Shorashim Trip - Part One
Trip Start Jun 20, 2005
7Trip End Aug 09, 2005
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The group I'm traveled to Israel with is called "Shorashim." Shorashim means "roots" in Hebrew. Shorashim is subsidized by an initiative called "Taglit," which means "birthright" in Hebrew. Taglit is a partnership between Jewish philanthropists, Jewish Israelis through their government and North American Jews through the Jewish Federation. Each group contributes 1/3 to the program. Taglit has brought over 80,000 young Jews to Israel since 1999 from across the globe. Because of the sheer size of this program Taglit distributes the money to 20 or 30 organizations that then organize the trips. Each program is different. Some for instance focus more on the outdoors while others focus on religion or culture. Shorashim (www.shorashim.org) is one of these organizations (perhaps the best!)
After landing in Israel we met our Israeli peers and tour guides at Ben Gurion International Airport (David Ben Gurion was the man who declared the Jewish State of Israel as independent in 1948 and was the first president of Israel.) Ben Gurion airport is absolutely beautiful - constructed of all limestone and glass. Our new Israeli friends met us outside of the terminal and immediately engaged us in song and dance...."Achiem, achiem, achiem achiem achiem. Simcha, simcha, simcha simcha simcha." It was an amazing welcome to a new country. Together we boarded the bus that would become our second home... and began our trek to the north...through the Galilee and eventually into the Golan region.
On our drive north we stopped for a while on the Mediterranean Sea. For those of you who haven't seen the Mediterranean Sea...it's perfect
En route to our lodging we stopped off in the (very mountainous region) Galil (Galilee) at a tower that allows views of the entire northern part of the country, including the Kinneret (also known as the Sea of Galilee). The view was great. The Sea of Galilee was just below us (about a 1/2 mile away) and to our left (toward the north and east) we could see all the way to Syria. To our northeast lay the Golan Heights (the highest peeks in Israel), a spectacular mountain range that stretches deep into the Middle East...through Syria
Kibbutzim (the "im" makes it plural) are compounds where Israelis live a communal life. Kibbutzim are unique to Israel. In no other place do they exist. Members of kibbutzim live in their own houses, eat in dining halls, work the land (some kibbutzim are very modern with factories, etc.) Traditionally, members of kibbutzim were paid equal stipends regardless of what their jobs were. Modern kibbutzim though are beginning to evolve into communities where people specialize. Kibbutz Afik was absolutely beautiful - resting at the edge of a plateau in Golan, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. We shared rooms in guest cabins and ate VERY well. The main thing with kibbutzim is that each one has maybe one or two (or more depending on their size) crops that they produce. I believe most kibbutzim produce fruits and vegetables as well as dairy and egg products.
Food in Israel is supper healthy...and delicious. No joke. Israelis eat a diet that blends middle-eastern and Mediterranean elements. Israeli dishes are beautifully spiced and very rich in color and content
Our second day in Israel was spent exploring the Galilee. We hiked down Mount Arbel, a strong hold of Jewish resistance fighters during the occupation of the Roman Empire (see...Despite what you may read and see on television, Jews have been in Israel forever). Before descending the mountain we had the opportunity again to look out over the entire northern region of Israel.
The hike was very challenging. Israelis are an incredibly robust people. Their idea of "hiking" is literally scaling mountains.... For my friends at home who enjoy the outdoorsy type activities...Israel is an outdoorsman's paradise...honestly. The landscape is breathtaking. For 3 hours we basically scaled down the cliffs of Mount Arbel. About halfway down we were able to view the caves where Jewish resistance fighters wore down the Roman Legions. It was quite impressive. By the time we reached the bottom of Mount Arbel the sun began to dim and we were able to view the mountain under immaculate lighting. Our bus driver had huge watermelons (and smiles) waiting for us at the bus....and so we rested before heading to our next special spot....the Kinneret (or Sea of Galilee).
Our tour Guide, Batya, one of my new favorite people on Earth, took us to visit the resting grounds of some of Israel's most famous cultural icons: those of Rachel, Israel's beloved poet and Naomi Shemer, Israel's most cherished composer and singer. We read Rachel's poems and sang Naomi's songs aloud in what can only be described as a very moving experience. The cemetery was small and filled with graves of some of Israel's most beloved pioneers - the people who reclaimed the land in the 19th century (from the British) and who gave their lives protecting and building up what we today call the State of Israel. We were only footsteps away from the green waters of the Sea of Galilee...and a coastline spotted with reeds and eucalyptus trees.
