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The Power Of Community

The Power Of Community

Last Thursday was a significant day for me.  It was the Orlando Jewish Community’s 4th Annual Men’s Night Out.  You may be surprised that it was significant and that I would choose to highlight this and spend an entire Friday message talking about it.  But that would only be if you weren’t in attendance.

The event, held at Congregation Ohev Shalom, has always been a fun evening.  Good food, good people, and mostly funny comedian make it a nice night.  Last year, it had to be virtual because of COVID and while the comedian was great, like most virtual events, it’s not the same as being in person.  This year we were back together in person.

As I walked up to the event, the outside was filled with men talking, laughing, enjoying appetizers and the open bar. 

I couldn’t help but break into a huge smile as I approached.  This is what things are supposed to feel like.  I saw some of the guys from my recent trip to Israel and we hugged and enjoyed each other’s company.  People I didn’t even know a few weeks ago are now good friends.  I saw people that I have spoken with and that I have zoomed with but not actually spent time within a year or longer.  There was joy in the air.

When we went inside, we sat in smaller groups at big round tables to provide some social distancing, but the conversations were robust and fun.  The room was buzzing with noise and people having fun.  When dinner was served, we all enjoyed a delicious meal of Kosher Prime Rib and Beef Ribs.  Talk about some delicious food!  And plenty of it (thank you Allan Ginsburg for sponsoring the food!!!).  When the comedian began we sat back and listened, laughed, and enjoyed.  Not every joke was a hit but it was sure fun.  

Not only did we get to enjoy being together again, see friends we may not have seen in a while, eat good food and listen to a comedian, we also got to support the Synagogues’ Men’s Clubs and the work they do to support our youth.  What an amazing night.  It’s hard to ask for more.  

Thank you to the committee that worked so hard to make this special evening happen.  Thank you to all the sponsors who made the event possible.  Thank you to everybody who attended.  This was community.  This is what makes the Jewish community so special.  For me, it was a wonderful evening and a true signal that perhaps we really are returning to the type of life we want to be able to have and the type of community we all love.

Shabbat Shalom,

Keith

PS – EXCITING NEWS!!!  The 2021 Orlando Jewish Community Study is about to be released.  Please block out the evenings of Sunday, December 12th at The Roth Family JCC or Monday, December 13th at The Rosen JCC as Dr. Leonard Saxe and Dr. Matthew Boxer from the Cohen Center of Modern Judaism at Brandeis University will be presenting the results of the study to our community.  You can attend in person or virtually.  More information and registration information will be coming out next week.  There is amazing information to be shared so I hope you will all attend.

Next Year in Israel—Together

As many of you know, I spent last week in Israel and returned to Orlando on Monday.  It was a fabulous week, and you can read all about it here.  This was my 18th trip to Israel and it was incredibly personally meaningful and I have been processing it since I returned.  

One thing that has become increasingly clear is how important Israel is as the Jewish homeland.  I’ve always been a Zionist.  I grew up in a Zionist household.  My grandparents told me stories of listening to the UN Partition Plan vote on the radio and the celebration they had when they realized it had passed and there would be a State of Israel.  It’s always been core to my personal and Jewish identity. 

On this trip, one of the things that was drilled into us over and over again was how lucky we were to be in the State of Israel, and how our parents and grandparents would have loved this opportunity but never had it.  This didn’t hold true for me.  Both sets of my grandparents visited Israel.  I remember their trips and the stories and pictures they shared with me.  Both of my parents have been to Israel.  Both of my in-laws have been to Israel.  And both my wife Alison and I have been to Israel multiple times.  As I said, Israel is core to my identity as both a person and a Jew.

