Friday morning in Jerusalem, our OJC track team greeted the day with a brisk 3-mile run (4 for Steve!) down and up a scenic trail through Jerusalem’s original train station and its surrounding neighborhoods. After morning tefillah and breakfast, we boarded the bus promptly (they are so good!) at 9am.
Pantry Packers, run by Colel Chabad, is a food distribution facility that packages and delivers food to the most needy citizens identified by their municipalities. Divided into 3 teams, we donned aprons and hairnets, and got to work. In an hour and a half we bagged, sealed, labeled, date-stamped and boxed 500 packages of grains for delivery to the needy. We had fun, even as we remained conscious of the sad reality that necessitates our efforts.
Our driver Nati delivered us next to the shuk in Machaneh Yehuda, where the bustling market place was teeming with shoppers prepping for Shabbat. We were individually assigned different categories of food to acquire and contribute to our Shabbat afternoon potluck lunch. Among the throngs of people, we still managed to bump into familiar faces!
After a brief afternoon breather back at the hotel, we rode to the Old City and arrived at Ezrat Yisrael, at the southern end of the Western Wall, to welcome Shabbat in song as a community. The sun dipped below the horizon behind us. While we appreciated the beauty and peace of the space we occupied, many of us felt the discomfort of being separated and hidden away from the thousands of Jews just north of us in the main plaza sharing the same words we sang. More about that on a different occasion.
The walk back to the hotel got us good and hungry! We made kiddush, attracting the warm and welcoming gestures of a group of Messianic Jews who wanted us to join them in Bim Bam and Am Yisrael Chai—interesting!!! We delighted in blessing the younger generation that had joined us for Shabbat. After dinner, our group sat in a private hall and shared highlights of the week.
Shabbat morning, we attended Moreshet Yisrael, the nearest Conservative Masorti congregation. Jeff Lance served as a greeter and gabbai, and we were warmly received with several honors to the Torah.
We sat on 7th floor terrace for hours, eating and laughing, enjoying the leisure of Shabbat, until darkness fell on Jerusalem and we recited Havdallah together. Warm goodbyes, expressions of appreciation and gratitude, and most of us were on the way to the airport.
As I descend into Newark, I already look forward to the next time in which we make the ascent together.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
This morning we departed Haifa just before 9:00am. (What an amazing group! I say 9:00am on the bus, and they were loaded up, in their seats and ready to go at 8:55! Maybe they were totally pumped by Linda’s Torah reading from the Sephardic scroll?)
In any event, by 10:00am we had arrived at Beit Lid junction just outside of Netanya, meeting up there with a group of young teens from Kfar Ahava who had been rewarded with this experience for their outstanding personal and academic performances. The junction was the site of a terrorist attack on January 22, 1995, when two suicide bombers targeted a bus stop crowded by young soldiers returning to their bases early on a Sunday morning. Twenty one soldiers and one civilian were murdered that morning, with more than sixty wounded. A crude but powerful memorial was erected within days, leaves that had fallen too early representing lives that had been cut far too short.
We learned about the long process that the community undertook to establish a permanent memorial. the site, just a few hundred feet away from the location of the bombing would become a memorial and a community center. The goals of the creators and the community were to remember the tragedy, empower the living, and bring to life the stories of the victims. The impressive sculpture ultimately created was inspired by the Biblical verse that describes Jacob’s ladder with “the angels of God ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12).
Twenty two figures ascend the ladder. Each victim is represented by one of the ascending figures; each family of the victims knows which figure represents its loved one. The ladder ascends to the heavens with no supports, representing the strength of the Jewish nation to support its fallen and its survivors. In completing a mosaic of a flower with the teens from Ahava, we felt empowered to create beauty, and we reaffirmed together our sense of responsibility to give life to the legacies of the fallen. One young man shared with me his feelings that, upon reaching young adulthood, he appreciated the newfound sense of responsibility to remember, to serve, and to make choices that will improve his world.
