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.
Today was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. I have never been in Israel for Yom HaShoah and as you know, last night was incredibly impactful and meaningful as I had the chance to hear from Ruth, who was a part of the Kindertransport in 1939. Today was mainly spent in two locations, each very powerful and meaningful places.
We began the day by going to the old city of Jerusalem. I love the old city. Wandering the streets of the Jewish quarter, the Armenian quarter, the Christian quarter, and even parts of the Muslim quarter. There is a feeling in the air, the smells and sounds are different, and it’s easy to close my eyes and feel like I am 2,000 years ago when I’m in the old city.
Today began a little differently. We entered through the Dung gate (this was the gate used to remove trash, hence the name) and went to the egalitarian part of the Kotel. I have spent time at the men’s side of the Kotel and on the plaza may times, however I have spent very little, if any time, in the egalitarian part. I have always believed it was very important to have this sacred space, but it was never a place I really wanted to go. I love my experiences on the men’s side.
I was struck by a number of things as we began the day here. First, was how different this space was compared to the men’s and women’s sides of the Kotel. It felt less than, and I wasn’t as connected. There was another group there praying and they were singing the melodies I’d hear at synagogue rather than the ones I hear at the men’s side. It felt much more modern and I found myself distressed that the egalitarian side didn’t have the same experience as the men’s or women’s side. Why should it be any less than? Perhaps it really isn’t, and it’s just my own expectations and desires. The image of the paratroopers in 1967 is a powerful one for me and has always defined the Kotel. This section is definitely not in that image. It made me think about the inequality at the Kotel and wonder why we do that to ourselves. Shouldn’t everybody have equal access to this powerfully spiritual space? It left me with more questions than answers.
A view of the Kotel.
We left the egalitarian section and headed to the main plaza. As one of two men on this trip, I walked away from the group and headed toward the men’s section. It was almost 10 a.m. and that is when the siren sounds in Israel on Yom HaShoah. I chose to wait on the plaza for the siren before entering the men’s area. When the siren began, I felt wrapped by the sound. It enveloped my entire body and as I stood there, facing the Kotel, all I could think about was the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust and never had a chance to experience the Kotel. Six million Jews who didn’t get to have this direct connection with Israel and whose lives were cut short for no reason other than hatred. I found myself wondering why we continue to say ‘Never Again’ yet watch as it does happen again to others, like what is happening in Ukraine right now. I found myself wondering if I was going to be one of those who stood by and did nothing, or would be one who acted and did what they could to make a difference. When the siren ended, a group of teens next to me began singing Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, and I joined in fervently. It felt right to be singing Hatikvah on Yom HaShoah, at the Kotel, right after the siren remembering those murdered by the Nazis.
When I went into the men’s section, I stopped to put on tefillin before approaching the Kotel. Amazingly, there was a perfect spot for me at the Kotel and I took it. I took the two prayers I had written and brought with me out of my pocket, said them one after the other, and placed them both into the Kotel. I closed my eyes, put my forehead against the Kotel, and began to pray. For the first time, I lost myself in prayer at the Kotel. It was a powerful and meaningful experience, shaped by many, many prior trips to the Kotel, as well as it being Yom HaShoah. More than 12 hours later, I still feel the energy running through me from this time at the Kotel.
I rejoined the group and we explored the Old City before breaking for lunch. I have a favorite jewelry store in the Cardo that I have been shopping at for years. Named for its owner, Mira, I always go by and talk to Mira, usually buying a gift or two (or more). I hadn’t seen Mira since 2019 and was excited to see her, reconnect, and talk. I was shocked to find out that she had died a few months after the last time I saw her. I was surprised how much it hurt to know she was gone since I only saw her for 20-30 minutes once a year, at most. I went into the store and talked to her son, who now runs it. We talked about his mother and how special she was. He told me stories of his young children and what they remember about their savta. It was heartwarming to make a connection with him about Mira. I think every time I see that sign, I will miss her a little more.
Unlike most trips I have taken to the Old City, this one concluded by visiting the Christian quarter and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I have been there before, however our tour guide provided a great overview. It’s a powerful place to visit, as I get to watch others have the same type of experience that I have at the Kotel. From the place Christians believe Jesus was crucified to where his body was prepared for burial to the burial cave, it is both beautiful and powerful. There are five different denominations that call the Church of the Holy Sepulcher home, and to see them all there was interesting.
