Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Monday, November 2 - Into the Desert, Masada and the Dead Sea

It is so hard to believe that this is our last day of touring together.  We have experienced some amazing things over the last two weeks and today will be a wonderful way to end the trip.  First, we boarded our bus early in order to make the long drive through the Judean Desert into the Dead Sea Basin and ascended up to Masada, King Herod's mountain palace and the sight of the Jewish Zealots' last stand against the Roman legionnaires.

The view from atop Masada is not to be believed.  Pictures simply do not do it justice.

Looking across the Dead Sea you can barely make out the hills of Jordan.  On this trip we have seen Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.  Israel is really a small part of a volatile neighborhood.

We learned of two time periods for this incredible place.  First, we learned about King Herod and his desire to create a luxurious mountain retreat for himself.  Remember, he is also responsible for the building of the Second Temple, and Caesarea, as we marveled how in such a short time he could create such incredible structures.  
We learned how they got water up the mountain using the one or two flash floods that come through the desert every year and the enormous holding tanks built into the mountain that could hold enough water for 10 years.  We learned of the incredible Roman Bath (pictured below) and even saw the beautiful colors on the wall painted more than 2000 years ago.

We learned how there was a raised floor in the bath house where hot air could be pumped into the walls and floor to create a perfect sauna.  All of this done 2000 years ago!  Incredible.

We toured Herod's three leveled palace, built onto the side of the mountain with breathtaking views of the Dead Sea and with a cooling sea breeze that is constant there.

We also learned that some 70 years after Herod used this palace, it was used for a totally different reason.  During the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Jewish Zealots escaped Jerusalem and hid atop of Masada, where they found enough water and food to last for 10 years.  Their hope was that the Romans would just forget about them, but that didn't happen.  Soon after their escape, Roman Encampments could be seen all around the mountain.  Here is the remains of one of 8 that existed that are now ruins.

We learned that the Romans had planned to simply wait until the zealots and their families (960 in total) would run out of food and they would have to descend down the mountain for supplies and they would enslave them or destroy them.  What the Romans didn't know was how well stocked the store houses and water tanks were.  Eventually, it was decided that Masada would only be taken by a fierce battle.

The Romans began to build an enormous ramp to get up the hill and force their way into Masada. 
Below is the remnants of the ramp that still exists today.  How incredible to see this with my own eyes!  Even though I have been here before, I am still in awe of this place.

There were about 15,000 troops there against only 300 fighters from the Zealots as well as their families numbering 660.  The Zealots new this would be a futile battle. Below is a picture of the Synagogue they created where perhaps the choices were laid out for them.  They could fight to the death, give themselves up or take their own lives and die on their own terms.  I can only imagine the discussion and the horrible choice they had to make.

After a heated discussion the decision was made that they would end their lives on their own terms.  They would not allow themselves to be enslaved, their wives to be raped at the hands of the Romans.  They each went and killed their families, and then they killed each other.  Lots were drawn as to who the last survivor would be who would fall upon his sword.  

When the Romans came up the ramp and broke into Masada, they were ready for a fierce fight.  Instead, they found bodies everywhere.  There was no battle.  Masada had fallen.

Now you need to know that there is absolutely no evidence that this really happened, short of the writings of one man who witnessed it from the Roman perspective.  It turns out all of the details in terms of how Masada was laid out in his writings fit exactly to the physical discovery of Masada, but we have no proof of any mass suicide atop the mountain.

I find it so interesting that we encountered so many examples of people who faced such terrible circumstances that they chose suicide as the only solution for the issues surrounding them.  We saw it in Poland, with the warriors who led the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising at Mila 18.  We saw it with the political leaders who tried desperately to get others to help the Jews and hoped that their suicide would lead to more knowledge and action, we saw it with the zealots atop Masada.  It is hard to imagine a circumstance where such an action would be one's only possible path.

