Monday, July 6, 2015

Why We Are Here

As I sit here in our apartment in Amsterdam, I am reflecting on what we have experienced.  It will not be easy to capture what I am feeling, but I will do my very best to share this extraordinary day with you all.  I apologize in advance for the length of this post.

For you to fully understand the intense emotion we have experienced during our last 24 hours in Amsterdam I need to take you back about 2 years ago as Carly was preparing to become a bat mitzvah.  

As many of you know, as a part of our b'nai mitzvah program I invite all of our students to participate in the Remember Us Program, wher our students are twinned with a child whose life was taken at the hand of the Nazis before having the chance to be called to the Torah as a bar or bat mitzvah themselves.  It is meant to help heighten the meaning of the service for our students, as they learn that their becoming a bar or bat mitzvah is not just about them, but about them helping to solidify Judaism long into the future.  It helps our students to realize how lucky they are to be living in a place and at a time where being Jewish is really easy, and where it is really easy to take Judaism for granted.  When I give a student the name of a lost child, I always encourage them to try to find living relatives when possible.  Most of the time their search is empty, as complete families were wiped out at the hands of the Nazis.  Other times all living relatives have lived their natural lives and passed away at an advanced age.  For these TAE bar and bat mitzvah students the act of remembering is made even more important when they realize that they are the only person remembering this child, and the responsibility of saying Kaddish on their behalf becomes more apparent.  There are a few occasions where a connection is made, and I have been so proud to see these connections strengthen our student's Jewish identity through their interaction with their Remember Us child.

As Carly was preparing for her big day she wanted to participate in this program.  She pulled the name of Sophia van Hasselt.  Sophia was born on April 20, 1933 in the Netherlands and died at Auschwitz on February 12, 1942 at the age of nine years old.  Attached to her file we're some photos, including the one below.

Carly instantly connected to Sophia's spirit and mischievousness seen in her eyes and smile.  She seemed to have a certain spunk about her that Carly really related to.  We knew who her father and mother was and looked up her profile on the Yad VaShem website in the database for Shoah victims.  We learned that her cousin, Sara Kirby, inputted her information into the database.  We immediately began a search for Sara.  We tried Facebook, no luck.  We googled Sara Kirby and got literally thousands of pages to search through.  We started on page one and went entry by entry with no luck. 

Page two...  Same story.

On page three we saw something interesting...  There was a link to Sara Kirby through  Hmmmmm...  Could this be the right Sara?  Carly and I sent an email to the president of this organization.  When we hit send an excited feeling came over us, and then we waited.

About thirty minutes later, we received an email from the president, saying that indeed this WAS the Sara we were looking for and that he had already forwarded our email to her (she was his assistant!!!) and we would hear from her very soon.  

The next morning we were greeted with a long email from Sara, overcome with happiness that Carly was remembering her Fietje (Sophia's nickname).  Sara and Sophia were first cousins, and thus began a connection that would impact not just Carly, but all of our lives forever.  We learned about how Sara was just a baby during the war, and how her family hid her with another family to avoid her being deported.  We learned how this family, so unselfishly took her in and cared for her at great personal risk.  Sara sent us pictures of Sophia and her family, all of them killed during the war.  We saw photos of the house the van Hasselt family lived in in Waskemeer, in the north of Holland.  Here is one of those pictures.

The house is at the right of the picture, and the building to the left of it was a school where Sophia's father served as the head master.  We learned that the school was named in his honor, and Carly even made a connection with the head master and the 5th grade class through the exchange of emails.  Indeed Sophia succeeded in enhancing Carly's bat mitzvah experience in so many ways, and we consider Sara a part of our family.

As we were planning for our trip to Israel Leasa and I talked about the possibility of going to Amsterdam after the tour ended to go and see where Sophia grew up.  I sent a note to Sara and she was so happy to meet us there (she lives in Cambridge) and she connected us with Alledien, the lady whose family now lives in the house Sophia lived in.  And so, after lots of planning our meeting was set.  We would fly to Amsterdam and rent a car and drive the two hours north to Waskemeer to meet.  

It is hard to anticipate a meeting like this.  First of all was the logistical issues of driving in a foreign country to a place pretty remote.  Secondly, we felt like Sara was part of our family, but how would we spend the day with a stranger, in the home of another family of strangers where the only connection we shared was a family who lived in the house more than 70 years ago?  As our trip approached, we became more excited and felt more trepidation as well.

On Sunday, July 5, our family woke up extra early and took the bus and train to the airport where our rental car was waiting for us.  After confirming that the GPS we rented would indeed give us direction in English we were on our way.  One scary thing was that no one, and I mean NO ONE in Amsterdam has ever heard of Waskemeer.  It made us feel like it was not a real place, until we inputted the address of the house into the GPS and it found it.  Phew!

The drive through Holland was beautiful with long, green fields along each side of the road, with lots of cows, horses and sheep grazing lazily as we drove past.  Because we really had no idea of where we were going, we left lots of extra time so we would not arrive late.  In reality we arrived an hour early, which gave us time to explore Waskemeer and the adjacent villages.  All of the streets were made with brick and not asphalt, and the homes were beautiful with lush gardens surrounding them.  It looked like a really nice place to raise a family.  It made us think, if no one in Amsterdam knew of Waskemeer how did the Nazis know?  And why would they care about one Jewish family living in this out of the way place?

As the GPS took us to our destination we discovered that we were driving on a street called Meester van Hasselweg.  Not only was the school named after Sophia's father, but so was the street in which they used to live.  It was stirring to see his name on the sign of the street.
And then we pulled up to Sophia's house.  How can I possibly explain how it felt to be here, where this family lived?  We were all overcome with emotion.  We had stared and studied the photos of the home so many times before and now we were actually standing there.  We could see the canal built in front of the house used to deliver milk from the factory that used to be there.  We could almost see Sophia and her sister Hermi playing in front of the house.  It was a moment of recognition for us that we had reached our destination in our pilgrimage that started two years earlier with the drawing of a name and an email.  We were here.  And we were more connected to Sophia than we could ever imagine.

