Mission to Israel 2004

Israel Diary
Tuesday, October 12

We all arrived well and together here in Tel Aviv. Many of the delegates stopped in Europe before arriving. I heard much about visits to Prague, in particular.

Even while washing up before our initial gathering, I experienced the uniqueness of being in Israel. Turning on the Israeli news in the room, I heard representatives of all the major parties in the Kenesset talking of the disengagement plan and the politics that are swirling around it at this moment. Also, with Israeli soccer reports, I heard a story of an Israeli theatre troupe that has created what they call “Theatre Beit Hamidrash.” The members of the troupe studied Talmud in Beit Hamidrash Elul for a year in preparation for writing “Sotah”, a cutting-edge Israeli production that deals with modern ideas of sexual identity, trust, and betrayal against a background of Torah and Talmud study about the ritual of the suspected adulteress (Sotah).

Our first dinner together was full of excitement and emotion. Finally having all of us in one room together in Israel was a thrill. Our first speaker was Rabbi Meir Azari of Beit Daniel synagogue (Reform) of Tel Aviv. He began by congratulating us on making Israel part of our 50th anniversary celebrations. His Temple currently receives more support from the municipality of Tel Aviv than from the Reform movement. He expressed his belief that the situation would be better if more synagogues showed the leadership and commitment that is represented by this mission. He spoke passionately of the astonishing progress our movement has made in Tel Aviv over the last 13 years. At Beit Daniel, they celebrate over 200 B’nei Mitzvah a year and officiate at 600 Chuppah weddings. Those couples must still get legally married in Cyprus. However, he expressed hope that the exposure our movement receives through these life cycle ceremonies will continue to make us part of the Israeli cultural, religious fabric.

We were joined at dinner by the family of Mazi Grego, who was killed in a terrorist attack at a check point September 9 2003. Members of Temple have developed strong ties with them over the past year through Adopt A Family/One Family. Rabbi Dolgin read a poem written about Mazi that is posted on the website in her memory. Being together and having their family as part of our congregational family on this trip was very meaningful.

Even though many are tired, there was quite a gathering in the hospitality suite even this first evening.

Wednesday, October 13 

Today was a day that mirrored the political confusion that is Israel. At breakfast, we heard from Channel 10’s Raviv Druker. His take on the evolution of the Israeli political scene since the beginning of the Intifada was very interesting. He regards the notion that there are good guys (Israel) and bad guys (Palestinians) to be a gross oversimplification. When asked about the international media, he indicated his minority opinion that Israel is winning the PR battle because Arafat has become an outcast even in Europe and the media lately spends more time on Israeli victims of rocket attacks than on Palestinian victims of IDF operations in Gaza. He chose many hopeful images to use in describing where things are now for Israel. He asserted that polls indicate that a solid majority of both Israelis and Palestinians want a peaceful two-state solution. He suggested that Palestinians will opt at some point for a real compromise rather than holding out for what they know is impossible. While this made him sound rather naïve to some, I didn’t think that is truly the case. His clearest description of the current situation was his suggestion that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but that this is in fact no tunnel. In other words, he thinks that everyone knows what the eventual two-state solution will need to look like, but neither side has the leadership or the trust in a partner to find a way to get there.
Later in the day, we heard from Mike Ginsburg of Kibbutz Misgav Am on the Lebanese border. While we almost froze to death on the hilltop, he colourfully described a no-win, no solution situation. We are stuck with a northern border that is based on colonial ignorance rather than natural boundaries. The religious and cultural complexity of Lebanon makes it naturally unstable and a home to Hizbullah who now control the north side of the Israeli border. UN promises of troops never really materialized. Syria will not ever pull back from Lebanon because of the drug money ($12 billion annually) that flows from the Bekaa valley. For Syria to remove Hizbullah would bring them into conflict with Iran. Israel’s only aspect is obvious strength. He thought that the pull back from Lebanon was sensible, but disastrous, as it sent a message that terrorism does pay. He thinks that the disengagement plan would be the same kind of mistake. His descriptions of Lebanese religious groups and histories was as troubling as it was compelling. Short of asking Raviv and Mike to arm wrestle to decide who is right, they seemed precious little way to make the two ideologies work together.

