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Day 12: A Tapestry of Israel

Our last day in Jerusalem was bitter sweet (although some in the group might just call it bitter). I was about ready to head home, but was also going to miss Israel and the incredible experiences we got to share. Early in the day we meet with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who is the founding chief rabbi of Efrat, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Riskin spoke to us about how Jews and Arabs can come together, and a bit about how the United States was imminently going to be targeted by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who he compared to Hitler. Riskin had very strong opinions and wasn’t afraid to mix it up with some members of the groups when it came to politics, which made for an interesting start to the day.

For a change of pace, we then went to one of the world’s longest ziplines, where some members of the group got to experience what must have been a rush of excitement. Being afraid of heights and just generally a scaredy cat, I stayed at ground level and watched while trying to take some pictures of my dad and sister in action.

After that, our day was pretty much done. We packed our belongings, then ate a final dinner together as a group at a nice restaurant, where we reflected for a bit on the trip. Then we headed back to the airport in Tel Aviv, going through many layers of Israeli airport security, before heading out on a long adventure home. I can’t speak for everyone, but this trip was an amazing experience, and I was glad I was able to experience and help bring it to this blog.

- Josh

Day 9: Memory and Renewal

(Sorry this is out of order; I missed this day in the drafts folder.)

Like the title of the day provided in our itinerary suggested, day nine was a unique blend of remembering some of the most horrific events in human history while also experiencing all the life and vitality of modern day Jerusalem. The day began meeting with holocaust survivor Hannah Pick, who was a childhood friend of Anne Frank’s. Pick’s personal story of the Holocaust was tragic and heart wrenching, as she lost a childhood friend and her parents to the Nazis. But Pick’s outlook was also inspirational. She was not resentful or angry, but matter of fact about the things that happened to her. And we were honored that she shared her story with us. Many of us were moved to tears by her testimonial.

That got is prepared for going to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial. To say I enjoyed Yad Vashem would obviously not be apt, but it was an incredibly well-done museum that raised strong emotions from everyone in the group. We all felt terror, anger, and shock walking through the halls and watching the story develop chronologically, from the very beginnings of Nazi Germany to the unimaginable atrocities of the Holocaust. There were many extremely powerful exhibits: an entire collection of small shoes that would have belonged to children, shelves filled with hundreds of thick books, listing all the names of the victims. There was also the Children’s memorial, which was one candle in a room of mirrors that gave a sense of the infinite loss that the Holocaust was for our people.

It was difficult to move on with our day after such the harrowing first few hours. The trip tp the Machaneh Yehuda market right before Shabbat was probably the best place to go, because it was full of life and noise which helped lift most of us out of our funk. At times it was a bit too crowded, as a few group members got lost during our time there, but we all made it out okay in time for Shabbat services that night.

We went to services at Kehitllay Yozma, a reform sister congregation of Mt. Zion. Led by Rabbi Kinneret Shirion, their service was similar to Mt. Zion’s, but of course all in Hebrew. After services we got to experience home hospitality for the second time on the trip, going to the homes of congregants. My family was paired with the Hadarys, who had twins that were my age, along with a 12 year-old who impressed my mom with his piano playing. While our last home hospitality experience was a bit awkward at times, we hit it off with the Hadarys pretty quickly and talked a lot about Israel and how it compares to America.

Our two home hospitality experiences are one of the things we’ll remember most from the trip, as we got to, at least for a night, get a sense of what it is like to be a family in Israel.

Day 11: The Dead Sea Basin

Our next day started early with a trip to Masada, a site outside of Jerusalem where Jewish rebels attacked the Romans before committing mass suicide rather than be taken prisoner. According to Doron, this story grew in popularity after the Holocaust when Jews were looking to dispel the stereotype that they were passive and soft. Most of us took a cable car to get to the top of the hill where most of the scenery was, but Doron, Rabbi Spilker, Batya, and Reine opted to climb the long path in triple-digit heat, a decision that I later overheard her call “one of the worst of my entire life.”

