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Day 2: Keith in Israel!

Anyone who has experience traveling understands the impact of jet lag.  Having been to Israel many times, I knew it was crucial to stay awake as long as I could on Monday night so I could sleep through the night and wake up refreshed.  Mission accomplished!

Day 2 began with an Israeli breakfast.  For those who have been to Israel, you know exactly what that means.  For those who have yet to experience such a delight, there’s really no adequate way to describe it.  Mountains of fresh and grilled veggies, salads, eggs, shakshuka, hummus, tahini, pita, rolls, and the cheesesthere is no better breakfast buffet in the world.  Not to mention the coffee and espresso for all your caffeine needs, the lemonade and water and orange drink (not orange juice!)…needless to say, we enjoyed a veritable feast before starting our day.

First on the itinerary was an inspirational talk from our trip leader, Ari Shabat (yes, that’s his real last name).  Ari spoke on how to be AWESOME and live our most AWESOME lives, and then we boarded the bus to Tzfat, thoroughly inspired.  Of course, no stay at Kibbutz Lavi would be complete without the bus getting turned around because someone forgot to return their key.  You see, Kibbutz Lavi still uses real keys—not the plastic, disposable ones that every other hotel uses.  These are real keys on heavy keychains, and the bus couldn’t leave until every last key had been returned.  Once the key issue was solved, we were off—sort of.  We had too much luggage to fit under the bus, so we had to store them in the back of the bus, leaving barely enough seats for everyone.  But we made it work, and off we went!

The group in Tzfat.

Tzfat is a mystical city.  It’s the birthplace of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism.   It’s where Lecha Dodi was written.  The city resides on a mountain; in one day there, you’ll climb more steps than you would on a Stairmaster.  It’s also home to an amazing artist colony.  Can you tell how much I love the city of Tzfat?  Our first stop was Women of the Waters, a women’s mikvah.  Most mikvot are designed for women due to the laws of Niddah, which pertain to menstruation and ritual purity.  Elisheva, our host, was a wealth of information, and I was blown away by the details she taught us.  Soon, Elisheva turned it over to Adrienne Gold, an instructor on the Momentum Women’s Trip.  We were the very first men’s group she had spoken to, and she had much to share.  Before we left, we were afforded an incredible privilege: to tour the women’s mikvah.  Ordinarily, no men are allowed—period—but we had the opportunity to see the mikvah up close and understand what it was all about.

After the women’s mikvah, we descended the mountain on ancient steps leading to the Mikvah of the AriThe Ari was a 16th century rabbi in Tzfat, and this was the mikvah he used daily.  For those who don’t know, when you immerse in the mikvah, you immerse naked.  So we all went into the Mikvah of the Ari, took our towels, waited in line, and then dunked ourselves into the fresh, ice cold water.  It was an amazing, refreshing experience, and I could feel the spirituality of it.  There is something special about my first mikvah experience being in the mystical city of Tzfat, and in the very same mikvah the Ari used 500 years ago.

The Mikvah of the Ari.

Then it was back up those ancient stairs, all the way to the top again—an immense workout, to be sure.  Level after level we climbed, until we finally reached the main area filled with shops and synagogues.  The Joseph Caro synagogue was closed, but we did get to visit the synagogue of the Ari.  It’s another one of my favorite places in Tzfat; it never gets old being in that sacred space.

Judaism means MISPACHA, family, and one of the greatest things about Israel is running into people you don’t expect.  There are always people you know to see and visit.  A friend of mine moved to Tzfat in 2003, and we took advantage of our lunch break to get together, catch up, and of course, eat.  He took me to an amazing hummus restaurant—yes, there are restaurants that just serve hummus.  Many of us pronounce it hum-us but in Israel, it’s choom-oos.  We both had the hummus with sabich.  It was some of the most delicious hummus I’ve ever had, and a wonderful time catching up with my friend.

