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.
Today was a basic day. We had two places to visit and that is it. But what an amazing two places.
Our first place to visit was Masada, King Herod’s amazing mountain resort in the Judean desert. We took the long drive from Jerusalem to Masada in the morning through the beautiful Judean desert. Having just spent a few days in the Negev, it was amazing to see how different the Judean Desert looks than the Negev Desert. It is certainly true that deserts are not all the same.
Due to timing challenges, we took the cable car to the top. I always enjoy walking up either the Roman path or walking up and/or down the snake path, but that wasn’t to be for this trip. At the top we began to explore Masada, its history, the history of the Jewish people and the land, and how it all intertwines. The role of King Herod, his close friendship with Marc Antony, his paranoia, and his amazing ability to build. The combination of all that has left landmarks from what was the Second Temple to Masada to Caesarea, among many other things in the land. I have been to Masada many, many times and the story is a captivating one. I enjoyed the movie and mini-series they did about it. If you aren’t familiar with the story, I encourage you to learn about it.
When I am on top of Masada, recently I find myself thinking more about the archeologists uncovering the history. What it must have been like to find proof of the Jewish history on the mountain in the years 68-72 CE. The history of King Herod, who ruled before the common era began and died just as it did. How exciting it must have been for them to find the various items that not only are incredibly meaningful historically but incredibly meaningful Jewishly. You can see the fresco in my pictures that is over 2000 years old—what must it have been like to discover that? One of the amazing things about Israel is that not only does history come alive, so does biblical history. I remember years ago being in Caesarea just after they had found the first proof that a man named Pontius Pilate existed. I remember when they discovered the burial site of King Herod. I have been on an archeological dig here and the excitement we had just found a broken pottery shard will stay with me forever. Israel is a land of history and of hope, of story, and of fact. And when I’m on the top of Masada, I always say a quick thank you to King Herod for having the foresight to install WiFi. (While there is WiFi on Masada, obviously it wasn’t King Herod who installed it.)
A timeline of Masada.
We left Masada and headed to the Dead Sea. There are many spots that have beaches and access to the Dead Sea and the one we went to was a place I hadn’t been before. There were shops and food available, and we ate at The Lowest Bar on Earth. This is because the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth (1,412 feet below sea level). After eating, changing into bathing suits and putting on water shoes (it’s a rocky beach, so you want water shoes to get there and when you go in the water), we walked in. The floor of this area of the Dead Sea was filled with Dead Sea mud. If you have never had the opportunity to put it on your skin, you are missing something special (you can buy it in the US). We dug the mud out and smeared it all over our bodies. The minerals are incredibly strong, and it leaves your skin incredibly smooth.
As we walked a little further, we began to encounter mud pits where you would sink. I think I ended up sinking in the most mudholes of our group! It was like quicksand in the old Saturday morning cartoons. One minute I was standing, and the next my leg had sunk to mid-thigh. We laughed each time and I managed to pull myself out without too much trouble. We floated as you only do in the Dead Sea—just sit back and you are like a raft in the pool. It’s an amazing feeling that never ceases to amaze and doing it with people who have never experienced it makes it even more fun. We finished our time at the Dead Sea and headed back to Jerusalem for Shabbat.
Floating in the Dead Sea.
We chose to do our Kabbalat Shabbat service overlooking the city at the Haas Promenade. It was a beautiful area with a great view of Jerusalem. As we began to welcome Shabbat, the smell of a Muslim family preparing grilled meat to end their Ramadan daily fast wafted over us. It was a fitting way to end the week and welcome Shabbat. In Jerusalem, with a mixture of cultures, with a truly historic view. We walked back to the hotel (I love all the walking we get to do in Israel) and joined together in the hotel dining room for Shabbat.
It has been a thoroughly meaningful and inspirational week. I’ve learned so much to apply to my life and my work. I’ve been able to spend meaningful time in conversation with my colleagues at The Roth Family JCC as well as other JCCs around the country. And Shabbat will let me rest and recharge to prepare for the next week here.
I’m incredibly grateful that I am privileged to be here now and that I have been able to come here so many times. It is something I don’t ever take for granted and appreciate greatly. And it’s why I encourage everybody to find a way to come to Israel and to explore. It’s not just the country or the religions that dominate the country here, it’s the personal exploration and inner development that happens while you are here. It leaves an imprint on your soul.