We left the Old City and went to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum. Because it was Yom HaShoah, the museum part of the complex was packed with people and so we didn’t go into the museum. Instead, we focused on other areas of the campus. We walked around and through the Pathway of the Righteous unto the Nations and saw the tree planted for Oskar Schindler and his wife.
I saw a tree planted for a couple from Ukraine and wondered who would be the Righteous unto the Nations to help people in Ukraine now?
We went to the Children’s Memorial, which is always very emotional for me. Before walking in, we stopped at the memorial for Janus Korczek. For those who don’t know who he was, Janus Korczek was a very famous children’s author. He was Poland’s equivalent to Mark Twain, and his books were similar to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. He was the principal of an orphanage in Warsaw and in 1942, the Germans came to liquidate the ghetto and took all the orphans to the train station to go to Treblinka. As he approached the trains with the children, one of the SS Guards recognized him and told him he shouldn’t get on the train and was going to save him. Korczek told him that ‘where my children go, I go.’ He boarded the train with the children from the orphanage and they all were murdered at Treblinka. I was struck by the power of responsibility and obligation. Of selfless service to the children so they didn’t have to go alone in terror. What a great man to learn from, 80 years after his death.
We entered the children’s memorial and as usual, I gulped entering. It’s dark with candles and mirrors, making it seem like all the stars in the sky. As you begin to walk through, the names of the 1.5 million children murdered in the Holocaust are read. My prior experiences have usually involved the thought of my own children’s names being the ones that were being read and what that would be like. It was terrifying and immensely sad. My children are now 19 and 22. Their names wouldn’t be read; they would be in the main museum. I realized that my future grandchildren would be the names that were read. Or the little girl that I made pita with yesterday in Yerucham. It was a powerful realization about life. And then I heard the names of children from Ukraine. It was like a slap in the face. It happened in the Shoah and it’s happening again now. It was incredibly sobering and made me angry.
Outside at Yad Vashem.
As we exited the children’s memorial, we went to a park-like area to sit and debrief. As we discussed what we felt and experienced, I found myself looking out beyond Yad Vashem onto the modern city of Jerusalem and feeling hope. Despite losing 6 million of us during the Shoah, despite odds far against us in wars with our neighbors, we have persevered and overcome.We have not only survived, but we have also thrived. Israel is our growing, living testament to that.
We left Yad Vashem and returned to the hotel. Melissa, Fara, and our friend Lauren joined me as we walked back to the Old City to enjoy the view of the Kotel plaza from the roof of Aish HaTorah. I have a friend who works there that showed us a bit of Aish and then took us to the roof. I have been there before, however the view is so magnificent that it still takes my breath away. We stood on the roof absorbing the power of the view and talking. The time passed quickly and suddenly it was time to leave for dinner.
The view from Aish HaTorah.
We wrapped up the day with Dinner at First Station (the old train station). It’s a hot, hip, and fun area with some great restaurants. I made reservations at the steakhouse, having eaten there before, and knowing how great the food is. We ate, laughed, talked, and wrapped up the day. It truly was a fitting end to Yom HaShoah; laughter is life, and while Yom HaShoah remembers those whose lives were stolen from them, it also allows us to have hope and look to the future.
During our time this morning at Robinson’s Arch, the egalitarian section of the Kotel, a poem by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman was read. One line stood out to me:
Pilgrims allow places to pass through them.
That’s how I feel about Israel. Israel, particularly Jerusalem, passes through me, leaving permanent imprints on my soul, like the river does to the rock.
Waking up in the desert is always something special. After breakfast, I took a short walk to Aroma to get my iced coffee, and the weather was amazing. I didn’t want to get on the bus and go anywhere—just enjoy the weather and the beauty of the desert. But I did get on the bus, and off we went.
We spent the morning in Yerucham, the partnership city of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. I’ve heard about Yerucham for years but have never visited. It was a very cute town that looked and felt like most small towns. We began by visiting a park with a beautiful lake. As we looked out over the lake and learned about Yerucham, all of a sudden, a car drove up with a camel tied to the door, running alongside! We were all shocked at what we saw. The driver parked, got out, untied his camel from the car and took him to the water to drink and some bushes to eat. It was one of the most bizarre things I have seen—a camel tied to a car, running alongside it.
The camel and its car.