I’m not sure which part of this trip had the greatest impact on proving how important Israel is to my identity.  Was it my first time at a mikvah, and the fact that the mikvah was in Tzfat, a city I love with a long history of mysticism, and was the same mikvah the Ari used over 600 years ago?  Was it sitting in between the graves of Abraham and Sarah in Hebron, a place I have never been before, and feeling the awesome power and history of the Jewish people?  Was it the comfort I felt walking the streets of Jerusalem, day and night, feeling safe and home?   Perhaps it was when we played laser tag at Ammunition Hill, a key battle in the Six Day War, on the actual battlefield where IDF soldiers paid the ultimate price to unify Jerusalem.  Or was it the regular walks to and from our hotel to the Old City of Jerusalem, wandering the Jewish Quarter, visiting the Kotel, and feeling the vibrancy of thousands of years of Jewish life?  Maybe it was Friday at Machane Yehuda, more packed than I ever remember it, as everybody shopped for Shabbat.   That’s the thing about Israel: it could be any one of them, or it could be all of them––or it could be something else entirely.

Next week is the Federation’s first Israel and Overseas Subcommittee meeting.  I’m excited to begin working with members of our community on what our involvement with Israel can, should, and will look like.  When will we take community trips to Israel, and how often will we go?  What things in Israel should we support financially?  What Israel programs should we offer in Orlando to bring Israel closer to home for everybody?  How do we help everybody in Orlando have their own personal connection to Israel like the connection that I have?   If you are interested in being a part of this committee, please reach out and let me know.  There are so many amazing opportunities and options––it’s up to us to decide what direction we want to go.

This Shabbat in Orlando will be nice, enjoyable, meaningful, and restful.  However, it will pale in comparison to last Shabbat in Israel.   I can’t wait to be back in Israel, to be in Jerusalem for Shabbat––and hopefully have you with me as Orlando explores Israel together, as part of our individual and collective Jewish identity.

Shabbat Shalom,
Keith

Day 7: Keith in Israel!

This morning, we visited Hebron, the second holiest city in Judaism.  It’s the place where our matriarchs and patriarchs are buried.  Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebeca, Jacob and Leah (Rachel is buried where she died).  This is also believed to be where Adam and Eve are buried at the entrance to the Garden of Eden.  It’s a place I have always wanted to visit, but never have due to security concerns.  Hebron is a contested area between the Palestinians and Israelis.  Most of the city is controlled by the Palestinian Authority and is in Area A (if you look back in my blog to my Encounter trip you will learn about Area A).  There have been many violent clashes in Hebron.  But it was on my bucket list, and off we went!

A moment to remember.

It was a beautiful drive and as we pulled into Hebron, I started getting really excited.  Patrick, our tour guide, pointed out the parking lot and told us that was the parking lot for Abraham, where he parked his camels and where he circumcised himself and met the three angels who told him that he and Sarah would have a son.  It was unbelievable to be there.

Patrick told us that the building we were walking into was built by King Herod over 2,000 years ago and amazingly is completely intact.  The floors we will be walking on were the original floors from 2,000 years ago.  The walls were the same.  It is the oldest intact building still used for its original purpose in the world!  I walked up the steps and as I entered the tomb of our matriarchs and patriarchs, I was humbled, and then—THERE, right in front of me was the tomb of Jacob.  It was awe inspiring.  For some reason I thought I would see Abraham’s tomb first, but it was Jacob.  As I walked down the hall, I saw the tomb that contained the head of Esau (it’s an interesting story, but I won’t tell it here).  I turned the corner and there was Abraham’s tomb.  Right across from it was Sarah’s tomb.  I went around the corner and on the other side of Jacob’s tomb was Leah’s tomb.   I would have loved to see the tomb of Isaac and Rebecca, however they are on the other side, close to the mosque.  Unfortunately, Jews are only allowed to go there 10 days a year.  Amazingly, one of them is next Shabbat (Saturday) when we tell the story of Sarah’s death.   We learned that there is a huge celebration with more than 30,000 people attending.  And the entire area is open to Jews so you can visit Isaac and Rebecca’s tombs.

After spending some time at each tomb, totally awed by being in this location, I put on tefillin, and we davened Shacharit (the morning service).  I am not the most religious person, but to do this in this location was powerful.  It was a total connection to more than 3,000 years of Jewish life, and a very spiritual experience.  When we concluded, we went into the room that has Abraham’s tomb on one side and Sarah’s on the other.  Harry Rothenberg, quite possibly the best Jewish educator I have ever encountered, led us in a session about Abraham and Sarah’s relationship using the story of the angel telling Abraham they would have a son and Sarah laughing.  It ended as a love story, made all the more beautiful by us being there with Abraham on one side and Sarah on the other.  Again, I was completely awed and blown away.

