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

Wandering the streets of Jerusalem.

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

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

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

A sneak peak of our Torah study.

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

Then came my favorite thing of all: FREE TIME!

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

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

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

Mountains of fresh challah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem!
Keith