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Temple Beth El's Trip to Israel

06/13/2023 08:18:40 AM


Check back here for updates and pictures on the Israel trip led by Rabbi Biatch and Cantor Niemi

June 22, 2023

Our last full day of Israel brought us to the Jaffa Institute, a non-profit organization whose goal is to break the cycle of poverty within the Israeli society. They work with families with children, ensuring that they have nutritious meals and an opportunity to study using internet and other contemporary learning tools.

From a warehouse in the city of Jaffa, there are more than 40 institutions all over the country which intervene with children at risk, Holocaust survivors, refugees, and migrants. After hearing about their goals and mission from their development director, our group packed boxes of food destined for homes with food insufficiency. We assembled 24 boxes, each box containing approximately 25 items, which would have helped for 4 to 7 Days of food needs in the home.

Following our time at the Jaffa institute, some people walked through the city of Jaffa which is a mixed Jewish and Arab city, and other people returned to the hotel for an afternoon of free time. In addition to shopping, there was swimming in the hotel pool, bathing in the Mediterranean Sea just directly next to our hotel, sleeping and relaxing.

In the evening, we attended a farewell dinner to all members of our group at the Maganda restaurant, a Yemenite institution in Tel Aviv for more than 40 years. We offered gratitude to our guide and our driver, and the group gave many toasts to our travelers and our leaders who experienced something extraordinary these past 9 days. Tomorrow morning, we look forward to going to the airport and departing around noon. there are some members of our group who are traveling at different times, and we wish everyone a safe voyage home.

June 21, 2023

This morning, we awoke to a beautiful television sunrise, in the city that never seems to sleep. At least, that is its reputation. We were able to sleep in a little bit later and began our day with a panel discussion regarding the Palestinian Internship Program. 

This is a non-profit organization, with that designation specifically in Israel and in the United states, that helps members of the Palestinian community who are entrepreneurs to learn how to improve their business acumen and to engage in mentoring programs that increase their possibility of success. 

This program builds on business to business, and people to people, relationships. It is not supported by any government yet has been very successful in training Palestinian entrepreneurs. We heard from the executive director of this organization, one of her primary staff people in program development, and one successful graduate who lives on the West Bank and yet comes to Tel Aviv to participate in this program. 

Following this panel, we drove to Rothschild boulevard which was the center of Tel Aviv at the time of the state's independence war in 1948. We learned about the development of the initial neighborhoods of Tel Aviv outside of the city of Jaffa, and we saw Independence hall, the location of the signing of the declaration of independence, which we could not visit as it was under renovation and reconstruction.

For our lunch, we walked through the Carmel market and had special Yemenite treats including sabich and falafel. 

For the early part of our afternoon, we spoke with someone from Rainbow Tel Aviv, an organization that orients people to the LGBTQ community here. We learned that an estimated 30% of the population of Tel Aviv are members of the LGBTQ community. We learned of the difficulty of living in Israel, where prejudice against queer people runs high in the religious community, and ignorance is also part of the dynamic. However, services for LGBTQ people in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem exist to help the community.

Our evening tonight was free, with people seeing relatives, friends, and going out to local restaurants.

June 20, 2023

Today, June 20th, was quieter day at Kibbutz Ma'agan, our temporary home for the time we spent in the northern part of Israel. We departed the hotel at 8:30 a.m. and traveled the one hour and 15 minutes up into the Western Galilee hills to visit the town of Tzfat; this name by the way is a one syllable word in case you were wondering. Tzfat is the home of 16th century Jewish mystical practice and studies and remains a place where Jewish mysticism mixes with commercial art and tourism, and forms a beautiful community. Tzfat is a place where people come to find themselves.  

In Tzfat, we were hosted by Rabbi Tamara Shfirin, rabbi of a Reform synagogue in Rishon L'tziyon. Rabbi Shfirin grew up in and Orthodox household yet was forever stymied by the lack of egalitarianism. She later broke away from her family's heritage, graduated rabbinical School in the reform seminary in Jerusalem, and became a scholar of Jewish mysticism. She took us around the community today, showing us three primary homes of Jewish mystical thought, that is, three different synagogues where individuals made the difference in bringing mysticism to light. 

