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Day Six: Communities Along the Galilee — The Climb to Safed

After staying the night right on its shores, we spent the next day exploring some of the communities along the Sea of Galilee. We started in the city of Safed and visited the worshiping place of Isaac Luria, who is considered the founder of Jewish Mysticism. There, the women of the group had to “dress modestly” for the first time of the trip, which would become a common theme when visiting historical religious sites. The women in the group mostly took it in stride rather than getting upset at what could be interpreted as sexism, and they felt like they were always comfortable and welcome in the places we visited.

We entered the Golan heights after that and took a jeep tour of the area, which is located on the Syrian border and has been subject of many conflicts throughout the years, including the Six-Day War in 1967. The jeep tour was extremely bumpy on the rocky terrain, with some people occasionally flying out of their seats due to ineffective seatbelts, but the landscapes were beautiful and our tour guides were able to provide some entertainment. At one point, after passing a sign in English, Hebrew, and Arabic that said “Caution: Minefield” our tour guide jovially looked back and said “You know what it says in Arabic? Picnic area.” Rabbi Spilker, sitting in the back with me, looked somewhat appalled while the rest of us laughed and the bumpy ride continued.

The jeeps parked at an overlook, where one of the tour guides who has lived in the Golan Heights his whole life told the story of the land and how it relates to him. We all thought his story was great, and he accepted at the beginning that he had biases and that this was only one side of the story. Through his stories and the tour itself, we were able to get a good picture of this coveted land in a short amount of time. It was also a reminder after starting in the Utopian, carefree city of Tel Aviv, that much of Israel is still defined by conflict and occasionally danger.

“I admired their aiblity to live with danger and not feel totally crazy about it,” Batya said.  Sara saw the Golan Heights as part of a sense of “optimistic fatalism” that defines Jews living in Israel, a sense of happily living in the moment because it could be over tomorrow.

Our next stop was the Jordan river, where we went kayaking or rafting. I was in a raft with my family, steered by my dad and sister, with my mom and I relaxing in the middle watching them do all the work and occasionally helping out with a sarcastic comment about their ineffective boating skills. Part of the fun of  the rafting was seeing the other families joining us in our struggle to get through the river without getting stuck near the shore. Eventually we completed the journey and went on to home hospitality, coordinated by the Partnership Together (or P2G) program, which allowed us to enjoy dinner with an Israeli family and get a glimpse into their life.

My family went to a Kibbutz which was the home of a family of four — a mother, father, and 16 year-old twins. The father spoke a little English, the mother spoke almost none, and the daughter didn’t really speak at all, so most of the task of communicating fell on the shoulders of their 16 year-old son Sean, who impressed us with his maturity and ability to navigate two different languages. He was about to depart to Milwaukee to help teach people about Israel, so we gave him some tips about midwest life while he shared his family’s stories about living on a Kibbutz.

The home hospitality was a powerful experience, in part because, whether we want to admit it or not, for most of the trip we had been in something of a tourist bubble, going to most of the big spots and being able to communicate in English everywhere. This experience gave us the chance to see what life is really like in Israel. Everyone in the group agreed that it was a very positive experience and something truly special from the trip that we will remember.

– Josh


Day Five: Along the Coast

We left Tel Aviv on day five after breakfast at the hotel and began our trek up towards the Sea of Galilee, also referred to as The Kinerret. On the way, we visited Neot Kedumim, an interactive nature reserve with natural flora and fauna from the Bible, including olive trees and fig trees. There we got the chance to plant our own tree in the land of Israel, allowing us to make a mark on the land that will hopefully last for many years.

The reserve was impressive because it showed just how difficult this land was for early Israelites who had to live off of it. “Coming to this hard land, you look around and it’s so barren, but they could get things to grow,” Sara Sternberger said. “It was survival. This was not an easy task to turn this into a great land.”