After an exciting off-road adventure that afforded us a quaint picnic lunch with the teens, it was on to Jerusalem. We arrived at Mount Scopus, Har Hatzofim, with the sunset. We cried a little (surprise!) for the sacrifices Israel demands of her children; we reflected on the hope and love that we share for a land that is far from perfect. Like our feelings for our children, though we may not always like everything she does, we still love her and believe that she represents the best possibility for getting it right. We bask in her glow even as we commit to rebuilding her atop her ruins.
An evening of shopping and enjoying the beginning of the weekend was topped off with a visit (one planned, one purely by chance!) with two of our synagogue teens spending their year in Israel. Jessica’s and Sarah’s smiles said it all. Content, happy, innocent, care-free and learning about themselves and their Jewish identities, they represent our hope so well.
This is what every child deserves. God, they are so precious. Please God, spread your shelter of peace over them. Protect them from any harm or pain. Let the Hope be realized soon, and may Your word go out from Jerusalem to the rest of the world, so that no more of our children need be depicted as angels ascending a ladder in return to You.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
How does one summon love for the stranger?
At a place called Love (Ahava), the stranger offers love, creating a safe space for the vulnerable; the stranger receives love, and the reassurance that they will not always be rejected; and we are inspired to give enough love to effect a slight change for the better in our world.
My first visit to Kfar Ahava was in 2007. And even in my eleventh year I am so deeply moved and inspired by the experience. Perhaps more so because once again I got to see this remarkable and unique place through the eyes of the newcomers.
After our annual reintroduction to Ahava by Executive Director Yoav Apelboim, the group gathered in the memorial corner we created in memory of, and dedicated to, Danny Klein and Rob Katz. We remembered, cried, and blessed together. Today was Rob’s birthday, so the moment was particularly poignant. We dedicated today’s acts of love to their legacies.
Next, I gave our newcomers—Ellen, Sharon and Andre—a tour of the residential facility, the school and the emergency shelter. The bright skies, cool breezes, colorful mosaics, peaceful gardens and quiet grounds belied all the brokenness and pain that lay behind so many of the closed doors around us.
But what could not be hidden away was the love. The newcomers saw it in the way the 17-year veteran social worker talked about the children she received in the emergency shelter. Every child brought in through her doors, she explained, deserved to be love, especially considering the conditions they had suffered at home, the one place that was supposed to guarantee love.
At lunch, Amy Nelson and I witnessed an eight year-old boy trying to bond with us by insisting that his father was a professional soccer player who played in New York. He just wanted to be loved. A twelve year-old oppositional girl challenged him to stop lying, so clearly lashing out in the pain of her own brokenness. An eighteen year-old doing his year of national service at Ahava subtly shook his head in disapproval of her insensitivity, and her anger was quieted. The foster mother overseeing their care, in her first year of service, turned to us to offer that she was here to change the world for the better in some small way.
Tonight, first-timer Sharon, a stranger to Ahava, reflected to the group that the experience of Ahava stripped away her armor. With the permission to be vulnerable, she felt more authentic. And the more authentic we are, the more capable we are of giving and receiving love.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Of course, the hour and a half we spent putting pasta into sealed and labeled packages was much more than fun. We thought about what it means to provide food for parents of hungry children, survivors of the Shoah, or people who are mentally ill. Rabbi Menachem Traxler, Director of Pantry Packers, challenged us: “Do you know what it means to be hungry? Really. Truly. Hungry?” We were proud to begin our day by providing help with dignity. You can help at: https://pantrypackers.org/.
Next we drove to Gush Etzion to hear first-hand about the courageous work of Shorashim (Roots), a program of dialogue, understanding and bridge building between Palestinians and Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
The story we heard was one of “us versus them,” an existential conflict, and a deep sense of fear that is common to both sides. According to Noor and Shaul, participants in Roots have enough courage to meet each other and take responsibility for their stories. As Shaul said, “We must come to see that we belong to the same land.