One of her main points was that, in every generation, reform occurs within Judaism and that which was once new may become old yet still needs to be venerated. She made the point that Jewish mysticism and Jewish mystical practices can be learned and studied and experienced, and that people need to be given the latitude to study and not be thought of as simply those in search of personal spiritual experiences. After a 2-hour tour of the town and its mystical roots, we had an hour for lunch. The day’s weather was in the low 80s, yet the sun's direct rays was quite warm on us. After an hour of lunching and shopping, we were all ready to get back on the bus for our 2-hour drive to Tel Aviv. 

We found, along the way, that our bus seems to have been having an air conditioning problem. Every once in a while, our driver needed to stop the bus and reset all of the functions. Then it cooperated for a while and we had to repeat the process. Not so terrible, but as we entered the frantic, frenetic, and start and stop traffic of Tel Aviv, it became a little worrisome. But, not to worry, buses can be repaired, and our travel group understood that flexibility, having a sense of humor, and having patience all go a long way in helping to improve one's experience.  

As we entered Tel Aviv, we immediately recognized the diverse nature of the city, though we will visit with representatives of the LGBTQ+ community tomorrow, We headed toward the neighborhood of Nachalat Binyamin, one of the few areas of first settlement outside of the tel Aviva center. In this neighborhood, there is on Tuesdays and Fridays a street art fair and we were given the time to shop for original art pieces and speak to the artisans. We then returned to check in at our hotel, Herods, where our group greeted one another and enjoyed one another's company until it was time for supper. Then individual groups found their way to restaurants or across the bike path to the beach, and people enjoyed a lovely evening on our own in North Tel Aviv adjacent to the beach. 

June 19, 2023
Many of us were up early and watched as the sun rose above the Golan heights, just above the kibbutz hotel where we are staying. The sun rose at about 6:00 a.m., even though it had risen earlier and was already shining on the city of Tiberius directly across the lake from us. There is something about this region, it's warm breezes here about 650 ft below sea level and the surrounding hills, that simply creates a beautiful place to spend a few days.

Today was a day of fun and some relaxing. In the morning, we traveled from the southern tip of the Kinneret to the far northeastern edge of the Golan Heights, right next to the kibbutz named M'rom Golan and the former Syrian city of Kuneitra. At this vista point, at a coffee shop and overlook called Coffee Anan ('anan' being translated as 'clouds', and it’s a pun on the name of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan),  we learned about the strategic importance of the Golan heights, the success of the 1967 six day war, the failures and lack of confidence emanating out of the Yom Kippur war in 1973 and the continuing self-evaluation that Israel goes through about how and how much of this territory to maintain. One of the most impressive things about this location is how close it is to the borders of Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. No one in our group was terribly anxious about being at this border, which was described to Us by our guides as being one of the most peaceful borders in the world. 

Following lunch, we drove back down from the Golan Heights into the lowlands surrounding the Hula valley. We came to an attraction where we could either have a wine tasting or a session in chocolate making, and our group divided about 50-50% for each of these attractions. I think wine connoisseurs would not have been pleased from the selections, and those who know about chocolate were been happier :-).  

After this tasting and making of chocolates, we continued traveling south and found a place where we went rafting on the Jordan River. It likely was the Dan River but there would be no point in quibbling over this identifier. The route was approximately 5 km long, and on the river with us for hundreds of teenagers, and some older people as well, who were having a wonderful day. The river at this point was ahout 25-30 feel wide, and mostly about three feet in depth. There were also large rocks along the riverbed, which posed a problem to those who were steering the boat.

June 18, 2023

Happy Father's Day to all people on our trip who our fathers, who had fathers, and/or who think of their fathers for whatever reason at any time.  

This morning we left Jerusalem and traveled in the direction of Tel Aviv. We passed through a neighborhood in Jerusalem called Revhavia, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Jerusalem, a place where former prime ministers and presidents have lived. 

