The trip ended on Sunday.The entire day was focused on how to end and wrap up this experience while ensuring the journey continues.And it was AWESOME.There was a great session in which the funding for Momentum was explained and one of the men on the trip offered a $100,000 match if we combined to give that much.We exceeded the match.If you aren’t aware, your favorite nonprofits can only do the work they do, can only provide the services they provide, with philanthropic support.So just like we supported Momentum because of the impact of the trip, I urge you to support the nonprofits whose work you value and appreciate.
Keith on the beach.
One of the highlights for me today was in the afternoon when most of our group went shopping on Ben Yehuda Street and then went for a late lunch to CRAVE in Machane Yehuda.This Kosher burger place offers amazing food including bacon (from lamb) cheeseburgers (vegan cheese) and the most amazing brisket bites I have ever had.We hung out, ate, laughed, and enjoyed being together in the shuk and in Israel.It really shows how much we have bonded this week and how much we enjoy each other’s company.
The closing banquet had outstanding food (I was too full from lunch to eat) and a great program.We ended with a rousing singing of Am Yisrael Chai.
If you’ve never heard over 160 men screaming “Am Yisrael Chai’ at the top of their lungs, let me tell you, it’s amazing.It’s inspiring.And it’s exciting.It’s also incredibly meaningful.
We said our goodbyes, gave lots of hugs to people from Orlando that we’ll see soon and people from around the country and in Israel that we won’t, and boarded buses for either the airport or Tel Aviv.I extended my trip by an additional day and headed to Ir Yamim with my friend Remo to stay at his parents house.We got there and crashed, exhausted from the week.
In the morning, we sat on the balcony overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, enjoying the beauty.We went for coffee and breakfast at a local café and walked the beach.We sat and had another coffee at a café on the beach.And we continued walking the beach back to the condo.It was an incredible start to the day.We too his parents car to Netanya just up the road and walked around exploring, got Boba Tea, and headed off to our real plan for the day – horseback riding on the beach.
At the ranch.
We were heading to a ranch just north of Netanya.It was off some serious back roads and when we got there, I was stunned at the beauty of the ranch and just how many horses were there.They prepped us for our ride, got us our horses, and off we went with our guide.For the next 90 minutes we rode all over the beach, back roads, and even got to have the horses run a little bit.We talked to our guide, Shiloh, and learned that he was born in Jerusalem and was Haredi (very observant) growing up but left that life for the connection he felt with the horses.It was exhilarating and fun.I could have kept riding for another 90 minutes.I have been to Israel 20 times and I have never gone horseback riding on the beach before.I can promise you this won’t be the last time.
Enjoying the ride.
We left the ranch and headed to a restaurant on the beach where we had amazing hummus and eggplant.The fish for dinner was excellent and the view of the sea was exquisite.The cool weather, wind, and sunset filled my heart with joy and love for this country.A perfect ending to the day and this visit.Because Remo had a business call on the drive home, I got to drive.While I have been here many times, I have never driven in Israel before so I got another new experience.Luckily traffic was light and the other drivers weren’t too bad and we arrived safely in time to get a quick rest before heading to the airport and my 1 am flight home.
This has been a truly exceptional trip and I will share my overall thoughts in one last post but not here.Momentum provides a great way to visit Israel and to explore yourself.Israel is an amazing country that can nourish your soul.I haven’t even left for the airport yet and I’m already exciting and thinking about my next trip in 2023.I hope you come with me on that trip and we can explore Israel together.
Shabbat.What a great concept that seems so difficult to take advantage of.25 hours of complete disconnect, rest, and enjoyment.For some reason, we struggle with it.Yet in Israel, it becomes second nature.
We began Friday by walking to the Great Synagogue.It’s a building I fell in love with the first time I saw it and last year I even went to services there to experience it.We began with a great session led by Harry Rothenberg.Harry is the best Jewish Educator I have ever experienced and it’s not even close.He makes it accessible, relevant and interesting.You could hear the buzz and the back and forth.The hour flew by.And the best part is that Harry’s day job is as an attorney! He’s going to come back to Orlando and when he does, don’t miss the chance to experience him.
In the Great Synagogue.
After Harry finished, we had a break for coffee, tea and snacks.One thing about Israel – you eat nonstop!Ari Shabat then talked to us about Shabbat, the opportunity it is, and shared a bit about his family history.It was a great hour session as well.And then, around noon, we were free the rest of the day until it was time to head to the Old City for Shabbat.
We took off walking to Machane Yehuda, the shuk in Jerusalem.On Fridays it is jammed packed as people get the rest of the things they need for Shabbat.It was no different.The aisles were packed, you had to push to get through, and the energy was incredible.I made sure to get to Gluless for my Gluten Free Challahs (they are delicious), get some dates (they are amazing here) and a few other items.Then it was time to head back to my hotel for a little nap before we left for the old city.
