By Rabbi David Wilfond
On Monday the group visited the Israeli town of Bat Hefer to see and discuss the complexities of Israel’s “Separation Barrier.” Though the fence separates the land, there is an inspiring story here about how the Israelis and Palestinians jointly purify the waste water that collects in a local reservoir along both sides of the fence, and is then jointly shared for agriculture. Our students learn there is hope even in sites of conflict.
In the afternoon the group got a chance to take a dip in the cooling blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea at the beach in Hertzlia. This is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and pristine beaches in Israel and is just a few miles north of the thriving metropolis of Tel Aviv.
This beach experience allows our students to feel the pulse of vibrancy amongst young Israelis who swim in the waves, soak up the warm sun and play on the sand.
On Tuesday, the group volunteer at a Senior’s Center in Jerusalem before heading off to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum and Memorial. In addition to a guided tour of the museum, the group had a session meeting with one of the last holocaust survivors, who shared a personal story of hope. Before leaving Yad Vashem the group had a memorial ceremony that included the Jewish prayer affirming life, Kaddish. The visit to Yad Vashem was the main activity of the day.
Wednesday, the group visited the Hebrew University Campus on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. This was the first University in the world to make Hebrew its language of instruction. When the University was founded in 1918 there were maybe 10,000 people who could claim Hebrew as their first language. Today there are nearly 7 million people who speak Hebrew as their first language. Hebrew has been reborn and some even say “resurrected.” The Hebrew University has played a huge role in the rebirth of the Hebrew Language. Today more Jews speak, write and dream in Hebrew as their first language, than any other language. This is the first time in more than 2,000 years that Hebrew has become again the primary langue of the Jewish people.
Hebrew University also offers a unique perspective in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. In 1948 after the British Government withdrew its forces from ruling over Palestine-Eretz Yisrael and after the ensuing Arab-Israeli War ended, the University Campus on Mount Scopus and the neighboring Hadassah Hospital found themselves isolated like an island in Jordanian territory cut off from the rest of Israeli Jerusalem by a mile and half. In 1948 the Old City of Jerusalem was conquered by the Jordanians and the Jewish Community of the millennial old Jewish Quarter of the Old City was expelled as refugees. The Hebrew University and Mount Scopus were cut off from the rest of Israel and were frequently the target of attacks. The worst being in 1948 when the Arabs massacred 79 Jewish doctors of The Hadassah Hospital. Nineteen years later in 1967, following Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, the U.N supervised “No-man’s land” that divided Jerusalem into an Israeli half and Jordanian half was dismantled and Jerusalem was once again united into one city. The uniting of the city has not been without its complexities and difficulties.
Hebrew University’s story and location provides tremendous insight on the conflict, and sometimes this had been sad and painful. In 2002 a Hamas Terrorist planted a bomb in the University’s Frank Sinatra Cafeteria that killed 9 people and wounded more than 100. Shock waves rocked the country as the University had always been seen an oasis for peaceful dialogue and learning. Since then the security at the University has been enhanced to make it one of the most secure academic facilities on the planet. The quest for dialogue and peace still continues amongst the students who hail from every minority community and every corner of Israel. Praised as the “Harvard of the Middle East,” Hebrew U has produced more Noble Prize winners than any other university in the region. International Relations, Crisis Management and Peace Studies are still three of the most popular academic programs. Walking through the green spaces at the university one is inspired by the buzz of intellectual activity among the student body. It is hoped that friendships forged here between students of different backgrounds may lead to lasting relationships of trust that can become a foundation one day for greater peace between the diverse inhabitants of this land.
After lunch the group was hosted by a Muslim family in their home in Ein Rafa, a village at the outskirts of Jerusalem that is committed to promoting the co-existence of Jews and Arabs in the Land of Israel. The Mom of the family named Yasmin is a Muslim and an articulate teacher of Islam. Yasmin creates a safe space in which the participants can ask any question they have about Muslims, Islam and the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Yasmin is very charismatic and does her best to challenge and break stereotypes and enables the students to engage with the challenges for Israel to be both a Democratic and a Jewish State. This was a very stimulating and compelling discussion for our teens.
On Thursday the group’s exploration of Modern Israel brought them to the sunshine capital of Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew City. Founded in 1909, this was the first city in the world in more than 2,000 years in which Hebrew was the main language spoken on the street. Tel Aviv is about revival; the revival of Hebrew, the revival of the Jewish People and the revival of spirit. Tel Aviv is known for its unbridled joie de vivre. The group will get to see Tel Aviv at its vibrant best at the Carmel Market. Here the pulse of optimism is palpable. Here one smells the salt of the sea mixed with the aromas of Baklava, Pistachios, Apricots, sweet Turkish coffee and honey covered Challahs ready for Friday night’s Shabbat dinner. The kids love sampling the treats on offer at the market place.
The group visited Israel’s Independence Hall where the first Prime Minister of a Jewish County in 2,000 years, David Ben Gurion, read the Delectation of Independence and established the State of Israel in 1948.