Hebron and the tombs of our matriarchs and patriarchs are usually packed and busy.

For some reason this morning, it was totally empty.  And by totally empty, I mean we were the ONLY people there.  We had the whole place to ourselves.  This made it even more special as I had the time to really connect without interruptions and without any noise from other groups.  Without a doubt, this was one of the most spiritual experiences I have ever had.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.

As we left through security, we passed a line of Israeli students waiting to get in.  A second bus of students pulled up and began to unload.  As we watched, a third bus arrived.  Maybe it was just a coincidence, but I choose to believe it was a gift from God, giving us this special time.

We headed down the road to the neighborhood of Avraham Aveinu (Abraham our Father).  This is one of three neighborhoods in Hebron home to the approximately 800 Jews here.  We toured the 500-year-old synagogue and then went to the rabbi’s home.  We listened with interest as he shared their mission in Hebron—to take care of the spiritual needs of the soldiers who are stationed there.  It is a three-month rotation and can be very difficult.  He told us we were the first visitors he’d had in 18 months because of COVID!  He also showed us a video of what next Shabbat will look like, and it was AWESOME.  Think of a music festival, but in Hebron and because of the anniversary of Sarah’s death.  Then it was time to leave, so we grabbed some pizza for the ride back to Jerusalem, and off we went.

What an incredible morning.  I am still filled with awe at having been so close to the tombs of our matriarchs and patriarchs.  To be in the place where it’s believed that Adam and Eve are buried.  I still get chills now, hours later when I think of it.  

Today is our last day in Israel, so we had a few hours of wrap up work to do.  Evaluations of the program, a few talks to us by Charlie Harari and Ari Shabat, and then it was time to head to the final banquet.

The final banquet was amazing.

We were out on a huge balcony, surrounded by dinner stations filled with amazing food.  Each station was better than the next.  There was an open bar with beer, wine, and sodas.  The temperature was perfect, the sun was still out, and we had a great view of the Old City of Jerusalem.  It was so amazing.  After about an hour, we went into the banquet hall and the Orlando group sat together.  There were amazing Israeli salads and pita on the table, and then they brought out our dinner, an amazing steak and chicken dinner.  After we ate, the dancing began, and the room was filled with ruach (spirit).  It was incredibly cool.  And then it got cooler.

Into the room walked Ambassador David Friedman!  When the speeches started, he was the keynote and he gave an inspiring talk about Israel and the Jewish people, downplaying his role in moving the embassy to Jerusalem and with the Abraham Accords.  When he finished to a standing ovation and returned to his seat, he was mobbed by people wanting to talk to him, shake his hand, and take a picture.  I waited until it slowed down and went over myself.  He could not have been nicer.  It was amazing to have him join us.

As we wrapped up the banquet, Charlie Harari gave us a charge to continue doing something a little more Jewish than what we had before.  He led us in one of the most spirited and meaningful versions of Am Yisrael Chai that I have ever heard, let alone been a part of.  It was incredible and very moving.  We began to say our goodbyes, and there were lots of hugs and plans to get together with those from L.A., Atlanta, and Long Island.  We boarded the bus and headed to the airport.

I’m sitting at our gate now, about to board the plane, and am in awe.  This has been an incredible week.  As usual, I hate leaving Israel.  I miss my family and have an entire life in Orlando…but there is something so special and unique about Israel that I always hate to leave.  Sitting in the Tel Aviv airport waiting to board the flight home is always so depressing for me.  

When we take off, I know I will be overcome with sadness as I leave Israel.  I also know that I will never leave Israel behind, just physically leave the country.  Israel is my spiritual home.  I am fully connected to this country, its people, its history, and its significance.

As I finish this trip, my wish to all of you is that you come here and begin to experience it yourself.  That connection comes quickly and is very powerful, and is one of the best feelings you will have. 

L’hitraot, Israel—until we meet again,
Keith

Day 6: Keith in Israel!