As I was getting ready to walk to the old city, dear friends who were here from Miami for the Alyn Children’s Hospital bike ride messaged me.They were in the old city so we made arrangements to meet at the Jaffa Gate.It was so great to see them and hang out for a little bit to catch up.As I have said before, one of the best things about Israel is who I get to see because they happen to be here.
Meeting with friends.
Then it was off to Aish HaTorah for our Shabbat prep.We had a chance for a nosh (it’s Israel so you eat before you eat) and be prepared for the experience by Charlie Harary.We walked to the Kotel, gathered together, and began services.Having 160 men plus staff there was incredible.We made a huge circle around Charlie and we prayed, sang, and danced.The energy level was unbelievable.People around us began staring and videoing us.A group of Israeli soldiers joined us with the singing and dancing.A few Hassidic men joined us as well.It was infectious.I never felt like I was being observed before until I looked up at all the people videoing us!!I saw one of the guys on our bus get a video so I asked him to send it to me.
After being exhausted from praying, singing and dancing, we went back to Aish for dinner.It was a great festive dinner with too much food and lots of fun, culminating with dessert on the roof of Aish, one of the great views in the world.It’s truly inspiring to be that high up – to see what would have been the Temple Mount and to imagine what it looked like 2000 years ago. We walked home and I crashed hard.I have the beginning of a little head cold and really felt it.
On Shabbat morning, the head cold had gotten worse so I stayed in bed instead of hearing the two speakers.I’ve heard them before and they are both amazing but I had to get a little better.I walked to Shabbat lunch and joined the group where we had a great time.On the way back we stopped at First Station for coffee and the hang out and talk.The weather was amazing, there was live music playing, and we had a great time.I think one of my favorite things about this trip is the deep conversations we have naturally.
It was time to head back and get ready for Havdallah in the Old City at the home of Aba and Pamela Clayman.It is a truly spectacular home overlooking both the Temple Mount and the plaza of the old city.We had snacks while they talked to us about the work they do to help IDF soldiers and had a chance to hear from 4 different soldiers about what they do to keep us and the State of Israel safe.Although I heard about this organization last year, I was inspired once again.Then we headed to their roof for Havdallah.Incredible views.Lots of singing and dancing.A true celebration.
The view from the Claymans.
But the day isn’t over!!We headed to the Mamila Mall leaving through the Jaffa Gate.Mamila is a rebuilt property that has the ancient feel of Jerusalem with modern stores.We sat and had coffee and talked until it was time for dinner.We went to a dairy restaurant in Mamila that was incredible.Once again the conversation was outstanding and we had a great time.
We left dinner and headed back towards our hotel.As we walked, what did we see?A Hassid playing the guitar.Instead of Israeli or Jewish music, he was playing Hotel California.We got behind him in a semi-circle and began to sing with him.It was a blast and we laughed, sang, and then tipped him nicely.Only in Israel!!
On the way back we stopped at the windmill for some views of Jerusalem at night.It was beautiful and a great chance to enjoy the weather and the company.
Shabbat was an incredible day filled with fun and meaning.Tomorrow is the last day of the trip which is sad.I am staying an extra day which will help a little bit with the depression that always comes when I leave Israel.
This country is filled with so much.If you haven’t been or haven’t been in a while, I urge you to come or come back.It will change your life.
Wow, what a day.Jerusalem is an amazing place to be and today was long and full.We began the day by going to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum.Yad Vashem means ‘hand and name’.It’s a place that is all about putting names to the victims of the Holocaust/Shoah and documenting how it happened.Interestingly, I learned that my childhood Rabbi, the one who was at both my Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation, had a key role in the design.
For those who have been to the Holocaust Museum in DC, I like to say that it makes you think while Yad Vashem makes you feel.That was very true today.It’s typically very crowded and today was no exception.It often feels rushed because there is so much to see and so much to take in.I’ve probably been there at least 15 times (maybe more) and there are still things I see that I never did before or things I see totally different than before.Today I found myself wondering if it being so crowded was a good thing or not.It’s amazing that so many people want to experience it and learn yet I wondered how much more impactful it would be on each visitor if it wasn’t so crowded and they had more time.I have no answer and it’s something I will ponder.
I was struck today by the power of the Nazi propaganda and how they dehumanized Jews.Especially in light of Kanye West and Kyrie Irving’s recent antisemitism, I found myself comparing the Nazi propaganda to both what they said and even more to the comments on many posts about them.The vile statements I read in the comments section of these posts on social media, the hatred for Jews by people who clearly knew nothing but hate Jews anyway was scary.