I rejoined the group after lunch, and we headed for the Lebanese border.  Israel is a small country, so it’s easy to go see all the borders.  From high in the mountains by Misgav Am, we looked out upon Lebanon.  It really gives you perspective on just how tiny Israel is, and how significant borders and mountains are in this part of the world.  We didn’t go to the Golan Height, but it’s the same there—the high ground matters to protect villages in the valley.

Next, we drove down into the Hula Valley to stop at the Jordan River.  Where we stopped happens to be the same location I’ve gone rafting down the Jordan on countless Birthright trips.  Memories flooded back, and I couldn’t help but smile.  If you’ve never seen the Jordan River, it’s not the raging, wide river you imagine.  It’s more of a creek—not very deep, and not very wide.  But very important.

Then it was time for dinner.  We dined outside beneath a tent while music played.  It was a beautiful environment to end the day—and once again, the food did not disappoint!  Course one was filled with salads and delicious salmon.  Then the main course: steak, chicken, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and more.  Whenever our table ran out of something, our servers simply brought more.  As dinner ended, the dancing began.  The energy was infectious, and we danced with joy.  It was truly special to be a part of, and again, impossible not to smile.  (Before you ask, there are no pictures of me dancing!)

At last, we embarked on the 3-hour drive to Jerusalem, the City of Gold.  There is nothing like the approach into Jerusalem, even at night.

Jerusalem at night.

This blog is long, I know—it was an incredibly busy day.  It was also a beautiful day filled with introspection and friendship.  I’ve known most of the men on this trip for less than two days, yet already, we’re having deep discussions and learning with and from each other.

Being in Israel changes you.  It fundamentally alters who you are.  Each time I come, I delve a little deeper, become a little more introspective and thoughtful, and leave with the desire to make subtle changes in my life for the better.

I’m excited to share this journey with you, and hope you will be inspired to come here, as well.  The natural beauty is amazing.  The people are wonderful (and crazy).  The food is unbelievable.  And the nature of the country gets into your soul, your neshama, and begins to impact what you think, how you feel, and how you act.  It’s an incredible gift.

More to come…

Day 1: Keith in Israel!

Once again, I am in Israel.  As of Monday, I have begun my 18th (my CHAI—life) visit to our homeland.  I love Israel.  I love the concept.  I love the country.  I love the people.  And I love the feeling I get being here.  I am on this trip with MOMENTUM, a group of 85 men (including 10 from Orlando!) who are exploring spirituality, brotherhood, and Judaism together in Israel.

The power of an immersive Israel experience is unparalleled.  It never ceases to amaze me how quickly people bond and connect.  This trip has been no different.  From the time we met in pre-trip meetings to when we met at the airport, we were all already connecting.  We hung out at the Delta Club at JFK and on the flight to Tel Aviv.  By the time we landed, a bond had been created.

Day 1 began with multiple COVID tests to get out of isolation quickly—and then, we were off to our hotel in the Galilee!  Kibbutz Lavi is absolutely beautiful.  After a delicious lunch, we sat in the grass, drinking coffee and resting.  I took a nice walk around the kibbutz, enjoying the views and sitting in the beautiful garden, making some calls, and letting Israel overtake me.

Our program inspired us from the very beginning.  All 85 of us sat outside with birds chirping around us, the cool weather setting the tone, as Charlie Harary challenged us to embrace “AWESOME.”  Using the biblical story of Gideon, Charlie reminded us that the few people who are truly dedicated can do wonders and by coming to Israel at this time, for this trip, we had proven we were truly dedicated.  It was hard to get here (and required more COVID tests than you can imagine!), but we persevered to get to our homeland.  Things that matter—the truly important things—take work, and this was another reminder of why we are here.

Photo of Kibbutz Lavi (taken by Keith).

Our evening was highlighted by a security briefing from a high-ranking officer in the IDF, who spoke to us about the geopolitical realities of what is currently unfolding around us.  Syria, Iran, the Abraham Accords, and more were discussed.  It was interesting to get a view from the inside.

