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

Maine Goes to Israel: The Photo

Half of the group at Sde Boker, posing in front of our bus with the "Maine Goes to Israel" logo


Some of the group at Sde Boker


At the Bangor airport before departure

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Shavua tov (a good week) from Israel!

All of our travelers made it to Israel on Friday, some earlier and some later (thanks to some two-hour airplane de-icing before takeoff).

We spent Shabbat at the Ma'aleh Hachamishah kibbutz guest house, where we all met each other for the first time.

We prayed the Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service together in our own meeting room at the hotel, then joined several hundred other guests in the hotel dining room for Shabbat dinner.

Saturday morning, we met again for prayer after breakfast, and were happily able to pray together again across the denominational boundaries. Our guide, Danny Ehrlich, led us in a discussion of ancient and modern Jewish and Israeli history to give us the big picture of what our trip will be about.

Then, of course, we ate lunch.

Shabbat being a day of rest, after lunch, we had free time to stroll the lovely paths of the kibbutz, to swim in the indoor pool, and to nap off some jet lag. We reassembled for minha, the afternoon service (and at both the morning and afternoon services, we were able to use a Torah lent to us for Shabbat by the Masorti movement in Israel - the Israeli version of the Conservative movement). Then, seudah shelishit, a light meal, the evening service, and havdalah.

Off we went after Shabbat from the Jerusalem foothills to the Negev desert, to Mitzpeh Ramon, where we had originally intended to be for Shabbat. We enjoyed a traditional dinner with Beduin hospitality.

Mitzpeh Ramon is a development town on the edge of the Ramon Crater. The hardy souls among us, more than half the group, woke early Sunday morning for a pre-dawn hike in the Crater, walking through 220 million years of geologic history. Then we rode camels back at the Beduin hospitality center, and continued to Sde Boker, where David Ben Gurion and his wife Paula are buried overlooking Nahal Zin.

Lunch on Sunday was combined with a program called "Atid Bamidbar," or Future in the Desert, in another development town, Yeruham. This meal was not in a restaurant, but in the private homes of two resident families who open their homes to visiting groups as part of a program designed to increase interaction between people who often don't get to mix much. We enjoyed traditional cooking based on the recipes of the Jews who came to Israel from North Africa, and we enjoyed hearing the family stories of our hosts.

Our weather in sunny Israel was in the mid-80s today.
We wrapped up Sunday at Ein Bokek on the shore of the Dead Sea, with swims in the salt water that is so highly concentrated that you can easily float - and read a book without getting it wet. Some of us took advantage of the hotel's spa facilities, too.

Monday: off to Masada, and then the north of Israel: the Galillee and Golan.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

And...we're off! four different flights, that is. Some of us are going from Bangor via Philadelphia on USAirways to Tel Aviv, as originally planned. Some of us are going from Boston to New York, navigating from one airport to another and then continuing on El Al. Some are flying on Delta via New York. One of us is flying on another El Al flight from New York.

Well, quite the logistical challenge this has been. If all goes well, we will all arrive in the warmth of Israel Friday afternoon, where we will enjoy 70-degree weather at a kibbutz guest house in the Jerusalem foothills. Our original plan was to head down south to Mitzpeh Ramon, south of Beersheba, but there wouldn't be time to get there before Shabbat, so we'll spend Shabbat at the Ma'aleh HaChamishah kibbutz guest house and then drive down to the Negev on Saturday night after havdalah.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Greetings from Senator Susan Collins

Greetings from Governor John Baldacci

Whither the weather?

Philadelphia is getting snowed in, New York is getting snowed in, Boston is getting snowed in...but fear not! We will arrive in Israel a day later than scheduled. But we'll make up the lost time by touring during the nights. That will also save on hotel costs. :)

It's a nice reminder that, plan as we might, we can't always control things. Two feet of snow is still two feet of snow. Just...who would have thought that Maine would be dry and the blizzard would be to our south?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The weather

The good news: the weather looks great in Israel, with high temperatures in the mid-70s.
The problematic news: the weather in Philadelphia tomorrow looks awful.

We're working on alternate flight arrangements and will keep everyone posted!