Today was also Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom, also known as the night of broken glass.I’ve heard my Uncle Ralph talk about that night, as he lived through it.As a group we talked about how that night was really a bellweather moment for Hitler and the Nazis.The world knew about it and didn’t really do anything, giving Hitler the room he needed to continue his systemic dehumanization and eventual murder of 6 million Jews.With the continued rise in antisemitism, we wondered what our Kristallnacht might be and how would the world answer it.
After Yad Vashem, we walked next door to Mount Herzl, the military cemetery.It is a striking place, filled with beauty and sadness.We had a chance to visit the grave of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Theodore Herzl, Golda Meier, Yitzhak Rabin, and other great leaders of Israel.People who made a big difference.As we walked through Mount Herzl, the graves are beautiful and built like beds.It’s a massive cemetery which is breathtakingly beautiful and deeply sad.I am always incredibly grateful and sad as I walk through.It’s a place I wish I could spend more time because each one of these graves have a story and I want to learn each one.
At the grave of Golda Meier.
We left Mount Herzl for the old city of Jerusalem.I love the old city.It’s got a special vibe that you can’t really describe.It’s spiritual and special.It’s old and new.It’s timeless and present.We spent our time in the Jewish Quarter, eating lunch (falafel and schwarma) and then listening to Charlie Harary prepare us to visit the Kotel, the Western Wall.Charlie is a captivating speaker and talked about how God isn’t in heaven, he’s inside each of us.We each have a piece of the divine within us, it’s just being open to connect with it.While I’d heard his talk before visiting the Kotel before, this year it hit much harder.As Charlie talked about God being our father and always being there with a father’s love, I found myself really thinking about my dad and got incredibly emotional, tears flowing down my face in a room of 160 men and not caring.I was openly weeping as I missed my dad and wanted to share this with him.A friend of mine wrapped his arm around me, giving me a hug and just being there.It was an incredibly powerful and meaningful experience.Before we headed out to the Kotel, Ari Shabat gave us a special charge – walk in silence the Kotel, appreciate this incredible opportunity, put your hand on the wall and just say ‘Hi Dad’ and open yourself to whatever comes.
I’ve been the Kotel too many times to count and it has a special connection for me.My ritual is always to lean my forehead against the wall and talk to God.It’s incredibly meaningful.This time, I followed Ari’s suggestion and just started with ‘Hi Dad’ and promptly began to cry.I stood there with my forehead against this 2000+ year old wall, openly crying as I connected not just with God but with my own father.When I finally was ready, I lifted my head, wiped my tears, and began to walk towards the inside area of the Kotel.One of our trip members who saw me weeping thought it was because of the power of the Kotel and asked if it was my first time.I was honest and just told him no, it was because my father just died two months ago.I thanked him for asking.In the inside area I joined a service that was going on (there is always a service going on at the Kotel!) and was able to say the mourners Kaddish for my dad at the Kotel.It was incredibly moving.
At the Kotel.
As we walked back into the plaza, a group of IDF navy soldiers came into the Kotel plaza singing and dancing.It was a jolt of electricity and we joined them.
It’s hard to describe what that is like – it’s truly an incredible experience and one that has to be felt.Words simply won’t do it justice.It was joyful, powerful, exhilarating and everybody there felt a connection.
As we wrapped up singing and dancing with the soldiers, my college friend and fraternity brother Al Cohen arrived.I knew Al was in Israel for a wedding and planned to connect.Israel is special that way – people from your life sometimes just show up.It was great to see him and reconnect.
We walked around the old city, getting a tour from our guide, and then sat down at a coffeeshop to talk as a group.For 90 minutes, the 13 of us had a deep conversation, getting vulnerable with each other and sharing different thoughts.It was truly the highlight of the trip.We wrapped up our conversation and headed back to the Kotel to tour the tunnels beneath.It’s amazing to go underneath the Kotel and see how King Herod actually built it.There are original Herodian stones, more than 2,000 years old, in pristine condition.We stood on original streets from more than 2,000 years ago.There is a place underneath that is the closest we can get to where the ‘holy of holies’ was.It’s a special spot reserved for women and it was very powerful to see one woman deep in prayer and later on, a group of high school girls come to pray there.There was also a new synagogue built in the tunnel area that was simply awe inspiring.The picture I took doesn’t do it justice.
After leaving the tunnels we headed to a late dinner at Chayen, an incredible Asian Fusion restaurant.The food was delicious and the conversation even better.We ate, laughed, talked, debated, and had a great time.Before we knew it, it was 11:30 and we had to walk to the hotel.The 20 minute walk felt great and was a great end to the day.
Today was a day filled with emotion.Yad Vashem on Kristallnacht.Mount Herzl.The power of the Old City of Jerusalem and the Kotel.Missing my dad and also connecting with him.Good friends and great conversation.Delicious Food. It’s hard to believe this was all one day, yet this is the essence of Jerusalem.A truly incredible city.
