A personal account of Beth El’s trip to Israel

April 18, 2014

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Congregation Beth El’s Israel trip participants.

Congregation Beth El’s Israel trip participants.

Empty nester…. Sounds so “empty” and negative-right? Wrong. My wife, Jody and I finally reached that stage of life this fall when our second daughter flew the coop and went off to college. It was sad for us, but we found ourselves able to make our first, long talked about, but never taken adventure to Eretz Yisrael.

So, when our beloved Congregation Beth El and its dynamic Rabbi Jeffrey Arnowitz started planning an Israel trip last year, we signed up along with 18 others—mostly Beth El members. We met several times before the trip for bonding and discussion. We learned that we could all get along with each other even on a lengthy bus ride!

On Sunday, March 2, we left Norfolk and arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport the next afternoon. I was impressed at the size and beauty of the very modern airport. Walking to retrieve our luggage, we passed soaring interior walls built of Jerusalem stone, surely designed to mimic the Kotel (Western Wall). At baggage claim, we met our brilliant and passionate Israel guide, Ilan Bloch (whom Rabbi Arnowitz understandably has used repeatedly on past trips). An Aussie who made Aliyah 10 years ago, Ilan is a bottomless well of information regarding Middle East history, politics, religion and culture. (Visit Ilan’s website, teachingisrael.com, to read what he has written in the Jerusalem Post.) Between Rabbi Arnowitz’s and Ilan’s very extensive knowledge, you can bet we surely would learn a lot.

From the airport we boarded our bus and traveled to our first destination. It was just light enough for me to see and be impressed by the up-to-date highways. I have to admit, I was surprised. A handsome and modern hotel at Kibbutz Lavi was where we spent our first night.

Tuesday morning, a member of the Kibbutz who has lived there for more than 30 years gave us a short tour. We visited their synagogue as well as their library/memorial room where she took a book and showed us a picture of her first husband. Sadly, he lost his life in the 1967 War. Being in that room with her talking about him, made that war very real for us and I think all of our hearts were touched. She explained that although he lost his life, it was for the great cause of Zionism and the very survival of Israel. I will always remember her and that little library where she spoke.

We then drove to the beautiful and mystical city of Tsfat, home of Kabbalahism. Ilan lectured on Tsfat’s history as well as the tenets of Kabbalah. After that, we had time for exploring the winding alleys, streets and shops. Next, we went to a boutique winery for a tour by the owner and a lecture on the craft, followed by a visit to a local chocolatier. From there we travelled to the Golan Heights where standing upon the mountains we could overlook Syria. We listened to a Swiss NATO representative speak about the horrors of the current Syrian conflict.

Wednesday morning we arrived at the ancient fortification of Masada, which sits on a mesa-like plateau. We took a cable car to the fortress, which overlooks the Dead Sea. In addition to the Sea, you are surrounded by very dry hills and canyons. We davenedinside the remains of these ancient buildings, and heard the history of Masada.

After our time in the desert, we drove to Jerusalem. Our first stop was at Mt. Scopus where we had our first real view of the city. Next, it was on to our hotel, perfectly located in a very urbane area just off of Ben Yuhada Street. We were warned to go to bed early as Thursday was going to be BUSY. And it was!

After an 8 am T’filot we visited the City of David with lots of history lessons from Ilan. We walked up the hill through a neat underground passageway. From there we walked to the Jewish Quarter to tour the Old City. We visited the “Burnt House” and watched a film set during the burning of the Temple. After lunch and shopping, we walked through the tunnels under the Kotel.

We returned to the hotel and had a free night to explore Ben Yehuda Street. Jody and I went to a restaurant where we had to decide before entering whether we wanted dairy or meat. Dairy eaters sat on one side and the meat eaters on the other. It was like two separate restaurants in one.

Friday morning we went to Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust, Yad Vashem. Just like when visiting the Holocaust museums in Richmond and D.C, I was emotionally drained by Yad Vashem. The building dedicated to memorialize the Holocaust children was particularly poignant: a pitch black space with thousands of mirrors all reflecting only five candles, tricking you into seeing infinite flames representing the young victims. While at these Holocaust museums, one can’t help but to be transported back in time and feel the horrors. However, as you exit the museum, the building opens up onto an outside veranda overlooking the beauty of Jerusalem, and your emotions are immediately uplifted!

During lunch on Friday, we were driven to the amazing outside commercial area called the Shuk. Throngs of Israelis were buying everything in sight to prepare for their Shabbat. We saw selections of fruits, nuts, meats, fish, cheeses, pastries, halvah, and wines being sold on the streets from small open air shops. Rabbi Arnowitz told us about some exceptional chocolate rugala at a particular shop. They were selling it as fast as it was coming out of the oven and the money they were taking in was overflowing the cash drawer— what a scene!

Friday evening before Shabbat began we went to the Kotel where thousands of other Jews were pouring in. I do not ever remember seeing so many people who seemed so happy to be someplace. We saw varying sects of Orthodox men, groups of young soldiers, groups of Yeshiva boys and tourists like ourselves—all on a high from being at the Kotel.

Saturday morning we went shul hopping. All within walking distance of our hotel, we visited various synagogues including an Italian, Syrian, Reform and the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem. This was the most memorable to me. Its sanctuary is twice the size of Beth El’s and has an opera quality Hazan, along with a 15-man choir. It was a powerfully beautiful service.

Sunday we drove northwest to Tel Aviv along the Mediterranean Sea coastline. We visited Independence Hall, a house where a secret meeting in 1948 was held for declaring Israel a state. Afterwards, we went to the fabulous Yitzhak Rabin Museum. Mr. Rabin’s life as well as the complete modern history of Israel was chronicled in a top notch form using the latest in audio and visual tools.

Before going to the airport Sunday, we ended the trip in style with a farewell dinner in the Yemenite Quarter that was an absolute feast.

The trip and the country exceeded all of my expectations. I learned a great deal of history and a lot about modern Israel. I discovered it is a complex country with many factions: Orthodox and Secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardic, Muslims and Jews, etc. Though these elements are often contentious, when woven together, they make a unique and rich fabric of society. When one considers what Israel has achieved as a nation since 1948, one can only wonder in awe what it can accomplish in the coming years. I shall look forward to revisiting Israel many more times to see for myself.

by David Laibstain

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