Days 4-8: Remembrance and Renewal

They say you don’t merely travel to Jerusalem: Rather, one ASCENDS to the eternal and ancient capital of the Jewish people. On shabbat in Jerusalem, time and space stand still: Thus even as at, more or less, the same moment that Hosni Mubarak stepped down in Egypt, signifying enormous change in the region…Jewish life continued on, unabated, as it has for centuries in this sacred place.

On erev Shabbat ( Day 4), our community trip members went to pray at the Western Wall: Men on one side (the larger side), women huddled in a narrow strip towards the end of the wall. Still, one encouraging anecdote: A tour leader of a Birthright trip, who stood on a chair near the mechitzah (separation wall), in order to lead both the male and the female college students in a united prayer service. I had the priviledge of placing about a dozen notes into the crevices of the wall, notes given to me with the hopes and dreams of several of our congregants. Although that practice is not one to which I personally subscribe, I hope their prayers are answered. The following day (Shabbat–Day 5) was a true day of rest. Many in our group attended services at the Great Synagogue ( Orthodox), or at the Center for Masoreti Judaism (Conservative), or at the Hebrew Union College ( Reform– and CLOSED).

On Day 6 we spent most of the day touring the Jewish Quarter of the Old City; the afternoon was devoted to a better understanding of the difficulties presented by the proximity of so many new Jewish neighborhoods to so many Palestinian residential areas. The Palestinian neighborhoods are distinct in their miserable road conditions and mostly delapadated homes and businesses; mostly, though not entirely, this is due to the choice that Palestinians have made, to turn down requests to improve their conditions, requests made by the Israeli government. Still, it is sobering and sad just the same. Driving through these Palestinian neighborhoods was, for me, extremely uncomfortable. Seeing  several Hamas flags flying, is not exactly a welcome mat to Jewish tourists. Anecdotally, I have been told that many of the new home buyers in these new Jewish neighborhoods are French Jews, who are purchasing them as their “escape valves” should conditions rapidly devolve in France. These neighborhoods, by their sheer strategic positioning, are meant to protect Israel’s citizens from attack. Whether one supports their construction — or not — it seems important to note that they are not being built in random fashion. More on this at next week’s Lunch with the Rabbi.

Day 7 began with a lecture delivered by a childhood friend of Ann Frank. It preceeded our visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s portrayal of the accounts of the Holocaust…told through a distinctly Israeli lens. Our entire group was captivated– and moved — by the impact of the museum…and what the Holocaust’s lessons are — for Israel and for the Jewish people. At the end of the visit, I shared the wisdom of Stewart Perlman’s father — of blessed memory : “You never want to wake up one morning…and find out that there’s no State of Israel”. What would have been different, one might ask, would there have been a Jewish State, and a Jewish army, back in the 1930’s and early 1940’s ? And what is the role of the Jewish State today, when another deranged (yet elected) leader of another country ( just to the east — Iran) denies the legitimacy of the Holocaust…and the legitamacy of the Jewish state ? And, in a different vein…what are the lessons to be learned,for Israel today, about the uses, and the abuses of power, when dealing with another group of human beings…even one’s enemies?

And finally, speaking of one’s enemies…can we talk about the news in the Middle East, as seen from here? On the front page of this morning’s edition of the Jeerusalem Post, headlines deal with protests and revolutions and arrests and crackdowns…in Egypt, in Iran, in Jordan, in Algeria…and in the Palestinian territories. On the inside pages, Israel’s outgoing chief of staff shares the fact that Israel has already made plans for a future government of Egypt, which may not recognize its peace treaty with Israel. Under the heading of  “there’s nothing new under the sun”, it is reminiscent of the opening verses of the Book of Exodus: And there arose a new Pharoah who new not of Joseph…”

But in the meantime…in the meantime…a Jewish nation endures. And continues to build. And thrive. And succeed. Against all odds. Surrounded by a sea of enemies.