In pulling out of the city, we traveled West on Highway 1, then traveled North on Highway 6 toward and to the city of Caesaria, this home of King Herod that was built by the sea in central Israel.  

Everyone would love to have a house on the ocean, and this egotistical and megalomaniacal ruler was no exception. He built a palace, a hippodrome, an amphitheater, and many other pastimes to please him. The town of Caesaria was home to King Herod, the Romans who conquered him afterward, Byzantines, Crusaders, Muslims, and a constant stream of others who built upon the ruins of Caesaria one generation after another. 

Today, excavations mark this site as they continue to unearth treasures from the past and archaeologists try to discover what lies beneath the surface. We are told that the amphitheater in Caesaria is home to contemporary music festivals and shows throughout the year. If someone has truly made it in Israel, they will have appeared here. It is a beautiful location, and the weather today was exquisite, being around 80 degrees with a constant 10 to 15 mph wind off the ocean. 

We then traversed the rest of the Highway 6 between Caesaria and the Israeli city of Haifa, There we visited the Bahai shrine and learned a little bit about this religion. We viewed their world famous gardens, then continued up the coast to the city of Acco. The ancient city of Acco, also built layer upon layer, begins with ruins that they have discovered, from the Hellenistic period. This was followed by  

Byzantine, Crusade, Muslim, Ottoman, British, and then Israeli. The ancient city contains today a large and ample marketplace, jewelry and art dealers, and stores selling everything one can imagine. These stores serve the general population of the area. To present modern history, there is a special museum dedicated to activities of pre-independence Israel. Acco served as a British prison where captured and suspected Israeli spies were tortured and killed.

While in the ancient city of Akko, we visited an artist studio called Art 192. This is a cooperative effort run by 10 women who jointly create art, staff the store and performance business, and worry about every aspect and detail of their enterprise. Individually and alone, none of these women would be able to succeed in the art world. But together, as they have joined forces it is easy to see how they can thrive and produce and sell their art.  

Edna introduced us to her cooperative and related stories about the difficulty they have had in getting started. On the day we visited, it was the 4 1/2 year birthday of their work together, and she recounted one or two stories. Specifically, she told us of the time when, two years ago, they were Arab riots in the streets and cities of Israel, because many of the Arabs in Israel lost confidence in the security forces to treat them well and safely in light of the emotions that were elicited in light of tit-for-tat attacks and recriminations. 

There seem to be very few Jewishly owned businesses in the Old City, but these women have developed good relationships with their neighbors, who protected their studio during these riots. They could not enter the city to check on it. But they realized that their Arab neighbors had checked on it for them, had give them reports by phone about it, and had assured them that no one would attack the store as they had other stores in the immediate neighborhood. They owe their success and patience to the goodness of their Arab neighbors, and this is likely a good example of coexistence in this mixed city. Finally, we took a walking tour of some of the underground archaeological discoveries, including the barracks of the Crusaders, and the work yard and execution chamber used by the British who, in the mid-1930s and 1940s, executed prisoners and performed tortures. 

When concluding our time in Acco, we boarded the bus for the 75 minute ride to our hotel, Ma’agan Eden, located near the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee. 

 June 17, 2023

Shabbat shalom. After having awoken and taken our 6:00 a.m. stroll this morning and after a delicious breakfast, we boarded our bus and traveled to the Dead Sea valley. Our first stop, on this first day of a very uncomfortable heatwave here, was the mountain called Masada. Click here for a website that will  tell you a little bit about Masada

Our guide took us to the top of the mountain via the cable car, and shared with us information about the north palace, the Western palace, the synagogues, the bath houses, and even the latrines. These were initially constructed by Herod the Great, the Israelite King, the last of his line, who served under the Roman occupation and who died in the year 4 BCE. Herod collaborated with the Roman government, hoping to maintain power and his lifestyle. Eventually, Masada, his winter home, fell into disuse and disrepair and nothing was done to the mountain after his death. About 75 years later, 970 Jewish zealots moved up to Masada, including men women and children, and they defied the Roman government by not surrendering when the rest of the nation did. For 3 years, they were able to resist the occupying forces, creating a completely independent life in the desert. Eventually, Rome was going to destroy the people on the mountain and, on hearing this, the Israelites on Masada decided that it would be better for them to kill themselves than be taken as servants and slaves to Rome. 

