If someone were to ask me to describe the Orangetown Jewish Center, I might say to them, “Let me tell you about a group of people who traveled to Israel together. We are a microcosm of the greater synagogue community.”
We are a diverse group of people from age 6 to 89 who related to each other as one family. We are curious, ready to learn, and easily moved. We look out for each other and we sought the best in each other. Over the course of 10 days, we found it.
We love Israel with our eyes and our hearts wide open. We are proud Jews who accept that the Jewish people practice our faith in many different ways. We are proud Zionists who know that Israel is a complicated place, but overall, it is our home.
We have a lot of fun! And it goes without saying, we love to eat!
Today, Zalman asked us, “What did you come with and what are you taking with you?”.
I know that the pilgrims on this trip will continue answering this question for a long time to come. All of us are changed. We know more about Israel than when we first arrived, and we most certainly know something new about ourselves.
Coming here to Israel is a privilege. Our ancestors yearned to come to this land for 2000 years but could not and so we carry them with us whenever we come to Israel.
Maybe the next time OJC comes will be your time?
As the sun sets over the Mediterranean Sea, we are packing and getting ready for our final dinner before heading to the airport. We hope to see you at services at the OJC on Shabbat so that we can share our pilgrimage experience with you and celebrate the end of Chanukah together.
Chodesh tov and (almost) Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
As the tumultuous last days of the year 2016 unfold and unravel around us, here in Tel Aviv, Israel, we were focused and anchored, spending the day energized by this city. We saw a place where Jewish life is lived with diversity and creativity, where secular identity is steeped in Torah and religious identity is shaped by universal realities.
We learned about the establishment of this new city literally carved out of the sand by seashell lottery.
And we learned the history of what happened in 1948 to make this country, our homeland, a reality.
Hertzl said: “All the deeds of men are dreams at first, and become dreams in the end.” What a powerful description of the founding of the state of Israel.
At Independence Hall, when we stood to sing Hatikva, many of us cried. Even those of us who have experienced the presentation multiple times cried. In the recording of the 1948 Declaration of the State, one hears the orchestra play without any voices singing the words. Why? All of those present were weeping with a combination of joy and anxiety after Ben Gurion read the Declaration of Independence and Shehechiyanu was recited. Those present could not find their voices. Today, voices from all over the world sing Hatikva every hour on the hour. In so doing, we take our place in the history of Israel, singing on behalf of those here on May 14, 1948 who wept instead of singing.
We left Independence Hall to walk the streets of Tel Aviv and explore the Carmel Market.
A visit to Ayalon, the underground bullet factory in Rehovot, brought us full circle to the miracle and the sacrifice that was the War of Independence.
Our day together was capped off by candle lighting for the fifth night of Chanukah and dinner with the members of Kehillat Sinai, a Masorti kehillah (synagogue community) in the center of Tel Aviv. Rabbi Eliahu Peretz greeted us and shared a bit about this small egalitarian community.
How fortunate we are at the Orangetown Jewish Center to be well-versed in the complexity of Jewish life and the challenges of pluralism and acceptance here in Israel. Our visit was one of being graciously hosted, but more importantly, bringing the strength and commitment of our synagogue to a sister synagogue in Israel.
As people set off to explore nightlife in Tel Aviv, we have a great deal to think about. What is most important, I think, is to love Israel and support her… and see her with a realistic perspective. There is much work to be done here, and as our congregation continues to volunteer here, visit, advocate, get educated, support financially, and see some of our children make aliya, we fulfill our obligation (each in our own way) to our homeland.
From the lights of Tel Aviv to the lights in your windows, happy Chanukah!
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
People say that life is lived on the edge here in Israel. Today we learned to specific examples of living on the edge.
We were welcomed into an example of a traditional tent for Bedouin hospitality (and of course The requisite camel rides) in order to experience something about this proud people who live on the edge of Israeli society.
Zalman, our guide, taught us about the complexity of the situation: How does a traditionally nomadic people manage in a land of boundaries and governmentally established cities and towns? How does one generation pass on ancient tradition to the next generation that desires to be part of modern society? How is one people citizens and soldiers yet outsiders, tent-dwellers yet also students in university, shepherds but also hopelessly unemployed? We enjoyed coffee and baklava even as we came to understand the precariousness of Bedouin culture in the Middle East.