While the political side of Israel is important, we considered more than ideas. Mike at Misgav Am kept saying, “Take this lesson home—you can’t say it, you can only see it.” While the view at the northern border proved his point, we had already learned the importance of being here physically, spiritually and emotionally in Tzfat. It was powerful to visit the synagogue of Rabbi Joseph Caro and see a Torah scroll that has been in that shul since his time. We sat outside the shul of the Ari and heard of the mystical revolution his led and felt the power of this holy city. Most of all, we had an afternoon service on the roof of the restaurant in which we ate lunch. We stood on the roof and faced Mount Meron, where thousands of pilgrims have come year after year on Tu B’Shvat. In this ancient place of spirituality, we sang Kol Ha’Olam Kulo Gesher Tzar M’od (All the world is but a narrow bridge. What is essential is not to be afraid). We sang and prayed and said Kaddish for our loved ones. The sun hid behind the clouds for us so as not to be overwhelming while we stood exposed and faced Jerusalem in prayer. As soon as we finished and could seek the shade the sun returned. It was a day of feeling and thinking, talking and praying. What a powerful first whole day!

Thursday, October 14

Many of us slept better thanks to the quiet and clean air of the Galil. In fact, we may have slept soundly after the exhaustion of a full day of touring and a night of sharing a drink and a story and analysing our experiences sitting outside under the stars at Kibbutz K’far Giladi. This day was a day of surprises. We visited an Ethiopian Absorption Centre at Kibbutz Ayelet HaShachar. We were greeted there by the past director of the centre who himself left Ethiopia and came to Montreal. There he went to school and got a degree, but his heart led him back to Israel to help his own people. He told us many things, among them that the majority of Ethiopian olim today are non-Jewish Ethiopians with Jewish roots. I had to wonder whether they were coming on aliyah or immigrating and how we might know the difference. No amount of analysis lessened the sweetness of playing with the children, chatting with them in Hebrew and seeing members of the group offered them Canadian stickers and flags. From there we drove up into the Golan to consider the role these highlands have played in Israel’s past and the role they may play in its future. While it is difficult to stand on that land and imagine returning it to Syria, our guide Muki pointed out that Israel has never built permanent bridges or removed land mines from the Golan. Will Israelis be willing or able to give the Golan even under ideal circumstances? It is hard to know. We share the tourist overlooks in the Golan with bus after bus of Israeli school children. For them, the Six Day war and the Yom Kippur war are history. Who knows what they will think when they lead the country? We next had the privilege of visiting the northern most Air Force base in Israel. After the world’s fastest lunch, we had a briefing and got to see an F-16 D up close and personal. Even more impressive than the massive machines were the young Israelis we met. We were introduced to the first Druze pilot in the history of the Israeli Air Force. When I asked him if he had any problem being accepted by the Jewish pilots, he gave me a quizzical look and a simple and convincing no. The young woman who was our PR liaison on the bus told us that she had hoped to serve in intelligence, but due to a medical condition was volunteering for this posting. She told me that she had studied Arabic but that very few of her peers do. These young people were clearly proud and strong and committed to the security of their country. On the way to Jerusalem, we stopped at Neot Kedumim Biblical Park. There we planted two vines, one marking the 50th anniversary of Temple and the second marking the 50th anniversary of Carole Sterling’s birth, which she shared with our delegation this day. After the planting, we had a festive dinner and then were entertained and engaged by two young performs and their 20 African drums that they taught us to play. We danced and sang and released some of the energy that builds when spending so many hours on a bus. Afterward, in the silent park, we had an evening service led by Valerie Whitefield. As we sang Oseh Shalom, jackals sang with us from the distance. We then drove to an outlook over Jerusalem to make a Shehechiyanu and view Jerusalem below and the stars above. The dark night was perfect for viewing and a reminder that there was no moon as it was the first day of Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan. The hotel was truly a sight for sore eyes by the time we finished this phenomenal day.