In the meantime…Jewish parents continue to  love their Jewish children…and Jewish children continue to draw strength and comfort from their parents. Right here. In the homeland of the Jewish people. Theirs, yours, and mine.

Tonight (Day 8) we head for the other place we call home. See all y’all back in Nashville. Where, by the way, I understand my dear friend Maher has some hummus and felafel waiting for me at Kalamatas in Green Hills…I’m looking forward to a taste of home cookin’ there as well.




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Days 2 and 3: Security and Spirituality

Our second day began with an hour long security assesment by Yossi Alpher, aformer Mossad officer and current Middle East Analyst. He detailed all the potential threats to Israel posed by the unrest in Egypt; he was hopeful that the United States financial support for Egypt would be a powerful incentive for any Egyptian government of the future, to honor its peace agreement with Israel. Then he offered this somewhat suprising assessment: While he gave the Obama administration poor marks on its role, so far, in the peace process…he gave it extremely high marks on the strengthen of cooperation between the United States military and the Israel Defense Forces. He said that the strength of that relationship, both overt and covert, was stronger than it has ever been…particularly on Iran.

We then travelled northward to visit a care facility for orphaned Israeli children, most of whom were the children of immigrants from Eithiopa. What they accomplish there was very moving…and reminded all of us of the way in which Jews are responsible…one for the other. It also reminded us of the enormous burdens placed upon, and the enormous accomplishments achieved by, the Jewish State.

Last night, the four rabbis, from three congregations, led a discussion about the things that moved, or suprised, or inspired members of the group. It was. and is, absolutely amazing how, in just two days, the members of our group were so impacted by and touched by their time in Israel,

Today (Day 3) began with the ascent of the Golan Heights: On a clear yet cold morning, we stood upon on of the Israeli outposts, from which we could gaze deep into Syrian territory, and, looking back over our shoulders…far into Israel as well. Standing there, it makes a very compelling case for the need to control the land in order to control the security of the State. We then visited with a group of Israeli tank commanders and their crews, who are in a constant state of readiness to defend the Lebanese border (a stone’s throw from our kibbutz guest house) and the frontier with Syria. It isimpossible to overstate the level of maturity, commitment and pride of purpose contained within each of these twenty-something young boys. By the way, all of their instructors in the field…are women soldiers.

We ended the day in the mystical city of Safed, where, according to tradition, the Kabbalistic tradition was created and continued on for centuries. And…in addition to all that mysticism…there’s plenty of shopping, as well.

Tomorrow, we leave for Jerusalem, for our Shabbat at the Western Wall. It should be nice…but it just ain’t like shabbat at the Temple.

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Day 1: The Struggle for the meaning of a Jewish State

Shalom to my Temple family !!!

All have arrived safely to Israel on our Community trip. After a joyous welcome dinner on Monday night, at a portside restaurant, there is a wonderful spirit of friendship and togetherness across congregational lines.

This morning we began with a visit with Rabbi Meir Azari, the head of the Reform Movement in Tel Aviv. Many of you will remember meeting him on our Temple trip in 2005. He highlighted the very real struggle for Jewish religious freedom, even within a Jewish State. I have to say that, even though many of our participants knew something about this tension, most were amazed by the enormity of the problem.

We then travelled to the brand new Rabin Center, which chronicles the evolution of the State of Israel, as it focuses in on the story of one of the great heroes of the country, the late Prime Minister. It ends, as do most Israeli Museums, with a shrine of memorial and remembrance. This country honors and reflects on the themes of memory more than any other place, or people, I know.

Our day concluded with a moving visit and presentation in Israel’s Independence Hall, where the 2000 year old dream of our people came into reality. We concluded the day by singing Hatikvah in that sacred place.

Now, can we talk about the felafel and the hummus ???

–Mark Schiftan

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Sunday, February 6th — preparing for departure to Israel

Gathering at the airport…

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