The majority of the accounts of their deaths were recorded by Josephus Flavius, and Israelite and Roman commander who left his command for the writing of history. Although exaggerated, he wrote of the fall of Masada as being important in the life of the nation of israel.  

In the 1950s, Israelis were loathed to use the image of Israel as a weak power, recoiling somewhat from the defeat at the Holocaust and the subsequent dissolution of the community. Instead, they constituted the story of Masada as a symbol of Jewish power and resistance even in the face of certain death. 

Following our experience in Masada, we traveled to Ein Bokek, a resort by the Dead sea. After a buffet lunch, members of our group swam in the Dead Sea or in the salt and freshwater pools, took advantage of some of the spa amenities, and enjoyed themselves. On the way back to Jerusalem we stopped at Ein Gedi, one of the few freshwater sources in the Dead Sea valley. While there, Rabbi Jonathan celebrated his wedding anniversary by treating the group to ice cream treats. 

We returned to Jerusalem at about 6:00 p.m. participated in a ceremony of Havdalah, and then people were able to spend the evening as they liked. About eight members of our group attended the weekly demonstration, this evening taking place at the residence of Israel's president. The main message of tonight was, to the president, that although they appreciate his willingness to search for a compromise, the demonstrators, meaning the organizers, express the feeling that there is no compromise when it comes to the Democratic nature of a society. They were very intent on getting this message across, both to the president and to the prime minister tonight.  

We returned to our hotel for an evening of packing and preparing to leave tomorrow for our tour of the northern part of Israel. 

Shavuah tov. 

June 16, 2023

Today in Israel we rose early and traveled across Jerusalem to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum. One can spend no less than two-and-a-half hours here, as the permanent exhibit of the background, history, process and results of the Holocaust consist of panels after panels of crucial historical texts. Taken as a whole, the collection of the museum presents an honest and difficult assessment of the role of German and its allies in executing up to seven million Jews and another 5-6 million Roma, Catholics, LGBTQ+ individuals, and other so called genetic non-desirables. 

We also toured the Children’s Memorial, wherein a million flames—corresponding to the number of children killed—light up a darkened tower of mirrors, accompanied by a reading of the names of the victims. 

Following our time at Yad Vashem, we traveled by the relatively new light rail train to Machaneh Yehudah, a grand open air market in the Jewish section of the Western side of Jerusalem. The sights and smells of the city are on grand display here, as fresh fruit and vegetables, housewares, and Israeli street food can be found in a small but very crowded part of the city. 

After a discussion led by Abraha Avner, a former Mossad agent who consults with the film and television industry on matters of spycraft, we went to “Tachanah Rishonah”, Jerusalem’s famed “First (Train) Station which is now a large outdoor mall and entertainment venue. On Friday evenings, it is transformed into a large synagogue that welcomes a band to offer Kabbalat Jerusalem style, and it welcomes more than 400 ‘worshipers’. It was a warm and beautiful evening, and we had a blast. Click here to see video. 

We then returned to the hotel for a Shabbat dinner and evening walks through the quiet city. Shabbat Shalom. 

June 15, 2023

This morning, our TBE group headed down to the lower Judean Hills to the archaeological site named Beit Guvrin, roughly translated as the ‘place of heroes’. This is an active archaeological dig as well as a living museum to the Maccabean settlement of the Second Century BCE.

Our purpose was to enter the dig site named “Samson” (a hard limestone cave about 50 feet under the surface of the hill), to perform some human excavation skills, and to learn about the process of Israeli excavation and preservation of historical places such as this. After some instruction (picture 1 and video) and ‘care instructions’, we began the process of removing perhaps an inch or so of soil in one of the 5,000 caves of this site. It was only one inch because we had limited time and the process of digging is a complex one. We uncovered pottery shards (some large, some small), bones (from food that was consumed at the site), a new step in the spiral stairway that was once dug into the hard limestone, and even bits and pieces of charcoal (demonstrating that cooking took place at this site).