Before we left, I asked Noor to offer a poem or prayer for peace before we sang Oseh Shalom. In English and Arabic, he quoted “Think of Others” by Mahmoud Darwish:
As you prepare your breakfast, think of others
(do not forget the pigeon’s food).
As you conduct your wars, think of others
(do not forget those who seek peace)…
As you think of others far away, think of yourself
(say: “If only I were a candle in the dark”).
Our final tour experience was an exhilarating visit to Hadassah Hospital where we were honored by Barbara Goldstein, Deputy Executive Director of Hadassah Offices in Israel, who gave us a complete explanation of the Chagall windows in the hospital synagogue.
She shared a lovely story about Mark Chagall‘s response when asked if he would create windows for the hospital. He said, “Thank you. I have been waiting to be asked.” What did he mean? He said, “I have been waiting to serve the Jewish people.” Barbara challenged all of us, “How have you served the Jewish People today?”
We were inspired to hear from Dvir Musai, a young man who owes his life to Haddassah Hospital. In 2002, doctors at the hospital saved three young boys, one of whom was Dvir, who were the victims of a terrorist bomb while on a school trip.
Dvir told us, “I imagine that my surgeon must have thought to himself that a 13 year old boy is too young to lose his legs.” Against all odds, and 30 surgeries later, Dvir is the father of two boys and an employee of Hadassah Hospital. He was given back his life in the trauma unit and given two new lives in the Mother and Child Pavilion. There was not a dry eye when Rhoda Friedman gave to Dvir infant caps she had crocheted for newborns at the hospital.
As I write this from Sarah and Sagi’s apartment, most of the travelers are getting ready to board the flight home, filled with memories to last a lifetime. I will be home soon too, after a celebration of the wedding of Sagi‘s brother Roi to Lera and a Shabbat with my kids here in Tel Aviv.
Maybe next time you will be the one to travel to Israel with an OJC trip?!
Warmest regards from Israel,
At the newly renovated Beit Hatefusot, Museum of the Jewish People, we appreciated the way that Jews from all over the world are part of one people. I had visited this museum two decades ago and remembered well the exhibit on synagogues from around the world. I shared with the group the following Yehuda Amichai poem, which he wrote after the original museum opened on the campus of Tel Aviv University.
Poem Without an End
The second museum we visited was the Israel Museum at the Yitzhak Rabin Center. For almost two hours, we were guided through Rabin’s life, both personal and professional, Israel’s history and world history, all wrapped into one amazing, complicated story.
On our drive along the Tel Aviv promenade we were blessed with a breathtaking sunset over the Mediterranean.
We ate dinner “in the dark” and watched the play Not by Bread Alone, with actors who are blind and deaf. The lesson of the play is that we should never assume we can know all about a person because of how they present in the world; we all have dreams.
Monday has been a day spent in the Old City. We began as archaeologists, doing artifact sifting from the Second Temple period. We found pottery, blown glass, and bones. Our guide did not enter into the politics of the mindless bulldozing at the site of the Temple in the 90’s. She simply said, “Excavation without supervision, whether legal or illegal, is immoral.”
We continued on to the Jewish Quarter. Our fantastic guide, Nir Ofer (veterans of Rabbi Scheff’s November volunteer missions might remember him) said, “Look at the Western Wall. In reality, we see only stones. And so, if we feel anything spiritually, it must come from within us. Thus the Wall epitomizes a religion that taught the world to worship a God we cannot see.”
As always, we shopped in the Cardo, the main shopping avenue of ancient Jerusalem, and found gifts, jewelry and tallitot.
The tour of the Western Wall Tunnels was challenging but enlightening – so much history in Jerusalem, so little time.
In the evening, we watched the sound and light show at the Tower of David and were able to use today’s Hebrew word of the day most appropriately: magniv (wonderful)!