Photo of Kibbutz Lavi (taken by Keith).

Israel and Judaism have an incredible focus on food.  Dinner was an incredible BBQ with steaks, chicken, and more food than you can imagine!  We sat outside, once again enjoying the beauty of Israel, and ate, drank, and built relationships.  It’s hard to believe it’s only been one day.

You will hear me say this and write this often: if you haven’t been to Israel, come!  It won’t disappoint.  If you have been to Israel, come back!!  There is something special here that you can’t explain until you experience it—and once you experience it, nobody will have to explain.

Tuesday is Tzfat, one of my favorite cities in Israel.  I can’t wait to see the beauty of the mystical city, take a dip in the ancient mikvah, explore the candle factory once again, and have lunch with my friend Shmuel.

More to come…

Next Week in Jerusalem

As we all prepare for Shabbat this week, I am preparing to travel to Israel. I leave on Sunday as part of the Orlando contingent of the Momentum Men’s Trip. (The women’s trip leaves October 31st.) Momentum is a special program designed to bring men together using Israel as a crucible for Jewish connection, involvement, and meaning. This year, the program is launching an advanced track for those who have been on the trip before; our Orlando group is lucky to have several participants on that track, as well.

I think it’s fitting that during COVID, this trip will be my 18th trip to Israel. 18 is the number of life in Hebrew—chai—and Israel certainly is the lifeblood of the Jewish people, and holds a special place in my own life. Each trip I have taken has been different, enhancing my life in new ways, and furthering both my Jewish identity and Jewish journey. I have no doubt this trip will do the same.

For those of you who have been to Israel, you know and understand what I mean. There is something special there. The air smells different, the water tastes different. I remember realizing on my first trip in 1998 that the people collecting the garbage were Jewish—the bus drivers were Jewish—even the beggars were Jewish.

This trip will be more about introspection than seeing Israel itself. I look forward to the opportunity to use Israel as a tool for my personal growth and journey. I’m excited to spend more time in Tzfat, one of my favorite cities that I never get enough time in, and to immerse in the ancient mikvah there. To wake up early, to be able to pray at the Kotel (the Western Wall of the Temple) as the sun rises. To spend Shabbat in the Old City of Jerusalem. And of course, to bond with the other men on our trip, creating and deepening friendships.

Israel is an amazing country, and also an amazing concept. If you haven’t yet been, I encourage you to do so. And if you have, I encourage you to return again and to get involved with the Federation’s Israel and Overseas committee. The task of this committee is to identify the focus we want to have in Orlando with Israel and the wider Jewish world—to identify the relationship we want to build. It imagines how we bring Israel to Orlando, and how we bring people from Orlando to Israel. It reviews our funding to Israel, and makes recommendations about where and how that funding is used. It’s a great way to get involved in the Jewish community, here in Orlando and beyond.

This Shabbat, I will be in Orlando—next Shabbat, in Israel. I consider myself very lucky and privileged to once again visit our Jewish homeland. I’ll be blogging and filming videos while in Israel, so if you are interested, be sure to watch the Federation’s website, social media, and emails for updates.

As a Jewish community, we are lucky to have Israel.

Shabbat Shalom,

Proud to be ONE

Being Jewish involves a lot of thinking.  I think I first observed this in Hebrew School listening to my rabbi teach us.  I was confused because unlike school, it wasn’t about the answer but about the thought process.  It was the conversation and the different opinions, not the end result.  There was no clear, definitive answer.  It was always that this rabbi said one thing and another rabbi said something different.  Now discuss their reasonings.

As I got older, this type of learning became more interesting to me.  I will never forget my Auditing professor in college telling the class, “I’m not going to teach you to audit; I’m going to teach you to think.  Then you will know how to audit.”  We all sat there shaking our heads because after all, this was our Auditing class that we needed for our degree in Accounting.  Yet over the years, I have appreciated his wisdom more than any other I received in a college class.  That one statement has stuck with me for nearly 35 years.