We left the lake and headed to one of the many early childhood centers in Yerucham. Interestingly enough, while they have many centers that run independently, they are all under the supervision of the same person. Since this is Israel and we are currently counting the Omer, they had the 2- and 3-year-old children outside grinding wheat. They also had them making their own pita bread, kneading the dough. The little girl sitting next to where I was standing wasn’t doing anything with her dough, so I started to show her how to do it and we did it together. We had so much fun and this little girl stole my heart. As we left the school, she blew me kisses and my heart melted the way only a little child can make it melt.
We visited a facility that takes care of the needs of children. In Israel, they have something called tipot chalav, or “drop of milk.” This is a medical center that provides all the healthcare needs for children. Vaccinations, wellness checkups, etc. They place these facilities in neighborhoods to make access easy for families with young children to ensure the children are healthy. It was truly amazing to learn about and see in practice. The sensory rooms were amazing and there was much to learn.
The community center was our final stop before lunch. It was a combination of a public library and community center. It was fascinating to see how they are both different from our JCCs and how similar they are. How we share many of the same challenges and are coming up with similar solutions. It inspired me to have colleagues in Israel addressing the same things, which means that maybe the challenges we face aren’t so unique!
For lunch, we went to an interesting restaurant. It is a place in somebody’s home that is part of a program that retired women started to cook for tourists, keep themselves busy, generate revenue, and share their stories. What started as one has now grown to five or six in Yerucham. The food was delicious, and afterward we heard from two women about the program and their personal story. It was truly inspiring.
While it felt like we’d already had a full day, we weren’t close to being done. We left Yerucham and traveled to Nativ HaSarah, a small village right on the border of the Gaza Strip. We met with a woman who lives there and has endured the challenges of all the rocket attacks. As an artist, she decided to do something creative and created an organization called Path to Peace. Using her art, she is decorating the walls protecting the town. We heard her story and then got to select a small piece of pottery that spoke to us, write a message on the back, and take it with us to the border to place it on the wall, filling words like Peace, Shalom, etc. This artwork faces Gaza so the people living there can see it. It was incredible to be right at the border with Gaza and to imagine what it is like to have 5 seconds to get to safety when the alarm goes off. It was depressing to see the children’s school bus stops are bomb shelters. We can all hope and pray for peace throughout the world, however standing at the Gaza border, I felt no hope. On the other side of the fence, Gaza looked so bleak to me.
Keith, Fara Gold, and Melissa Youngblood at the Path to Peace wall.
We left the border and headed north toward Jerusalem, but we had one more stop before returning to our hotel. As the dusk began, so did Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). I have never been in Israel for Yom HaShoah. Our stop was to meet Ruth and hear her story as one of the Kindertransport children, who in 1939 left their parents and families in Germany and traveled to London to escape the Nazis and the death camps. She was 13 when she left her family to board the train that would eventually take her to London. At 97-years-old, Ruth often needed her daughter to repeat the question, however her memory of 1939 was crystal clear.
Hearing her tell the stories of how things changed for her and her family was horrifying and inspiring. It was heartbreaking, and yet knowing she survived and has two children, six grandchildren, and a number of great-grandchildren gave me hope for the future. Ruth was lucky in many ways—she went to London to a boarding school for refugees and was treated well. Her parents were able to get out of Germany and they were reunited, although she didn’t live with them for a 3-year period. She told us the story of her husband, who also escaped but lost his entire family to the Nazis. Her daughter told us how her father (z”l) would never speak about his childhood and wouldn’t share any information about his parents, siblings, aunts, or uncles. He refused to speak German and wouldn’t buy anything German. Her aunt (Ruth’s younger sister) still lives in England and refuses to discuss the Kindertransport or anything about Germany. This was a very special way to mark Yom Hashoah; even our visit to Yad Vashem tomorrow, also on Yom Hashoah, may not have the same impact as Ruth.
We left and headed to Jerusalem. I always love seeing the lights of Jerusalem when you enter the city at night. After checking into the hotel, I sat on my balcony looking out at the beauty of the city and took a few pictures to share. It truly is the City of Gold, and I’m excited to spend a good part of tomorrow exploring the Old City, which never gets old for me. A few of the people on the trip are here for their first visit to Israel, and being with them as they experience Jerusalem for the first time is also exciting.
At the Seder each year, we finish by saying, “Next year in Jerusalem.” This year, I was able to say, “Next week in Jerusalem” (even though it was really more than a week) and I’m so happy to be here.
Today was all about the Negev Desert. We began in Mitzpe Ramon at the crater. It was incredible to see Israel’s Grand Canyon in person set against the beauty of the Negev Desert. It was miles long and miles wide and truly massive. It was incredible to sit looking out at the crater and the Negev in silence and just feel the power of the desert. It is said the desert talks to you if you are quiet, and I definitely felt that today. This was a spirituality that exists that words don’t codify.
