Israel Trip: A Look Back

I was asked to speak tonight about the trip at the Federation’s board meeting. Though I spent time considering what I would say, it didn’t quite come out how I hoped. I decided I’d give it another try here.

As I have previously mentioned, much of this trip was about making connections. Some of the connections were quite simple, a-ha moments. I knew of the Dead Sea, but reading about something like that, and actually swimming in it, are two completely different experiences. Similarly, when I was in third grade (regular school, not religious school) we did a social studies unit on kibbutzim. I recall pushing our desks together to represent the community. Certainly I knew that a kibbutz would be larger than for child-sized desks, but until I drove through kibbutzim and moshavim, I had no idea just how vast they are. I never considered that one might be on the Lebanon border and be staffed by numerous soldiers. These visits connected me with Israel, helping me to better understand why the US Jewish community actively supports it.

At the Lebanon border.
At the Lebanon border.

Much of what I have learned in the past two years about Israel, I learned from the films we have screened for the Hartford Jewish Film Festival. Our opening night film this year will be The Jewish Cardinal. It is based on the true story of a man, born Jewish, who converted to Christianity at age 14. After watching the film this fall, one aspect I did not contemplate was that there would be others like him. While listening to a speaker at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, I heard of a researcher at their archives who was born Jewish and later became a priest. This certainly isn’t a Nobel prize style discovery, but it helps me to see the bigger picture. Another film in the 2014 festival is Life in Stills. The subject of the film is the photo house opened by Rudi Weissenstein. Weissenstein was known for his photographs of the early days of Israel, including images of the signing of the Israeli declaration of independence. During my trip, I sat in the room where that happened. I know that when I watch the films again during the festival (these and many of the others that will be shown), I will have a stronger understanding of the issues presented.

Independence Hall, Tel Aviv.
Independence Hall, Tel Aviv.

Never before have I felt so connected to a group of people. Most of the others on the trip were strangers to me before we left West Hartford. We had such a wonderful time together and now I can truly call them my friends. Both in Israel and since we’ve been back, they have helped me learn, offered welcome advice, and even invited me to join a cycling group! These are all people I want to continue to get to know, which is a wonderful feeling.

About to exfoliate in the Dead Sea.
About to exfoliate in the Dead Sea.

Overall, this trip connected my past and present learning. It connected me with a country 5000 miles away, and a community in my backyard. The experience was not one I was looking for, but I am so incredibly glad I found.


My dear friends, some facts for you

Some things I haven’t discussed yet…

Breakfast – for family and friends who know the Wausaukee Club, breakfast was just about the same. Just missing the bacon. For the rest of you, it was a huge buffet at the hotel. Eggs, cheese, fruit, pancakes, yogurt, salads, breads, and more! Other meals were at restaurants. While there are McDonalds all around, native fast food is falafel. There has been a lot of eggplant and many salads. Yesterday we actually got hungry because we went about seven hours without eating!

Our bus – we have been riding in a very nice tour bus, with wifi, driven by a great guy named David. It did not have a restroom, so we constantly made bee lines from the bus to the rest rooms. The only other foreign country I have traveled in is Russia. The bathrooms here have been fit for royalty in comparison. Only one didn’t have toilet paper, and only one had a suggested fee (two Shekels).

Our tour guide – while on the bus, and for non-museum tours, we were led by Ron Sinai. Ron is an Israeli who knows his country like the back of his hand. Either that our he makes it up very convincingly. As we traveled, Ron always referred to us as his dear friends. He doesn’t mince words; we are quite aware of his opinions! We have also compiled a list of all the jobs he claims to have had.

Why we are here! – this is a mission trip run by the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford. For about two thirds of us, this is our first trip. Most of the younger people were invited to participate for having completed the Federation’s Frank Stavis Leadership Forum. We are a varied group; singles, couples, and married people without their spouses. The youngest traveler is 30 and the oldest is a spry 86. One just converted a month ago, one is not Jewish and has not converted. Some are affiliated, others are not. For some, keeping kosher is a must. One of us admits to eating a turkey, cheese, and bacon sandwich while sitting at the El Al gate in New York. The purpose of the trip is to introduce us to the land of the Jewish people, encourage us to support the country, excite us to return, and continue to support Judaism in our own community.


The final countdown


After our final buffet breakfast, our luggage was loaded into the bus. Before leaving Kibbutz Lavi, however we participated in a fabulous ritual, planting a tree. It is a gift for future generations, as we will not be able to enjoy them.