Shabbat morning meant my visit to the Great Synagogue.  I’ve been inside before, but never for Shabbat.  We donned our masks, showed our green passes (proof of vaccination), put on our tallitot, and entered the beautiful shul.   The Torah service had already begun at 9 a.m.!  The young man reading Torah (he had to be between 13-15) was truly amazing.  His strong, clear voice rang out, and we were all captivated at his talent and the beauty of the Torah reading.  I was moved by his skill.  While I don’t speak Hebrew and didn’t know what he was reading, I was captivated by every word.  It was truly beautiful.  Of course, the entire service was in Hebrew and the tunes were different, so I struggled to follow along.  And then, at 10:30 a.m., we were finished!  I was shocked that the service was that fast.  As our group exited the Great Synagogue, we talked about how amazing the boy was, how he truly captivated us, and how astounded we were that the service ended so quickly.

After a brief rest, I went to listen to Adrienne Gold speak to us.  We are the first group of the Men’s Momentum Trip that she has spoken with, and she had previously spoken to us at the Women’s Mikvah in Tzfat.  Once again, she had an interesting perspective to offer, and there were things that resonated and things that didn’t.  I will be thinking about her two talks for some time, processing and discerning what fits best for me.

The Momentum Men’s Trip meeting IDF soldiers earlier in the trip.

Shabbat afternoon meant choosing between rest or a tour of the Old City.

Having toured the Old City many times—and knowing that nothing will be open on Shabbat—I took advantage of the opportunity to rest and relax, contemplating the trip and what I’ve learned about myself during our time in Israel.  I’ve had many fascinating discussions with the other men on the trip.  My mind is spinning with some of the topics, both personally and professionally, and I don’t expect to have many answers in the coming days.  There is definitely a lot of processing yet to be done, however one thing that I know already is that personal growth will come from the trip.

We returned to the Old City for Havdalah, the ceremony that bridges Shabbat and the rest of the week.  Pamela and Aba Cleman opened their home to us.  It’s an absolutely magnificent home in the Old City, overlooking the Kotel at the edge of the Muslim quarter.  Their rooftop has an exquisite view and we enjoyed it as we ate and learned about the work they do with Thank Israel Soldiers, a nonprofit they created to support and provide for the needs of Israel’s soldiers throughout their service and their transition out of the IDF.  We heard from soldiers about their experiences, and it was very moving.

The stunning view.

One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is that some Israelis joined our group.

They come from all walks of life and have been an incredible addition.  One of our Israeli participants got up and shared his story with us.  It was incredibly moving and really touched my heart, and gave me some first-hand understanding of what these brave soldiers face that is never in the news.  His role in the IDF was as commander of a special unit, and one day his commander sent his unit to a town where a terrorist had taken captive a woman and her daughter (who was in a wheelchair).

The terrorist had stabbed them both, and barricaded himself with them in their home.  The soldier’s unit broke down the door and a gun battle ensued.  In the battle, he killed the terrorist, but not before he was shot, too.  He had to be airlifted out with the mother and her daughter.  After waking in the hospital, he learned neither captive survived their injuries.  He was devastated.

A few weeks later, he had to return to the town to help understand what happened.  The husband and father of the victims approached him and asked if he was the commander.  When he said yes, the man told him that it was all his fault, that they arrived too late.  This only added to the soldier’s devastation, and he decided he was responsible for not saving them and that he would leave the army.  But before his commander would allow him to leave, they sent him with a group of soldiers to Poland to tour the death camps.  While there, they had a special trip to the north of Italy.  While walking the streets, an elderly man came up to them, kissing the Israeli flag on their uniforms and asking if they were from the IDF.   When he told the man that yes, they were, the man yelled at him that they were too late.  Where were they when his family was murdered by the Nazis?  All the soldiers took this to heart—they could not come during the Shoah, because there was no Jewish army.  He decided to return to service.

Soon after, he received another call from his commander that there was another terrorist in a town right next to the first town.  All he could think of was what the people in the town must be thinking and feeling, and what his responsibility was.  He took his team there, and they began searching.  He ended up face-to-face with the terrorist, and shot him before he could harm anybody.  Afterward, a woman in the town came up to him and asked if he was the commander of the unit.  When he said yes, she told him they had arrived just in time.  