We spent a few minutes inside the house with Alledien and her family before Sara arrived (even with driving around we still managed to arrive about 15 minutes early).  Alledien and her family welcomed us with open arms and answered all of our many, MANY questions about the house.  And then there was a knock at the door and in walked Sara and her husband, Tony.  To watch Sara and Carly hugging each other brought tears to our eyes.  Here she was hugging the closest thing we can ever get to Sophia in the very house she lived in.  We were overcome.  We learned about the renovation that Alledien and her family did to the house and how they preserved as much of the original materials as possible.  To place my hands on the doors used by Sophia's family, to eat at the table made from the original floor boards from Sophia's house, to walk the original wooden stairs was more meaningful than words could ever express.

Here is a picture of Sara with Carly.  The first words out of her mouth was acknowledging how much Carly has grown since her bat mitzvah!

Sara shared with us more about her story, and the fact that her hiding brother just passed away last year.  To hear her talk about her hiding family brought me back to our Israel trip and our visit to Yad Vashem.  Would Leasa and I have the courage to take in a child and hide them knowing that we were putting our own children at risk should we get caught?  Sara shared with us a book she had made (she gave us a copy) that traces the lineage of her family.  There were page after page of family trees, showing all of her relatives, both close and distant.  Looking through the book at the names was very emotional as we could see when everyone was born and the fact that so many died in 1942, 43 or 44 at one of the death camps.  From her father's side of the family Sara was the only survivor.  The only one.  How many dreams were lost, how many children with so much to live for were not given the chance?  The reality of it was overwhelming.  It made us feel good to know that Carly, in some small way, was keeping the memory of this family alive.

We took a walk to the school (it is in a new location) that bears the van Hasselt name.

Below is the plaque that dedicates the school to Simon van Hasselt.  How moving to see it in person.  The head master of the school came in on a Sunday, during the first weekend of summer vacation to open up the school so we could see it.  As we toured the school Alledien brought out box after box or archives for us to look through.  We were amazed that someone had the foresight to save EVERYTHING to preserve the memory of the school.  We found the book of poems Sophia's dad wrote and all of the record of absent children dating back to 1920.  It was pouring through history.  

We were also really touched to learn that every year on November 5 the school kids mark Simon van Hasselt's birthday with a special program where they all get apples and that there is a special memory day where they gather to read his poems and learn of what happened to the van Hasselt family.  We were so moved to learn of these steps to remember a Jewish family, and to acknowledge the impact he had on so many children.  One of the most moving parts was when Sara read a letter Simon wrote to the school after he was forced to leave about how it looked like he and his family would be going to a camp where food was scarce.  He was asking everyone to send them food if they were able.  It was a sobering moment for all of us.

After our tour of the school we went and enjoyed a nice meal with Sara, Tony, Alledien and her family.  It was lovely to get to know these dear people who have become so important to us.  Our day ended with a two hour drive back to Amsterdam where we couldn't believe the experience we had just had.  

We woke up early again this morning so we could tour the Anne Frank House.  After learning of Sara and her experiences with her hiding family it was incredible to read and experience Anne Frank's story. Knowing and loving Sara made it all the more powerful, and our connection to Sophia and the fate shared by Anne and Sophia made it overwhelming.  If you have not visited the Anne Frank House, you really need to come and experience this.  It is an incredible museum, for me the most chilling part was seeing her original diary and walking through the bookcase that served as the entrance to the annex.  Anne's soul was still present in this place, just like I felt Sophia in that small town of Waskemeer.

To have these experiences with my daughters was something beyond words.  Hayley is the same age Sophia was when she died at Auschwitz.  Carly is almost as old as Anne Frank was when her life ended.  To see the impact these experiences has had on both of my girls is incredible.  How lucky we are to be able to take these steps together.

This is the last entry for this blog.  As I complete these last words, I am sad that the journey is over.  We have experienced so much over the last two and a half weeks, and we have grown so much from these experiences.  As this trip comes to an end I really start to think about the next trip coming up in October.  One of our first stops will be Auschwitz, and I wonder if I will feel more connected to Sophia where she died or in the house where she lived.  Either way I know I will take these experiences with me as I walk forward with my own journey and continue to deepen my connection to what it means to be Jewish.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Tel Aviv: New Beginnings and Final Farewells

Today was another incredible day filled with so many different emotions.  It started with our breakfast, where you could hear our travelers speaking about how much they would miss Israel and how they wished we could stay longer.  It is a very good sign when people are speaking about wanting to stay longer and not wanting to go home.  Even though we knew there would be some sadness as we bid farewell to Israel, we still had an exciting day of touring ahead of us.