With love from Jerusalem,
This Shabbat in Jerusalem, we turned toward the Wall itself, at Ezrat Yisrael, the Egalitarian platform of the Western Wall. As our voices rose together in the prayers of Kabbalat Shabbat, our hearts were intended toward friends and loved ones back at the Orangetown Jewish Center. We brought into our minds all those we wish could have been with us on such a beautiful evening.
Shabbat dinner at our hotel was enhanced by our guests, Sarah Machlis, Drill-bits, and two lone soldiers. We each shared a highlight of our week and the hardest thing was choosing just one thing to say. Shaya, one of the soldiers, adopted Eileen Rogers as his grandmother before he left us. Who could blame him?
Shabbat morning, we were welcomed to the Masorti synagogue attached to the Fuchsburg Center for Conservative Judaism, Moreshet Yisrael. The chanting of Chazzanit Saralee Shrell Fox lifted us through the entire service, but especially as we joined her in singing Hallel. Rabbi Adam Frank moved us with a drash about the command: Be fruitful and multiply. Why did God so badly want humanity to continue that God made it a positive command? And why do we humans bring children into a world that is so difficult? Rabbi Frank suggested that we believe we can continue to improve the world into the next generations. Judaism teaches that we can.
After lunch, we learned Torah with a Conservative Yeshiva student, Liza Bernstein. She challenged us with a comparison of Noah, a pure man who walked with God, to Abraham, a pure man who walked before God. Participants on our trip brought honor to the OJC through their insightful and enthusiastic participation in the Torah study. Liza will begin rabbinical studies next year at the Hebrew college in Boston, and she will make a wonderful rabbi one day.
After just a little bit of time to relax in the afternoon, we gathered for Havdalah.
Chazzanit Shrell Fox, who led us on Shabbat morning, happens to be an old friend. Among many other talents, she creates beautiful women’s kippot. After Shabbat, she met us in our hotel lobby with samples of her work.
Our current OJC Hazak Israel trip possesses a unique blessing of radical amazement and appreciation because more than half of our group has waited 60, 70 or more years to travel to our homeland for the first time. Almost all of the rest of our group has not been in Israel for 20 or 30 years.
Each experience of these first three days feels precious. Each moment is over-filled with emotion and joy. Like the rabbis of medieval Europe who waited a lifetime to fulfill the mitzvah of putting their feet in the holy land, our pilgrims too are filled with gratitude and pride to be here.
As we approach each experience, we acknowledge its place in Jewish and Israeli history, geography, and spirituality.
Afterward, we share our thoughts — about the layers of history at Caesarea, an introduction to Kaballah through making candles (“The human soul is the candle of God”) in Tzefat, wine tasting at Dalton Winery, the awesome safari to the middle of the Hula Preserve to watch firsthand the migration of thousands of birds coming to rest for the night in the swamp, and a meaningful visit to the residence for children at risk, Kfar Ahava.
There is present in each experience a great tourist moment, and embedded in that same moment, there is a pilgrim’s experience, emerging from connection to Rabbinic thought, Torah, and the stories we tell ourselves.
1. During our hour-long visit to the Hula Preserve, we watched thousands of birds land to rest for the night along their migration route. The air was filled with the calls of cranes and the dramatic flight of thousands of birds of many varieties. After our visit, we read “I Want Always to Have Eyes to See” by Natan Zach, excerpted here:
I want always to have eyes to see
The world’s beauty; and to praise
This marvelous faultless splendor; to praise
The One who made it beautiful to praise,
And full, so very full, and beautiful.
… And then we recited a blessing: Praised are you Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe Whose world is like this! (Shekakha Lo b’Olamo).
2. During our walking tour of Kfar Ahava, we turned a corner and suddenly there we were – in the peaceful space created by OJC volunteers to remember Rob Katz z”l and Danny Klein z”l. The ability to speak about these two beloved people in the context of a visit to a healing program with powerful ties to OJC was meaningful to all of us.
Rabbi Paula 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