I was talking with a nice Christian gentleman recently; right after I got back from my first trip to Israel. He was explaining to me that his church sponsors a trip to the Holy Land each year, and he was considering going.
Then, like pretty much everyone I’ve talked to since I’ve been back, he asked me what I thought about my trip. Being mindful of the fact that this was a non-Jew I was speaking to, and also that words like “amazing”, “wonderful” and “fantastic” didn’t really convey anything substantive about the trip, I hesitated before I answered. Finally I said: You know how all the monotheistic religions say that Jerusalem is the center of the universe? Well, after you’ve been there, you know that’s true.
Also like pretty much everyone else, he nodded as if that meant something to him, although I suspect it didn’t. Because the truth is, there is no way to understand what it feels like to be in Israel unless you have been in Israel. And that is the real answer to the question of how I felt about my trip: It was different than anything I could possibly have imagined before I went. And I can’t wait to go back.
This trip was called a “Reconnection Trip.” There were a lot of classes as it focused more on learning, than sightseeing. Not that I have any issues with sightseeing. But I am way more driven by learning, so I was completely happy with this, although as it turned out many of the most meaningful things I learned were not in the classes.
A day at the Dead Sea
I have to admit, I skipped the “Dead Sea Spa Experience” at the lovely hotel where we stayed. I’m just not much of a spa person. Being part of a tour group, getting checked in at the hotel took awhile. But as soon as I was checked in, and had dumped my suitcase in my room, the very first thing I did was to walk across the street, so I could sit quietly by myself on the beach at the edge of what turned out to be a very quiet sea.
On the short walk over, I was thinking about my first experiences of the vastness of G-d, when I danced with the rolling waves of the Pacific Ocean, near where I went to college in Southern California.
Of course, this sea didn’t feel anything like the Pacific. Every body of water has its own feeling. I’m not sure why. I sat there for an hour or so. Feeling the wind. Watching the water. Noticing that I still think palm trees are ugly. Doing some connection with the water in front of me, and the land around me. I always connect with bodies of water, anything larger than a puddle anyway. And this time alone was one of the high points of this introvert’s trip.
Standing at the foot of Masada
Eitan Rund was the guide on the bus with us on that part of the trip. He talked to us about a lot of geology stuff relative the formation and current condition of the Dead Sea. To be honest, I didn’t understand any of it. However, on our way back to Jerusalem, he delivered one of those important non-classroom lessons.
He began by asking if we would mind stopping at the base of Masada. Of course we were all willing and, after we were standing out there by the windy roadside, he explained to us why the IDF has inductions for some of its soldiers on Masada.
There were lots of little pockets of Jewish resistance that the Romans had to wipe out. What was it that made Masada special enough that so many, including the IDF, still go there? It wasn’t how long it took the Romans to build the ramp that the Snake Path is on or all the other structures needed to get up there. It wasn’t how many slaves died there or how many soldiers it took to do all that work. It wasn’t even the suicides. What makes Masada different from all the others is that it was the last. It was only when the Romans took Masada, that they had finally conquered all of Israel. And Eitan explained that the IDF has inductions there so that the soldiers have a tangible symbol to remind them that if they lose, if we lose, Israel, it is the last. As Jews we have no place else.
Outside the Green Line
Some other major non-classroom learning came from Steve Gar, our guide the next day, on our bus tour outside the Green Line.
Steve is in an IDF Anti-Terrorism Unit. He’s on call, 24 X 7, so he was in uniform. And the first thing he said to us, in his deep, sort of gruff voice, was: “Do you want to see my guns?” It made us laugh. But he was serious. He had three, one of them a really long, pretty dangerous looking, automatic rifle.
However, the most impressive things about Steve were not his guns. It was that, in addition to being a tour guide and having a wife and family, he runs a yeshiva for disabled boys who want to spend a gap year in Israel and he is studying to be a rabbi. Those are the things that impressed me anyway.
I’m not sure if this was the point of this part of the trip, but it completely changed my American media-created opinions about settlers, and the settlements. Without ever saying it in so many words, Steve taught us why the people living in the settlements feel it is something worth doing, even though it is neither easy nor safe.
Twice our bus went past the roundabout where those three teen aged boys (who were later killed) were kidnapped in 2014. It is very near where Steve’s yeshiva is located. He described participating in the painstaking foot by foot grid search looking for even the smallest bit of evidence that might lead to the boys.
Later, he also pointed out to us a place in Hebron where an 8 year old girl, who was simply out playing, was shot from a hillside above the town.
Those were the unsafe and not easy parts.
Sarah Nachshon & the Things She Did
But then in Kiryat Arba, a suburb of Hebron, we visited the home of Sarah Nachshon. Her life story includes both the unsafe and not easy parts, and some meaningful, even triumphal, parts of living in these areas.