Our first stop was the Ayalon Intsitute near Rehovot for an eye-opening tour of a clandestine munitions factory used during the Brittish Mandate.  When we arrived I could tell that many in the group did not know what to expect and thought this might not be such a great activity.  I knew from my experience two years ago that this was an amazing stop and could not wait to see everyone's reaction to our visit.  This museum tells the story of how Israelis during the years of 1945 through 1948 created this secret munitions factory beneath the bakery and laundry facilities at a kibbutz in order to produce bullets for the war of independence.  Creating bullets was totally against the laws set forth by the Brittish.  We learned that the secret factory worked for about 9 hours a day and during the three years of its operation created more than 2.5 million bullets used in the fight.  In other words, this factory literally saved the Jewish people and was instrumental in the creation of the state of Israel.  The kids, mere teenagers, worked underground on this secret mission, a mission they could not even share with their spouses, at great personal risk. They were at constant risk of being caught and punished, and they were at risk of being injured or killed by the factory itself, with gun powder being used.  The courage displayed by these kids was inspiring.  We learned that the reason the laundry was on top of the factory was the machine was loud enough to hide the noise and smells coming from the factory.  In order to mask the factory, the washing machine needed to run every day for 9 hours.  We learned that the kibbutz only needed about two hours of laundry time each day.  In order to keep the machine running, the kibbutz laundry would wash the clothes for the local hospital.  This added another 4 hours to the workload, not enough to cover the entire work day.  In order to keep the machine going they would wash the clothes of the Brittish soldiers, the very people they were hiding the factory from.  If you want to hide something from someone, the best place to do so is right in front of their faces.  We saw the secret entrance to the factory beneath the large washing machine that would rotate out of the way to uncover a ladder system to get down into the basement where the factory was housed.  We learned that the entire project was built in just three weeks, 21 days to dig out and create the fully functional basement factory.  The Brittish soldiers were told that they were building a basement storage facility for food.  We learned how the workers countered the negative effects of not being in the sun and turning pale, where artificial sunlit was brough in in the form of ultra violet light that they would sit under so they would not be too pale.  We learned about the special communication system created using red lights that people on the surface would use to tell the workers if someone was coming so they could stop working and turn off the machines.  We learned how they would smuggle ammunition out in the gasoline trucks that would come every couple of months.  Think of it, gun powder and gasoline in the same truck...  The residents of the kibbutz who knew what was happening were so smart that they served warm beer to the Brittish soldiers, which was not to the liking of the soldiers who preferred cold beer to warm.  The residents told them to call ahead and they would put beer in the fridge for the soldiers, creating a warning system that would tell workers three hours before any soldiers would come so they could be prepared, reminding us of the non-indigenous trees we saw in the Golan Heights that alerted the Israeli military to where the Syrians were hiding.  It is another heroic example of the Israeli spirit, a spirit we all hope we can take home with us.

After this visit we took a short ride to the ancient city of Jaffa, a city with 5000 years of history found in its layers.  This is an example of a tel, where we see one civilization building on top of another, and another, and archeologists are able to look at these layers by slicing the ground like a piece of cake to reveal the history of a location.  We learned how, when people would make Aliyah to Israel they would come through the Jaffa port and were so disappointed at what they found, no schools and not even a working sewage system.  Because of this 66 families turned to the north and saw sand dune upon sand dune and decided to settle there.  These are the people who created Tel Aviv, which has turned into a thriving, modern city full of life.  These settlers had the courage to do what was hard and create something new for themselves and their families.  Here is our group of travelers as we looked from ancient Jaffa towards Tel Aviv. You can see our hotel in the distance.

And a selfie with our guide, Uri...

Tel Aviv means old and new city (tel is something old and aviv means spring representing newness), and these settlers represented the new type of Jew that would eventually be instrumental in the formation of the state of Israel.  

After a stop for lunch and shopping in the open air market in Jaffa we made our way to Independence Hall for our final touring destination during the trip.  Here, we would recreate the story of the formation of Israel in the exact location where our statehood was declared on May 14, 1948.  Our visit to Independance Hall began with a short movie about the events leading up to the declaration of statehood.  We learned even more about the formation of Tel Aviv, and even saw the wall of the original house that was built on this location by Mayor Meir Dizengoff, Tel Aviv's first mayor.  It was amazing to learn how they divided the land for the 66 families who formed the new city.  They got 66 white shells and wrote the names of one family per shell and 66 black shells and wrote the numbers 1-66 on these.  They drew one black and one white shell and that was the order in which people chose their land.  Mayor Dizengoff was the 43rd prison to pick his land.  The hall has been renovated a number of times, as it became an art museum after Mayor Dizengoff's wife passed away.  When he died some time later, he donated his home to Tel Aviv in the hopes that the story of the history of the city was preserved.  Little did he know that this place would serve as the most historic place in recent Jewish history as Israel was declared a state.  Following the film about the site, we went inside the actual room, set up as it was in 1948.  We learned that invitations for the pronouncement were handed out in secret the day before the event.  Jerusalem could not be the site for the announcement because it was under siege at the time, as Israel was already fighting her neighbors as statehood was announced.  This location had thick concrete walls with few windows so it offered protection from any kind of attack.  The announcement was going to happen on Friday, may 14 because the Brittish had announced that they were leaving that evening.  At 3:30 pm on Friday, the 300 people that were invited arrived (it was a miracle that no one showed up late).  Chairs, rugs and microphones were borrowed from neighboring stores, and at 4 pm the announcement was made so that it would be done before the beginning of Shabbat.  After our guide shares with us all the background we listened to the original broadcast of the pronouncement.  We could hear Ben Gurion declare statehood (our guide, Uri, translated as Ben 
Gurion spoke), and then we heard the rabbi read the shehechianu prayer, the same prayer we sang as we looked upon the Old City for the first time).  Then the orchestra began to play Hatikvah.  Because of the size of the room, the orchestra had to be placed on the second floor.  This made the sound feel like it was coming from heaven.  As the first notes played, we all stood up out of respect.  I watched our guide, Uri and our youth counselor Shachar begin to sing the words.  Seeing the pride in their eyes, knowing that each of them had served Israel in the military brought me to tears.  I began to sing along as well, as did many in our group.  As the music swelled I began to weep, tears rolling down my face.  I could sense others in our group were having the same emotional reaction.  This song is forever changed for me because of hearing it in this location.  Every time I sing or hear it I will be back in those uncomfortable wooden chairs, tears rolling down my cheeks again.  

As you look around the room, on the walls you can see pictures painted by famous Jewish artists.  Many of them show pictures of the Jews from the old country.  How interesting to see those pictures as a new, modern Israel was being declared.  Uri explained that it was not a statement saying "you are the old Jews and we are the new Jews," almost like there was no place for them here in Israel.  Rather, he explained, it was us saying that we are here BECAUSE of you, that even though those Jews pictured might not be here physically, their spirit is part of what has made Israel what she is.  It is a reminder that we carry those who came before us with us as we move forward.

