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
The beauty of Jerusalem was on full display this morning, as our running club jogged through the gentrified railway station and the German Colony and the rising sun burned through the early haze to clear the sky. Our first formal stop was the Masorti Kotel, the spot where we are most comfortable praying as a community, and one that has generated much controversy in the last months. The Israeli government has failed to implement legislation, passed last year, that would formally extend the Kotel, its plaza and its security, to the southern end of the western wall. Our presence here is, in part, a stand for what we believe and what we expect from the state we call our Jewish homeland.
The morning service was participatory and upbeat; Amy Schwartz led shacharit, Linda Varon and Mikalah Weinger read Torah. Most special of all, however, was the moment our group quietly stepped over to the next Torah station at the wall to complete a minyan for a family’s bar mitzvah celebration. When they boy looked up from reciting his blessings, he was shocked to see 23 of us standing around him! And when we started to sing “mazel tov,” we could see the boy’s joy and the parents’ emotion and appreciation. It’s always amazing how the most meaningful moments are often the ones not planned. Add one more beautiful mitzvah to the list of the many fulfilled this week!
We drove west to Motza, where we visited Beit Yellin, established in 1860 as the first Jewish agricultural settlement outside the Old City. We learned the history and historical significance of this home, now rebuilt and revitalized by the Jewish National Fund. An hour of digging, planting and staining gave us the satisfaction of preserving a piece of our pioneering history and beautifying another natural setting.
Our closing lunch once again was an emotional time of sharing impressions and highlights, validating our decisions to commit to this unusual and challenging experience, whether for the first time or the eleventh.
As I sit on the plane anxiously awaiting takeoff, I am looking forward to my own pillow and a restful Shabbat. Leaving Israel, however, is never easy. There is so much work still to be done. That being said, I take solace in knowing that, as the sun sets on this mission, in 4 short weeks I will return with our OJC Israel Family Experience with a group of 39; and in one short year, the sun will rise upon OJC’s 12th annual mitzvah mission, November 12-19, 2017. Join us!
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Day 3 of our 11th annual mitzvah mission to Israel was graced with a brilliant blue sky and a warming sun, so any work outdoors today was going to be welcome. It was great to be back at Ahava, seeing familiar faces of children and counselors who anticipate our arrival each November, hearing “the group from Orangetown” being acknowledged with familiarity and gratitude, and sweating a little from our physical labor.
We started the day in “Rob’s Corner,” which we created and dedicated last year in memory of Rob Katz z”l and Danny Klein z”l. Being there today was particularly poignant, given that this date was Rob’s birthday, and this was where he celebrated for nearly the last decade. This home for children “at risk” held a special place in his heart, and Rob was beloved by the administrators, staff and children alike. We quietly prayed, and rededicated our efforts to honor the legacies of 2 beloved people, to stretch beyond our comfort zones and to give freely to others.
The Ahava stories of resiliency and generosity–those of the children and of their caregivers–continually inspire us; but we have come to recognize that we inspire them as well. The work of our hands can be seen all around the village, and the village administrators have expanded their vision of what is possible. As a result, our projects have become more intricate, artistic and interesting, and the village facilities more beautiful.
Our group broke into pairs to share lunch with the children and their caregiver families, and our experiences in this setting are always quite diverse. Some home settings are quite functional, familial and warm; others exhibit difficult dynamics of disciplining adults and oppositional children. I happened to sit next to a talkative 15 year-old boy who shared with me that, before coming to Ahava, he had been in a residential facility that could not teach him to address his challenges. In contrast, three years at Ahava, along with the loving discipline of his second family, have given him the skills and confidence to overcome his past and to look ahead with a sense of hope.
Tomorrow we return to Ahava to complete our flower gardens, trellises, planting, painting, photography project, bracelet-making and mosaics. We’ll celebrate with, and offer gifts to, this year’s bar mitzvah class. We pray that God will bless the work of our hands so that it–and we–may serve as a legacy to the benefit of others.
Happy birthday, Rob. Miss you.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Today, Israel and those who love her mourn the brutal murder of 13 year-old Hallel Yaffa Ariel. The leadership once again searches for balance as it reels from the blow, struggling to arrive at the “appropriate” response. I would not dare offer an opinion on the matter, even if I could formulate one. As I prepare to share this message, another terrorist attack is unfolding in Bangladesh, with several already dead, dozens held hostage and ISIS claiming responsibility. I pray that the perpetrators be brought to justice and that the hostages emerge unscathed. But even as we struggle with how to respond to our neighbors and to the world in light of these events, I am still compelled to speak within our family to an issue that must remain at the top of our agenda as Jews. t is an issue of self-care. And such is the nature of these times. If we cannot care for our own well-being, we won’t be any good to anybody else. To that end:
Some of my colleagues believe that in this day and age rabbis must function as prophets, taking public stands on political and social issues from gun control to refugees to presidential campaigns. Judaism, no doubt, has what to say about all these topics of the day and more. As a rabbi, however, I see it as my task to educate about what Judaism says to all sides of these issues. After all, we know that Judaism rarely offers a single answer to any question, sometimes only offering another question in response. Being a rabbi certainly doesn’t qualify me as the authority on all topics that affect our society; being a Jew certainly doesn’t qualify me as owner of the only truth.
Jews of Israel and Jews of the Diaspora must take back from the hands of the self-proclaimed prophets ownership of God’s word. Each of us is a prophet, each of us hears God’s word. When we own this fact and tear down the false altars that have been erected by those who have hijacked our tradition, Torah will once again emanate from Zion, the word of God from Jerusalem. Her ways will be pleasant, and her pathways will be peace. Then we will certainly have what to tell the world.