We left the crater and headed to Sde Boker, the kibbutz in the Negev where David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, is buried. He believed the future of Israel was in the Negev, and in his late 60s retired as Prime Minister to join the kibbutz and live in the desert. We visited both his grave and the grave of his wife Paula, who are prominently buried in a beautiful site. We then walked around Sde Boker and headed to the part of the kibbutz dedicated to his memory which also includes the house that he and Paula lived in.
We learned a lot about the history of the kibbutz and about Ben Gurion—who he was, how he led, and what a truly amazing visionary and man that he was. We had a chance to do some leadership and teamwork exercises together that were very interesting and I learned a lot about myself and others to bring back. I’m excited to continue processing what teamwork really means and how competition can either enhance or destroy teamwork.
We had a chance to explore Ben Gurion’s home in Sde Boker. It is preserved incredibly and the home was very modest, although a little bigger than I expected based on how it’s called a ‘hut’ and how the level of modesty was played up. He and Paula had separate bedrooms and it was interesting to see the difference between them. They had a small kitchen, which most homes on the kibbutz did not have, as there was a communal dining room. We were told that Paula insisted upon it because she didn’t trust the food in the communal dining room! The biggest two rooms were the living room and Ben Gurion’s office.
Ben Gurion’s home.
The overall visit made me want to read more about the life of David Ben Gurion. I knew a lot, however he was much more complex and deep than I knew and I think there is a lot I can learn by learning more about him, the decisions he made, the challenges he faced, and how he lived his life. I also didn’t realize just how short he was—I thought he was around 5’6, however he was really only about 5’1.
Our next stop was at the Ramat Negev Desert Agroresearch and Business Center. Scientists from all over the world come there to study how to best develop solar energy and to harness the desert. They have a huge solar tower and are generating huge amounts of energy. They are finding new ways to grow fruit and vegetables in the desert, and we had a chance to taste some amazing strawberries they grow there. They are finding ways to maximize crop development so the desert can provide both significant food and revenue.
Our final stop was back at the crater. We saw it that morning with the sun rising and we had a chance to see it in the evening, as well. The view was different at each time of day and it was quite meaningful both times.
The Negev is truly beautiful and impressive. Making the desert bloom is a reality, and seeing what they are doing with energy and agriculture is astounding. I have spent time in the Negev on previous trips, including sleeping out in the desert for two nights on my first trip—which was quite an experience—however today was the first time I felt the desert truly spoke to me. I could spend days in Mitzpe Ramon at the crater just being and experiencing the power and beauty of the Negev. It was meditative and peaceful.
Today began with meeting my friend Leor Sinai for coffee. It was so good to catch up and I look forward to finding ways to work together in the future.
After coffee, my friends Avi and Irit Geva picked me up to show me Moshav life. We drove north to Kfar Hayim, where they introduced me to their friend Nachman and his family who live on the Moshav and grow flowers.
It was amazing learning about how they grow and sell massive amounts of flowers all over the world. I got to see the old cow shed from when they raised cows. Six cows and one horse were in the shed—and per Avi, one donkey (he meant Nachman and laughed loudly as he said that). I also got a great picture with Nachman (yes, he does look a little like David Crosby!).
Keith with Nachman.
We drove south to Bitzaron, the moshav where Irit and Avi live. We stopped in Gedera for lunch. The salads were amazing and I got full just eating them. Gedera was founded in 1884, 64 years before the founding of the State of Israel!
Before going to their home, we stopped at the ‘ranch’ that Irit manages. It is 1,600 dunams (4 dunams = 1 acre) and was incredible to see. They grow grapes for vineyards (green and red/purple), wheat, broccoli, cauliflower, almonds, and watermelons (they grow watermelon to harvest the seeds). It was truly magnificent looking out at the world brought to life by the pioneers of the land. Abi ripped off a head of broccoli and bit in—amazingly fresh. It’s why the produce in Israel is so incredible. They also showed me the bomb shelter they must have because terrorists in Gaza fire rockets that land near them. We weren’t that close to Gaza—just outside Ashdod, 45 minutes from Tel Aviv.
We went to their home on the moshav to relax and talk. They dropped me off at the airport to meet my JCC colleagues from around the country that are joining us for the next 11 days of intentional exploration and work. This includes my own colleagues Melissa Youngblood and Fara Pensky Gold.
