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.