One of the key tenants of the Men’s Momentum trip is to ‘Choose Awesome’.Everybody is happy to live a good life.A great life is even better.But imagine living a truly awesome life!That’s our goal – to challenge ourselves and ask what would living a truly awesome life look like, and then, what are we willing to do in order to have to an awesome life?
Today we began with a talk from my friend, Ari Shabat.Ari is incredibly inspiring and makes me think deeply about what I am doing and what I really want to be doing.There were a few things he talked about today that really resonated with me.The first is how everything we do is either mental (in our head), emotional (how we deal with our feelings) or physical (what we actually do).If I look at my life through these lenses and understand how addressing each of these areas will impact me, I can work towards living that awesome life.As an added bonus, this comes directly from Pirkei Avot, the Lessons of our Fathers.The second thing he talked about was how practice is really controlled failure.I have always believed in failure – it’s how we learn.It’s critical that we learn from our failures and make new mistakes, not the same ones.It made me question what I am learning from my failures and what new mistakes can I make instead of repeating the old ones.I know this isn’t Israel related, but it is very much connected to this trip.
The Momentum group in Tzfat.
We left our talk with Ari and headed to Tzfat, the home of Kabbalah.I love Tzfat.Ever since my first exposure and visit to the city in 1989, I have felt a spiritual connection.High in the mountains, built on cliffs so there are tons of steps and that you are constantly going up and down, it just feels special.Today was a cloudy day to start and it was cold yet that feeling was still there.Our guide told us how within Kabbalah, there is a belief that everything in the world is spiritually connected.I felt that connection today.We walked the streets and learned about the history of the city.We visited the synagogue of “the Ari”, Rabbi Isaac Luria, who lived in the 16th century.There is a chair in the synagogue that if you sit in, you are supposed to be blessed with a baby.I tried to get one of my friends to sit in it and tempt fate, but he wouldn’t.We got to visit the Mikvah of the Ari for the ritual dip in natural waters.It was super cold but also refreshing.The goal is a spiritual cleansing and it felt that way.Some of us explored the excavation under Tzfat, seeing homes from the 1500s through the 1800s that had been hidden under the current ground level. We shopped for candles at the famous Tzfat Candle Factory and I got to buy my niece Hailey her tallis for her upcoming Bat Mitzvah.We even went to the Kabbalah Center, sat out on their deck with an incredible view of the mountains and had a chance to talk and process.We even got to hear from both Ari Shabat and Adrienne Gold who talked to us for an hour about intimacy.
Exploring Tzfat (see the Shalom Orlando shirt?).
Perhaps the best and most unexpected part of the day was our stop at the Yemenite man’s restaurant.I’ve gone there since my first trip in 1989 and his signature dish (he only makes one thing) is incredibly delicious.Since I’ve had to be gluten free, I have given up the idea of eating it again, however today he told me he had a gluten free version!I was so excited to get one and it was as good as I remembered.His schug (the hot spice) was incredible.It’s worth going to Tzfat just to eat there!!
We left Tzfat to head to Dubrovin Farms for dinner.It’s a really cool outdoor area with amazing food and a great environment.Because of the risk of rain, we ate inside (not as nice or fun as when we get to eat outside there) but the food didn’t disappoint.The music was loud and the dancing was intense.We were exhausted when it finally ended.
When it ended, it was time to board the bus and drive the 2 ½ hours to Jerusalem.Just being in Jerusalem feels special.
I’ve felt a connection here from my first visit and each time I come back, it’s stronger.
There is something in the air that is comforting and relaxing.Something that is spiritually validating.As I relax and unwind from an incredibly full day, I find myself once again in love with the beauty of this country.With the history that goes back 4,000 years.And I find myself thinking about what Ari talked about this morning.How can I gain a better understanding of my mental, emotional and physical status to truly have an awesome life.
Once again, I am back in Israel. This is my 20th trip and I am excited not just to be in Israel but also on the Momentum Men’s trip with 10 amazing men from Orlando and my two other City Leaders. After our long flight from Miami to Tel Aviv, we jumped in cabs to spend the morning in Tel Aviv. We relaxed while looking at the Mediterranean Sea and then began walking the beach and exploring the city. We walked for nearly 2 hours, along the beach, over to the Carmel Market, and then wandered through neighborhoods until we returned to our meeting point and headed back to the airport to meet our Momentum group.
We headed north to Tiberius and the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). The Kinneret is beautiful and after checking into the hotel, I sat on the patio looking out at the water, the mountains, and the skyline. As the sun began to set and the colors filled my eyes, I was filled with a sense of peace and joy.