There is the dream and then there are bumps on the road of reality. Independence Hall represents the dream. But the path to fulfilment of the dream is far more complicated and at times tragic. From here the group went to Rabin Square to the site of the assassination of Israel’s Premier, Yitzhak Rabin, who had been a soldier in all of Israel’s wars and then desired to be a leader of peace. The tragic loss of Yitzhak Rabin and his vision and the implications for us today were the thrust of a deep conversation for the group at Rabin Square, the site of his assassination in 1995. All of these activities were done jointly with the Israeli teens of the NFTY “Youth Connections” Kishrey Noar Program. There is no better was to learn about modern Israel than through the eyes of, and in conversation with, Israeli teen peers.
On Thursday at Dinner time the American teens travelled to the homes of the eight Israelis of the Kishrey Noar (Youth Connections) program to be hosted by the Israeli families in their homes for Dinner. This was a high light of the program. To see their Israeli friends in their homes with their parents over dinner is a powerful experience on many levels.
Tonight after dinner the group will have a final party to celebrate and remember highlights of the trip.
Tomorrow, Friday, the group will visit Mount Hertzl. This is like Israel’s ‘”Arlington National Cemetery.” Here lie soldiers from all of Israel’s wars. This site tells the story of the struggle of Israel throughout its history. Here one learns of the inspiring lives of people who paid the ultimate price so that the People of Israel might live. Buried side by side one find generals and simple soldiers, men and women, young and old. All are equal in death. All gave their lives. May we through our lives give their sacrifice the meaning and respect that is deserved.
Friday Lunch will be at Jerusalem’s largest Food Market knows as Machaneh Yehuda. Fridays (before Shabbat) at Macheneh Yehuda is a feast for the eyes and for the palate. The freshest Jaffa Oranges, strawberries, mounds of multi colored spices, sweet halva, savory humus and fruit smoothies are everywhere in abundance and cheap. It is rare that anyone leaves here still hungry!
Following lunch Friday there will be a last chance for shopping for souvenirs for family back home.
Friday night the group will celebrate its last Kabbalat Shabbat in Israel. This is a bitter-sweet time with many mixed emotions for the teens. The “Oneg Shabbat” will be a Final Party to celebrate the best memories the group shared together.
On Saturday after morning tefilah and lunch at the hotel, the group will make its way back to the Old City of Jerusalem for one final visit to the Western Wall for a last chance to place a payer note between its stones and offer a Farewell prayer. Here the group will share a song of blessing in gratitude for having been able to make this journey – a sacred pilgrimage to the land of Israel. For some this may be the only time they will ever come to Israel. We hope they will return and bring their family and friends.
Visiting the Wall on the last day in Israel is emotionally powerful. The Wall is Ancient and Tenacious – and so is the Jewish People! Like we come back to the Kotel (The Wall), we hope one day the participants might come back to visit the Land of Israel. Every time you come the experience is different and we want them to come back often and to feel at home in this eternal place of the Jewish People. The Kotel is considered the holiest and most famous symbol of the Jewish People in the Land of Israel. We want this to be a part of their memories of Israel. There are many metaphors and stories about the Kotel that can inspire a lifetime of connection. Each one of us is a brick in the wall – one of the stones that holds up the Wall of the Jewish People. The eternity of this Wall; its warmth in the dark of night, how it is cooling to the touch when the sun is blazing, the power of the notes-prayers wedged in the cracks, the impossible becomes possible when one see the flowering plants growing “impossibly” in the wall, picking a stone that becomes your stone – that you will bring your children to see your stone that it might become their stone – that they might become a part of the story…..etc etc etc. The Wall can release a cascade of emotions and inspirations. Almost every synagogue around the world has a picture (or tapestry) of the Kotel. Is it the symbol of the Jewish People par excellence. It is ancient and tenacious! The Wall has an almost mystical strength, durability and has survived the centuries and been witness to almost all of History. This Wall is ours and part of our story and it is our symbol – of hope, strength, survivability, and the future. The Wall will be here in the future. And we pray we too will be here – and may be our children and grandchildren one day will be here too.
After the farewell ceremony in the Old City, the group will visit the campus of Hebrew Union College for an Educational Summary Program, Dinner and a Friendship Circle before making their way to Ben Gurion Airport.
The last days of the trip are designed to inspire memories for a lifetime. Creating Jewish memories is what NFTY in Israel is all about. Our hope is to create Jewish memories that inspire the participants to feel a part of the Jewish Community and to feel a commitment to its future as happy, proud members and maybe even a leader in the next generation of our people – L’Dor V’Dor (from Generation to Generation). Freud noted that only people with memories can have dreams. At NFTY we want the participants to have Jewish Memories that can lead to Jewish Dreams. We want to help the next generation to have the tools to dream Big Jewish Dreams for the Future of the Jewish People. May the participants travel from “Strength to Strength.”