This hero epitomizes the IDF.  They are there to keep Israel and Israeli’s safe.  They are here to protect the Jewish people and to provide assistance to those in need around the world.  They put their lives at risk to keep us safe, and we owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.  I had the pleasure of sitting next to him, and gave him a big hug when he returned to our table.  I feel an obligation to do more to help support our IDF soldiers and will see what I can do to make a difference.

The Temple Mount at night.

After Havdalah on the rooftop, we had free time.  I have many friends living in Israel, and a good number of them live in Jerusalem.  As much as I wanted to see them all, the structure of the trip only provided limited time to do so, and I couldn’t see most.  Tonight, I had a chance to meet with my former student and longtime friend, Margot.  I sent Margot to Israel for her first trip and found ways to send her back again.  In her work, I provided the spark that lit her fire, and she made aliyah years ago and as it turns out, lives a few blocks from our hotel.  We sat together and got sparkling water and a cheese plate and just talked and talked and talked.  It was wonderful to hear about her family and her kids, her job, and the exciting things happening.  Since Sunday is a work day in Israel, we had to stop around 10:45.

It’s amazing having so many connections to this country.  They seem to get deeper all the time—and every time I’m here, I begin thinking about my next trip back before I even leave.  Israel is not just an amazing country; it is a powerful concept and a true homeland.  When you are here, it begins to seep into your soul—and the more you return, the more it becomes an essential part of who you are.  I’m at that place in my relationship with Israel where it is a vital part of my being.  In just the six days we’ve been here, my soul has been refreshed.  My spirit has been inspired.  And even though I am exhausted from the long days, the walking, the hills, and the mountains, I am also incredibly refreshed.

Israel is special and while you can appreciate it without being here, you can’t begin to understand the depth and the connection until you visit.  You can’t understand the deep warmth of the people, of being part of a national family, until you are here.  I hope to be able to take many of you to explore Israel, to have it touch your soul, and to change your life.

Shavua tov,
Keith

Day 5: Keith in Israel!

When I woke up today, I was excited because it was Shabbat—and sad because I had to get my PCR test to fly home on Sunday.  It was both the culmination of an amazing and exhausting week, and also the reminder that I will be leaving Israel far too soon.

Wandering the streets of Jerusalem.

The PCR testers didn’t show up in the morning as planned, so we left to start our day and they returned later.  In an old synagogue around the corner, we gathered to do some traditional yeshiva-style learning.  To be honest, years ago that would have made me yawn and try to find some excuse to not do it.  I’ve since had great experiences with great teachers, and enjoy it.  One of the best parts of this trip has been our excellent educators, and today we had one of the finest that I have encountered: Harry Rothenberg.

Harry is an attorney by trade, yet is one of the most amazing teachers of Torah that I have encountered.

He taught us Torah and Talmud with case studies that involved Mark Zuckerberg, Tom Bradyfeld, Bryce Harperstein, and Julio Jonesberg (get the puns and the joke?).  With over forty men, many of whom had never done this before, we discussed the cases and had a fun and interactive discussion.  We debated in chevrutas (pairs of two), and then as a big group.  The time flew by as we debated Torah.  It was extraordinary to see the impact of a skilled teacher, and the experience renewed my gratitude for all the work our teachers in Orlando do at the Roth and Rosen JCCs, the Jewish Academy of Orlando, the Orlando Torah Academy, and all our synagogue religious schools and youth and adult education programs.

A sneak peak of our Torah study.

After a break (and our PCR tests), we were inspired by Ari Shabat as he tied together being a man, husband, father, and Jew.  Four different roles interwoven in deep, meaningful ways.  We enjoyed hearing from Ari, and we all spoke of his wisdom as we left the shul.

Then came my favorite thing of all: FREE TIME!

We had the afternoon free to explore.  Off we went to Machane Yehuda, the big shuk in Jerusalem.  It was astounding to see how busy and packed it was.  Yes, it was just before Shabbat—but I’ve been there on Fridays before, and I had never seen it this busy.  We got in the long line at Marzipan to start.  If you have been to Israel before, you know that Marzipan has THE BEST chocolate rugalach in the world.  They were hot out of the oven and smelled incredible.