Friday, October 15

Friday morning helped inspire us in anticipation of Shabbat in Jerusalem. We began the day with Yehuda Meshi Zahav, the founder of Zaka. The organization is best known for treating the bodies of victims of terror with respect and helping to identify them after an attack. However they do so much more! They support the families of victims of terror and those affected by traffic accidents and suicide. Yehuda comes from the Haredi or ultra-orthodox community, yet he has found that all humanity is deserving of support and respect at these ultimate moments. His executive director, a secular woman, served as his translator. When he spoke, though most did not understand his own words, we could all feel his powerful commitment to Jewish traditions, service of others and his country, and human dignity. He has personally built an organization that spans the country of Israel and that helped in the attack in Taba, Egypt just as they had in Italy and in the synagogue bombings in Turkey. With pride, he said that while the name Zaka originally stood for Zihui Korbanot Ason (Identifying the victims of terror attacks) it now stands for Z’man Keruv Achim (Time to bring brothers together). He was but one of the true heroes we met on this trip. We then drove to Har Nof to meet with the scribe who is writing most of our Sefer Torah for Matan Torah B’Sinai, our project that launches our Temple Sinai Foundation and will bring Torah to our members in a powerful way in honour of our 50th. We watched as the scribe wrote the beginning of the 41st of the 245 columns in our Torah scroll. When speaking with him in Hebrew, I could sense his deep commitment to Torah and the humility he brings to his calling of creating Torah scrolls. After a brief stop, we went to Gilo to view the Seem Line, the path of the unfortunate but essential security barrier being built by Israel. The last time I had been to the same location with Temple members, 2 ½ years earlier, the school behind us had been closed because of Palestinian snipers activity earlier that morning. Now, we felt much less exposed. For Kabbalat Shabbat services, we went to the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Tzion to the Reform congregation of the same name. First, we met Rabbi Maya Leibovich at the site of their new building under construction. She showed us how their building is structured around its roof fashioned as a Chuppah, a symbol of celebration, openness, inclusion and tradition. The service united us in song and prayer. We felt an even closer connection as one of the 3 guitarists who accompanied the t’fillah was Michael Loftus, who grew up at Temple and currently belongs both to their congregation and ours. We returned to the hotel to a Shabbat dinner where we were joined by the Spiar’s and Rosenthall’s who were in Israel on a different mission. We were also joined by 3 students from the HUC cantorial program, one of whom was Emma Gottlieb, daughter of Rabbi Danny Gottlieb of Temple Kol Ami, Toronto and of Beth Komito, who works as special needs coordinator in our religious school. By the end of this week, Toronto and Israel seem much closer to one another than they did before!

Saturday, October 16

On Shabbat morning, we made our way to the Zion Gate to the old city of Jerusalem on the way to the Kotel, the wall. The Torah and the siddurim went with some of the group in a cab while we walked up to the Jewish quarter and the area of the Temple Mount. We had not arranged a particular location for our service and so, as often happens here, we found a perfect one. We stood, in the shade, at the very corner stone where the western wall of the Temple mount turns south. This location is away from tourists and other daveners and is excavated down to street level from late 2nd Temple times. No words can explain the experience of the service in that holy place to those who were not there. We sang and prayed and nearly all had a role in the service. Nearly all eyes welled up with tears at some moment or two. We read the Torah by supporting it on the ledge of the Herodian stones of the wall itself. Gerald Winter, the first Bar Mitzvah celebrated in our building in Toronto had the first aliyah. The best way to find out more about the service is to ask a member of our trip to tell you about her/his experience. The only way to really know is to come share in our service the next time we come. As Shabbat was coming to an end, we boarded the bus to meet with our sister congregation Yozma in Modi’in for Havdalah. As we travelled, we saw the new moon of Cheshvan in the sky for the first time. In Modi’in we were warmly welcomed home, as our congregation is twinned with Yozma in Modi’in. Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon introduced a number of members who had come to meet us. Each of them told their story to us. Rabbi Shiryon presented us with a plaque honouring Temple Sinai on our 50th anniversary. We then recited the traditional prayer for the new moon, the new month and danced and sang together under the open sky. We returned to Jerusalem for a late dinner on our own and time for some mitzvah-shopping. Later, many gathered at the hospitality suite, generously supplied by all and looked after by Elaine Lester and Rochelle Kahn, for a L’chayim and time to chat and reflect with new friends about the events of the day and the mission as a whole.