We visited Kibbutz Alumim along the Gaza border and learned about life on the edge: of the boundary of the state of Israel, of the socialist tradition of kibbutzim, of living a religious life as kibbutzniks, and of the potential for a normal life despite the threat of tunnels and missiles from neighboring Gaza.
Yes, it was an intense day. But we also laughed a lot, starting out with Zeke’s masterful joke telling on the bus, the kids’ coaxing all of us into participating in a mannequin challenge (if you don’t know what that is, ask a 12-year-old!) and continuing through our hilarious escapades atop camels.
As for me personally, I had to say goodbye to Josh who returned to base this afternoon, but rejoiced in the opportunity to light candles with Sarah and Sagi in their new apartment in Tel Aviv.
I have so much gratitude to my fellow travelers on this pilgrimage in the land of Israel. We are experiencing a week beyond all expectations.
Thinking of everyone on night four of Hanukkah from the shore of the Mediterranean sea,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Looking out over the amazing Makhtesh Ramon (Ramon Crater), eight year old Micah Fox blew his new shofar with perfect pitch and rhythm. Zalman (our guide) read to us from The Little Prince:
One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams… “What makes the desert beautiful,” said the little prince, “is that somewhere it hides a well.”
And so began a day of desert exploration: political, spiritual, physical and emotional. At Sde Boker we learned about the vision David Ben Gurion had about the future of Israel; that the settlement of the Negev was the most important national, security and economical mission.
We hiked along the canyon bed and up the side of the cliffs at Ein Avdat. Members of the group hiked according to their level of comfort. Regardless of who decided to hike up the stairs and ladders, all were inspired by our almost nonagenarian, Marvin Shapiro, who hiked to the very top. Ice cream was everyone’s reward!
In the town of Yerucham, we were welcomed into the home of Jo Jo and Mazal for a delicious lunch and Jo Jo’s family history of aliya in the 50s from Tunisia. Our afternoon concluded with text study about why the Torah was given in the desert. Like all Jewish questions, they were many answers! Meet me at the OJC in about five months when we begin reading the book of Bamidbar on Shabbat mornings; I promise to share the answers that we developed at the shore of Yerucham Lake on the edge of the desert.
I feel so blessed to have been welcomed lovingly into a group that has been traveling already together for almost a week. As we are about to light candles for the third night of Chanukah, we will all be thinking about Rabbi and Nancy Scheff. Earlier today in Florida, Rabbi Scheff officiated at the funeral of his beloved Aunt Debbie. May the entire family find comfort in being together and sharing beautiful memories.
Kol tuv from the edge of the desert,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Our Day 3 experience kicked off in the early morning with a prayer service at Azarat Yisrael, the portion of the Kotel that our community calls home. Eliana Pressman, our Bat Mitzvah celebrant, led us in prayer, read from the Torah, and taught us about treating people according to their needs. Her words were a fitting lesson for a day of meeting others’ needs. Amidst so much celebration (the naming of a 3-month old girl in absentia; conferring a Hebrew name upon Jack and Janet Miller’s granddaughter Julia; Marvin Shapiro’s upcoming 90th birthday; Michael and Bryna Schoenbarts’ 35th anniversary; and Mark Katz’s birthday), we had reminders throughout our day that the best way we can show our gratitude for blessings is by being there for others in need.
Today we marveled at the majesty and mystery of Jerusalem’s holy sites and history. We walked the length of the Western Wall underground, appreciating the architectural feats of 2 thousand years ago in the construction of mikvahs, cisterns and towering walls.
It was the simple acts of kindness, however–literally raising up the fallen, celebrating special moments in life’s cycles, restoring lost items, comforting the bereaved, and feeding the hungry–that truly made this day what it was.
Today, our group of pilgrims and tourists became a community.