From there we drove past a long security barrier that separates Israel and Palestinian territories, with Doron providing some more helpful information about the ongoing conflict and the progress (or lack thereof) there has been recently. We arrived at Park Alona, and there we were able to walk through a 2000 year old water aqueduct that was used by the Romans to transport water to Caesarea. The aqueduct was a big hit with most of the group, who enjoyed having to trudge through sometimes knee-deep water while also working together to navigate the slippery rocks and drop-offs through communication in almost complete darkness. The aqueduct wasn’t just fun and historical, but it also felt like we came together as a group for the first time in it.

Having worked up an appetite, we ate lunch in a Druz village, and Doron shared a lot of details about the life and customs of the little-known group in Israel. We then went on to a site of ancient Jewish life in Zippori, where we saw fascinating mosaics that contained elements that we rarely associate with Judaism today, including zodiac signs and other possibly pagan symbols. In just one large work of art, we were able to see first-hand how Judaism was different back then, and how it had to always adapt.

“They could adapt to the beauty of the culture they were living in without replacing Judaism,” Sara said. “The whole concept of Reform Judaism is about that. How you make it relevant.”

After a long day, we finally arrived at a beautiful Kibbutz hotel that was located right on the Sea of Galilee, where we were treated to an enormous buffet dinner that showed the continued wonderful hospitality that we experienced throughout the trip.

– Josh

Day Four: Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew City

Our second day in Tel Aviv began at Independence Hall, where Israeli’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence as a state on May 14, 1948. What’s striking about the hall is that it is a relatively small room, but it held 250 guests for the ceremony, which was kept relatively secret from the public. For all of its historical significance, the tour guide at the Hall said that the meeting lasted no longer than 20 minutes.

After lunch, we went to Beait Hapalmach, a museum that celebrates the Palmach, Israel’s pre-state elite fighting force. The museum was structured in a unique way, with a film about a group of typical people who would be in a Palmach group that allowed you to follow them through the years of the journey as you went from room to room. Some issues with hearing English translations of the rather loud Hebrew hurt the experience for some people on the trip, but others found it captivating and an interesting reenactment.

The next stop was the Ayalon Institute, which presented a tour of a munitions factory that was located underground and kept completely hidden by the few people who worked there (who called those not privy to it “giraffes”). This turned out to be a fascinating museum, and we were once again lucky enough to have a tour guide who was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic. We were all amazed at how they kept this mission a secret, and the fact that they were doing this highly important mission while being only 19 or 20 years old. That’s younger than me, and I doubt anyone will be allowing me to produce bullets anytime soon.

After eating dinner on our own, some of the group went to the Nalaga’at Theater, which puts on a show performed only by deaf and blind actors. Batya called the play “extraordinary” and said it was inspiring to see these people tell their stories. It was unusual and worth watching.

The rest of us explored the town for the night, where we continued to quickly become acquainted with Israeli life. One point in particular that has been observed by the group is that the average Israeli could be considered “rude” — they drive somewhat recklessly, push people aside while walking without saying anything, and in general seem to be somewhat oblivious to the concerns of others. It can be frustrating at times, but there is also a certain charm to their lack of put-upon niceties — what we call “Minnesota Nice” is often just an obligatory gesture without any real meaning, so I’ve enjoyed being in a place where things are a bit more unscripted and people are free to mostly do what they want.

That’s especially true of Tel Aviv, which certainly appears to be the “coolest” city in Israel, with a beautiful location on the Mediterranean and a vibrant night life. The casual, loose atmosphere wasn’t what I was expecting when I came to the country, but it appears to be the standard for most places. It was a good place to start our trip in Israel, and after this day we were sad — but also excited — to move on to other sights.

– Josh

The Yitzchak Rabin Memorial

Photo by Emily Epstein

The most powerful sight we saw on our first full day in Israel was the Yitzchak Rabin memorial in Tel Aviv. Our tour guide, Doron, brought us to what is now called Rabin square, which was the site of the Israeli Prime Minister’s assassination on November 4, 1995. Doron was there on the night of the assassination and shared his personal memories of the event along with the national and international significance that carried with it. He was boarding a bus after the rally when his father ran up and said “Rabin was shot.” After his death, Doron said he feared that the country of Israel could fall apart, as the death of the Prime Minister at the hand of an Orthodox Jew could threaten to create a divide among the Jewish citizens.