It's in this region, the Galil, where Israelis have established a sanctuary that aims to revive the species mentioned in the Hebrew Torah (or Bible) - namely barley, wheat, pomegranates, dates, figs, carob, olive, apricots and peaches. Although we weren't able to visit this sanctuary it's a source of national pride and I imagine, a very lovely place.
Much of Israel thus far seems like a dream....a place you think you can only enjoy in a dream. The international news media would have you believe that this is a terror ridden land where you dodge bullets on your way from your house to your car. Not true. Not true at all, actually. Israelis are very warm people and there are military and police forces visible at every moment of every day - I feel very very safe here.
The war you read about in the newspapers is taking place in Gaza and in the West Bank. There were, during the past 2 Intifadas (hopefully the second intifada is over) suicide bombings inside of Israel proper...but those activities are by terrorists who enter Israel from Gaza and the West Bank, which, although currently a part of "Israel," aren't viewed by (most) Israelis as part of the "State of Israel," and in fact, the majority of Israelis that I've met feel that in order for a Jewish State to truly exist, as envisioned by Hertzl in the 19th Century, an international border needs to be established between the State of Israel and the Palestinian settlements in the West Bank and the entire Gaza Strip.
This sentiment is important to register for two reasons: First, as many of you know, Israel is voluntarily withdrawing troops and civilians from the Gaza Strip, beginning August 16th in what's being called the "disengagement." This is the first stage of a full disengagement between Palestinians and Israelis, which will culminate in an independent Palestinian State and "peace" between the two parties. Solid borders between Palestinians and Israelis will allow the Israeli government to protect its borders from potential suicide bombers and other risks.
Traveling around Israel I'm finding it very hard not to fall in love with this land myself and Israelis only solidify that feeling. They're amazingly strong people with a beautiful outlook on life and a vibrant culture that belongs here in the Middle East. When you listen to Hebrew and you look at Sephardic Jews....you just know that Israel is really the only land for the Jewish people. I feel incredibly welcome here and can't tell you how many Israeli Jews have said to me, "welcome home."
Israel the land: Is a landscape that is draped in wild flowers and clusters of Cyprus trees. The hills and mountains are dotted with stone and brush and the air is fragrant and clean. When I say the air is fragrant I really mean it. There are wild flowers everywhere and you can smell them in the air - even in the cities. I understand why so many people feel so passionately about the land. An interesting fact that I've learned is that Israel is the only country on the planet where the tree population is increasing (not decreasing). I think it's fair to say that Israelis have a strong sense of "environmental patriotism." Apparently, even the most urban and cosmopolitan Israelis find time for nature, which I love! On the weekends city dwellers drive out to the country and spend their time hiking and trekking. It's a very healthy lifestyle....and it also demonstrates to me how much Israelis value their home and take pride in the physical health of their homeland.
After our relaxation by the Sea of Galilee we headed to Tzfat, the ancient "mystic" city of Israel. There are four cities in Israel that Jews consider "Holy."...Hebron, Jerusalem, Tiberius and Tzfat. Tzfat definitely lived up to its reputation as a mystical place. There was something unique and special about this relatively small city and I could definitely feel spirituality in the air. The narrow alleyways allowed small glimpses into the courtyards of homes and into the private lives of the very religious people who call Tzfat their home. Both men and women were dressed in (relatively) traditional attire, women in long skirts and head coverings and men in black from head-to-toe...with top-hats. We visited 3 major temples in Tzfat...all of which were lovely. We wound our way through the blue-painted (to ward off evil) alleys of Tzfat exploring the origins of Kabballah, a mystical form of Judaism. The word for "mystic" in Hebrew means "receiver." Because Kabbalists seek the truest nature of God it's very beautiful that they are called the "receivers" in Hebrew. An interesting note here is that in Israel, if you would like to study Kabballah, you aren't allowed to begin your study until age 40 and you must be fluent in Hebrew and all of the Jewish texts in order to be considered a pupil of Kabbalah.
Tzfat is supposed to be the place where "The Messiah" will first emerge en route to Jerusalem. While in Tzfat, we visited the narrowest alley in the world, which is named "Alley of the Messiah" (sounds prettier in Hebrew). Kabbalists believe that the Messiah will first emerge from this tiny alley and then walk through Tzfat on his (her?) way to Jerusalem to redeem humanity. Whether you're a religious person or not...whether you believe in a Messiah or even God....it's a beautiful belief to hold and the people here reflect that hope. I felt closer to God being in Tzfat and I'm not a particularly "religious" person. There are many theories as to why Tzfat received the named that it did. One of those explanations describes Tzfat is an acronym for "Torah, poetry and artistry." Today Tzfat is well known for its art culture. The artist's quarter was really, very neat. The paintings and sculptures clearly emerged from artists with a deep connection to their faith.... and I only wish I had more money! The art was expensive...but in my view...well worth the money.