We left the hotel and went to hear our Trip Leader, Ari Shabat, set the tone for the trip. Ari is a friend and a truly inspirational person. Over the past year, I have learned a great deal from him, and am excited to have him leading the trip again this year. He inspired us to begin this journey together, and we then all headed up to the Golan Heights to a military base. If you’ve never been to the Golan Heights, the strategic value is huge. We got there after dark and spent time with a commander in the reserves of the tank unit. He taught us about the tanks from the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the tanks of today. We got to climb and explore both tanks and even got an exhibition of the new tanks and how they work. It was truly incredible. It was also freezing as the sun was down and we were high in the mountains. Some of the soldiers from the tank unit showed us what they do and we had the chance to say Thank You to them.
After learning about the tank unit, we headed back to Tiberius to Decks restaurant (one of my favorites) right on the Kinneret. They brought us way too much food and we ate, talked, laughed, and had fun. It’s about to start the rainy season in Israel and during dinner, it began to rain. We sat outside, got a little wet, and continued to have fun.
After two days with almost no sleep (the travel day to get here and then today as our first day), I’m excited to get some rest and begin fresh tomorrow. We head to Tzfat, one of my favorite cities, in the morning and finish the day in Jerusalem. I can’t wait to be filled with the mysticism of Tzfat and the specialness of Jerusalem.
Once again, I am back in Israel.This is my 20th trip and I am excited not just to be in Israel but also on the Momentum Men’s trip with 10 amazing men from Orlando and my two other City Leaders.After our long flight from Miami to Tel Aviv, we jumped in cabs to spend the morning in Tel Aviv.We relaxed while looking at the Mediterranean Sea and then began walking the beach and exploring the city.We walked for nearly 2 hours, along the beach, over to the Carmel Market, and then wandering through neighborhoods until we returned to our meeting point and headed back to the airport to meet our Momentum group.
The Men’s Momentum Trip cohort.
We headed north to Tiberius and the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee).The Kinneret is beautiful and after checking into the hotel, I sat on the patio looking out at the water, the mountains, and the skyline.
As the sun began to set and the colors filled my eyes, I was filled with a sense of peace and joy.
We left the hotel and went to hear our Trip Leader, Ari Shabat, set the tone for the trip.Ari is a friend and a truly inspirational person.Over the past year, I have learned a great deal from him and am excited to have him leading the trip again this year.He inspired us to begin this journey together, and we then all headed up to the Golan Heights to a military base.If you’ve never been to the Golan Heights, the strategic value is huge.We got there after dark and spent time with a commander in the reserves of the tank unit.He taught us about the tanks from the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the tanks of today.We got to climb and explore both tanks and even got an exhibition of the new tanks and how they work.It was truly incredible.It was also freezing as the sun was down and we were high in the mountains.Some of the soldiers from the tank unit showed us what they do and we had the chance to say Thank You to them.
In the Golan Heights.
After learning about the tank unit, we headed back to Tiberius to Decks restaurant (one of my favorites) right on the Kinneret.They brought us way too much food and we ate, talked, laughed and had fun.It’s about to start rainy season in Israel and during dinner it began to rain.We sat outside, got a little wet, and continued to have fun.
After two days with almost no sleep (the travel day to get here and then today as our first day), I’m excited to get some rest and begin fresh tomorrow.We head to Tzfat, one of my favorite cities, in the morning and finish the day in Jerusalem.I can’t wait to be filled with the mysticism of Tzfat and the specialness of Jerusalem.
Today is Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day. It’s very different here than in the United States. It’s not a 3-day weekend. There aren’t big sales or barbecues. It’s a solemn day. People wear white shirts to honor and remember those who lost their lives in battle or due to terrorist attacks.
We started the day in Jaffa at the home of an amazing women, Rachel, who helped us understand and unpack Israel and Israeli society through children’s literature. It was truly fascinating, and a number of the stories were incredibly moving. In Israel, losing loved ones due to war or terrorism is something that impacts almost every family. It may be a relative, a neighbor, a friend, or a friend’s child. As such, children’s books address it. On Yom HaZikaron, it was a powerful and painful reminder of the cost of having the State of Israel.
We left her house at 10:45 to walk toward a busy street. This is because at 11 a.m. on Yom HaZikaron, there is a 2-minute siren across the country to remember those who have lost their lives. Traffic stops (mostly), people get out of their cars, stop walking, and just listen and remember. It’s powerful to see this in person and truly makes you think about the cost of freedom and of a Jewish state.
One thing that is very unique about Israel is how Memorial Day (Yom HaZikaron) is followed immediately by Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut). There is no break or no transition. It’s a bipolar holiday—from the depths of sadness and mourning to the heights of celebration. We spent some time in Neve Tzedek, one of the first neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, preparing ourselves, as a group, for the transition. After our preparation, we had the ability to go on our own and celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut.