The question is, if this story of Masada is possibly a myth, why is Masada such an important place for Jews?  Why does each and every person in the Israeli military come up to Masada as a symbol of strength?  It is a symbol of strength because the Zealots never gave in to the Romans.  Today, we all say that "Masada will never fall again."  That the strength of Israel will ensure Israeli survival long onto the future, even when surrounded by hostile neighbors.  There is a power to seeing the Israeli flag flying over Masada.  A pride in all Israel has accomplished, the beacon of light she represents.  While Masada may be a myth, she is another example of how Israel is here, today, standing tall and proudly.  It is a place where the Israeli military takes their vow to fight for Israel to the very end.  A powerful message for all of us.

As we descended the mountain, we were deep in thought.  If Masada is a place where the Israeli military expresses their vow to protect Israel at all costs, what are WE doing to protect her as well?  With the onslaught of negative and frankly untruthful press coverage of Israel that we all see happening today, are we doing all we can to ensure that Israel will never fall?  Could we be doing more?  We are all Israeli Ambassadors.  We represent her in the Diaspora, in our communities.  And we have to speak loudly with pride for all we have seen and experienced.  It is a huge responsibility.

Our final stop on our tour of Israel was one where no large battle happened, no site of an ancient Temple...  We would spend the afternoon at a resort floating on the Dead Sea.  

We enjoyed a delicious lunch before changing into our swimsuits and walking the short path down to the shore.

There is something about the water that takes all cares and washes them away.  We floated for what felt like hours as we recalled our trip and all we had experienced.  We were at a resort in the southern end of the Dead Sea, in the evaporating pools.  This is different than where we were back in June.  In these pools, the sea floor is sand made up entirely of salt.  I literally picked up handful after handful of the sea floor and it was pure, white salt crystals.  Incredible.

Another activity is to cover ourselves in the healing Dead Sea Mud, said to rejuvenate skin and make us feel younger.

I think we all felt younger mostly because of the silliness of the mud we had placed on ourselves.  The Dead Sea was the perfect way for us to end our tour of Israel.  We washed all of our cares and worries away and left feeling really terrific.

We shared in our final meal at Olive and Fish, a delicious restaurant near our hotel.  It was a beautiful meal as we all shared in the wonder of all we experienced.  It was so nice to sit back and watch as the new friendships were being solidified.  The connections we made with each other are something that will last a lifetime.

As I write this, the final post of this blog and trip, I sit on my Airbus A380 flying towards Los Angeles.  I have been trying to reflect on all this trip has meant to me, and to our group of travelers.  It has been a trips of ultimate highs and lows, from the darkness of Auschwitz to the light of Israeli Independence.  From the darkness of Majdanek, to the hope of Yemin Orde and the Yad b'Yad School.  From the hope of the JCC in Krakow to the reality of meeting with the soldiers.  From the beauty of the Baha'i' Gardens to the starkness of the Judean Desert.  From sharing Shabbat with reform Jews in Warsaw to sharing with Reform Jews in Jerusalem.  From holding a yellow star to feeling so proud to be a Jew,  everything we experienced has helped to transform us. 

I am exhausted.  And I cannot wait to be home and hugging Leasa, Carly and Hayley.  I am also very sad.  For the past 2.5 years I have been working so hard to craft the trip in June and this trip.  It is so bittersweet to be on the other side of these experiences.  I am sad to be leaving Israel, a place that I love deeply.  I cannot wait to start planning my return.  I am inspired by all we have seen, and I intend to work hard to share these experiences with our community upon my return and long into the future.  Israel is important for all of us.  She has her arms open to us all at any time, ready to be our refuge should we need her protection.  She is also challenged by many things, and she is counting on us to be her protection as well. 