This brings us to today, where I find myself thinking about the diversity of the Jewish community, not just in Orlando but around the world.  Our diverse Jewish community is what makes us strong, gives us different views of life, and pushes us to learn more and ask more questions—not seek definitive answers.  This Shabbat is our third annual Pride Shabbat, where we honor and recognize the LGBTQ+ Jewish community.   I am proud that we began Pride Shabbat in 2019 and have continued this wonderful tradition.  It reminds me of when Abraham, recently circumcised, welcomed the travelers and washed their feet in his tent, because that’s what we do.  We welcome everybody into our communal tent.  We are one people, diverse and unique, but one family.

On Sunday, October 17, I and ten others will embark on the Momentum Men’s Trip to Israel.  Together we will explore not just Israel, but also our Jewish identities, values, and connections.  We are all part of the Orlando Jewish community, yet each of us are at different points in our lives and represent different parts of the community.  Collectively, we are one diverse group, mirroring the beautiful variety of the greater Jewish world.

In the next few months, the results of the 2021 Orlando Jewish Community Study will be released and presented by The Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.  Having reviewed the information in preparation for its communal release, I can share that it also highlights the diversity of our community.  As Jews, we are mishpacha, family—however, we are not homogenous.  We come from Orlando and to Orlando.  We are American and Israeli.  We are married, divorced, single, and more.  We have young children, college-aged children, adult children, and grandchildren.  We are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and “just Jewish.”  Our differences make us stronger; our similarities bind us together.  We are the Orlando Jewish community.

As we join together tonight for Pride Shabbat at City Hall and via Zoom, in your synagogues, chavurot, or with your families at home, I hope you realize that while you are unique, you are also part of something greater.  Yes, we are diverse and unique—and we are also one.

Shabbat Shalom,

The Heroes of Tomorrow

Growing up, I had many Israeli heroes. Moshe Dayan captivated me, and my D’var Torah at my Bar Mitzvah was focused on him. Golda Meier was the powerful leader who was tough and stood her ground. The one who is truly imbedded in my mind is Menachem Begin. It was Begin I saw on the news every night as he took risks in making peace with Egypt. It was Begin who was the tough Israeli doing whatever was needed to keep Israel safe and to make peace with her Arab neighbors. Begin, Sadat, and Carter together at Camp David seems like yesterday to me.

The way that Begin captivated me makes it even more exciting that the Federation will be showing Upheaval – The Journey of Menachem Begin on Sunday, October 24th at the Orlando Science Center as a fundraiser for our Jerome J. Bornstein leadership program. Both Jonathan Gruber, the director of the film, and our own Bruce Gould, the producer, will speak after the movie and answer questions. Begin is an icon when it comes to leadership, and so is the Federation’s Jerome J. Bornstein Leadership program.

Bornstein is entering its 30th year, having graduated 188 members. Impressively, over 30% of Bornstein graduates are currently committed leaders in our community and beyond. More than 60% are past leaders in the Orlando Jewish community. The Bornstein program has and continues to ensure outstanding leaders throughout the Orlando Jewish community. I can’t think of something more important in ensuring we have a vibrant Jewish community for the future than training leaders.

Our most recent class of 2020 was filled with amazing people who are already making significant impacts throughout the community, serving on boards and committees and changing Jewish Orlando with their passion and impact. The class of 2022 is in the midst of forming, and I am so excited about the current applicants and what they will do for our community.

I recently came across a powerful statement about leadership:

The best leaders are passionate about developing emerging LEADERS, because true leaders don’t create more followers, they create more LEADERS.

That’s what the Federation does. That’s what the Federation is. And that’s what the Jerome J. Bornstein Leadership program does. Sponsorships of Upheaval are available, and all funds raised support the Jerome J. Bornstein endowment.

I hope you join us, and if you haven’t explored the Bornstein program, I hope you do.

Shabbat Shalom,