The following day, our third day in Israel, we ascended to the top of Har Bental, the highest peak in Israel...in the Golan Heights. This was one of the most profound moments of my personal experience in Israel thus far. From our lookout, which was an abandoned military post, we were able to see into Jordan, into Lebanon and into Syria. The fragile position of Israel, as a Jewish State in the Middle East, became very obvious. From this lookout, the pieces began to fall into place and the fragile security situation of Israel became much clearer to me. Israel has enormous security risks standing on its doorstep.
As most of you already know, Syria is a very hostile nation and Israel's greatest threat to national security. From our vantage point I was able to see into Damascus (kind of), where the orders to carry out suicide bombings originate. I was able to see cars driving around in Syria (!!!)....and neighborhoods too. From our lookout I was also able to see two of Israel's most active intelligence gathering bases, which were situated on a mountaintop adjacent to us. They were quite impressive in size and certainly weren't even bothering to hide. They were perched high up on the peaks of the mountains overlooking the Syrian border. In 1948 Israel was attacked from all sides by their Arab neighbors. Syria has been Israel's largest security threat ever since. Facing east toward Damascus - toward the north I could see the snow-capped Golan Heights continue into Syria (they get much taller as they go north) and to my south I could see to Jordan (only faintly, it was well beyond another mountain range). To see into Lebanon, another hostile neighbor, I only needed to turn to my left and face northwest. The view here was obviously spectacular. Politically, this region is the source of much conflict between Israel and Syria. The Golan Heights were captured by Israel after Syria lost the war in 1967.
After descending from Har Bental we headed to Jilaboon to get our feet wet. We hiked down into the ravine...to a lagoon that was fed by a 500-foot waterfall from the Golan. I don't think I've ever been in such a beautiful spot...We were all filled with joy after having hiked for an hour and a half, sweaty and hot, to this location. The lagoon was surrounded on three sides by gargantuan cliffs that climbed 500+ feet. The edge of the lagoon, where we entered the water, was covered by a canopy supplied by some sort of gum trees (I think). The beach was composed of volcanic rock (apparently this area is very close to a - now - inactive volcano). Although the water in the lagoon was ice cold, it was also very refreshing...and a group of us swam out to the waterfall and climbed up onto the rocks behind the falling water. It was such a good time. We just let the heavy water beat down on our backs and shoulders.
We hiked for another 3 hours before reaching our bus. En route we passed through an area very close to the Syrian border where the path literally had red signs pleading that we not pass beyond them because there were landmines. The hike was so exhausting that by the time we reached the landmine infested areas, we were eager to pass through, as our bus was on the other side. The Israeli government had the area well marked....so I didn't for a second feel like I was in any danger. We also passed under Roman aqueducts and through a forest of fig trees. There are no words to describe the natural beauty this country is blessed with. I am a very fortunate person to be here!
On our way to Jerusalem we stopped off in a small village to visit a Druze family, who welcomed us into their home for several hours to rest and feast. There are only 1.2 million Druze people in the world. The Druze are an Arabic people. Their religion began 1,000 years ago in what is today the State of Israel. They lead a life of absolute mystery to the outside world. In fact, only those members in their community who are "religious people" know the actual religion. Fascinating.
Their main ideas are that God has placed them on Earth to test them for the afterlife. They will be reborn (or reincarnated) until they pass the test set before them. In your adult life (women are excluded from this choice) a man must make the decision as to whether or not he wants to pursue a "religious" life. If he opts to do so an elder shares the secret religion with him and he may never speak about this religion to anyone....not even other Druze people who are "not religious." Another of their major principles is to live in peace with all human beings. For this reason "religious Druze" and "non-religious Druze" live together in absolute harmony...even though the non-religious Druze only have access to 50% of their culture. This concept is very foreign and fascinating to me (that a "religious" husband can live with his wife and she doesn't have access to 50% of the information that makes her a "Druze" and he's not allowed to tell her. Hmmm.
