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
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
Day One of our 10th mitzvah mission to Israel began officially with a dinner. But this dinner was unlike any other I have shared on our mission before. We drank a toast and sang happy birthday to a man in Rob Katz who inspired us, modeled generosity, and dared each of us to move beyond our comfort zones. This would have been his 54th, and he would have loved to share it, as he did each year for the past eight, in Israel. We shared our favorite memories and we dedicated ourselves to continuing his legacy.
After far too late a night for some of us who caught the Giants-Patriots game at a local bar, we were up early to daven on the beach and head for South Tel Aviv. There we met Felicia, a woman who came to Israel from Ghana twenty years ago. Today, she and one other person were caring for 45 preschoolers and babies, children of Sudanese refugees. They greeted us with easily offered hugs and the excitement of anticipating a treat that comes along with visitors. We carried some,and led others by the hand (and even chased after a few!) as we accompanied them several blocks and down busy streets to small park under a porous tent. The children burned energy playing, and suddenly the heavens opened. First we were drenched in the rain, and then came the hail! Small marbles of ice bounced all around us. Some of the kids held us tightly to stay warm; others ran from under the leaky tent to dance in the icy shower. Our bus finally came to the rescue, and we loaded the children onto their coach to return them to their over crowded playroom. Leaving them was the low point of the day for many of us. Several of us committed ourselves to a return visit next year.
As we rode to our next stop, we wrestled with the conflicting realities Israel faces in remembering its roots as a safe haven for those escaping persecution and in wanting to preserve a healthy economy, a strong defense, and the Jewish character of the state.
This conflict was further complicated by our visit to the Rabin Center, an exhibit dedicated to the life and death of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Once again, we were bombarded by images of an Israeli society struggling to pursue peace while negotiating among its own citizens and with its neighbors for secure and defensible borders for all.
Dinner brought us to Zichron Yakov and the rabbi and leadership of Kehillat Ve’Ahavta, our new sister Masorti community. The warmth and comfort with one another followed quickly, and we began brainstorming ways by which our communities can build a lasting, supportive and mutually beneficial bond.
Until tomorrow, shalom to us all,
Rabbi Craig Scheff