As we drive south to Mitzpe Ramon, I am filled with gratitude for those pioneers who created the State of Israel. From the early agricultural pioneers who created green and life from nothing, to those who built the amazing city of Tel Aviv from sand dunes in the early 1900s.
A thriving Israeli farm.
Israel is truly an amazing country that can’t be easily explained and must be truly experienced. I’m excited for the next 11 days and what we will see and experience.
Waking up whenever (not setting an alarm has been truly amazing) and going down for a delicious Israeli breakfast with real lattes (for those of you who know Israel, this was not instant coffee with creamer but a real espresso machine with a barista!) is such a treat. Sitting outside on the patio, enjoying the fresh air and birds chirping was simply wonderful. I had planned on going to the beach, but the weather just didn’t quite seem beach-worthy, so instead I headed out to Shuk HaCarmel (the Carmel Market) to enjoy the sounds, sights, and smells.
Somehow, I managed not to spend any money in the market – I’m still not sure how that happened. I messaged with some friends in Tel Aviv and set up coffee for tomorrow with Leor Sinai and met with Daniel Milstein for lunch. We walked and talked and found a wonderful place to eat and catch up. The hours flew by, and I had to rush back to my hotel to change and get ready to meet my friend Adam Scott Bellos who invited me to a Mimouna in Jerusalem hosted by Vice-Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum. Adam runs The Israel Innovation Fund and Wine on the Vine, which are things I will talk about another time.
For those that don’t know what a Mimouna is, you are missing out. Mimouna is a celebration based on the Moroccan Jewish community’s way of celebrating the end of Passover. I was introduced to it years ago in Gainesville by a co-worker at UF Hillel who was Moroccan and created this event for us. We held them in Orlando before COVID and I can’t wait to have it return next year.
At the Mimouna with friends.
Up close with some of the delicacies.
We took a cab from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem along with Adam’s co-worker and friend, Hallel Silverman, and enjoyed a fantastic conversation. When we arrived, Fleur’s home was already packed, the food was ridiculous in appearance (being gluten-free, I only had the fruit), and people were having fun. I met so many great people there, and there are so many opportunities that are beginning for our Orlando Jewish community just from this one encounter. The Mayor of Jerusalem, Moshe Leon, showed up, as did many other high-profile people. I even ran into somebody I knew from Seattle there (that is what happens in Israel, you meet people who are just there). We had a fantastic time—the house got so packed, I ended up spending half the time on the front porch or in the street because of the overflow!
We left to return to Tel Aviv and continued to laugh and have fun on the ride. Adam told me about Chef Ayal Shani, one of Israel’s top chefs, who happens to have a restaurant (Abraxas) half a block from my hotel. So even though it was late, we went for dinner. Of course, the restaurant was full of reservations, but somehow they managed to find us a table with just a 30-minute wait. As we sat at our table, we ran into people Adam knew. Of course, they were from St. Pete and the dad has driven past the Roth Family JCC many times! Both daughters had made Aliyah, and one is a major foodie in Israel and plans special food related tours! Guess what will be on agenda in 2023?
This is the essence of Israel: you see and meet people everywhere with a close connection. It was amazing to talk with them and play ‘Jewish geography’ with all the people we knew in common. I didn’t even know them until I walked to our table, yet suddenly we were connected.
For dinner, we got the broccoli and shwarma to share—both were amazing—and continued to have fun talking about Israel, America, the Jewish community, and much more. Suddenly, it was midnight. As I returned to my hotel, I thought about the full day I had. The many experiences that filled the day and filled my soul. How accessible the leadership of the country truly is. How friendly the Israeli people are and how wonderful it is to be in Israel experiencing Israel itself.
Tomorrow, my friend Irit Geva is picking me up to visit their Moshav. We have discussed this for over a decade and are finally making it happen. And then the formal part of my trip begins. It marks a shift from just wandering and experiencing Israel to something just as wonderful but also very different. It’s a bittersweet transition, as most are.
When I come to Israel, I usually end up writing a lot and posting my thoughts, impressions, and the impact being in Israel has on me. Arriving Thursday night, I haven’t written and it’s now Sunday. A big part of that delay is that after the past 2+ years, I needed to have a chance to just decompress. I came to Israel a few days before my formal trip began to do just that. I picked a hotel that I love in Tel Aviv, centrally located, where I can walk everywhere. And for the past few days, I have simply been.I had nowhere to go, nobody to be responsible to, and no expectations. It was the end of Passover and Shabbat, so there truly were no stresses. And I got to decompress some. Now that I have had some time to just be, I feel compelled to write.