It was so fitting that our tour ended with Independence Hall.  The pronouncement of statehood does not represent an ending, but rather a beginning.  And our tour, although comprehensive and expansive, only represents a small portion of what Israel has to offer.  Her story is just beginning to be written, and our relationship with her is just beginning to be defined.  It is amazing to think of all of the accomplishments she has made in her short history, literally changing the world for the better in so many ways.  And we also recognize that there are areas in which she falls short, as we all do, and we should not hesitate to criticize her as we do America.  But there is a certain pride that we all should have for her.  Standing in that room where ordinary men and women accomplished extraordinary things by action.  In the face of certain failure, Israel has endured again and again.  And she has endured because people saw that she was worth fighting for, worth standing up for.  And we are the ones who have to be her advocates in the diaspora.  I also take away from this trip the fact that I am too lax in my support of our country.  I need to reevaluate how I stand up for and support our ideals. 

After leaving we had some time to pack before meeting as a group to do a debriefing of our experience.  First Uri did an overview of our tour and all that we did in our ten days together.  It was an exhausting trip, both physically and emotionally.  After this, we then opened up the conversation to allow people to share their thoughts of what they were taking away from this experience.  I was so amazed by what people said, from our youngest travelers to our oldest, about how Israel has changed them.  Some spoke of the connections they made with others in our tour.  You could see relationships solidifying as we experienced unique things together.  Others spoke of the emotional impact of places like Yad Vashem and the Wall, and how they will not be the same because of those experiences.  Israel has a way of holding up a mirror in front of our faces and forces us to face realities about ourselves that are sometimes uncomfortable.  What is our impact going to be on the world?  What can I do to add light to the darkness that is around us?  What we take away is that it is not about israel's story, but rather our story.  How will we write our story?

Our final activity was a farewell dinner at Goshen, an absolutely amazing meat restaurant in Tel Aviv.  Here we made toasts to each other, officially thanked Uri and Shachar for all of their work and began the difficult task of saying goodbye to each other.  Saying goodbye was much harder than anyone thought it would be.  After all of the planning and preparing, all of the pre-trip programming and ten intense days together, the trip officially becomes a memory.  I am so grateful for each and every person who was a part of our tour.  Together we created a special group that will remain bonded together in a special way forever.  I cannot wait to get back to TAE and share the special glances with these people, the special hugs that we will share that will be a little stronger because of our experiences.  This is how we keep our trip to Israel alive, as we recognize that we come home different.  I cannot wait to face east for the Bar'chu again, so I can close my eyes and feel my hands touching the Wall that has become so important to me.  I cannot wait to sing L'cha Dodi and close my eyes and find myself in Tsfat connected to the Mystics of our past.  And I can't wait to walk the Old City again.  I urge you to consider taking a trip to Israel.  Talk to our travelers and learn of their experiences, and see why just reading these words is not enough.  You simply MUST experience it for yourself.  And TAE is happy to take you there.  We will begin planning our next trip as soon as possible.

A special note: after saying goodbye to people who were leaving this evening we had the chance to visit with Miss Tara, who taught a number of our younger travelers in our preschool at TAE.  It was so special to see her in Israel, a place she loves so dearly, and to see her with her kids again.  Listening to her talk with Hayley about her experiences was so special.  It was a sweet moment that helped to get through the sadness of our tour ending, and I could tell how moved she was by the impact Israel had a on all of us.

As I write this we are sitting in the airport waiting for our flight to Amsterdam for a special meeting that is also two years in the making.  Even though the blog is ended because the trip to Israel is over, I will probably add two more posts, one for this special meeting and one for the Anne Frank house.  

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Highs and Lows of Roman Ruins

"Today is going to be a great day," our familiar greeting from Uri that we all now say along with him... 

Today we say farewell to the Hula Valley and the north of Israel and head south to Tel Aviv, the final stop on our tour of Israel.  It is so hard to believe that after two years of planning, preparing and anticipating we are getting ready to say goodbye to Israel.  You can see the mood of our group changing as we get closer to the end of the trip.  People are speaking about how much they will miss Israel, and how special the trip has been.  It has been a special experience to say the least.

Today we got another early start as we loaded up the bus and left the beautiful surroundings of Kfar Blum, this oasis in the north.  Our first stop would be Park Alona as we would walk through the 2000 year old water tunnel built by the Romans that served as the water source for Caesarea, the city built by King Herod more than 2000 years ago in tribute to Caesar.  

We were amazed once again at the ingenuity of the Romans who built this water system entirely by hand without the help of modern machinery.  It must have taken years to carve through the stone under ground in order to bring fresh water to this city.  With flashlight in hand we once again walked through a dark tunnel under ground with our legs wading in the knee, sometimes waist, deep cool, refreshing water.  

After our walk through the water tunnel we went to lunch at a local mall with various food options.  Leasa and I felt kind of silly as we traveled half way around the world so we could eat Pizza Hut, but we redeemed ourselves by having an Iced Aroma for dessert.  For those of you who do not know, Aroma is the coffee store in Israel that is the reason why Starbucks would never survive here.  It is a staple in Israel and a place I look forward to coming back to again and again.  Indeed, it puts our coffee houses in America to shame.

Once lunch was over we took the short bus ride to Caesarea, one of the land of Israel's most important cities during the Roman Period.  As we approached this city we got our first view of the Mediterranean Sea.  In Caesarea we saw the 2000 year old Herodian Theatre, a 4500 seat theatre that was the place for culture during King Herod's reign.  We sat in the ancient stone seats like the Romans would, and Uri recalled all of Jewish history for us as he prepared us for the story of Caesarea.  The coolest thing about this theatre is that it is still in use today, with major concerts being held here.  As we sat in the theatre, crews were setting up for the next concert which is going to feature local Israel artists.  I would love to see a show in this theatre, with the Mediterranean Sea crashing behind the stage.  During our visit to the theatre the wind was blowing a gentle breeze that swayed the speakers hanging from the proscenium.  

