Dear Ohav Family:
In my last posting, I wrote about the incomparable experience of being in Israel as a Jew and as a human being. Lest you think that our missions (I like to refer to them as pilgrimages, but I’ll discuss the use of that word in a later posting) are exclusively about intense encounters with Judaism and Jewish identity, I assure you that is not the case. Since our synagogue group arrived last week, we have certainly had our share of hands on lessons in history, archaeology, Hebrew, politics and comparative religion. However, we have also had a lot of fun. In one sense, a small group of seventeen people traveling together anywhere for twelve days should bond and have a great time. This is the nature of groups like the ones I take to Israel every two years: I like to think of them as portable retreat centers! However, because we are linked to Ohav and the Capital District Jewish community (even our one couple from Rochester is now an honorary Capital District family) we share something unique that has made us open to enjoying each other’s company from the moment we left the ground at Newark International Airport. This has consistently been my experience with all the Ohav Israel missions I have led since 1999.
We have also had a lot of fun because we have done enjoyable activities that are unique to Israel. Let’s start with food. Though I shy away from over the top pronouncements about Israel being a country of indulgent Jewish mothers, Israeli Jewish culture does place great emphasis on everyone being fed well: food is love, after all, and Jews from all walks of life have always made food a major focus for celebration, worship, and coping with loss. From hotel breakfasts to the simplest road side truck stops and miznonim (fast food buffets) Israel offers the pleasures of food and drink, and plenty of it. In traditional middle eastern fashion, Israeli restaurants for the most part fill a patron up with salads and condiments of all types prior to the main meal, almost as a way of fending off the possibility of hunger between the time you walk through the door and the time that you eat your main course. The other night we were truly blessed to meet our friends and fellow congregants, Jeff and Anne Rothenberg (part time residents of Jerusalem) at a typical middles eastern eatery, after which we “rolled out” and ate dessert at their lovely Jerusalem home. This is the second time that Anne and Jeff have hosted an Ohav group, and the friendship is as good as the food. Anne is fond of saying that one of the many wonderful things bringing her back repeatedly to Israel (aside from her children and grandchildren) are the truly gigantic and delicious strawberries grown here. One look at them reminds me of the gigantic grape clusters taken out of the land by the Israelite scouts mentioned in the Book of Numbers.
Finally, understand that, apart from its religious, historical, and political significance, Israel is incredibly beautiful and just lots of fun: a vacation paradise that is fueled by a powerful and well developed tourism industry. Israel not only needs tourism as part of its economic lifeblood; it is committed to tourism as part of its life mission as home to the three major Western faiths and an international center of culture, arts, and entertainment. So far, we have ridden jeeps in the Golan Heights, participated in an archaeological dig, walked through the Western Wall tunnels, planted trees, checked out the excitement of Tel Aviv, enjoyed the Israel Museum, shopped in the great Arab Bazaar, walked through a beautiful nature preserve, and our mission has three more days to go. What we have enjoyed is a mere fraction of what one can do in Israel, whether you like to be very active or very quiet. Our Ohav mission had some of the best fun at a wonderful simcha (religious celebration) on top of the breathtaking Masada, the summer home of the ancient Roman King, Herod. Earlier this week, Sarah Spiro, one of our seventh graders at our Talmud Torah, became a bat mitzvah in front of her family and new friends. There is nothing more pleasant or inspirational than this. Mazal to, Sarah!
Finally, let me tell you about Pini the Pig, our preschool and Ohav mission mascot.. (See the picture.) Before each mission, I pick out a stuffed toy animal who becomes our mascot. Amie Bloom, our preschool director, and I make a big deal of our mascot with our preschool students. When in Israel, I take numerous photographs of me and Pini in different parts of Israel. They become part of a photographic travelogue for the kids and their families that teaches them about Israel. Why a pig? First, as I’ve explained to the preschool staff and our participants, Pini does best in Israel where so few people eat pig out of religious (Jewish and Muslim) conviction. Also, as I told the kids, Pini really wanted to go to Israel, but his skeptical friends told him that this would happen when pigs fly! I guess Pini fooled them all. Hey, it’s a goofy story, but the kids and our participants get a kick out of it.
I look forward to writing one more time towards the end of our mission, either on Saturday night or Sunday.
From somewhere along the shores of the Kinneret (The Sea of Galilee), Shabbat shalom and only blessings.