I can only end this blog with one thought.  You must, and I mean MUST, travel here.  Once you have touched the Wall and seen the amazing and inspiring sites, you will understand how she can transform you.  I look forward to helping you to come here with your families, as a part of the incredible Adat Elohim Community.  It has been an honor and a privilege to lead these trips.  I feel so grateful for the opportunity and the relationships that have been built along the way.  I cannot wait to come back and feel Israel again.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Sunday, November 1 - Creating Memories

Last November I was shocked to learn about a terrorist attack targeting a school in Jerusalem.  I was sick to my stomach to learn that the terrorists who torched two first grade classrooms were Israeli extremists, not Palestinian.  And I was left speechless when I learned why the school was targeted by these ultra Orthodox Jews who really thought they were acting in the best interest of Israel.  Once I learned the story I contacted our tour company and asked that we make the Yad b'Yad school a stop on our tour of Israel.  

Yad b'Yad school places Jewish and Israeli Arab children in the same classroom, learning side by side. They teach Jewish, Christian and Muslim holidays, and classes are held in both Hebrew and Arabic.  There are two teachers in each classroom, one Israeli and one Arab.  

As our tour started our guide asked me if we had had any interactions with Arabs during our stay in Israel.  After thinking, I do not think we have.  What a powerful question for her to ask, and what a realization it was that we had been so isolated.

We learned that schools in Israel are segregated, with Jews being separate from Arabs.  We learned that there is not equality in the quality of education the students receive, with Arab schools not on the same level as the Jewish ones. This school gives every child an equal chance to learn and strive to accomplish more in their lives.  The idea is simple.  Children are not born hating others.  That is a learned feeling.  Most Jews interact with Arabs very infrequently.  At this school, they are all friends, they have play dates together, they study together, they learn that the stereotypes often associated with the "other" is simply not reality.  This school is changing the world one child at a time.  And what an honor it is to have the opportunity to be there.

We learned that to school has 650 children in it, and there are a total of six campuses across Israel.  That's more than 1300 children in total learning tolerance and not hate.  That's 1300 Israeli and Arab families dedicated to showing their children that there is an alternative to the status quo of violence that seems to plague Israel.  And the schools are growing every year, with waiting lists for entry.  In an atmosphere where everyone walks in fear of the other, this is a bright light, a hope for our future and the future of Israel.  These children will grow up and teach their children that the "other" is human.  

This is such a wonderful message, and it makes the torching of the two first grade classrooms so much more infuriating and disgusting.  It turned my stomach even more when we learned that spray painted on the classroom walls was "death to Arabs" and "there is no coexistence with cancer."  When hearing this, I felt ashamed to be associated with these monsters through our faith.  

But my faith is restored as we heard what happened next.  When the reports of the terrorist attacks hit Israel, people started showing up at the school.  Graduates, students, parents, Israeli and Arab officials...  Everyone was there to help.  Rather than destroy the school, it seemed to unify the community and strengthened their desire to build cooperation and love.  It is a powerful and inspiring story.

Of all of the places I have played music in my life, this was my very favorite, hands down.  First of all, it was extremely powerful to be in the actual room that was set ablaze last November.  To see the children interacting with each other in the place where such violence occurred was inspiring.  They loved our music.  They would clap, even get up, put their arms around each other and sway back and forth.  

They were not Jews and Arabs, they were children.  

They danced the same, they laughed the same, they clapped the same, they shared in the joy of music just like the other, they all brought so much light to our lives, Jews and Arabs, children who have not been clouded by the hate that society teaches.  They are the hope for tomorrow.  They will pave the difficult path towards peace.

As soon as our concert ended, we each introduced our instruments and then, as if we were rock stars, the kids all came running over to touch each instrument.  Their curiosity was infectious, and I was reminded not just of the power of music, but of how lucky I am to be able to create music on a regular basis.  

We could have stayed at the school all day and played with these beautiful children, but they needed to get back to learning.  We were toured around the rest of the school and learned some interesting facts.  60 percent of the students are Israeli Arabs, both Muslim and Christian.  40 percent are Jewish. They have programs for parents as well, opening their eyes to the "other" in new ways.  Imagine stories of the Holocaust being told in Arabic.  Imagine learning about Israeli independence, which is a triumph for Jews but a disaster for Palestinians.  How important for Jews to hear in Hebrew how Arabs suffered because of that conflict.  Imagine Arabs and Jews learning about Christmas, and Muslims and Christians learning about Chanukah, and Jews and Christians learning about Ramadan.  It is not easy to navigate, but the important dialogue is happening.  