Her daughter-in-law related the story of the many things she did to help Jews regain the right to live in Hebron, and thus, to assure continued access to the Cave of Machpelah, the burial site of our Matriarchs and Patriarchs.
In 1968, the Nachshons and their four young children moved into an Arab-owned hotel inside Hebron; and refused to leave. Reb. Sarah said that an army official came to meet with them and told them that they were a big pain in his neck. But because the government feared for their safety, they had agreed that a group of seven families and fifteen yeshiva students could continue to stay in Hebron if they moved into an army compound.
The army had seen the group with all those little children and thought, with only one kitchen for everyone to share, and the only bathrooms outside, that within a few weeks they would give up and leave.
The army was wrong.
Not only did the group stay for three years, thirty more families joined them.
While living in the army compound, Sarah gave birth to three more children. When she decided to defy government orders and have her newborn son circumcised at the Cave of Machpelah, she started the day of the brit milah by telling her husband: “Pack a bag. You’re going to jail today.” The army did arrest them after the ceremony, but they didn’t take them to jail. Once they were outside the city, they simply dropped them off and told them to go home.
In 1975, while living in Kiryat Arba, she gave birth to a healthy baby who was named Avraham Yedidya. He died of SIDS when he was only six months old. Reb. Sarah decided to bury him in Hebron. He would be the first Jew buried in the ancient Jewish cemetery there since the burials of the sixty seven Jews massacred in 1929.
The cars in the funeral procession were stopped at an army checkpoint. Undaunted, Reb. Sarah picked up her baby, and started walking. Senior army officials ordered the soldiers over their walkie-talkies, “Stop them! Do not let them reach the cemetery under any circumstances!” Sarah grabbed a walkie-talkie and told the commander “If you want to stop me, come down here and stop me yourself!” He did drive down, but on seeing her walking with her baby wrapped in white, he ended up saying: “It is too far to walk! Let me drive you to the cemetery.”
Once there, this is what she told the hundreds of people who gathered that summer night to bury her son:
‘It has been a hard day, but there is something I must tell you. I, Sarah, am holding my dead baby, Avraham, in my arms. And just as Avraham our Father came to Hebron to bury his Sarah, so too I, Sarah, have come here to bury my Avraham. At this moment, I know why G-d gave me this irreplaceable gift for only six months. To reopen the ancient Jewish cemetery of Hebron.'”
As if that wasn’t enough, five years later, she and her children joined a group of fifteen other mothers and thirty children who cut through barbed wire and defied government orders by entering the abandoned Jewish hospital, Beit Hadassah, in Hebron. The army and government assumed that if they prevented the husbands from also entering Beit Hadassah, the women would not be able to make it on their own. They lived without electricity, running water, and in substandard conditions, forbidden to leave the building lest the army prevent them from reentering. The weeks turned into months and not only were the women not leaving – they thrived – establishing a school for the children within the building.
On Friday nights, when the men were returning home from prayers at Machpelah , they would stand outside Beit Hadassah and serenade the women with the traditional Friday night song Eishet Chayil, A Woman of Valor. As a direct result of this group’s efforts, the Israeli government finally agreed to the establishment of a Jewish community within Hebron, which today numbers about 1,000 residents.
We heard Reb. Sarah Nachshon’s story sitting in her apartment. She is truly a woman of valor, and her story an inspiration to all of us. We were only sorry we weren’t able to meet her in person.
The Story of a Synagogue
Steve also took us to visit a synagogue in Hebron. We had to walk past an IDF checkpoint, with a very polite, extremely young looking man standing there on guard. Again representative of the unsafe and not easy part.
But once we got there, he shared with us the story that gave the synagogue its name. About 700 years ago, most of the people from the area had gone up to Jerusalem for Yom Kippur, leaving nine, very unhappy, very pious men who were extremely upset because they did not have enough to make a minyan.
As daylight was disappearing they saw an elderly man in the distance. He joined them and they were able to worship. The next night, the prayer leader was selected to host the guest, who walked behind him on the way to his home. But when they arrived, the prayer leader turned to honor the guest by allowing him to enter first, and realized that the man was gone.
Later that night, the elderly man appeared to the prayer leader in a dream and told him that he was Avraham Avinu. He had come to complete the minyan because he had seen how upset they had all been. It’s from the time of that event that this beautiful little synagogue was known as the Avraham Avinu synagogue.
Inside that building was a beautiful and holy part of living in Hebron.
One Tree at Kfar Etzion
It was also Steve who was with us when we went to see a movie about what happened at the kibbutz of Kfar Etzion during the War of Independence. He told us that there were two important things that we needed to be learn from the movie: How many people died there? And what was the code name of the kibbutz?