Continuing on this principle (to live peacefully with all humans), the Druze coexists peacefully with Jewish Israelis and actually serve in the Israeli military (The Israeli Defense Force). As I'm sure you can imagine this creates friction between the Druze and other Arabs living in the Middle East, who question the Druze on their "Arabness." The Druze realize that they are somewhat of a contradiction in the eyes of other Arab communities...but still, they feel very strongly that they were born in Israel and therefore should support the State of Israel. Our host said that this is because of their strong belief in reincarnation. He feels that he was born into as an Israeli Druze and for that reason he will never leave Israel. This is only the tip of the iceberg, I realized, from our brief time spent with the Druze. The Druze have very striking features. They look Arab though they have the biggest and brightest eyes I've ever seen. Our host had extraordinary blue eyes and his son had almost yellow eyes. Absolutely gorgeous people.
After our time in the north we went to Jerusalem. Our first trip was to Yad Vashem, which is the brand-new Holocaust memorial and museum situated in the famous "Jerusalem Hills." The museum is located on Mount Herzl and is surrounded by sculptures and outdoor installations. The complex serves as a memorial, an archive, a museum and a gallery for Holocaust ("Sho'ah" in Hebrew, meaning "the whirlwind") memorial. Yad Vashem is set in the "hills of Jerusalem" and the architecture literally "bursts" outward toward Jerusalem to signify that from the Holocaust came the energy to create the Jewish State and...as a result...a hope toward the future.
Jerusalem, as the most holy site to Jews, is the most appropriate place for such a monument. Yad Vashem (very roughly translates to "to give name") is the only museum in the world built by the Jews for Jews to commemorate the great loss of life that was suffered by the Jewish people during the Shoah. 6 Million.....I repeat...6 million trees have been planted on the Jerusalem hills - one for each Jew that was murdered during the Shoah.
Upon arriving at Yad Vashem I was overtaken by the beauty of this monumental memorial. The grounds and the buildings as well as the gardens and sculptures were just breathtaking. I felt as though Yad Vashem is the only true place of rest for those who perished at the hands of the Nazis.
We first attended a private session with Miriam Licht, a survivor of the Holocaust. She told us the very emotional story of her life and how the Holocaust has forever cast her spirit into a relationship with the most horrific event to befall the Jewish people (and humanity?). She is truly a remarkable woman. Yad Vashem was one of the highlights of the trip, as it's the one place where our story is most honestly and clearly depicted. There is one part of the museum that I'd like to tell you all about.....because it carried with it a huge impact.
The Children's Memorial commemorates the lives of the 1.5 million Jewish children that died at the hands of the Nazis (and others) during WWII. We walked into a completely blacked out room - dark - with candles lit for the children. The room was tall....and there was more space below the walkway. The entire room was mirrored.....and so the reflection of the candles literally reflected over a million small flickers of light. It was as if we were standing in space surrounded by small stars, each representing a child who perished in the Shoah. As we silently passed through this huge room the names of those 1.5 million children were read in Hebrew, English and Yiddish. I was told by our guide that I should remember the name that I heard read aloud...as it will take over 3 years for that child's name to be read again. To say the least it was a very emotional moment on the trip.
While in Jerusalem we spent some time in the (walled) Old City, which is the oldest part of Jerusalem and the most religious center perhaps in the world. The Old City is divided into quadrants: The largest part is the Muslim Quarter, the second largest is the Christian Quarter, the third largest is the Jewish Quarter and then the smallest is the Armenian Quarter.
We entered the Old City through the Zion Gate, which I believe is one of 9-gated entrances to the Old City. On the outside of the wall you could see where bullet holes chipped off parts of the wall (actually, the wall was covered in bullet holes) from when Jerusalem fell under siege during the War of Independence. The Dome of the Rock is situated in the center of the Old City.
As many of you may know the Dome of the Rock was built on the exact location of the Second Hebrew Temple. This is important to note because both Jews and Muslims consider this exact location as a Holy site. Here's why (in broad-brush): The Bible recalls the story of Abraham who is said to have attempted to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah - in 1'700 BCE. For this reason, The First Temple was built on this site and completed in 825 BCE, as a place to make offerings to God. Farmers would bring a piece of their harvest here, for instance, and the high priests would offer those offerings to God on this site...along with sacrificial lambs. In 422 BCE the Babylonians conquered, destroyed the First Temple, and exiled the Jewish people to Babylon. Less than 70 years later the Jews returned to Jerusalem. Fewer than 50 years later Jews begin constructing the Second Temple, adjacent to where the First Temple had stood. In the year 70CE, the Romans destroy the Second Temple, which becomes one of the greatest tragedies in Jewish history.