As we walked behind the stage of the theatre we were treated to our first full view of the Mediterranean Sea.  You could smell the salt in the air, and the sky was a crisp blue color, not impeded by the smog that we see in California.  There is something about the air in Israel that just feels cleaner and you can taste the pure Mediterranean air.  We stopped at the ruins of the palace of King Herod and saw the remains of his ancient swimming pool and could almost envision him relaxing in the cool, clear water of his pool as the waters of the sea crash around him.  It is a beautiful location indeed!

Our group liked the location as well because getting them to stop taking pictures here was a huge challenge!  I can't blame them, I got caught up and stole a family picture there as proof the Shukiar family four was indeed in this beautiful place!

We then made our way to the Hippodrome, a chariot racing stadium built to house the major sporting events of the ancient Roman city.  We sat in the bleachers where 10,000 screaming fans would sit cheering on their favorite chariot.  You could almost see the Romans in the stands, some who have traveled the 8-10 day journey from Rome to see the sporting event.  As we sat in these seats Uri shared with us that this was the hippodrome that was used to torture and kill the 10 Jewish leaders captured during the Roman conquest, a story we have heard and experienced through antiquities many times during the last 8 days.  Uri shared how the scene would be horrific, with these leaders being lit on fire in front of the screaming fans and how they could stop the torture by renouncing Judaism.  The fact that they chose to NOT renounce their faith while receiving such horrible torture and death brings up the question, did they make the right choice? Why not renounce Judaism and stop the torture? Maybe it comes from the same pride of the soldier who lays down on the exposed barbed wire so his brothers and sisters can run on top of his back towards the enemy to protect Israel.  Maybe the mark left by these people was the fact that their faith was unshakable and that we should try to strengthen our own connection to our faith.  What is our legacy?  What are we leaving behind?  What are we here to accomplish, not just in Israel but also in life?  What is our impact?

Uri also shared that this place was used in celebration at the conquest of Israel by the Romans.  But here we were, sitting on Roman ruins, in a Jewish state, wearing our Judaism with pride.  For us to be sitting in this place, at this time, thinking of all the times that people have tried to destroy us, was very powerful.  I could tell that this was an important moment not just for me, but for all of those in our traveling party as we prepare to bring our love of Israel home with us.

Uri led us to the sands of the beach next to the hippodrome at Caesarea.  Here we learned of another hero of Israel, poet and soldier Hannah Sennesh, a World War 2 heroine who sacrificed her life trying to save people in Eastern Europe.  Standing on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea we sang her famous song, Eili, Eili, written, perhaps, in this very location.  We stood in a circle with our arms wrapped around each other.  I saw and felt people with tears in their eyes as we sang her lyrics:

"Oh Lord, my God
I pray they these things never end,
The sand and the sea
The rush of the water
The crash of the heaven
The prayer of woman and man."

Uri then gave us about five minutes to take our family and find a private corner of the beach to share our priorities and purpose in life.  To do this ritual with our daughters brought tears to Leasa's and my eyes, as our girls expressed their pride in being Jewish in spite of all the complications that Judaism brings to our lives.  They both shared how their faith has been strengthened by our visit to Israel and that, because of our trip, they feel even more connected than before.  There are no sweeter words that I can hear than these that say with conviction that in spite of our troubled history, and in spite of the fact that so many people want to see us removed from the earth let alone Israel, my girls are proud to be Jewish and proud to be a part of the history of Judaism as they add their link to the chain of Judaism.  This was a special way to end our time in Caesarea.  

We then made our way to Tel Aviv, a metropolis that is the antithesis to Jerusalem. The city is alive and hip, and my kids could not wait to get their feet wet in the Mediterranean Sea.  Watching the sunset at a cafe on the beach with dear friends in Israel, my home in the east, was the perfect ending to another perfect day here.  As sad as I am that the trip is coming to an end, I am so grateful for the opportunity to be here with my family, watching them fall in love with the place I truly fell in love with two years ago. Watching my kids build a lifelong connection to Israel is something I will always hold close to my heart. Watching Leasa find her connection to this place, especially when she was not sure what her reaction would be is something I will always cherish.  I hope that you will consider opening your heart to Israel.  If you do, your life will forever be enhanced.  What a precious gift to give to your children.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Nature and Security

I am having a tough time with my camera today, as it seems that I have taken more pictures than the iPad will allow (I have taken more than 1000 photos so far), so I will have to add the photos at a later date. I apologize and appreciate your patience.  

Every day we get on our bus and are greeted by Uri with the same words, "Today is going to be a great day."  And every day, he is absolutely right.  Today was no exception to this rule.  We were woken up a little early by the Israeli Air Force flying fighter jets over our hotel patrolling the borders with Lebanon and Syria.  Another gentle reminder that we are indeed in the Middle East.  Although, I have to say that there was a certain type of calm that came over me as I heard these jets pass again and again as I truly felt that if there was an issue the military would handle it.  A very different feeling than if this was happening in the United States.  

After breakfast we boarded our bus and drove to the Tel Dan Nature Reserve where we took a lovely nature walk through dense forest.  It was so green, so beautiful that you almost forgot you were in Israel!  When you think of the Middle East you think of sand mountains and dust storms, not lush green scapes with trees growing everywhere and running water giving you a soothing sound.  There were so many picturesque places to take photos.  Our hike ended at a little pond where we were able to take off our shoes and wade into the cold, crisp water.  Uri used this time to explain where we were on the map of Israel, this time portrayed so beautifully by Jacob with landmarks taped to different parts of his body.  Uri also showed us some fresh animal droppings and taught us how to tell what kind of animal left them by the smell and, yes taste.  Then he scooped up a piece of the droppings and proceeded to eat one.  He then offered a piece to each child and everyone gladly took a piece (Uri fooled us with candy).

As we finished the trail and returned to the parking lot we were greeted by 8 jeeps waiting to take us off-roading up into the Golan Heights, following in the footstep of the IDF soldiers and their battles in the Six Day War.  This was not a Disneyland tour, but rather actual off-roading.  We were tossed around as we traveled with mine fields on both sides of us up into the mountains so we could understand the strategic significance of the Golan Heights.  It was a riot to see Leasa, Carly and Hayley as they were thrown about the back of the jeep.  I was. So grateful that Meredith was there to catch Hayley and her hat which flew off many times.  There were sounds of screaming and laughter all the way up the hill.