As a group we were able to walk through the ancient barracks and get of an idea of how they initially tried to defend themselves against the Roman siege. Beyond the story, the scenery itself was breathtaking, although the heat began to wear on most members of the group as the tour went on. Doron led us to the edge of a canyon that had the clearest echo I’ve ever heard, so as a group we opted to shout “L’Chaim,” “Shalom,” and of course “Mt. Zion Rocks” which was then broadcast back to us in a way that was somewhat spooky.

From there, we went to one of the most anticipated attactions: the dead sea. Of course, I’ve heard all the stories about the dead sea and how people float in it, but I had always received them with a bit of skepticism, figuring that you sort of float if you try really hard to. In reality, once you get in deep enough, the water yanks you and gives you no choice but to float. At the dead sea, they also offered mud which apparently would help soothe skin, so some members of the group covered themselves from head to toe in the stuff.

After that, we took the bus back to the hotel where most of us met with Rabbi Ron Kronish, director of the interreligious coordinating council. I was wiped out from the day so I missed the meeting, but hopefully someone can comment to fill us all in.

Day 10: Shabbat in Jerusalem

Day 10 gave us the unique opportunity to experience Shabbat in Jerusalem. For me, that meant staying very true to the spirit of Shabbat and spending the day being quite lazy. This was probably the least busy day of the entire trip.

Rabbi Spilker took some members of the group to a pair of synagogues to experience Shabbat morning services in the city. I slept in, but those in the group who are actually responsible and able to wake up at early hours enjoyed the experience, which took them to a Modern Orthodox congregation followed by a more reform-style service at Hebrew Union College. At the college, Batya got the chance to wear her tallit from Yad Lakashish for the first time.

In the late afternoon we walked as a group to the actual Mt. Zion, where we took a picture of ourselves in front of a Mt. Zion/Talmud Torah sign (if anyone has this picture, email me). We also walked through the Christian quarter, which was once again a chance to see how this city is sacred to so many different people. The space seemed to take on a unique meaning for every group depending on their history.

After that some of us hiked up to the Mount of Olives. It was a fairly steep trek, but was worth it for the incredible view of the old city of Jerusalem. Located on the Mount of Olives is a massive graveyard (it’s apparently one of the most coveted spots to be buried), with all the tombstones lined up vertically and so close together that, from a distance, they almost look like a big wall. After a lot of walking, most of our group took a cab back to the hotel.

After dinner, we had a special Havdallah service. It was supposed to take place at a scenic overlook of the city that was outside the hotel, but the swirling wind prevented us from lighting the candle, despite seemingly hundreds of attempts. Finally we gave up and went inside and had the service before going our separate ways for the night.

A group of us went to Ben Yehuda street, one of the busiest in Jerusalem, to see the nightlife that happens right after Shabbat ends, which was a special opportunity. Jerusalem doesn’t really shut down on Shabbat like a lot of us assumed it did, but it is definitely slower and then everyone seems to really let loose once the sun goes down on Saturday night.

We stayed out pretty late, and even at the end of a fairly laid-back day we were still exhausted.

- Josh

Mitzi’s Adventure with Israeli Healthcare

Much of the drama on the trip surrounded a health scare of one of the participants, Mitzi Gramling. Mitzi was involved in a serious ATV accident just weeks before we departed, suffering eight broken ribs, two broken vertebrae, and a broken collarbone. But the trip was important to Mitzi due to her position as the St. Paul chair for Partnership 2000, so, accompanied by her husband Rich, she bravely made the journey.

Unfortunately, Mitz fell ill a few days into the trip, and it became a serious enough situation that she had to go to urgent care and eventually a hospital in Israel, where she was diagnosed with gastroenteritis.

“When we got to Jerusalem, I was doing very poorly,” Mitzi said. “For me it was like the worst stomach flu you’ve ever had times ten.”

Rich took Mitzi to a “drab” urgent care center, where she said the treatment she received sometimes made her uncomfortable.