Back on the bus, we headed south toward Tel Aviv. Along the way we passed Armageddon! Our final museum visit of the trip was the Underground Amunition Factory, Machon Ayalon. Between 1945 and 1948, under a threat of being killed for making or possessing munitions, 46 kibbutz members secretly manufactured bullets for their cause. It’s a pretty nifty story.


A boxed lunch was waiting for us in a room at the museum. After we ate, we shared our thoughts and feelings about the trip. There was laughter and tears, but that is as detailed as I will get. What happens in the bullet factory, stays in the bullet factory.

We took one last group photo when we arrived in Tel Aviv and then had some time to relax. Dinner was at a nearby restaurant. Those continuing on to Petra ate and ran. After the rest of us finished our meal, we made our way to the airport.

Most of us have cleared security, etc. and we are waiting to board. Can’t believe the week has come to an end!

Tour 6: Go north, young people

I received my first Bible as a fourth grader at the Congregational Church in South Glastonbury (yes, church, more here). I don’t remember that we had much in the way of a curriculum. Our Sunday school teachers were all volunteers, who I can not criticize as they took on a task I can’t imagine I ever would. I don’t recall learning much. There were maps in our classrooms, but I think they had been there since the wing was add to the church building in the 1960s. They didn’t seem real. The stories were just that, stories. In school you learn math, and then use it on a daily basis. But I found limited practical applications for Sunday school lessons. Last night I had dinner right near Nazareth. It’s a real place, with real people, who are all proud of their home. Frankly, it is also a lot easier to understand why Mary needed a room at the inn. That had to be one heck of a journey to Bethlehem.

We were on the bus by about 7:45 ready to embark on today’s adventure. Kibbutz Misgav-Am was our first destination, where we drove along the Lebanon border. The guide told us it was easy to tell where the border is. Israel has green trees, Lebanon is gray and brown. Israel has sophisticated farming, Lebanon grows drugs. He showed us the remains of buildings that were blown up. Hartford’s north end seems like a paradise compared to this place. We met soldiers, watched them practice target shooting, and climbed aboard tanks. A few of us sampled apples from their orchards. Evan had the honor of planting a kiwi tree. For show and tell the guide pulled out a Katusha missile lobbed over by Hezbollah seven years ago. Thankfully, it did not detonate (then or now).

After Kibbutz Misgav-Am we continued to Kibbutz Merom Golan, the first kibbutz established in the Golan Heights. Lebanon not being quite dangerous enough, we decided to take a peak at Syria. We did this aboard ATVs and similar vehicles. At a former hospital, built by the Soviets, we took a quick snack break. The vehicle I was driving didn’t quite handle as well as my car, but the breeze was great.

Lunch was at the Golan Heights Winery. The majority of our group seemed to prefer the Sauvignon blanc to the Chardonnay, but it was a tie between the Syrah and the Cabernet Sauvignon. The food got great marks, too. Rumor has it they sell the brand at Maximum Beverage in West Hartford. I figured that was a better gamble than putting red wine in my suitcase.

Leaving the Golan, we headed to Safed for a quick introduction to mysticism. We spent a few minutes in a 400 year old Sephardic synagogue and then moved on to another activity for the soul, shopping.

Few of us knew each other before we left West Hartford. Since riding the bus together for hours each day, we have found numerous connections among us. Duane works with some of my former co-workers. Amy and Al used to live on the same street. Lisa’s mother and Tracy’s mother used to be good friends. These discoveries always lead to smiles and laughter.

Dinner was held at…summer camp? Bat Ya’ar Ranch is a collection of log cabin buildings. It is a horse farm, so more than one of us wondered where the steak came from. After dinner we participated in a drum circle. At one point or another we all hit the dance floor, even Al, who at 86 wins the chronological age award on this trip. Eric pulled me onto the floor during the hora.

From kiwi and Katusha missiles to horses and hora, it was quite a day. Particularly the morning portion is something most of us never dreamed we would see. Most were in awe of the dangers the soldiers face daily to keep this beautiful country safe.

Tour 5: On the Road Again

We said our good byes-for-now to Jerusalem this morning and started our journey north. On our way, we stopped at Aroma, Israel’s Starbucks equivalent. The menu was available in Hebrew, English, and Russian, though I don’t think the guy behind the counter understood my Russian.


Our first stop was at a spot where you can see 20% of the land owned by Israel. We were briefed there by Dr. Avi Melamed, who was able to point to where the 1949 “green line” lies. He described how various settlements in view would be effected if those boundaries were put into use today. Among the other topics discussed were suicide bombers and the security fence. Though some portions are cement, most of the time the fence is just a fence. It is a fence, however, with one sophisticated security system. Basically, it has eyes in the back of its head.

