Dedicated to: JWRP (Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project) and the JEC (Jewish Education Center) – without whom I wouldn’t have had this great journey home and a greater sense of what being Jewish truly is.
As my eyes fluttered open after a long flight over from the US to Israel, I still didn’t have a clue what I was truly embarking on. I left the comfort of the plane (oxymoron, I know) to enter the land of Israel. As I walked towards the meeting spot, I was greeted with cheers, bursts of laughter, and singing. The flag was proudly raised as 250 women met up in the Tel Aviv airport. Before I could say hi to anyone, I was enclosed in a circle of arms - - people hugging me, people I have never met, nor will I ever forget.
After getting our sim cards and phones set up for Israel, we all wandered our way through the street to fill the waiting bus. Our group leaders introduced us to the other trip leaders on our bus. The 14 members of my specific group were sharing a bus with girls from PGA, Stuart, and Israel. We were all strangers including the members of my own group as we had only met a handful of times prior to the hot July day. As if this wasn’t surreal enough, we begin the drive from Tel Aviv to Tiberias. Our tour guide spouting out historical facts as we take in the scenery surrounding us. One of the first historical stories we were told was about something that took place on Mt. Carmel, near Mt. Sinai, between Elijah and the priests of Ba-al. The significance being that just a few short months before, my son was called to the Torah in honor of his Bar Mitzvah. His Haftarah portion was this story. I read about it, heard my child speak about it, and here I was looking at the same mountain Elijah had visited long ago.
Once we arrived at our hotel, we went to our first welcome meeting. Here, Lori Palatnik introduced herself and gave a brief overview of a few things to expect. Lori is a dynamic speaker. She hooks you from the moment she begins talking. Throughout the next 8 days, we met with her and learned. We learned about parenting, how to treat our spouses, how to read and understand ourselves and the people we love. Each day the lesson was tied to something we would be learning about that day as we toured the ancient towns. First Jaffa and Tsfat, then onward to Tel Aviv for a few short hours, and Jerusalem. We went to Negev and ate where Abraham ate. We engaged in a drum circle and rode camels and danced the night away. We traveled up Masada. We visited with IDF soldiers and brought them packages filled with things from home – toiletries, shirts, socks, etc. . . We went to a Mikva, and of course to The Wall. We toured the tunnels, and spent time wandering the streets of the Old City and shopped on Ben Yehuda. We even went to a Shuk on the busiest day of the week - - Friday before Shabbat. While each and every one of these places is incredible and spiritual, and amazing, it doesn’t even begin to touch the surface of what we were doing here. It is only natural to begin to think deeper, and I found that something was awakening inside.
What was it about this place that touched my heart and soul? I am not sure I can explain it, but I will try. First of all, let me explain something. There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t shed tears. Sometimes they were quick tears, and other times they were sobs. Of course,
Yad V’shem automatically brings tears to one’s eyes. Jut the sheer madness and craziness of Hitler and what he did to the Jews. The stories that were shared of those that survived. The children that perished, the moms and dads, the grandparents - - my family, your family, all a part of our ancestors - - it’s unfathomable, yet it happened. Again, I expected to shed tears here. However, one particular place that hit me hard was this place called Nalaga’at Center. This is a cultural arts center. Everyone here is blind and/or deaf. These men and women perform shows. There is a food bar as well. The waiters are all deaf. The performance we saw was a one woman show. The people who are deaf and blind were born with a condition. They were born deaf, but they went blind as they hit puberty. They remember seeing, and they remember losing their sight. The show was a memoir of this woman’s life. It showed us how at 13, she remembers losing her sight and going home to her mom as she sobbed. It was heartfelt, and I was especially struck and overcome with uncontrollable tears, as I am slowly losing my sight. Remember, this is all acted out through a blind and deaf person. No talking, she can’t see, yet the audience felt her pain, her anguish, her fears. After the show, I had the opportunity to “speak” with the actress. I found out she has a few kids and new grandbaby. This woman’s strength, perseverance, her outlook on life is incredibly strong. And for the first time, I didn’t feel so sorry for myself or feel as though my lack of sight would diminish me. I had hope.