“They ran no tests, asked very few questions, and decided I needed IV solution,” she said. “They didn’t really have a place for me to lie down so they could give me an IV solution, and this was a professional urgent care center. The table that I lied down on was literally in an office with pictures of her children. It wasn’t like it was a room for pediatric patients, it was a doctor’s office with her personal belongings in it. So it was very uncomfortable.”

Mitzi said that the actual care she received was appropriate, but that the center didn’t treat its patients as well as they do back at home in St. Paul, and that at times she was concerned about the sanitary conditions. Her health worsened the next day, so she was taken to Hadassah Women’s Hospital, where she had a similar experience.

“I was feeling very ill,” she said. “Rich signed me in. I went to an area where there were chairs. I wasn’t there for long when I felt like I really needed to lie down. I went to the desk by the chairs, and asked if I could lie down, and the woman at the desk kind of screamed at me, ‘What are you doing here, what do you want?’ So that was my first introduction to customer service at Haddasah hospital.”

Eventually she was taken back to an area with a bed, which was simply a large room, unlike American hospitals which have many different rooms. In the middle of the room, there was a medical cart, which was unguarded, something that concerned Mitzi because anyone could just grab anything from the cart. And while the beds at the hospital were more comfortable than urgent care, the doctor-patient contact was still a concern.

“I never knew who a doctor was or who a nurse was, or who was interviewing me,” Mitzi said. “They are very low on smiles. I never knew who was treating me.”

Rabbi Spilker visited Mitzi in the hospital, where he attempted to get her food only to find that the cafeteria was closed. He was able to go to the front desk and, in Hebrew, request some food, and they received a “minimal tray with a small thing of yogurt.” Once again, Mitzi said that the care was fine, but that the customer service was poor or even non-existent. Overall, she describes a health care system that takes care of its patients, but in more of a hands-off, no frills way than we’re accustomed to in the states.

Mitzi’s strength to even go on the trip in the first place after the accident was commendable, and we were all inspired by her strength during the battle she had to face in Israel.

““The rest of us that were traveling companions would ask questions all through the day about how Mitzih and Rich were doing and missed them,” Batya said.

Fortunately, Mitzi recovered enough to join us on the final part of the trip, and she tearfully thanked everyone for their support at the final dinner. She was able to fly home safely, on schedule and in good health.

- Josh

Day 8: The Layers of Jerusalem

Some of us, including me, awoke very early in the morning on our first day in Jerusalem to make it to Temple Mount, a holy religious site for Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and site of the famous dome of the rock. For most of the trip we stuck to Jewish areas, so this was our most prolonged exposure to Islam. There were women praying at the site, children running around, and there were some Islam sites that Jews couldn’t access. It was a powerful experience to see how one fairly small area could be meaningful to so many different people, and the structures like the dome were beautiful.

The entire group then reconvened for a tour of Yad LaKashish, which teaches poor elderly people skills in arts and crafts, then puts them to use making beautiful items which are sold in their gift shop to fund the operation. The contrast between what Yad LaKashish does and what we frequently do with senior citizens in America was massive. Rather than being passive, the elderly people at Yad LaKashish were given a direction, were able to learn something new even at an old age, and there seemed to be a bond among them as they worked together to make these products. There was something incredibly dignified about these people from so many different backgrounds quietly going about their work as we toured the many different rooms.

At the end of the tour, the group loaded up on items in the gift-shop, all of which were hand-crafted by the elderly people of the organization. Yad LaKashish inspired a similar operation in St. Paul called By Hand and Heart, and hopefully will inspire many more.

For more information on Yad LaKashish: http://www.lifeline.org.il/

For more information on By Hand and Heart: http://www.stpauljcc.org/adults/hand_heart.lasso

Doron then led us on a walking tour of the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem, providing his usual blend of humor and encyclopedic information about the history and people of Israel. Eventually we wound up at the Western Wall, one of the biggest sites for Jews, and certainly one of the most moving spiritual experiences of the trip. There were seemingly a thousand different Bar Mitzvahs taking place at the wall, which involved shooting colorful pieces of paper into the air and playing a lot of music. Just seeing so many Jews around the wall, silently praying or leaving notes, was an undeniably powerful experience.