Sunday, October 17

I can only call it unreal that we now were beginning our last full day of the mission. Though we completed two week’s touring in one week, it still went so quickly! At breakfast, we heard from Jeff Kaye, Director of Israel Education Fund of JAFI (Jewish Agency For Israel). He had already read of the first two days of our trip from the portion of this journal that had been posted on our website! Likewise, he began his reflections on Israel in 1954 and spoke of the parallels between the 50 years of Temple Sinai and the last 50 years in Israel. He helped us understand that the greatest natural resources of Israel are human resources. We came to understand how much we can do even from home to support education in Israel through sharing our expertise and generosity through UJA Federation. After breakfast, we went to Lifeline for the Elderly, Yad L’kashish. We saw how they provide a workplace for the elderly, many of whom are immigrants. While they have one workshop for the disabled, they primarily restore productivity and pride to those who otherwise might feel unable to contribute. The quality of the work and the artistry was phenomenal. Susan Schwartz even arranged to volunteer there as an artist and teacher during the two weeks she and Elliott are remaining here! We also discovered a few ways in which we may be able to partner with them on an on-going basis. After far too short a time in their gift shop, we went to volunteer at Hazon Yeshaya Soup Kitchen. We were astonished to see the long line waiting for the service to open as we arrived. Some helped to provide lunch for that day while others helped to package food staples that those who register with Hazon Yeshaya can pick up to take home. This organization, now a network of soup kitchens throughout Israel, was created by one man, Abraham Israel, who came after retiring in New York and now works much harder for no salary at all. The entire organization functions on only 4% overhead! This site was one more modern-day miracle that we wished were not needed in today’s Israel. (You can learn more about the program at www.hazonyeshaya.org) However, the way to address this problem is not to turn away but to find ways to help. We next heard from a professor from Hebrew University whose name escapes me, but whose message will not any time soon. He explained how the majority of Israeli’s are long-term left wingers and short-term right wingers. Terror does not allow for vision and planning. It focuses Israeli’s on today and tomorrow. In 20 minutes he clarified much of the political craziness we see here. In response to a question, he said that while Israelis appreciate the changed situation in Iraq, the real long term battle against terrorism is in Iran. By this moment, our heads were overflowing, but many of us still had empty suitcases. Some visited the Jewish quarter again while others returned to the hotel to pack. At 4:30 pm, we gathered on the balcony of the Hospitality suite to share a brief afternoon service while watching the sun set against the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. We said l’hitraot, until we see one another again, singing Oseh Shalom and Yerushalayim Shel Zahav. We went down to the bottom level of the hotel to take an hour (which took two hours!) to reflect personally on our trip as a group. It was an extremely emotional time for all. This time was more than a trip, more even than a mission. It was an incredible opportunity to renew our connections to Israel, to Temple Sinai, and to our own Judaism. We then saw an Israeli Ethiopian comedian do his presentation of his journey to Israel and the absorption of him and his family into Israeli society. He is coming to Toronto in November and we hope to see him again there. After a speedy dinner marking the end of the mission, with Israeli sparkling wine celebrating David and Sheila Freeman’s 50th anniversary, we parted. I was inspired to see that less than half of the group left Israel at the end of the trip. Most stayed on, some for days, others for weeks.

I can only conclude this journal with an acknowledgement of how much we lived and learned that is absent from these words and a heart-felt todah rabbah to UJA Federation and Elana Carr Horowitz, to Sandra Montague and the Israel committee, and all who came on the mission or supported us in putting it together and making it special.