A couple of us chose to go to Jaffa and explore. We walked the streets, most stores still closed from Yom HaZikaron, and enjoyed the uniqueness of Jaffa. Jaffa is the port city where Jonah goes into the water and is swallowed by the whale (really, it says ‘Big Fish’). After walking around for a while, we headed to meet a number of people from our group for dinner at Itzik HaGadol (Big Itzik), a steakhouse right on the Jaffa/Tel Aviv border that came highly recommended. Seven of us had a big table in the back where we prepared for a feast. They start with 30 different salads. It was incredible. One was better than the next. The falafel and fried eggplant were amazing. The chopped liver was incredible. All sorts of eggplant, spicy dishes, veggies, and more. We laughed as we looked at all the food on the table, just from the salads! Of course, we ordered meat, and it was delicious. We sat and ate and talked and laughed for 3 hours. The waiter never rushed us, and we finally asked for the check so we could head out towards Rabin Square for Yom Ha’atzmaut.
A delicious final dinner in Israel.
Off we went, walking 45 minutes to Rabin Square. We walked through Shuk HaCarmel where there were people celebrating and stalls open. We walked through groups of people celebrating and you could feel the energy. By the time we got to Rabin Square, the festivities there were over. The building was lit up and beautiful, however it was quite different than the last time I was here for Yom Ha’atzmaut, when Rabin Square was still partying when we left at 1 a.m. The impact of COVID and gathering was clear. On our walk to the hotel, it was amazing hearing the music pounding and seeing all the house parties celebrating Independence Day. I felt like I could have just walked into any of them and would have been welcomed and had a good time.
Tel Aviv lit up for Yom Ha’atzmaut.
We walked a few miles tonight from Jaffa to the old port in north Tel Aviv, going through Neve Tzedek, Shuk HaCarmel, and Rabin Square. Many people think Israel is dangerous and not safe. Nothing could be further from the truth. It felt safer than after an Orlando Magic game downtown.
Israel is an amazing country that must be experienced, felt, tasted, and seen. It’s incredibly vibrant and very diverse. It’s full of contradictions. And it’s incredibly beautiful.
Tomorrow is my last day here on this trip. As I go to sleep tonight, it’s the last night I’ll sleep in Israel on this trip. It’s sad for me. Being here inspires me and fills my spiritual cup. The good news is that I know I’ll be back and this is a temporary goodbye, or as Israelis say, “L’hitraot,” until we meet again.
Beit Issie Shapiro is a place I have heard about for nearly 20 years. It’s one of the preeminent advocates and programs for people with special needs in the world. They consult with the United Nations as well as many communities and organizations. Today I had the chance to visit for the first time.
As I expected, it was impressive. We had an opportunity to learn from their staff about the founding of the program, the advocacy work they do, and their willingness to consult and help others who want to change the world. We got to experience their sensory spaces which were amazing. As we prepare to build our own sensory space, I asked for their assistance, and they quickly said yes! They offered to help any way they can so that we have the right design and set-up of our space. I had the chance to climb into their ball pit and didn’t want to get out—it was such a great space, so peaceful and relaxing with the lighting, sounds, and intentionality that created it. I can’t wait until we can offer that to people, as well.
Keith enjoying the ball pit.
Before leaving, we visited Friendship Park, a special playground for everybody including people with disabilities. Part of what they created is not just physical access but social access, so that people with disabilities aren’t ignored by those who do not have disabilities and further isolate them. It was inspiring to see Israel once again leading the world in social change and making the lives of people better. This is the part of Israel that usually is ignored in the media and not shared enough.
We left Raanana and headed to a Kibbutz to learn about their early childhood center and to explore their ‘Junk Playground’. Looking out at the age-appropriate playgrounds they created with their ‘junk’ reminded me of how I played as a child. We would find things and play with them. Old appliances, broken toys, whatever it was, we used our imagination and created things. These children have the opportunity to use their imagination and that inspired me. It’s so important to encourage imagination, and I’m proud that’s what we do in our Richard S. Adler Early Childhood Center. We ate a picnic lunch at the kibbutz and enjoyed the beautiful day and the beautiful location.
Our final ‘official’ stop for the day was the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. I have known about the Peres Center for years, but never actually visited. My friend Rafael Kravec (z”l) was a childhood friend of Shimon Peres and a major supporter of the center, so I really have no excuse for not visiting before. The Peres Center is an amazing place. His Nobel Peace Prize is displayed there and the bottom floor highlights current innovations that Israeli companies are working on developing. Not all will work, however it showed exactly why Israel is the ‘Start up Nation.’ The ideas behind these projects were amazing and some of them will change the world. One in particular allows you to put stickers on things in your refrigerator and then you get notified if they are going bad or running out. Imagine never wondering if your milk is bad or if you need milk!