One of the fascinating elements of Jerusalem is how it is such an ancient city with such a rich history that has also had to embrace modernity. I saw it first-hand at the Western Wall, when I witnessed an orthodox Jew, in full black-and-white garb, answer his cell phone while praying. When we had an aerial view of the city, we saw hundreds of satellite dishes topping the buildings. This combination of the newest things and some of the oldest things gives the city a unique energy that isn’t really found in America, which has such a relatively young history.

After walking through the Western Wall tunnel, the group split up again, with the options being either an archaeological dig or a tour of the Israel Museum. The younger people, including me, and most of the others went on the dig, with my parents joining the rabbi at the museum.

The dig might have been the most pure fun that I had on the trip. The enthusiastic tour guides took is down into a cave that contained a population nearly 2000 years ago. I had some skepticism of this dig would be that eventful or if it’d be mostly us digging up dirt, but there was an incredible amount of items buried in the cave. Doron and Ellis in particular hit a hotspot in the corner, digging up full pieces of pottery and several shards. With some help from one of the guides, I found an animal jaw that still had teeth attached to it. We had been learning so much history throughout the trip, but this was a chance to actually hold it right in our hands.

I received word that the Israel Museum was also fun, and Rabbi Spilker managed to get a private tour because congregant Jenny Schneider’s brother is the director of the museum. My mom said it was a fascinating museum, but they were only able to see 1/10 of it due to its size.

After the longest day of the trip so far, I was happy to have some time off that evening, and ended up going to sleep early, eager for another day in one of the most interesting cities in the world.

- Josh

Day 7: Driving the Rift

We departed the Sea of Galilee on the fourth of July, and began a long day that would eventually end in our final destination: Jerusalem. On the way, we visited the ancient synagogue of Capernaum, which was once part of a Jewish community and the site of Jesus’ teachings.

This was followed by the Kinneret Cemetery, which is the resting home of several famous Israelis. Cemeteries in America are often rather grim, with dull gray tombstones lined up in order and little in the way of decorations. This cemetery was clearly intended to celebrate life by surrounding visitors with trees, flowers, and of course the Sea of Galilee that it is located by. Our tour guide Doron told us stories of some of the people buried there, including famous poets Noami Shemer and Rachel. At Rachel’s grave, a family was celebrating her life by playing some of her songs with a guitar and some recorders. As someone whose only exposure to recorders was squawking on them in 2nd grade, it was a surprise to hear such beautiful music coming from the instrument.

We left the cemetery and partnered up with some members of the Partnership Together community for a stop at the Jordan River Village, a camp dedicated to giving sick children the time of their lives. The Jordan River Village looks like what would happen if a young child was given a few million dollars and invited to go wild: It had a huge playground, arts and crafts, music, a zipline, and soon will have a gymnasium, swimming pool, and petting zoo with horseback riding. More importantly, it also had top notch medical care and was completely wheelchair accessible, guaranteeing that any children there could have the time of their lives. The camp serves all sick children equally, showing that even in a country with so much conflict, people can sometimes put their differences aside and do something universally considered good. That made the Village a powerful moment of the trip.

The Partnership Together members joined us for lunch at an organic restaurant on a Kibbutz, which served amazing kosher food. My sister, who is something of a foodie, declared it the best meal she’s ever eaten and eventually asked the chef for the recipe of a pasta dish they made. The restaurant also had delicious ice cream that was made with cactus milk, which we all enjoyed while secretly wondering how exactly someone milks a cactus. (I assume it’s like a cow, but more painful for the person doing the milking.)

Finally we were ready to approach the holy city of Jerusalem, and after a lengthy bus ride we stopped at a gorgeous overlook of the city with the Rabbi leading us in the Shehechiyanu prayer before entering. After years of saying “next year in Jerusalem,” maybe without really 100% meaning it, we had finally arrived.

- Josh

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