As I hand over the group to Rabbi Drill after Shabbat, I am so comforted by the knowledge that a new community within our community has been born. Thank you, God, for giving us life, sustaining us, and bringing us to this moment in time.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Our flight brought us into Ben Gurion this morning just after 9am, Israel time. After collecting our bags, we paused to consider whether we would be taking in the next week as pilgrims or as tourists. It didn’t take us long to get “down and dirty” (so much for being tourists!) as we visited the landscape of the Bible at Ne’ot Kedumim. Our ancestors’ stories came to life as we drew water from the ancient cisterns and crushed olives to make oil. As we herded sheep and reflected on the challenges we faced, the words of Psalms became part of our lesson on leadership, responsibility and compassion. I’ll never read “The Lord is my shephard” the same way again.
Next stop, lunch. And with Chanukah Eve approaching, it is far more likely to find these tasty delights in storefronts, as opposed to tinsel. They seem to be everywhere food is found, and they are called SUFGANIYOT! They are a thick and cakey version of the doughnut, and they are wildly decorated to flavor.
It wasn’t long before we were eating again, as we drank a L’chayim and broke bread (over two very long challahs!) upon our pre-sunset entry into Jerusalem. We were introduced to the many dichotomies Jerusalem (it’s very name a plural) represents: the Jerusalem on high and the Jerusalem of this world, old and new, ancient and modern, east and west, physical and spiritual … and the list goes on. No doubt we will spend many hours considering the complexity of this holiest of cities through the end of the week.
After checking in at the hotel in Jerusalem, we met to process our first day’s experiences in Israel. The most common expression of surprise was how cosmopolitan and developed the country feels. It’s a minor miracle we were still awake to share our thoughts, and perhaps even more miraculous that we still had room for dinner!
Early wake-up call as we head to the Kotel for a Bat Mitzvah celebration in the morning.
God, I am so filled up and full!
Laila tov from us all,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s an F-35! No, it’s OJC on United 84, leaving Newark and headed for Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. OJC?! Yes, OJC, where just one month after sending 24 people on a week-long volunteer mitzvah mission, the congregation is sending a delegation of 39 for the 5777 OJC Israel Experience.
Last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu called Israel’s “long arm” longer and mightier with the arrival of two F-35 fighter jets. There is no debating the qualitative advantage these machines provide to Israel for the protection of the Jewish homeland. I like to think of our frequent Israel trips as the long arm of OJC, made longer and mightier with each trip, providing a qualitative advantage to the Jewish identities of those participating in our trips.
It is remarkable to consider, in a community of 500 households, how many people will represent us in Israel in the year 5777. Between our synagogue trips, college students on Birthright, Conservative Yeshiva or semesters abroad, high schoolers on USY or Ramah summer programs, 8th and 12th graders participating in Schechter school trips, our children making aliyah, congregants visiting friends and families, and individual families taking a 2-week tour, I estimate that at least 120 individuals will touch down in Tel Aviv. It brings your rabbis tremendous naches (comfort/pride) to sense the strong connection that our OJC community shares with Eretz Yisrael. As a factor that heavily influences Jewish engagement and future identification, our Israel connection bodes well for the next generation, despite the widely reported trends to the contrary.
The OJC Israel experience is also one committed to appreciating the nuances of the relationship we share with Israel. Firmly committed to her security and longevity as the Jewish state, we also acknowledge the challenges–particularly the political, religious and social–that Israel faces in maintaining a democratic and pluralistic character and in living up to our Jewish ideals. Our journey will take us back in time to trace forward the progression of the Zionist dream: from the history of Jerusalem (the city of Zion) to the earliest Zionist dreamers, to the British Mandate, to the survival of Shoah, to the founding of a State, to the development of the Negev, to the birth of a start-up nation. We’ll celebrate a bat mitzvah and the holiday of Chanukah, experience a Jerusalem Shabbat, reunite with friends and family, and partner with communities. We’ll learn, feel, struggle and grow. We’ll fly, float, eat, climb, ride, eat, shepherd, plant, eat, sing, package, eat, pray and maybe even jog. I guarantee you, we’ll come back more tired than we left (and perhaps a couple pounds heavier!). We’ll strengthen our understanding, our commitment, our identities and our community.
This is the OJC Family Israel Experience 5777. And today is Day One. We depart from the synagogue lot today at 12:30pm, only hours from now. Follow us for the next 10 days with our daily blog and Facebook posts.
Rabbi Craig Scheff