In May of 1948, the residents knew that they were going to be attacked by the Jordanian legions. All the children, and most of the women returned to Jerusalem. When it became clear that the kibbutz would be overrun, Jerusalem Command ordered them to retreat.
They held out for three days. After they were overrun, they surrendered, but the Jordanians still rolled hand grenades into a bunker that was being used as a hospital, killing all the medical staff and patients.
The answer to Steve’s first question? 260 people died there.
At the end of the movie, the radio operator says: The Queen has fallen. The Queen has fallen.
The answer to Steve’s second question? The code name of Kfar Etzion was Queen. Jerusalem was the King. In chess when the Queen is taken, the King has no protection.
If the Jordanian Legions had gotten to Jerusalem sooner, and added their numbers to the armies already attacking, the King would have fallen. The kibbutz fell the day before independence was declared. The time the Queen held out did save the King.
All the residents of the kibbutz were holocaust survivors. Eighteen of them were the last surviving members of their families. When I was watching the movie, it seems a minor point, but while the members of the kibbutz were there, they planted orchards. After it fell, the settlement was razed, and the orchards destroyed except for one tree.
Kfar Etzion was the first settlement re-established after Israel’s victory in the Six Day War.
At the end of the movie, they show the children and grandchildren of the people who fought and died there coming back to surround that one tree that was, somehow, almost miraculously, still standing.
At that moment, the tree stopped being a minor plot point, and became, for me anyway, symbolic of the spirits of Kfar Etzion and the Jewish people – its roots, and ours, deep in the soil of Israel.
The one thing I bought for myself while I was in Israel is a necklace with a representation of that tree.
Naturally that cliche about there not being a dry eye in the house, during the movie, was true. But after the lights came up, the screen moved up. And as soon as we realized what we were looking at, there were a lot more tears. On the other side of the screen, was the actual hospital bunker. We stood around looking down into it. It looked so small to be the place of so much death. I still can’t think about it without crying and I’ve worn that necklace every Shabbat since I’ve been back.
There was one other great, amazing, wonderful non-classroom learning. The most transcendent thing.
I was there twice. Once with the tour and once by myself.
Saying the words of the Shemonah Esreh during Kabbalat Shabbat was a thing for which I have no words. A feeling I cannot describe and could not have imagined.
There were hundreds of young girls dancing and chanting. I assume the chanting I heard from the men’s side was hundreds of young men doing the same. The air pulsed with their sincerity, their joy, their love of HaShem. I could feel, in the sky above, the energy of the Shekinah swirling around us all, dancing along with those young people. There with all of us as we prayed.
A few days later, the area in front of the wall much quieter, I repeated the words of the Shemonah Esreh again. This time, I was able to walk up and get close enough to put my hand on the stones in the Wall. I know the Shekinah was again with us as we prayed there. I could feel it in the air. I could feel it in the stones. But more than that, I have no words to describe how it felt. I can say I cried. I’m not sure I know why.
Mundane and Godly
The things I’ve written about here are not all that I experienced on this trip. There was more. Much more. There were the mundane, very Israeli things, that seemed unique and wonderful to me: The little fenced in neighborhoods. The incredibly pushy taxi drivers. The Shuk. The lovely 18 year old Scotch they served at the hotel that cost twice as much as the rest of my dinner.
There were also some other moments when I felt G-d.
One was there on that symbol of historic Israel’s last stand: Masada. A place I once wrote I would fight for my right to stand on. I did stand on it. And I looked down into the area the original defenders had used as a synagogue. It was filled with young Jews. I cried again, but here they were tears of happiness. And I thought about that one tree.
We are still standing. Our roots are deep. This is our land.
This is also my land. One of the reasons I came to Israel was to find that out, and I did.
I am a convert, and happy to be so. And I now know for certain, this is my land too.
In the end though, all I can really say about the trip is this: Go. Go now. Jerusalem really is the Center of the Universe. It may well be that Jerusalem of Gold calls everyone. I don’t know that. But I know that She absolutely calls us, as Jews.
It is our home. And even if we cannot live there, we need to, at least, go there. To feel the Shekinah’s power more directly, Her majesty, Her joy, Her love for us. Israel really is our home. Our last best place.
If there is any way that you can do it, go home, even if you can’t stay.
Photo: Torah Scrolls, Avraham Avinu synagogue, Chebron – Billye Joyce Roberts
Rebbetzin Dini Coopersmith, the organizer and leader of this trip, is an absolute force of nature. I’m a long time organizer and runner of things myself so you can believe me when I tell you how impressive she is. (And if you ever get the opportunity to go on one of her trips or hear her speak, or even better yet, learn with her, definitely do it. The Reconnection trips are ongoing: two a year. The information about them can be found here. And no, I don’t get anything for saying that.