Later on, we spent the afternoon at One Family. The mission of One Family is overcoming terror together. This is a group that helps rehabilitate broken families as a result of acts of terrorism. The men, women, and children who come here for support have lost loved ones in the wars, terrorist attacks in the cities, and in some cases the children have lost both parents. Here we met a few women who lost their boys in the recent wars. While they are certainly sad, the light in their eyes, the way they spoke of their loved ones, was so endearing. Talking about them helps to keep them in the present. While not all people are able to do this, these women we met were inspirational. And of course, the tears kept flowing from all of us in the room. And, there was a feeling of hope.
The day before Shabbat, we went to the wall. We prayed at the wall, we cried at the wall, we held each other at the wall. It was quite melancholy. The last time I was at the wall was when I was 12. I was here with my family including my own Grandma and Grandpa, and a woman whom I always considered a grandmother, Grandma Alice. (my cousin’s grandma). I felt them here with me. I remembered their wet eyes, and I remembered the many Jews who are no longer with us who fought for the land of Israel. Again, a bittersweet end to many days of crying.
Everything in Jerusalem closes between 3 and 4 o’clock. Even the Arab Quarter shuts down. This is a time that families are preparing for the next 25 hours. Shabbat quickly approached. As day turned into night, we welcomed the Shabbos Queen at the wall. We danced, we sang, we laughed. It was completely different from the day before. Shabbat was here! Shabbat was all around us. It was truly a festive evening. Growing up Conservative, I was always taught that Shabbat is a weekly holiday. It never felt like a holiday. Here, in Jerusalem,
Shabbat is as festive as it comes. Men, women, children, young, old, and everything in between is celebrating.
Funny, celebrating was a weird way to end the week, a week of crying, of learning, of listening to the stories of our ancestors fighting for rights, fighting for religion, fighting for survival. Here, in America, while it isn’t perfect, we haven’t had the same trials and tribulations, at least not in my lifetime. I started thinking back to the days of WWII. The Jews fought to stay alive. People risked their lives just to be Jewish. Jews are 2% of the population. I kept thinking about my own history. Growing up, my grandparents were Orthodox, my parents were Conservative Orthodox, and my brother and I were raised Conservative for most of our lives until our parents turned towards Conservative Reform. My family now is Reform. Do you see the pattern? We are assimilating and losing our identity that our ancestors fought so hard to keep. I know why. It is easier to fit in. Being religious is difficult in our world where we are only 2%. The activities our kids enjoy are on Shabbat - - soccer, baseball, football, hockey, etc. . . It was on Shabbat that I decided that I needed to make a change in my life for my children. While I have been slowly coming to this realization over the past year or so (when I realized my kids didn’t know there was an order to the service - -oh my, I really dropped the religion ball!), it resonated with me in Jerusalem. If I want any of the customs I grew up with to be passed down to my children and their children, I need to do something now, before they are all grown up and set in their ways.
Back in the USA, Shabbat rolls around. I wish I had the time to bake fresh challah, but I don’t. I run to Publix after work, grab two loaves of challah, put out my candlesticks, wash off my Kiddush cup (I am embarrassed to admit how much dust was on it as it is only used at Passover for the prophet Elijah), and print out the weekly Torah portion from the website www.myjewishlearning.com. We read the portion at dinner. We discuss it and figure out how it applies or doesn’t apply to our world today. We have had a few really good discussions. After the discussions, we have family game night. We all plug out and tune in. We treat the evening as if it were special because it is special. It is Shabbat. I would be lying if I told you everyone in the family loves this, but they don’t. I get push back. I know that we are too assimilated to go beyond six hours on Friday night. But, it is important to me, and I hope that one day everyone will look back and say, “Wow, Friday night Shabbat was a night I looked forward to.”
My trip to Israel was way more than a trip. It was a journey. It was about finding me, and what’s important. Israel is a home to all Jews. Israel is home to me. I feel a connection with Israel that I have never felt before. I see why people visit and end up staying. Israel is a country of hope.
Gayle is a member of Congregation Shirat Shalom.