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.