Islam is said to have begun in the year 610 CE, which is the year Muhammad receives his first revelation from the angel Gabrielle and launches Islam. In 620 CE, Muhammad is said to have traveled to Jerusalem from Mecca (in Saudi Arabia) and to have ascended to heaven for a tour. His final step before ascending to heaven was on the exact rock where Abraham, the Jew who attempted to sacrifice his son over 1'000 years earlier had occurred. From 684-690 CE, the Muslims construct the Dome of the Rock on top of the remains of the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism. This is a brief and very rough history....to give you an idea...not an exactness.
As you can see it's a sticky situation when two separate religions claim a single rock as Holy. Although Mecca is the center of the Muslim world, the Dome of the Rock is in the hands of Muslims and Jews are not able to visit the Rock. This is why you see Jews praying at the "Western Wall," which is the wall that was built around the Second Temple. It's the closest public place for Jews to pray. My group, however, was lucky enough to be able to take a tour in the tunnels under the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem and actually get much closer. We were able to touch and pray at the western wall, which is underground now, to the location of the Second Temple. It was unbelievable....and I had the opportunity to stick a small piece of paper into that part of the wall that contained some of my own prayers.
The Western Wall is a place that I have no words to describe. It was so intense that I cannot identify appropriate words to capture the overwhelming experience of being close to the holiest site in my religion. I was able to touch the wall...and even kissed it. I don't consider myself to be particularly religious...but I'll tell you that you feel very close to God at the Western Wall....and I definitely took this opportunity to connect to my source as best as I could. I wasn't really sure what to do or what to feel so I just tried to breathe it all in and make a connection, which I am certain will stay with me for the rest of my life. Although I can't describe it in words I know that for the rest of my life I'll exactly what I prayed for and I'll be able to recall to myself the temperature, the sounds of the countless orthodox Jews engaged in prayer, and the beautiful doves that find refuge in the crevices of the walls. I know that this experience was one of the most profound experiences of my life.
I feel like if you've read this far you must be interested..... so I'll continue. (It's very difficult compressing so many experiences into a readable account...but I'm trying as best as I can to be concise.)
In deep contrast to the Western Wall experience, we visited the "Security Fence" the following day and were briefed on its importance by a commanding officer of the IDF (Israeli Defense Force). I understand that this was a "one-sided" account but to be up-front, I am a supporter of the security fence. He explained that 15 years ago the first "Intifada" began.
A little history on the "intifadas." Intifada is an Arabic word meaning "throw off the yoke." An intifada is essentially a peoples "uprising." This is important to note because the second inifada, which is the one you've been hearing about for the past 4 years is not considered an intifada (it's called intifada by the new media because it's a recognizable term now in the west...just as the "second gulf war" or the second "bush presidency" are recognizable.). The second intifada, as we know it in the west, is in fact much more violent and more along the lines of warfare. During the first intifada we saw pictures of Palestinian kids throwing stones at Israeli tanks and now we see images of Jews being blown up in cafes Palestinians. There is a huge difference between the two "intifadas." The first was an uprising and the second has been a war on a civilian population.
Despite what you may read in the American news...the security fence is in fact 98% fence and only 2% wall depending on where it's located. The official policy is to build a wall in places where Palestinians are within shooting range of Israeli homes or places of work. If they are not within shooting range of homes or places of work then a fence is erected. You can see (in person) that the fence is temporary in nature and not meant to serve as an international border, which is what many are claiming, although this is a debatable point.
I can say from first hand experience that the security fence is important - even though it scars the landscape. I am currently staying with my friend Eli Landau, an Israeli that I met along the way. He lives in place called Migdal Oz, which is located across the green line bordering the West Bank, just southeast of Jerusalem. On our way to his house from Jerusalem, a drive I've already made a dozen times, you drive along a freeway that is literally lined on one side by barricades that are intended to prevent Palestinians from aiming their guns at Jews who are driving by.
Eli showed me a stretch of highway where many Jews had been killed driving 4 years ago. You may recall seeing the footage of the highway where families and commuters were being shot. Along the left side of the highway are Palestinian homes and along the right side of the highway are steep cliffs that climb 200 feet or so. The road is now barricaded on the left side by cement blocks....and on the right side you can see countless bullet holes where missed shots punctured the rocks. Very interesting. There is no need to worry about me I'm very safe and Migdal Oz is a place that belonged to Israel even before the war of 1967 so in a future peace agreement I'm told this area would fall well within Israel's borders. (Just so you don't think I'm staying in some crazy hilltop "settlement," cause I do think those people are a bit crazy.)
Stay tuned....I have much more to come.