he left, our guide Uri told him to take care of himself, and Emanuel answered, “First, I take care of you.”

Conversing with tank gunner Emanuel. We are facing the direction of the Hula Valley, over which 1/2 million birds migrate bi-annually on their way to and from Africa.

As we continued up the road, we came across a huge herd of cattle blocking our path. We lost a lot of time trying to get them to the side so we could pass!

Clearing the cattle traffic jam so the jeeps could get through

Minefields on the border

Our destination was a former Syrian outpost at Tel Facher that Israel took in the ‘67 war, thanks to Israeli spy Eli Cohen, an Egyptian Jew who went undercover in Syria. It is because he suggested to the Syrians that they plant eucalyptus trees at this lookout to protect themselves from the heat that the outpost was evident to the approaching Israeli soldiers. The Israeli phrase to “throw yourself on the fence for someone” derives from the battle at this site. The device to blow the barbed wire malfunctioned, so a soldier threw himself on the barbed wire fence so that his comrades could walk on his back to get over it.

Uri demonstrates military maneuver of the ‘67 war at Tel Facher/Golani Lookout

Uri, our master tour guide, was full of these moving stories of courage and devotion to land and people during the ‘67 war. In the bus, he continued with some of the history of the War of Attrition and the ‘73 Yom Kippur War.

From Tel Facher, we travelled to Mt. Bental overlooking the Syrian border to meet with Lieutenant Colonel Sarit Zehavi, former intelligence officer where we got a thorough briefing on the current geo-political situation and its many complications, including strange bed-fellows. She is in the process of completing an experiential museum center near the Lebanon border which will provide an opportunity for visitors to experience how security is done through situation-room kinds of war games and technology.

Snow-covered Mount Hermon (left of tree, in background)

Learning about the current geopolitical situation with Syria, Lt. Colonel Sarit Zehavi, former intelligence officer

Our next stop was the exquisitely beautiful Kinneret Cemetery, right next to the Kinneret itself (Sea of Galilee). Here many of the early Zionist pioneers are buried, including Berel Katznelson, one of the intellectual founders of Labor Zionism. We spent a good amount of time at the grave of beloved Israeli poet Rachel, reading some of her poetry and even wrote some of our own (I still have to edit mine before posting). There is a closed box next to her grave where one can take out copies of her poems to read.

Poet Rachel’s grave at Kinneret Cemetery. Uri is showing us the hidden box of poetry that resides next to her grave.

Singer-songwriter Naomi Shemer is buried there, too. Notice the font — I want Hebrew script on my grave one day, too.

I can’t come to Israel and not meet a camel, can I?

We left the north of the country and travelled south to Jerusalem along the Jordan Valley, through the West Bank, this time close to the Jordanian border. My Verizon phone service even sent me a text that said “Welcome to Jordan.” In one day, I saw Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, reminding me how close Israel really lives to its neighbors.

We stopped at an overlook at Mt. Scopus to recite the Shehechayanu as we watched night fall over the Old City.

Here we are staying at the gorgeous and brand-new Orient Hotel in the German Colony.

Another informative and tiring day concludes. It was an emotionally (and morally) challenging day — I cried more than once, falling in love all over again with Israel in a way I hadn’t since my very first visit in 1981.

Thanks to my wonderful rabbinic colleagues and to our wonderful guide Uri for making this trip so meaningful and fun!

If you’ve never been to Israel (or even if you have), let’s plan a group trip. I know a really good guide…


Meeting the Other

Stop 1 at Givat Haviva with Mohammad Darawshe, a leading expert on Jewish-Arab relations

Today’s theme was on diverse communities in Israel: we learned some about the Arab communities, the Druze community, and the special needs community through our varied visits today.

We departed Tel Aviv and headed to Givat Haviva, an educational center on a vast kibbutz-like campus that fosters a shared society between Israeli Arabs and Jews. Mohammed Darawshe, director of the Center, spoke about the economic, social and political challenges that Israeli Arabs face in Israel. First of all, he said that Israeli Jews and Arabs understand co-existence and equality differently. While Israeli Jews support both concepts, they tend to believe that co-existence will lead to equality, despite the majority never having had visited an Arab village or having invited an Arab into their homes. Arab Israelis, on the other hand, believe that equality must come before co-existence is possible.