View of the 1949 Green Line, look for the dirt road.


Back on the bus, we traveled to Moshav Nahalal. The moshav, which is similar to a kibbutz, began in 1921. Some of the original buildings still stand, which is an unusual period of architecture for the country. Within the moshave is a start up organic cosmetics company, Lavido. We started our tour sampling pecans that fell from the farm’s trees. Walking around the teaching farm (the company has grown and needs much more land), we were introduced to some of the herbs used to manufacture the products. Next they gave us the opportunity to make our own perfume using their essential oils. When I get home, come visit and I will let you try the lavender perfume.

After a quick lunch stop, we arrived at a school in Afula. Afula is Greater Hartford’s sister city. Some of the money raised each year by the Federation, and sent to Israel, benefits this community. We started with a visit to a school. Divided into two groups, we learned about the programs put into place with Federation money. My group heard about the Fathers and Sons and Sport program and the community garden. Teachers and parents both spoke, and told us how participating in the programs has improved their relationships with their children.

Next we drove over to Bernie [Waldman] Park and took a group photograph. Bernie and his wife, I have been told, were instrumental in the development of the sister city relationship. Across the street from the park is Beit Uri, a beautiful, residential campus for intellectually and physically disabled individuals. There are about 100 residents, and additional day students. The school offers several different types of therapy, including music and pet. Right after we arrived we got to sit in on a concert being performed by a trio from the Israeli Symphonic Orchestra. We were then treated to coffee and cakes prepared by the residents. During this time we had the opportunity to purchase craft items made by the residents. Additionally, the residents were presented with musical instruments handmade by teens in Hartford’s JT Connect program. All of the residents work, whether cooking, doing crafts, or caring for the animals. The animals used for therapy include goats, birds, and rabbits. One of the projects that the Hartford Federation has funded over the years is a bomb shelter. Bombs were nearby in 2006 and they actually had to make use of it.

All I could think about while were at Beit Uri was my cousin, who lives in a Jewish Community Living home in West Hartford. Her home is much smaller than Beit Uri, but she has always been very happy there. The residents of Beit Uri also seem to enjoy their home. Additionally, they are very proud of the items they sell.

Dinner tonight was with host families. My group of four went to the home of a professional chef! We ate falafel, pizza, and pasta, and chatted about our common interests. The chef’s assistant spent last year as an emissary in Westport, CT. Her English is fantastic, and she was able to translate as needed. Overall, the family seemed excited to have us over, and we all enjoyed the experience to hear what average Israelis have to say.

Emily Berman learns how to form falafel at our dinner in Afula.


Today, like yesterday, was a very good day. It was good in a completely different way, though. Masada is beautiful, but so is hearing that your money has helped to improve relationships and to build lives.

Myself, our Afula hosts, Scott MacGilpin, Emily Berman, and Todd Berman.


Tour 4: The Lowest Place on Earth

A view from the top of Masada toward the Dead Sea, the lowest place on Earth

Amazing does not quite adequately describe this day. We got on the bus (special shoutout to my seatmate, Eric Zachs) and headed toward Masada. Along the way we got to see several settlements. The difference between the Palestinian and Israeli settlements is quite stark. It is really a difference of cleanliness. The first thing that came to mind is the difference between Capitol Ave. at the West Hartford border, and Boulevard just across Prospect. It’s much more extreme, though. We drove through one Israeli settlement that is entirely gated.

On our way to our first stop, we passed the location where the first Dead Sea scroll was found. At the En Gedi Nature Reserve we got out of the bus and went for a hike. I think I can safely say I’ve never seen scenery like that before. The mountains and the Dead Sea are, quite simply, breathtaking. I even got to see a mountain goat! Unfortunately, most of the good photos are on my real camera, not my smartphone.

Waterfall at En Gedi.

And it got better. We were then off to Masada National Park. You have two options there; you can either climb the mountain, or take the cable car. Nine of us decided to do the climb. Though I do not usually mention names, Jessica Zachs, Scott MacGilpin, and I were quite proud to make it to the top in 33 minutes. Most of the rest of the group took an additional half hour. It was exhilarating, and the views were stunning.

Jessica and I, about to summit Masada.

Then it was time to go swimming in the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth. You don’t have to try to stay afloat, you just do. After walking in, you sit back as if you were going to sit in an arm chair. The next thing you know, your feet are hovering above the water. I did get some in my mouth (blech) and in my eye (a bit of a sting), but nothing I couldn’t deal with. Putting on mud was fun, and my skin does feel great now.

