Maine Goes to Israel

Maine Goes to Israel

Monday, February 22, 2010

Maine returns from Israel

...but first things first.

Shabbat in Jerusalem was delightful and a healthy counterbalance to the heavy themes of Friday morning's briefing on the diplomatic situation by veteran analyst Sheldon Shulman, followed by a visit to Yad Vashem. On our way out of Israel's Holocaust memorial, we recited El Malei Rahamim, the traditional memorial prayer, and Kaddish.

To remember once again how very vibrant Israel's society is, we then went to the Mahane Yehudah open-air market in Jerusalem, full of shoppers busy preparing for Shabbat (and one busload of Mainers seeking felafel, hand-squeezed fresh fruit juices, and other goodies). Then it was a quick ride back to the hotel to prepare ourselves for Shabbat. We drove down to the Old City's Jaffa Gate a short while before Shabbat began, and then walked on down to the Western Wall. The plan had been to pray as a group at the southern end of the wall, but instead joined the throngs of pray-ers at the main plaza, praying and dancing and singing to welcome the Sabbath in Jerusalem. We returned to the hotel for Shabbat dinner.

On Shabbat morning, we went to Congregation Moreshet Yisrael at the United Synagogue's Fuchsberg Center in Jerusalem. Somehow we managed to stack the lineup (by invitation!) of aliyah honors there, and after the service (with kiddush sponsored by Keshet, our travel education partner), we toured the facility and learned in a study session with a student at the Conservative Yeshiva.

Saturday afternoon gave us the opportunity to go on a walking tour from the hotel to Mishkenot Sha'ananim, the first Jerusalem neighborhood founded outside of the Old City walls by Sir Moses Montefiore. When Shabbat ends, Jerusalem restaurants open up, and a free evening gave us the opportunity to explore the city's culinary delights.

Sunday began with a wonderful visit to Yad Lakashish (Lifeline for the Old), a series of workshops established way back in 1962 to provide meaningful work for Jerusalem's elderly. And the only thing matching the beauty of the seniors' handiwork - produced at the highest professional levels under the guidance of artists and artisans - were the stories that the seniors told us. One or two spoke English. One spoke to us in German, several in Hebrew, and had we had Russian or Amharic speakers in our group, we could have heard more stories directly from the seniors. One man, born in Poland, survived the Holocaust and told us how he actually had affidavits to immigrate to the United States after the war. But he decided, after going through what he did, that there was little point in trading one exile for another. So he made his way instead to the Land of Israel, where he became an art teacher in schools - and, for four summers in the 1960s, in Jewish camps in the United States.

We continued to a very different and nontraditional tourist site: the Jerusalem manufacturing center of RAD Data Communications, one of many successful high tech companies in Israel. (Fully ten percent of the country's workforce is employed in high tech). We wanted to see another important part of Israeli life, where Israelis work to bring innovative solutions to the realms of telecommunications, medical technologies, software, and other important areas. We toured the facility and learned the start-to-finish process that RAD uses to produce telecom products of the highest quality...and we saw how it's possible to succeed as a company where people dress as they like, including in jeans, and where managers and employees are all called by their first names. It's an instructive window into Israeli society and the flat style of management.

We said goodbye to Jerusalem and drove down for the briefest of visits to Tel Aviv. Of course, we knew that we couldn't possibly fit everything in a ten-day trip, even in a country that is smaller than New Jersey, but we just had to visit Tel Aviv's Independence Hall, where David Ben-Gurion proclaimed Israel's independence in 1948. We heard the audio recording of the ceremony, and rose to sing Hatikvah, Israel's national anthem, as recorded at the ceremony some 61 years ago. It was moving to recognize how ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

We concluded the trip officially with a group session to begin processing the enormously thought-provoking trip we had just done together. And then, we proceeded to our final group dinner and the airport for our flight back to America.

It was an amazing trip. And it was amazing how 30 people from different synagogues and communities in Maine (and a few "from away") came together to explore the country and people of Israel, learning about the Jewish State, about each other, and about ourselves.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Today we began at the City of David, the oldest part of Jerusalem, going back 3000 years to the time of King David and beyond. We saw a 3-D movie about the site and then walked through excavated water tunnels underground. In addition to Hezekiah's Tunnel, which has 70 centimeters of water in it, there are also older Canaanite tunnels, one of which we walked through in dry conditions.

We ascended from there to Mt. Zion, just outside the Old City walls, and proceeded into the Old City's winding walkways. We spent hours understanding with our feet and our eyes, not to mention our ears and noses, what life in a walled city is like for its inhabitants of many varieties, Jewish and non-Jewish. We ate lunch along the Cardo, Jerusalem's main street...from 1800 years ago, that is.

We visited the Southern Wall excavations, prayed the afternoon service, and then proceeded to the Western Wall, where we joined with Jews from many ethnic origins in prayer for the evening service.

Tomorrow: Yad Vashem and the Machane Yehudah open-air market, followed by preparing for Shabbat.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

This year in Jerusalem

Monday took us to Masada, the mountain fortress of the last holdouts in the Jewish revolt against Rome almost 2000 years ago. We ascended by the cable car, a quick 3-minute ride, and spent the morning on top of the mountain, exploring the site (including its ancient synagogue), and then the fitter members of the group walked down the snake path for some 45 minutes to the bottom while the others used the cable car.

After Masada, we proceeded to the beautiful oasis of Ein Gedi on the shore of the Dead Sea for lunch. Then we drove up the Jordan River valley to kibbutz Ein Dor, where we met with 88-year-old Aryeh Malkin, longtime farmer and onetime volunteer in the prestate Haganah, bringing in Jewish refugees from Europe after the Holocaust.

We spent the next two days in the Galillee and the Golan, starting at the Tel Dan Nature Reserve, continuing to Kuneitra and Katzrin (where we visited the Golan Heights Winery) and then a visit with young IDF soldiers defending Israel's border. We had a festive dinner at the historic Dubrovin Farm (note that despite what the link indicates, the restaurant is now very much kosher!) with music provided by a trio of Russian immigrants.

We climbed up to Tzfat, often spelled Safed in English, the mountain city that is home to kabbalists and artists...and where the Kabbalat Shabbat portion of the Friday evening prayers was written. Then we visited Tzipori, where we went into a 1700-year-old synagogue (complete with inscriptions in Greek and Hebrew of donors of the beautiful mosaic floors).

And now we are in Jerusalem, Israel's ancient and modern capital. We stopped briefly at Mt. Scopus, overlooking the city, and said the Shehechiyanu blessing for being privileged to enter this beautiful city. Tomorrow: Jerusalem's Old City and the City of David!


The Dead Sea


Camel rides at the Beduin hospitality center


Dinner at the Beduin hospitality center


Wildflowers in the desert at Sde Boker