Flying overnight from JFK to Ben Gurion is always a great flight. I’m tired from the day, so I end up sleeping a good portion of the 11-hour flight. This time, I sat next to a wonderful elderly couple. She was born and raised in Tel Aviv. He was born and raised in Austin, Texas. They lived in Tel Aviv for years and for the past decade have been back in Austin. We talked about Tel Aviv, Austin, and enjoyed each other’s company. How often does that happen on flight? Usually, you can’t wait to get off and leave whoever you were stuck sitting next to. We only spent 11 hours together (5 of which I slept) yet I already miss my new friends.
Arriving in Tel Aviv, it was difficult getting a cab. The airport was busy, my ‘Gett’ (Israeli Uber) canceled on me and I couldn’t find another one. Finally, I found an exchange student at Tel Aviv University who shared his cab with me. A 19-year-old from the Flatbush Yeshiva spending two years at Tel Aviv University studying computer science and a 54-year-old JCC and Federation exec had a great conversation as we drove. It is the essence of Jewish community—different and yet similar. I Venmoed him my half of the cab fare and again had a new friend. After checking in, I took a much needed shower and went across the street for dinner before climbing into bed and getting a good night’s sleep.
Friday was my Israeli breakfast (truly the best meal anywhere) and off to the beach. Unfortunately, most things were closed due to the last days of Passover, but the beach certainly wasn’t. I grabbed a chair (16 shekels or $5—a bargain) and enjoyed the view of the Mediterranean Sea, feet in the sand, and a quiet and peaceful morning. People started showing up around 11 and it got hectic with families, children, and fun in the water. It was such a pleasure to lay back and watch. I put on some Grateful Dead and enjoyed just being in Israel. People took out the lunches they packed—matzoh of course because it’s Passover!
I smiled, because where else would you see a beach filled with people enjoying themselves and eating matzah, if not Israel?
Around 3 p.m., the beach emptied as people wanted to get home for Shabbat. I walked back to the hotel, enjoying the vibe of Tel Aviv and Israel. A shower and nap and then it was time for dinner. I found a well-regarded Thai restaurant about 20 minutes from my hotel, so off I went. Israel has been in the news this month for the violent attacks by terrorists and it’s easy to wonder why I would walk alone, in the dark, around Tel Aviv, to get to a restaurant I’ve never been to. I learned on my first trip to Israel in 1989 that while the news reporting about Israel may be factual, it often isn’t accurate. Yes, there were terrorists killing people here, however we saw the same thing this month in the USA (Brooklyn, Washington DC, even Miami when we were there for a conference). I always feel safe in Israel, and this is no different now. So I walked, in the dark, to find the restaurant. When I got there, it was packed! No space and no more reservations. The host told me he would try to squeeze me in but it may take a while. About an hour later, I had a table and the food was amazing. I was so happy to have the 25-minute walk home afterwards, because I was so full!
Yesterday was Shabbat, so I took it easy. Slept in, had breakfast, and sat on the hotel’s amazing balcony to enjoy the weather. Other guests joined me there and we wished each other Shabbat Shalom. It was restful and relaxing. Walked to get lunch and dinner, but most of the day was spent on the balcony enjoying the sun, the breeze, and simply being in Israel.
Today promises to be filled with some new wonders and new experiences. I have my first true Israeli Mimouna in Jerusalem that a friend invited me to. The Shuk HaCarmel is open (finally) to walk and do some shopping. Jaffa, another 25-minute walk, could be another option. It’s one of the things I love about Israel – there is never a shortage of things to do, places to explore, or people to meet. Tomorrow afternoon or early evening, the trip I came here for begins and I’m so excited to spend the next 11 days with my JCC cohorts in exploration of Israel, of ourselves, and our mission and passion.
A Mimouna to remember…
…with dear friends!
For those of you who have never been to Israel, COME. For those of you that have, COME BACK. It is truly a unique place that can never be fully explained and can only be experienced.
Last Thursday was a significant day for me.It was the Orlando Jewish Community’s 4th AnnualMen’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.
PS – EXCITING NEWS!!!The 2021 Orlando Jewish Community Study is about to be released.Please block out the evenings of Sunday, December 12that The Roth Family JCC or Monday, December 13that 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.
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.
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.