About a year ago I was having a discussion about Israel. Someone asked if I were interested in taking a trip here. At the time I was ambivalent. After today, I have quite certainly lost my ambivalence.

Tour 3: Connect the dots

Over the past couple of years I have become much more involved in Hartford’s Jewish community than I ever thought I might. Having never had any formal Jewish education, I decided to take an Intro to Judaism class to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge. This trip is continuing that connect the dots theme.

I have started telling people that everything I know, I know from the Hartford Jewish Film Fest. Everything I know about army recruits getting their first guns, priests/cardinals who were born Jewish, the prime ministers, and probably a few more topics, I have learned during our screenings. Coming here and seeing the recruits, hearing about a Jew-turned-Catholic researching at Yad Vashem, and seeing Independence Hall really strengthens my understanding of these issues.

This morning we visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. The memorial to all the children who perished moved me the most. Our visit was not going to be too long to begin with, but the French president was arriving in the afternoon and the museum was closing early. Our tour guide hit the main points, but having read a lot of Holocaust based fiction lately, I am already familiar with many of the common themes.

This is supposed to represent a class photo. Since the students being depicted died, the stones are all broken at the top.


We then headed to Tel Aviv. Along the way we stopped at the approximate location of David’s fight with Golaith. Today it’s a cabbage patch, and I was looking for Xavier Roberts.

Our first stop in Tel Aviv was at Independence Hall. Having been in Philadelphia just over a week ago, I’ve hit Independence Halls in two countries in one month. I can’t imagine that’s too common of an occurrence.

A view of the interior of Independence Hall


Jaffa, our final stop of the day, is a gorgeous old city. Would have been nice to see it in daylight, but there are only so many of those hours in a day. After walking around a bit, we had dinner at a fish restaurant.

Things got a little exciting as we boarded the bus to return to Jerusalem. A young Israeli, completely stoned, boarded our bus. Kudos to our bus driver and tour guide for swiftly dealing with the guy. You can imagine the scenarios going through all of our heads. Fortunately, none of them was realized.

Tour 2: The Christian Quarter

A view from the ramparts
A view from the ramparts

First of all, I should say that “quarter” is a bit misleading today. There are people of each religion in each of the quarters (Jewish, Christian, Armenian, Muslim). Our touring today did have a Christian emphasis, though.

Having walked the entire tour today, it is quite obvious we didn’t really need the bus yesterday. We started out at the Jaffe Gate, and walked on the ramparts. Our tour guide pointed to different parts of the wall and told us how old they were – in the thousands, not hundreds as we’re used to.

The ramparts were great, except if you have a fear of heights. The main event was a quick tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Was that place ever busy! People of all races and religions were there to see area where Jesus was crucified. Some were lighting candles, others were getting in line to touch the stone that was used to kill him. Really quite a pilgrimage for many.

We had some lunch, returned to the hotel, and are getting ready for dinner and some time on Ben Yehuda Street.

The tomb where Jesus was buried, Church of the Holy Sepulchre


Overview of the first day of touring

Just sitting here by the pool, relaxing before our waking tour of the Christian quarter this morning. We don’t have our tour bus today because it’s Shabbat. But it is bright and sunny, and walking will not be a problem. I kind of admire how the whole city comes to a halt once a week. In he US we can’t even manage to keep our stores closed for the full 24 hours of Thanksgiving.

We started off yesterday returning to the Haas Promenade to see the view in daylight. I have to say, the view was much more impressive than at night. We then made our way to the Jewish Quarter. Our first stop was the rededicated Hurva Synagogue. The story that stuck with me the most was that the ark came from (I think) Lithuania, was broken up into something like 18 pieces and after arriving in Jaffa was delivered to Jerusalem on the back of an animal (donkey? Camel?). There were lots of stories. Missed a few details.

We made our way to the Western Wall via the underground tunnels. At one point they held water for the houses built above them. Some pretty impressive architecture. Also kind of funny to watch a video on a flat screen in the middle of these ancient tunnels.

The wall itself is an interesting place. Not quite sure what my impression is. Actually went there twice yesterday. We returned to see what it was like as Shabbat started.

Before Shabbat, though, we got some shopping in. There was a sign outside one of the stores that was entirely in Russian. I’m not sure why I’m surprised, I know there are a lot of Russian immigrants. Fun to be able to read it.

Our dinner was with the first female rabbi ordained in Israel and her husband. They have names, but again, details.

After breakfast this morning I swam 1500 meters in the outdoor pool. I need to do more of this in November.