We headed back to the hotel in North Tel Aviv from Jaffa in 5 p.m. traffic. This means it took 45 minutes to get there—it felt just like being on I-4, except I was a passenger on a bus and didn’t have to drive in it. Our bus driver Mohammad was amazing, and I need to mention him because he truly has been a miracle worker driving our bus. The things I’ve seen him do with a huge charter bus are amazing.
Last year, we were lucky to have two amazing Shinshinim (young Israelis doing a gap year before their military service to bring Israel to our community). Maya and Ariel are amazing and unfortunately, we needed to take this year off for many reasons. Our new Shinshinim, Gil and Avia, are two amazing young women and we had a chance to meet them in person tonight! Gil lives in the Negev and Avia lives in the Galilee. They are going to bring so much to our community, and I’m really excited for them to arrive in August. We are still looking for home hospitality for them and those that hosted Maya and Ariel will tell you it was an incredible experience.
Tonight began Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s memorial day. Unlike Memorial Day in the US, which is a 3-day weekend filled with barbecues and sales, here in Israel it is a somber remembrance of those lost in war or as victims of terrorism. We prepared for its beginning as a group with some powerful written words that were deeply moving. At 8 p.m., a siren goes off across the entire country for a minute, with people stopping what they are doing to remember. Tomorrow at 11 a.m., another siren will go off for 2 minutes, reminding us again of the cost of freedom.
A memorial for Yom Hazikaron.
We went to the beach tonight to listen to the siren while looking out over the Mediterranean Sea. As the siren began to sound it was incredibly powerful. I was overtaken with emotion, thinking of all those who sacrificed so I could stand on the beach in Tel Aviv tonight. So that I could explore the Old City of Jerusalem, pray at the Kotel, wander the streets of Jerusalem. So that I could enjoy the beauty of the Golan, the Negev, and the Judean desert. So that I could climb Masada and float in the Dead Sea. I realized just how big a debt of gratitude I owe to these people and their families. As I listened to the siren and stared out into the beautiful night looking out over the water, it was incredibly moving.
In many ways, I think Israel is best represented by Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day, which begins tomorrow night). Tonight and tomorrow are deeply emotional, filled with sorrow and gratitude. It is a time for reflection and the country mourns. And then tomorrow night at sunset, the mood changes instantly. It is celebration and parties. It is the 4th of July, Israel-style. It might be the most fun day of the year. These 48 hours covers every emotion a human being can feel. And this is totally Israel—chaotic, far from perfect, incredibly wonderful, beautiful, challenging, spiritual and secular. It’s why I love Israel so much.
Haifa is a beautiful city with the Mediterranean Sea on the west and the Carmel Mountains on the east. It’s a city that thrives on coexistence and in many ways is a model to be replicated. Today started with a view of the Bahai Gardens from the top of the mountain. I always love when I can walk into them and have had the opportunity to walk through them. Unfortunately, today they were closed so we had to look through the gates. Still magnificent.
We visited a school that educates both Arab and Jewish children together. This is not incredibly common in Israel. This school has 9 branches and we got to visit the one in Haifa. While there, they told us there are only 2 other ones in the country. As we think about building community and getting to know others, this highlights how important it is to reach beyond the Jewish community to get to know your neighbors who may be different from you. It made me think of my friend Atif and the relationship we have built. I am Jewish, he is Muslim, and we have great respect for each other and have developed a wonderful friendship. We need more of this in the world and it starts with us in our local community.
The group in Haifa.
We left Haifa and drove to Tzippori in the lower Galilee. I love the Galilee. It is incredibly beautiful with the mountains and the valleys and the flourishing foliage. A number of people on the trip commented how it looked like either Napa or Tuscany. Tzippori was home to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish legal ruling body, after the destruction of the Second Temple following its time in Yavneh, until the 5th century. While there, we had the opportunity to do some challenging work on debate of Jewish concepts and learn skills to bring back to Orlando to help challenge the way we think and push forward with better decision-making. We also had the opportunity to see a synagogue that is over 1,800 years old. The floor had an incredible mosaic that remains beautiful to this day. Sitting there, looking at the beautiful mosaic on the floor, it was easy to imagine the Jewish community praying there 1,800 years ago. Today I stood there. The power of the Jewish people is that linking of generations—me today with the Jews in the year 200. It was pretty amazing.
The ancient mosaic.
Lunch was at a winery in a village that houses people with special needs. It was amazing to hear about the village, the work that the people with special needs do, the life that has been built for them in the village, and eat some delicious food. For those that wanted to participate, there was a wine tasting of three different types of wine that comes from their vineyard. It was a pretty wonderful afternoon as we had a chance to see an example of how Israel provides for people with special needs. I found myself thinking of our own RAISE program and the way it changes lives. I felt proud to know that there is a connection between Israel and Orlando through our work with job skills and training for those with special needs.