I look forward to finding out how our children from TAE can interact with these beautiful children as the connection between our communities is strengthened.  It was an unexpected powerful visit that I will never forget.  Thank goodness this was our last musical performance of the trip, for nothing we could have done could have ever topped this.

After being inspired by the Yad b'Yad school we went to the Machaneh Yehuda open air market for lunch and shopping.  

Here you can see Israelis buying fresh vegetables, fruits and meats.  On Fridays it is packed with those preparing for Shabbat.  

My most favorite place in the market is Marzipan, who makes the world's greatest rugelach.  And I mean the WORLD'S GREATEST.  I decided that for my lunch I would have 4 of them...

And an Iced Aroma.  My sugar high lasted for hours.

We then made our way to another difficult stop on our tour of Poland and Israel, Yad Vashem, the Jewish National Memorial to the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust.  

I wasn't quite sure how this visit would hit me.  After all, it was just over a week ago that we experienced Auschwitz, walking the very steps the victims did towards their death.  How could a museum hit me more than that?  I soon learned that my whole experience at Yad Vashem would be completely different than either of the other times I had visited.  For now I would view it through the lens of Auschwitz and Majdanek.  This visit to Yad Vashem was more intense than ever.

Our first stop at the memorial was to listen to a Holocaust Scholar, Shlomo Balsam, who painted a picture of the Holocaust for us.  

Yad Vashem means "monument of the name."  Shlomo shared that pictures can't talk, we who are here must tell the story.  His message was clear.  He wanted us to be able to see that the Nazis were not crazy.  Normal people did this.  If we make them out to be crazy we become more likely to believe it will never happen again.  We have to MAKE SURE it never happens again.  Normal people elected Hitler.  We must be aware.

Then Shlomo handed out an actual yellow star that was used during the Holocaust.  I have seen many of these in pictures, and many behind glass displays.  I have never held one in my hand.

It was chilling and heart stopping to hold it.  Even though it is a simple piece of cloth, for me it tells countless stories of victims forced to wear this badge of humiliation.  I think of Sophia who wore one.  Was this one hers?  I held onto this item for a long time.  Although it terrified and horrified me, I could not put it down.  I will remember how it felt forever.  And, just like at Auschwitz, I felt myself reaching up and holding onto my Kippah, a badge of Judaism I wear with honor and pride.

Shlomo reinforced what we had learned from our visit to Auschwitz.  The Holocaust is not just a Jewish story, it is a human story.  

The visit to the museum starts in the Avenue of the Righteous, where we were surrounded by thousands of trees, each representing a righteous gentile among the nations, someone who went through great personal risk to save Jewish lives.  

Ron shared with us the story of his mom, who was saved by the righteous gentile represented by this tree.

Whenever I am here among this forest of those who helped I ask myself, what would I have done?  Would I have had the courage to step in and help save the life of a stranger, especially when it would put my family's safety at risk?  I am so grateful that there were so many who did help.  I also remember those who chose to turn their back or, even worse, actively participated in the horrible actions against the victims.

Walking through the museum was horrible.  It was so hard to relive the story of the Holocaust again.  Especially when you know the end of the story where six million Jewish souls were lost.  I quickly noticed a huge difference between Yad Vashem and Auschwitz.  At the camp, there were lots of items on display.  Shoes, hair, brushes, etc.  At Yad Vashem, there were so many pictures of faces.  Here, we were almost able to interact with the victims.  At Auschwitz, our interaction with victims, my interaction with Sophia was internal.  

