Friday, February 14-Saturday, February 15, 2014
From Wednesday afternoon, February 12, we started to worry about whether or not we’d make it to Israel on time. Some of our group had already travelled to Israel – Jason, Susan and Ziva began a few days ahead of the group in Petra, Jordan while Elaine and Gordon came a day early to Israel. The rest of us learned that our flight from Boston to Newark was cancelled and we’d be taking Amtrak from Boston to Newark, instead. We knew it took our ancestors 40 years to get here, so we were confident it at least wouldn’t take that long.
Eventually, we arrived on Friday afternoon, only a few hours behind schedule, and met our guide, Yoram, and our bus driver, Shalom, to begin our pilgrimage through Israel. We began at Independence Hall and learned about the UN Partition Plan, Israel’s Declaration of Independence, and Theodor Herzl’s vision becoming a reality in the very space where David ben Gurion announced the formation of the Jewish state. We continued with a tasting tour of the Levinsky Market in Tel Aviv, visiting a number of family-owned businesses, sampling spices, olives, spreads, bourekas, halva and more.
At night, we went to Shabbat services at the very grassroots Beit Tefilah Israeli, where the leaders played guitar, violin and drums, and tambourines were passed through the crowd. Among the prayers were “Lu Y’hi” by Naomi Shemer, which was set, in part, to The Beatles’ “Let It Be” and another prayer set to the tune of “Norwegian Wood.” We also sang – in Hebrew – “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong.
It was very inclusive, with groups traveling from as far as Sweden and Boston – in addition to us Mainers. Even though we didn’t understand the d’var Torah, delivered entirely in Hebrew, we were all singing the Shema and Shalom Aleichem, similar to everyone else around the country. It was a very unifying and comforting experience, and a way to settle us in to Israeli life and the Israeli spirit.
So, we began Shabbat.
Despite forecasts of rain, we were blessed with sun and warm weather on a morning excursion to Old Jaffa – the port city where early Jewish immigrants arrived before branching out to form the first Jewish city: Tel Aviv.
We walked along its renovated, bustling cobblestone streets – mixed with old synagogues, churches, mosques and other landmarks – and were reminded how long our history stretches back, and also how rejuvenated Israel and the Jewish people have become.
After a stop for some falafel and pizza at the legendary Arab bakery Abulafia, we headed to The Ayalon Institute – a secret munitions plant under a kibbutz that provided the ammunition which enabled Israel to win its War of Independence (1948-1949).
It was striking to see even after the Nazis and under British rule, how Jews had to work in secret to protect themselves and build an army. It was also a reminder of how many people put their lives on the line to protect this homeland, and what the Jewish spirit can accomplish even under the most dire of circumstances.
We finished the touring part of the day with a visit to Rabin Square, where the prime minister was assassinated in 1995. Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a fellow Jew because he was bold in his pursuit of peace with the Palestinians, and it’s amazing how 19 years later, we still struggle with trying to achieve such a peace.
It gave us a lot to reflect on for the ride home about what it will take to achieve peace in the future, and what it means to be Jewish, live a Jewish style, and how those beliefs change among Jews of varying sects (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox) and our Palestinian and Christian neighbors.
These are complex questions without simple answers, but we hope to have greater understanding of our thoughts and feelings by the time we leave Israel.