When we reached the top we stopped at a Syrian military outpost where one of the big battles of the Six Day War took place.  Uri spoke about how the Golani troops took this Syrian outpost against all odds back in 1967.  To hear about the bravery shown by our Israel brothers as they marched up the hill and would not stop until they had captured the outpost.  We learned of a spy who worked his way up in the Syrian regime who convinced the Syrian government to plant trees (not indigenous to the area) as a way to create shade for the Syrian troops.  Of course it also served as a locator for the Israeli military once the war started.  Uri shared the story of a soldier who, after unsuccessfully trying to blow a hole in the barbed wire fence actually laid on top of the sharp wire and let his brothers walk on his back advancing towards the hostile Syrian troops.  It is this kind of selfless, heroic act that we hear about again and again in Israel.  Uri explained that the soldiers had an extra incentive to succeed, for all they had to do was turn around and look down the mountain and see their home to understand the implications of defeat. Indeed there were many soldiers who would lay on top of a barbed wire fence and let others walk across his body, indeed there are many soldiers, both men and women today who would show this kind of heroic bravery.  Uri shared that the strategy of the Israeli military was a two hit plan...  We hit them and they hit the ground.  There was no plan B, no contingency.  It truly was a miraculous victory and I think we all understand why it is so important for Israel to hold onto the Golan Heights.  We also are beginning to understand the complexities of the notion of giving back the Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Syria.  It is a complicated and difficult situation.

Following our discussion we were able to climb into the underground bunker and have a look around before having a snack of fresh watermelon before reboarding our bus.

Our next stop was a Druze village even closer to the Syrian border for lunch.  We learned so many interesting things about the Druze people, who are not Arab nor Jewish.  Indeed the Druze broke away from Islam some 1000 years ago.  We. Learned about some of the challenges facing these people living in the Golan Heights.  We stopped at the village called Mas'ade for an amazing lunch of felafel and other yummy treats.  It was a feast for the ages.  I couldn't believe how modern and built up the Druze village was.  I guess I was expecting tents, not a modern suburban village.  

Our next stop took us close to the Syrian border where we could look and actually see into Syria.  This view was much closer than the view I experienced two years ago, and I felt like I could actually reach out and touch this dangerous place.  Uri explained the situation happening in Syria now.  He explained it not as a civil war, but a world war where the Shia want to destroy the Sunnis and create a Muslim empire dictated by Sharia law.  He connected Shia and Sunni to Hezbollah and Hamas, and ISIL, and we really could understand that this is a complex situation.  Looking at the Syrian border we could see a stark difference between Israel and Syria.  Israel was green, filled with crops and a lush landscape.  Syria, on the other hand, was desolate and uncared for.  Uri showed us a UN outpost that was abandoned and taken over by Jabhat al-Nusra, who is connected to al Queda.  We were so close to this that it felt like we could take a stone and hit the building.  We hear of these kinds of things from America and it took my breath away to actually see it... In the USA we are so sheltered, even though we are aware, we do not understand what it means to live next to such terrorism.

As Uri was talking we began to hear canon fire in the distance.  And then more pops of canon fire.  This was a little frightening (although we were never in any danger).  Eventually we could see a plume of smoke in the distance, no doubt a result of some kind of attack in Syria.  It was another sobering reminder that Israel is surrounded by potential hostile neighbors and she must be prepared to engage at any moment.  Who knows if the war in Syria will ever spill in to Israel, but one lesson of the Yom Kippur war of 1973 is that Israel must be prepared. 

We all went back to the bus feeling a bit uneasy from the sight of the battle that was in the town just across the border.  But our uneasiness soon was changed to excitement as we prepared for our next activity, which was a choice between chocolate making at the De Karina Chocolate Factory and wine tasting at the Behat winery.  The kids (and some adults) had a blast creating their own special desserts that would be able to enjoy later.  The adults loved tasting the four wines, toasting to our trip and our friendship, and even purchasing some wine to enjoy later in our trip.  

It was surreal to think that just around the mountain we were witness to a battle in Syria, and here we were, feeling totally safe and protected, eating chocolate and drinking wine on the Syrian border.  Only in Israel!  Why do we feel safe? Why is it that at no point on this trip have we ever felt in any kind of jeaordy?  I think it has to do with the Israeli spirit you have heard me talk about.  I know that they are doing everything they can to keep me, my family, and my family of travelers safe.  I have so much trust in the military in Israel, knowing that they have accomplished so many important victories.  I feel safe because I see the pride Israelis take in making me feel safe.  You see that pride in the young men and women taking their places as a part of the military ready to lay down their lives for Israel.  It is inspiring beyond words.  I hope to take some of that inspiration home with me as I share my love for Israel with others.

On our way down the hill off of the Golan Heights and back into the Hula Valley Uri played us a couple of songs that had to do with war, specifically the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The first was the Last War and is written from the perspective of a father singing to his daughter, promising that this war (speaking of the 1973 Yom Kippur War) would be the last war.

"For the pilots who broke through the deadly battle
And we're hit with rocket fire and ac-ac guns,
For the paratroopers who, amid lead and smoke,
Saw you overhead, like an angel.

I promise you - my little girl,
That this will be the last war."

The second song was the Winter of Seventy Three with words by Shmuel Hasfari.  It is written from the perspective of that daughter all grown up and now a soldier herself.  She says:

"When we were born, the old men 
Gave blessing with tearful eyes.
They said - please God,
These children won't go to war.

... We are the children 
Of the winter of seventy three.
Now we too have grown up to be soldiers
With rifles and helmeted heads...
We too are men,
We too are women, 
We too dram of babies."

Both of these selections rally capture what Israel was feeling during the military struggles of her history.  