The monument includes a large banner that simply says the Hebrew word “Slicha” — meaning “sorry” — in large letters, with pictures of Rabin clipped from newspapers underneath. There is also a square full of large broken rocks, which is intended to represent the “earthquake” that shook the nation after his death. The construction of the memorial also allows anyone there to physically recreate the situation with labeled tiles that indicate where the parties (Rabin, his killer, and the security guards) involved stood. The tile labeled “Rabin” and the tile labeled “murderer” are no more than two feet apart.

– Josh

Welcome to Israel!

The Mt. Zion 2012 trip to Israel began successfully mid-afternoon Friday, June 29, with all 16 of us arriving safely at Tel Aviv airport —  and15 of us with our luggage…youngest Jordan Epstein was in siblings ‘hand me downs for a few days’ and handled the stress pretty well (from the outside).  All made it through passport control and almost all of us got our first ATM of “shekalim”; those whose ATM cards didn’t work enjoyed the generosity of the group until finding an ATM that worked.

Doron Wilfand, our tour educator/guide, greeted us at the airport and Rabbi Spilker welcomed us at the hotel, looking relaxed and pleased to greet us with cold orange juice and keys to our rooms. We changed quickly and rode our tour bus to services at Kehillat Beit Daniel for a wonderful service in the local language… Hebrew!

What we couldn’t understand in words, we got in ruach of Shabbat joy and warmth. A walk back to the hotel, taking in sounds and sights of very warm Tel Aviv at sunset with the sea beckoning us to visit was lovely. A Shabbat meal for what would become our tour family welcomed us in our own dining room, and we tiredly, excitedly, and cautiously greeted everyone who we would travel with for many days.

Some of us staggered to sleep and others, encouraged by Doron, stayed up very late as a way to wear off the effects of trip fatigue. Shabbat morning brought us our first experience of Israeli hotel breakfast buffet, and please, after four kinds of herring, four kinds of salad, egg dishes, cream cheeses, dried fruits, breads and cereals… well, you get the idea.

Many of us met on the beach near our hotel and studied Parashat Hashavuah Chukak together, led by Rabbi Spilker, with amazing contributions from Doron, whose Hebrew combined with his academic studies made him a uniquely wonderful resource. The Parashat we studied was about Miriam’s death, the loss of water for the community as a sign of mourning, and we did this while our feet were curled in the sands of the Mediterranean and we heard the splashes of its waves.  The voices of study from many MZ congregants and Rabbi Spilker’s unique and wonderful observations made it a magical time.

Afternoon brought us a guest visit from Rabbi Miri Gold, who told us her story of how she became the first reform Rabbi in Israel who earned a salary from the government. Her story is one of inspiration for Reform Jews in Israel, because it means that, for the first time, non-orthodox Rabbis will receive a salary from the Israeli government, indicating a growing acceptance of non-Orthodox religion as a valid expression in Israel. To our delight, we learned that Rabbi Gold was born in Detroit and had spent some time working with the St. Paul Federation. That was a surprising and welcoming connection.

Doron is an amazing tour guide and deserves a blog page of his own before the trip is over. This day he brought us on a walking tour along the Tel Aviv beaches, pointing out history and culture at many turns. We ended up in Rabin square, where he showed us the memorial to the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin and his own experience of being at the rally where Prime Minister Rabin was shot. Doron’s description of the setting and mood, and explanation of how the assassination happened, was one of just fifty extraordinary insights he has clothed us in in the past two days.

After this time, one of the group went with Doron to attend an end of Shabbat social protest of 10,000 people, and several others walked or cabbed with Rabbi Spilker to the Yemenite neighborhood for a delightful meal. Several others walked off on their own.

We then ended our first Shabbat in Israel with a Havdalah service on our Tel Aviv hotel patio. Simply ritual deeply satisfying moment.

 Our first full 24 hours in the land of Israel was over.



Leaving in four days for Israel!

Reading books, packing clothes, dreaming about what we will see and do.