Off we went to Tel Aviv, the final city in our journey. I spent time before this cohort began in Tel Aviv and it was great to be back. We checked in, dropped our bags in the room, and headed to Shuk HaCarmel before it closed. We had a great time walking through the shuk, laughing, talking, and being tourists for a brief time. After buying too much stuff, we decided to walk back to the hotel. It was a nice 45-minute walk through many different neighborhoods on a truly magnificent evening. We left at dusk and walked in the dark.
Israel is often portrayed as dangerous, however when you are here, you realize just how safe you really are. We walked, talked, and enjoyed the differing neighborhoods. We turned onto the road next to the beach and enjoyed the stunning evening along the Mediterranean. After dropping off the things we bought in our rooms, we headed 2 blocks north to the old Port of Tel Aviv for dinner. Eating at a seafood restaurant, we continued the conversations, enjoyed amazing food (and they gave us WAY too much once again), and relaxed. Once again, we were struck by the way dinner went. The timing is much slower, there is no rush to give you the check or to get you to open your table. Dinner ends up being so much more than eating, as you have time to really talk and spend time with the people you are eating with. It’s a little thing that I will miss greatly when I return home.
We in America have it wrong. Going out to dinner isn’t about filling our bellies, it’s about using the time that we eat to build relationships, get to know people, learn, and experience friendship.
Tomorrow night starts Yom HaZikaron, Israel Memorial Day. Unlike our Memorial Day in American, this is not a long weekend with barbecues and vacations. I have spent Yom HaZikaron here once before and it was incredibly moving. I am looking forward to another powerful experience tomorrow.
Shabbat. Often misunderstood in America, and defined by what you can’t do. During every Israel trip I have every been on (all 19 of them), Shabbat has focused on what I CAN do: REST!! The week is so meaningful and full and busy and nonstop that by the time Shabbat arrives, the gift of rest is welcomed and embraced. I fell asleep not long after dinner last night and slept without an alarm, waking up when my body told me to. I showered and headed off to my friends Margot and Tamar’s house to have brunch with them and spend time with them and their 3 children.
The walk to their home is only about a 15-20 minute walk from my hotel and as I walked, I was completely aware of how quiet Jerusalem is on Shabbat morning. Very few cars were on the road. There was no hustle and bustle of an active city. I saw many people walking to synagogue and wished them ‘Shabbat Shalom.’ It was a beautiful day and a beautiful walk. I arrived and Margot and her oldest daughter Haleli were the only ones home, as Tamar and their sons Michael and Lavi had gone to the Arab village of Abu Gosh to get more things for brunch. Abu Gosh makes some of the best hummus in the world, so I was excited for them to come back. Haleli is 7 and she did her reading assignment with me (she has to read out loud and then the person listening has to sign her sheet). Her reading was amazing, and I followed along since I can read Hebrew but don’t understand most of it. I got to be the first person to sign her sheet this week!
When Tamar, Michael, and Lavi returned, they had wonderful goodies. Margot had made shakshuka, so we ate wonderful food. Lavi couldn’t wait to get his hands on the fresh falafel balls and ate two right away. The day was filled with relaxation, fun, family, friends, and connection. We played with a magnetic building kit and laughed and had fun. Lavi took a nap and Haleli and Michael put on their costumes and paraded around as Queen Elsa and Spiderman before changing to a different Elsa costume and Batman. It was so wonderful and fun and meaningful. We watched Gnomeo and Juliet (since my kids are 19 and 22, this is not the type of movie we watch any longer) and they sat on the couch with me, eating popcorn, laughing, and having fun.
Keith with Margot and Tamar’s family.
One of my favorite things about Israel is the people and the friends I have here. This trip alone has given me the chance to spend time with Daniel, Adam, Hallel, Irit and Avi, Margot and Tamar and the kids, plus time with new friends like Rachel and Fleur, and there are more I hope to get to see. Israel truly is family. The Rabbi at the Kotel knew Rabbi Lipskier and that’s not the first time the Rabbi I met at the Kotel has known somebody where I live. Walk around and talk with Israelis and you will get more Shabbat dinner invitations than you can imagine!
As strange as it may sound, today is my favorite day of the trip because it allowed me to be Keith, visiting friends in Israel, playing with their children, catching up on life, eating great food, and just being a human being. I think that is the essence of Shabbat—step back, relax, look at the world around you and appreciate the amazing beauty that exists not just in the world, but in our lives. It’s so easy to take it for granted. I look forward to getting to spend more time with Margot, Tamar, Haleli, Michael, and Lavi. I can’t wait to see the amazing things happening for Margot and Tamar, watch their children grow up, and see how they will change the world. They are my family and I love them, and getting to be with family in Israel is amazing.
There is more activity as Shabbat ends. Havdalah. The Old City for the Sound and Light show (which is truly amazing), and a delicious dinner with friends. But nothing will beat Shabbat spent with my friends and their children.