Our next stop was a purely fun and adventurous activity.  We went rafting down the Jordan River.  Actually, it was more like a lazy river for an hour and a half.  But it was terrific.  The water fights that happened between our boats was epic and totally fun.  Our water fights with some of the birthright kids was also really fun.  It was a great way to end our day of touring the north of Israel.  Thank you, David Messe for the photos.

After a delicious dinner we split up for evening activities.  The kids went with Shachar, our youth counselor for a kids program while the adults met with Uri to discuss the Geopolitical situation in Israel, trying to wrap our heads around the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.  It was an informative dialogue with Uri, who is so knowledgable about so many things.  He is really opening my eyes to the complexity of the situation.  I feel more prepared to engage in meaningful dialogue, and feel like I have the tools to find answers to the many questions I have.

It is amazing to think about all we took in today.  From the fun activities like the nature walk, jeep tour and rafting to the serious activities like being in the Golan Heights, looking into Syria and trying to understand the facts surrounding the Israeli Palestinian conflict, we experienced it all.  I hope you will consider coming to Israel with TAE in a couple of years so you can experience this like I am...

Nature and Spirituality on the Road North part 2

After our visit to the kibbutz we continued our ride up north towards Tsfat.  As we made our way up the winding roads one of our travelers came forward with his shorts off asking for a special brush to remove thorns from his pants... Only in Israel will you see this, a boy in his underwear asking for a thorn removal brush near the Jordanian border as we travel towards Lebanon and Syria.  We all shared a great laugh and I couldn't resist getting a picture!  Needless to say that Uri left his thorn removal brush at home, leaving Bennett's father the chore of pulling out each of the thorns.

We arrived in the mystical center of Tsfat atop the hills above the Galilee.  Uri shared some history about mysticism and Kabbala to try to help us understand why visiting Tsfat was so important and not just a nice shopping stop...

We learned that Kabbala is a way of life, trying to take the mystical properties of Judaism and making them accessible to us all.  Kabbala tries to answer the toughest question of all, why are we here?  We learned the story of a man who climbed atop the shoulders of another man, and another man crawled atop his shoulders in order that they might reach God and pull down the answers to all of life's questions.  Here is Bennett and Gary showing us how this worked...

As the third man was standing on the second's shoulder they fell, pulled a piece of God with them and shattering it all over the floor.  Kabbala tells us that we must pick up all the pieces and put them back together again.  Tsfat is the center of mysticism and Kabbala.  The main book of Kabbala is the Zohar, written on the mountain directly across from Tsfat.  Tsfat has attracted many artists to come and create in this ancient city of the Mystics and we were able to spend time walking the same streets they did so long ago.

We went inside the Karo Synagogue, a synagogue still active today, and learned more.  The blue walls were so soothing, and the sanctuary items, the Ark and Bima were beautiful.  We saw a ganiza, a place where old Torah scrolls and prayer books are laid to rest when they are no longer useful.  Inside this glass ganiza we could see the actual ancient scrolls used by the rabbis who created mystical Judaism. 

We loved the giant mezuzah that was placed in the doorpost of the entrance to the synagogue.

Here is view of Mount Meron, where the Zohar is said to have been written in a cave.

I was especially taken and moved by the Eternal Light found in this sanctuary.  It was not a electric light like we have at TAE, but rather it was a simple candle.  There is powerful message in this.  If left alone, the candle would eventually go out and the Eternal Light would be no more.  In order for the light to be eternal, it requires us to tend to it, changing it and making sure it stays lit.  In other words, like our Torah teaches us, l'ha'alot neir tamid, we have to light the light eternally.  We have to be active in preserving this light.  Just like Kabbala teaches us that we must be active in performing acts of tikkun olam, repairing our world.  It is so easy to complain about issues, much harder to do something about them.  We are a people of action.  Kabbala also teaches us to live intentionally, not just to go through the motions but to allow ourselves to be truly present.  This is a running theme of our trip, not looking ahead but staying in the moment and truly being present for ourselves and others.  So many times during our trip I have seen our travelers being present for themselves or for others, allowing others to literally lean on them when needed.

Tsfat is famous for another historic reason.  It is the place where Shlomo Alkabeitz wrote the famous poem that has become a part of our Kabbalah Shabbat service, L'cha Dodi.  We sang the version created by the Kol Han'shama synagogue in Israel.  How awesome to sing these words in the very place they were created!  We all sang with intention, with a growing energy and enthusiasm.  Each one of us will never sing the L'cha Dodi the same again, for when we are in TAE singing this we will be back in Israel connected to the very place we were at today.  We will envision the kabbalists dressed in white running in the field right by where we were towards the sunset on Friday, singing and dancing the spirit of Shabbat towards us and joining her with our souls to allow us to experience Shabbat in a deeper and more meaningful way.  I can hardly wait to sing these words again with this community in Thousand Oaks.

After our visit to the Karo synagogue was complete, we had time to shop.  The judaica in Tsfat is unmatched anywhere else in Israel.  There were so many beautiful things to see, and I think our tour single handedly boosted the economy of this ancient town.  

An amazing thing happened to Leasa and me.  As we were looking in a store where an artist was creating art with microchaligraphy, I spotted our Ketubah, our Jewish marriage license.  It turns out that this was the very store, and this the very artist that created and sold our Ketubah to my parents when they were in Israel more than 20 years ago.  What an amazing thing to have walked into his studio and shop.  Only in Israel, only in Tsfat!

We loved seeing the artist's colony in Tsfat and wish we could have stayed there longer.

But, we had to leave so we could finish our journey for the day.  

After about 30 minutes we arrived in Kibbutz Kfar Blum, our next stop for the next two nights.  This place is one of my favorite places anywhere.  There is a peace here, a serenity that comes in spite of being a stone's throw from the Lebanese and Syrian borders.  

I can hardly wait to share the north of Israel with our travelers tomorrow.  They have yet to experience the magic of the north, and I can't wait to see their response to all we will do.  Israel is an incredible place and I am so blessed to be here.  I will stay present and in the moment, and I will explore all she has to offer with great kavana, with great intention. 

