On this Friday of June 19, as many do each Friday, we changed our world.
We did not necessarily change “the” world, but rather we transformed the day-to-day existence that we live, and entered the special world that is this holy place of Jerusalem.
On our particular journey, we traveled only 100 miles in space, but eons in time, in order to view a world of real and imagined possibilities.
Here is how we got there.
We departed the beautiful Kibbutz Lavi Hotel where we had lodged for two nights. I had written before that Kibbutz Lavi was an Orthodox kibbutz, but I don’t think I expanded those words into a practical description of the hotel. Being an Orthodox institution, they cater not only to modern Orthodox, but also to ultra-Orthodox as well. This was most evident on Thursday evening and then again on Friday morning at the dining room. We had eaten previously – all the hotel’s clientele together – in one dining room. But on Thursday night, at supper, things changed. We ate in a separate dining room, and it seemed that the distinction was due to the degree of Orthodoxy the group practiced.
Reform in one room, ultra-Orthodox in another.
Other travel groups in our room, ultra-Orthodox in another.
Any group whose men did not wear kippot in our room, ultra-Orthodox in another.
Any group whose women and men did not wear appropriately modest clothing in our room, ultra-Orthodox in another.
I want to be absolutely clear that I do not complain about this. This is, after all, a private hotel/kibbutz which can operate as it chooses. But the distinctions made were all too clear, and I simply observe this as a hint of life in Israel.
We left the hotel and proceeded to the Kinneret Cemetery, located at almost the very southern tip of the Sea of Galilee, or Yam Kinneret in Hebrew. At this cemetery are buried many of the greats of the early Zionist movement: political movers and shakers, poets, even a number of mistresses of some of the men involved in the building of the state of Israel; oddly enough, these women are buried just next to their lovers, who are buried next to their wives. Again, just an observation of the lives of these great men and women who toiled to raise this nation out of the swamps of a fetid land.
Here are a few photos of our group as we learned from the words and experience of our guide and educator Tzvi.
In this last photo you can see the grave marker of the early Zionist/Israeli poet Rachel Bluwstein, the stone with only her first name on it. She composed verse on the nature of the land, the trials of being a single person having immigrated to a land of swamps, and the difficulties of the Zionist movement. If you look carefully at this picture, just directly behind Tzvi's right and, there is a metal plate that appears to be sitting on a low stone. It is a cover of a repository that Tzvi told us about: In this small niche is a copy of the book of poetry that Rachel composed: today it is a simple paperback version, but it had been a much better preserved hard cover edition. THAT version had been stolen, and it was the inspiration of a group of guides to find ways to keep the more permanent volume present. Tzvi is continually working to maintain both the memories of Rachel, and the integrity of the cemetery, in tact!
It was Mark Twain who observed that the land of Palestine, in the mid-to-late 1800’s (in his book “The Innocents Abroad” noted that Palestine was “a desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds... a silent mournful expanse.... a desolation.... we never saw a human being on the whole route.... hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.” The land as we observed it could very well have been the same: it was a warm and humid morning there as we overlooked the Kinneret. But we could only imagine the sights and sounds of the Kinneret that greeted this author laureate of our nation.
Anyway, being at this cemetery inspired us to wonder about how any of us address any task in our own lives: To what extent are we willing to sacrifice our ideals and lives to achieve a goal? What can we, ourselves, do in our day to affect the kind of change in which they participated?
From Kinneret Cemetery we went to a strip mall just outside of Tiberias for a coffee and bathroom break, preparing for the next two hour drive to Jerusalem. During our sojourn where we had a bit of interesting scenery and a lot of desert to observed, we engaged in a discussion of the latest political machinations of the governments of Israel and the United States.
We arrived at a scenic overlook of the city of Jerusalem: We parked at the northern campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and participated in a welcoming ceremony for our group, most of whom had never been to Jerusalem before and were completing this pilgrimage today. It was a very moving experience for all of us.
We then traveled to the Machaneh Yehudah market, a vast area in the western part of the city (the new and Jewish part) consisting of streets of stores and stalls selling anything you can imagine! As it was 2 PM on erev Shabbat, the place was packed with people, buying for the Shabbat or for ‘the weekend’ to come, and after 75 minutes of our own engaging in this shopping craze, we boarded the bus and transferred to our hotel.
Just before our dispersion into the shopping crowds, someone on the street beside me noticed the OSRUI logo shirt I wore: For some who may not know, OSRUI is the acronym for the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute camp in Oconomowoc, and for the woman who noticed my shirt, it was a warm remembrance of a camping experience that she had as a teen, and asked me about my connection. As it turns out, she is a member of the Reform congregation in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which was also running a tour at this time. As it turns out, her Rabbi is a very close friend of mine who just happened to be across the street and coming to greet me. A miracle is something unexpected, and it surely was a miracle to be a the saem time, in the same place, and to see a good friend in the city of Jerusalem, in the middle of throngs of people, at this particular time.
Anyway, we departed Machaneh Yehudah and went to check in at our hotel. As we approached the Dan Panorama hotel in the heart of the city, some of our travelers noticed familiar faces walking on the sidewalk alongn side our stuck-in-traffic bus: David and Aleeza Hoffert, our temple’s Executive Director and Director of Community Engagement, were just walking along in Jerusalem in the hours prior to Shabbat. (I knew they were going to be there, but) it was a total surprise for some of us to see them. But still, the fact that we were all going to be in Jerusalem at the same time is another miracle.
After a lot of waving and calls, we encountered them personally at the First Train Station in Jerusalem, where our group went to experience Kabbalat Shabbat Jerusalem 2015 style:
The name “Kabbalat Shabbat” refers to the series of psalms and prayers said in synagogues just before the start of the evening service on Friday evenings. And in the sultry summer Friday evenings, the First Train Station – formerly the terminus of the rail line from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and now a beautiful performance venue – is totally transformed into a lovely “open air synagogue,” with a band that performs these tunes for the more than 300 people – mostly secular but some modern Orthodox – who enjoy the evening, drink beer or eat ice cream or bring their picnic suppers and participate in the evening’s arrival of Shabbat. I described a bit of this scene in a high holy day sermon two years ago after having seen this scene during my sabbatical sojourn in Israel.
Another miracle: As I was talking with Gil Nathanson and Manny Price, two of our group’s participants, about the calls for modernity and innovation even in the Talmud, up to us comes Susan and and Mira Sellman, two other of our Temple Beth El congregants who live in Janesville. It is a very small Jewish world indeed!
But then, another miracle occurs! Earlier in the week, our guide mentioned that his wife – as I – was raised in the San Fernando Valley of the city of Los Angeles, and that her name was Debbie. At that earlier moment and always exploring Jewish geography, I tried to discover if I had known her during my youth, but could not make a connection; our guide did not know intimately too much about her earlier days. But at the First Train Station she came to meet him for their own Shabbat observance, and he introduced her to me. It was then we discovered that we were the same age, we had both come to Israel for our first times as 15-year-olds in the same program in the same summer, that we had many of the same friends and acquaintances, and that this particular summer was a pivotal point for each of us as we developed our attitudes about Israel: She is an attorney and social worker for the Ministry of Social Welfare, whose focus is saving at-risk youth from abusive family situations.
I think that Jerusalem is the city of miracles, to be sure!
After the events of the First Train Station, our group, along with David and Aleeza Hoffert and Aleeza’s mother and two sisters, returned to the hotel for a festive and filling Shabbat dinner.