The Center no longer brings youth from the two communities together for immersion programs because they found that while stereotypes were certainly challenged in the short-term, the effect would wear off within 9-12 months, and the students reverted to the beliefs of their family and larger community. This is known as the “going home syndrome.”

The solution had to be longer-term. However, while successful, there are only six integrated Arab-Jewish schools in all of Israel, with the possibility of integrating only one new one every three years. So what they have implemented instead is the bussing of the teachers — Jewish teachers in Arab schools and Arab teachers in Jewish schools, a program now operating in 840 schools, affecting 184,000 students. For Jewish students, it may be the first time that they have experienced an Arab in a position of authority. For 68 percent of the students, this is the first meaningful encounter they have ever had with the other, and for 92.2 percent, their perspective about “the other” changes to the positive, for both groups. It sounds like it works!

Mohammed shared so much more about the changing face of the economic situation for Arabs in Israel and about the changing economy itself, about women in the workplace, and some telling anecdotes that I will love to share with anyone who is interested in hearing more. Mostly, I left feeling encouraged that Israel now understands that its own economic viability depends on an educated and financially stable Arab population, and is taking real steps to close the gaps.

Stop 2, Said Abu Shaka at the Um El Fahem Art Gallery.

We travelled from Givat Haviva to Um El Fahem Art Gallery to meet with founding director, Said Abu Shaka, who spoke movingly about his poverty growing up, his mother’s love, and his dream of opening this art gallery where Arab artists could exhibit. He said he wanted to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. The gallery includes a ceramics workshop for women to create art.


Stop 3, Nurah’s Kitchen

We travelled then to Dalyat haCarmel, a predominantly Druze city, to have lunch at Nurah’s Kitchen. Over a lovely (kosher) meal, Nurah told us some about the Druze community and religion, and our guide Uri filled in some information, as well. Most fun facts: 1. Druze broke from Islam because they considered Jethro (yes, the Jethro who is the father-in-law of Moses in the Hebrew Bible) their true prophet, not Mohammed; 2. Druze are not allowed to enter their holy places if they harbor any anger or animosity in their heart; 3. It is a closed society with no converting in or out; 4. It is a also a secret society with not much known about its religion; 5. There are secular Druze; 6. Druze do not have aspirations for a homeland and therefore are “home” wherever they live. There are Druze communities in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel.

Stop 4, Statue of the prophet Elijah at El Muhraqa, Carmelite Monastery

View from the roof of the Carmelite Monastery

The summit of Mount Carmel, El Muhraqa in Arabic (literally, “the sacrifice”), has a remarkable 360 degree view of the Jezreel Valley. On the grounds of the monastery stands a statue of the prophet Elijah, sword raised because it was here that the Bible (I Kings 18-19) says he killed the prophets of Baal, after which he fled and heard “the still, small voice.”

Most Jews know the kindly Elijah who visits Jewish homes at the Passover seder, at every brit milah, and every Saturday night at havdalah, and we love the folk stories of the chameleon-like Elijah who can appear in different forms to save the day. But the Biblical Elijah was strict, uncompromising, and curmudgeonly towards the Israelites. I like Joseph Telushkin’s teaching that Elijah is punished for his doubt in the faith and continuity of the Jewish people by having to visit us every Passover, Shabbat, and brit milah to be proven wrong in his pessimism — we have and do survive.

Stop 5 at Tulip Winery

In the town of Tivon, a German-Jewish father of a special needs daughter, founded a community in 1964 called Kfar Tikva (Village of Hope) where people with special needs might live. 223 special needs individuals live there now, all have jobs either in the community dining hall, laundry or winery. Tulip Winery, the largest boutique winery in Israel, employs 41 of the villagers. The winery’s motto is “We don’t put labels on people; we put them on bottles.”

Stop 6, The Pastoral Hotel at Kibbutz Kfar Blum. If I told you that this photo represents only part of the dessert offerings, you can only imagine how extensive the salad and main meal buffets were.

My roommate Michelle and I are staying in the Whoopi Goldberg room at the Pastoral Hotel, set in between the Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep rooms.  This is a beautiful hotel on Kibbutz Kfar Blum in the Galil region. Our dinner was a buffet spread like I’ve never seen before, with gourmet flavors that I also have never tasted before.

Another long day concludes, before an early departure for the Golan Heights.