Walking through this memorial museum was all about giving a face to the victim, doing the exact opposite of what the Nazis were trying to do in making us nameless.  As we walked, Ron led us with great emotion and care.  We were all speechless, and you could see the pain in each of our eyes as we felt the magnitude of this unthinkable act.  Walking Auschwitz has changed how we walk through life, and being here solidified that change for all of us.  It was emotional beyond words.

One of the last rooms we enter is the one I always dread the most, the Hall of Names.

Here we walk into a large circle with a hole in the center of it.  Looking down we can see a dark pit filled with water, where you cannot make out anything in the reflection, representing the act of the Nazis to take away our identities.  Above you are countless pictures of victims, almost ascending towards heaven.

And all around you are binders.

Countless binders that record the names of the victims, each with a page of testimony, assuring that these souls will never be forgotten.  Binder after binder, so many binders it is overwhelming.  You want to open each one and look at each page and honor the dead.  But the task is too great to accomplish.  I stand for a while and try to imagine which binder has Sophia's name in it.

And then there is the empty spaces on the shelves.

The empty space is for the 2 million pages that are not yet filled out.  Pages that will never be filled out because entire families were destroyed and there is no one left to remember.  Seeing the countless binders makes me cry.  Seeing the empty spaces makes me weep.  

Walking out of Auschwitz you leave with an empty feeling.  There is no life there, and you take that feeling with you as you move forward.  At Yad Vashem, the end of the tour is walking out and looking at the view of Jerusalem.  There is such hope in this view.  It is a modern, beautiful city with great history.  This view reminds us all that we have Israel.  She belongs to each of us.

And we are reminded that Israel exists not because of the Holocaust, but in spite of it.  Of the 60,000 soldiers who fought and won Israel's independence half of them were Holocaust survivors.  We are not weak, like the Nazis would make us believe, we are strong, willing to sacrifice for others.  It is a powerful message and a powerful view.

Our final stop is the Children's Memorial.  Ron shares with us the history of the memorial.

One of the first things you notice here are the pillars, representing the children lost.  They are all different sizes representing different ages.  They are broken, their lives torn from them before reaching the heights of their potential.  These pillars will never be finished, never be fixed.  The Holocaust cannot be undone.

There are no words to describe the power of the Children's Memorial.  All I can say is that you must come and bear witness to its power yourself.  You will be changed because of that experience.  These children deserve to be remembered.  As I walked through the memorial I thought of the children at the Yad b'Yad school that we played music for this morning.  Imagining their smiling faces and picturing the 1.5 million child victims is something that is too hard to handle.  All one can do is weep, and vow to stop acts like this from happening again.

Tonight we had the honor of hosting three lone soldiers for dinner with us.  We had an incredible evening filled with intense discussion.  

We welcomed Max,


And Jacob to our dinner table.

They each shared their stories with us, two making Aliyah 2.5 years ago from the United States and one who's parents now live in the states.

The conversations were intense, political and sometimes difficult.  I heard a lot of "us" verses "them" talk, placing the Palestinians in the role of "other."  I left the meal hoping that there could be a way for these soldiers to find some tolerance and recognize that although they deal with Palestinian terrorists, not all Palestinians, not all Arabs are terrorists.  So much of our trip was focused on how we were treated as "other," and today we saw a couple of examples of how we, Jews, treat Arabs as "other."  It was sobering.  I do have to say how inspired I was by each of their pride in Israel, and pride in being able to serve and protect her.  I wish our kids in America could find a way to have that same kind of pride without forced military service.

We ended our meal with a song for Cyndy and Bill, celebrating their 6th wedding anniversary.  It was a wonderful way to end a long, emotional, inspiring, difficult day in Israel.

Tomorrow we tour Masada and float in the Dead Sea... A complete turn around from what we are experiencing today...  Only in Israel!  I know I say it a lot, but there is something special about being here, to touching Israel in a personal way.  Please consider coming on our next TAE trip in June, 2017.  See for yourself how being here will change you forever.