Then we carefully took all of the surface soil to the surface to sift it to ensure we did not find anything further.

Click here to watch video of the dig.

Our next journey was to visit the Ayalon Institute, near the town of Rehovot. This was a secret ammunition factory that ultimately helped the struggling new Israeli state fight its independence war. Located in a building disguised as a kibbutz laundry and bakery, this factory produced, over a three-year period from 1945-1948 (after which it did not need to be kept secret) more than 2.5 million bullets, each one essentially made by scratch and by hand. Luckily, according to the Institute, there were no accidents in the dangerous and arduous process of smuggling the raw materials and the machinery into the fledgling country, stamping, cutting, and shaping the casings, adding and pressing the gun powder, and preparing them for delivery to their front lines. This is to say nothing of keeping the whole process top secret, getting 45 people into and out of the underground factory, maintaining that secrecy, and giving otherwise apparent kibbutz members who were supposed to be working in the fields a tanned appearance.

Finally, or what we thought was finally, we went to the city of Lod, adjacent to the Ben Gurion airport, where we spoke to program people at the local multi-cultural center about relationships in that town between Jews and Arabs.

These relationships do not exist: Seventy percent of the residents are Arabs and 30% are ultra religious Jews who acquired their land and homes very inexpensively. The Jews wish no contact or relationships with the Arabs, preferring to remain in their sequestered community. We spoke to an Arab woman named Hilde who described her personal story of domestic abuse—of many varieties—and how she had survived, and also how she would wish for better relations with Jews but no one from that community has stepped forward to accept her overtures.

We heard also from Rabbi Rinat Shwartz, of V’ahavta – HaKehila Hashivionit Shoham (The Reform Community in Shoham), a town about 15 minutes away by car, who also described unfulfilled wishes about coexistence with Arabs, unfulfilled, that is, from the standpoint of trying to get the Lod-based Jews to participate. We also heard from local entrepreneurs trying to bring these sides together.

The relationships between Jews and Arabs, and among Arabs and, for that matter, Jews, are fraught with difficulty, and it was this lack of ability to bring people to simply sit and talk that made our TBE group very frustrated. So much so that we had a meeting after arriving to the hotel tonight about what we can do to be involved in helping. The group decided that there would be engagement and action on our part. More on that later. 

An early Shabbat Shalom!

June 14, 2023
From Rabbi Biatch:

The first morning of our tour began at an early 6:00 am, when Cantor Niemi and Rabbi Biatch took three brave travelers on a walk through the neighborhood of our hotel, Dan Panorama, in Jerusalem. The air is fresh and clean, not yet stained by the pollution of buses and cars, and we walked the seven minutes to the Montefiore Windmill.

The traveling day consisted of a stop at the Haas Promenade, an overlook at the southern end of the Old City walls from the long walk through the Old City (the Walled city) of Jerusalem.

It is amazing to see people who have not visited these areas get excited by the Jewish sights and sounds of the land and its language. From the Western Wall to the Temple Mount to the walled city’s many gates, this place has something for everyone.

Later on we visited the City of David, a massive archaeological dig that begins just south of the old city’s southern border. It is a site of great promise (as people uncover more information about Israel’s past; and of great complexity as the dig frequently disrupts life in the Palestinian village of Silwan.

We ate dinner in beautiful view of the walls of the Old City, and we heard from one of the staff people at the Israel Religious Action Canter. He described their work and how it can benefit the Democracy movement in Israel.

June 12, 2023
After two uneventful and pleasant flights on LOT Polish Airlines, we arrived this evening in Tel Aviv. We met Cari our guide and are now on the way to Jerusalem. We are tired and happy.

June 12, 2023
Many of our travelers land at Chopin airport in Warsaw on their 5 hour layover before landing in Tel Aviv. 

June 16, 2024 10 Sivan 5784