Nature and Spirituality on the Road North part 1

This is going to be another two part posting because of the number of pictures I want to share with you...

This morning we woke up and finished packing as we prepared to say goodbye to Jerusalem and take our tour up to the northern end of Israel.  As we boarded our bus and began our journey, I became very sad.  It is hard to explain, but I did not want to say goodbye to Jerusalem.  More than any other place in Israel I feel at home in Jerusalem.  I especially connect to holiness I feel being so close to the Old City.  And as our bus made its way outside of the city and into the desert I felt a sense of loss.  It helps to know in a few short months I will be back home again, but it is hard to leave.  I am reminded of what Uri shared with us at the beginning of the trip, one does not visit Jerusalem, one returns.

As we leave, we take the beauty and mystery of this place with us.  We come to Jerusalem as one person and we leave changed forever.  And we have so much more to experience.  Israel is filled with amazing corners and we are so fortunate to get to explore a few more before this trip is over.

We made our way north as we traveled along the Jordan valley.  We could see and almost touch the border with Jordan.  It is a simple fence with sensors on it in case it is disturbed alongside a dirt road that serves as a patrol road.  We also got our first view of the Jordan river as it weaves its way from the Kinneret to the Dead Sea.  Along the journey we learned of the first and second Aliyah periods where mass immigration to Israel (or Palestine as it was called) happened and a sense of Zionism was born.  These brave individuals worked the land with their hands and transformed swampland into the agricultural center it is today.  They were 15, 16 and 17 years old, and they succeeded against all odds.  Their story is inspiring for us as we face the challenges in our lives and rally shows the Israeli spirit.

Our first stop was Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, an agricultural kibbutz of the border of Jordan and Israel that is literally changing the world through organic farming techniques and mass producing beneficial insects and mites for agricultural purposes.

Our visit started by meeting Benny, a kibbutz resident who served as our guide for our visit to the kibbutz.  First we all learned what a kibbutz was, a community where everyone works for the benefit of the community.  It was explained that everyone gives what they can and gets what they need.  All earnings are given to the kibbutz and each person, no matter what job they have gets the same exact monthly stipend to cover expenses.  All needs are taken care of by the kibbutz.  We learned that this kibbutz had a population of about 700 or 140 families.  We had so many questions for Benny about how the kibbutz worked that Uri had to stop us and keep us moving.

Benny gave us a tour of the facility, including the synagogue as this was considered a religious kibbutz,

a large field called the Square, where kids would gather and play,

and a music building where kibbutz children could learn and study music.  I was so interested in learning that almost all of the children living on the kibbutz studied music in some capacity.

We then made our way over to an orchard of trees that were planted because it is hot in the north of Israel and the shade provided a much needed sanctuary from the heat.  This type of tree had roots growing down from the branches that were great vines to swing on as our kids soon found out.

After swinging we boarded our bus and Benny showed us around the different fields that help to make up the 3000 acres of land owned by the kibbutz.  We learned about organic farming and the many benefits and drawbacks of it.  We learned that the reason they switched some of their fields to organic farming is because the fields lie directly next to homes where residents live.  When they would spray pesticides it would make the residents sick, so NOT using pesticides became a health issue for them.  We learned that organic crops produce almost a third less crops than traditional crops produce and the labor to keep weeds out of them is very expensive (actual workers pulling weeds rather than spraying herbicides).  It gave us a real understanding about why organic produce is so expensive.  

We then got off the bus to find and taste some grapes and corn (made for cattle).  Who knew that there were ears of corn grown for cattle to eat and another variety for people?  Turns out the ears of corn for people are much more difficult to grow.  The cattle corn was good, but tasted very pasty.  The grapes were DELICIOUSLY sweet.  

We learned of some of the advances they made in organic farming that were really quite simple and effective.  For example, one issue they had to deal with was keeping pests off the crops without using any pesticides.  Their solution? First, they grew the crops BEFORE the bugs could arrive.  Second, they would place a net over the crops to keep the pests out.  Both solutions wee simple and effective.

Benny then took us to a place where they were growing etrogs for Sukkot and other uses.  Each etrog was wrapped in a pink protective sleeve to keep the etrog smooth and not have it damaged by the sharp thorns in the trees.

We then learned about their alfalfa crops.  It turns out that mice love alfalfa and the kibbutz residents needed a solution to keep the mice from eating all of the alfalfa.  At first they would walk the rows of the field and wherever they saw a mice hole, they would place a teaspoon full of rat poison inside.  The mice would eat it and die.  They would be eaten by the owls, who would get sick and die, and the cycle continued.  Finally they came up with a brilliant solution.  They used the owls to hunt the mice.  They built these wooden boxes and placed them in the middle of the fields.  

The owls live here and hunt the mice.  It was so effective that they began to share this information with neighboring farmers who then built the same owl homes in their fields.  Once peace was reached with Jordan in 1994 the head of the program shared this information with Jordanian farmers.  In Jordan, owls were looked at as bringing evil and so whenever they were spotted they were killed.  Because of the success of the owl as a control for mice Jordan made a new law making the killing of owls illegal, punishable with jail time.  The cooperation between Jordan and Israel became stronger, such that the head of the organic farming at this kibbutz shared farming techniques that has strengthened relationships between Jordan and Israel.  Indeed this little kibbutz in the north of Israel is changing the world.  It was so nice for our travelers to learn that peaceful coexistence and even cooperation was possible and, indeed was even happening in the Middle East.  

Benny then took us to see a lulav tree, a date palm tree, and showed us how the palm is used to make a lulav.  It reminded me of the lulav and etrog garden planted by our confirmation class a few years back at TAE.

Finally, we were able to taste some corn that was grown for people.  And while the cattle corn was not so bad, this corn was amazing!

The coolest thing about this visit was to see the pride Benny took in sharing his home and all they have accomplished with us.  You could see his excitement with each stop on our journey, and his love of agriculture is inspiring and infectious.