As we fought through the crowds, those here for their first time learned what it’s like if you wait in a line in Israel: You wait! And wait! And wait!  Here in Israel, if you want to get anywhere, you must keep moving forward with a quick, “Selicha (excuse me).”  We shopped around the market, exploring and simply enjoying the atmosphere.  The fresh fruits, nuts, spices, baked goods, halva, and so much more were incredible to see.  While it was very crowded, the energy and excitement in the shuk inspired and excited me.  I loved the buzz and the vibe.

After wandering around the shuk, we took a walk down to Mea Shearim, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Jerusalem and home to Haredim.  It was interesting to see a different way of Jewish observance, and our visit sparked some very interesting conversations.  One of the guys on the trip sent me a message on WhatsApp that he found a gluten-free bakery at Machane Yehuda, so we turned around and headed back.  When we got there, they had these amazing gluten-free challahs that had just come out of the oven.  I got a small one to eat right there, and a large one for Shabbat dinner.  The hot, fresh out of the oven, gluten-free challah was delicious.  We elbowed our way through the shuk to find a place for lunch, and finally sat down to eat and relax.

Mountains of fresh challah.

After returning to the hotel to get ready for Shabbat, we headed back to the Old City.

Charlie Harary amped us up for the experience at the Kotel, and prepared those who have never spent Shabbat at the Kotel for what they’d experience.  We headed to the area we had reserved, gathered together, and looked around.

There were all types of Jews there, and we had a chance to introduce ourselves to them and wish them a Shabbat Shalom.  It was so cool to connect with Jews wearing shtreimels (the big fur hats) and white stockings, Jews wearing black hats and kippot, IDF soldiers, and teens.  We were all there to celebrate Shabbat, and it was one of the most unifying things I have ever been a part of.

We began services, singing together loudly.  I looked over and saw the other groups all watching us in awe.  I think many religious Israelis are surprised when they see American Jews actually praying and singing and dancing.  As we finished one section, one of the other groups began singing loudly as if in competition with us.  It was awesome to see.  We continued with services, and gradually the soldiers and teens came and joined ours.  Our group got big, and we all sang, danced and prayed together.  It was an awesome experience.

When services ended, we still had about 30 minutes before we had to head in for Shabbat dinner.  Patrick, our tour guide, offered to take us somewhere ‘cool’.  A group of us fought through the mass of people at the Kotel for Shabbat and followed him.  We exited the Kotel area and entered the Muslim quarter, where he took us right up to the entrance of where Muslims head up to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock.  There were two Israeli soldiers there to make sure that only Muslims could go through the arch and up toward the mosques.  Patrick explained that this was to protect the Muslim sacred prayer space for them and ensure they had the ability to pray at their holy site without being bothered by tourists.  There is access to the Temple Mount for Jews, but only on certain days and times to ensure there is no conflict with Muslims’ need to pray.  I’d never been to that part of the Muslim quarter before, so it was interesting to see it and learn a bit more.

We left the Muslim quarter and heading to Aish HaTorah for Shabbat dinner.  The Aish building is massive and right in front of the Kotel.  We headed up for Shabbat dinner and sat with the other men from Orlando.  It was fun sitting with all these new friends and celebrating Shabbat together.  The food was delicious—with more than enough for everyone— and it was a wonderful night of community.  I had the chance to spend quality time with my dear, long-time friend, Rabbi Josh Brodie, and we had a great conversation.  After dinner, it was back to the hotel, and we sat on the patio, once again eating and drinking.  This time, we had an open question and answer session with our trip leaders and the rabbis who were on the trip.  Any question was fair game, and it was quite interesting.

Today was probably my favorite day.  I got a real taste of almost every part of being Jewish.  The mind with our Torah study, the body with all the walking, the spirit at Machane Yehuda, and the soul at the Kotel for Shabbat.  I got to experience friendship and community.  Another exhausting day—but also incredibly fulfilling. 

Tomorrow, I am going to the Great Synagogue for services.  It’s something I have wanted to do since I first had a chance to explore and visit there some 15 years ago.  It’s a beautiful and magnificent place, so I am very excited.  

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem!
Keith