...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.