Friday, June 26, 2015


From the top to the bottom and back again...

Tonight we have dust from Masada on our shoes, and salt from the Dead Sea in our hair. We are a model for the reverse of the trekking we did today, and we feel it.

We woke early for departure to Masada, which holds a wealth of meaning for various Jewish and Zionist camps. Settlers moved up to Masada to engage with the farsimon trade, a depilatory and perfume agent that was very rare and grew in nearby Ein Gedi. Herod built up there to engage in the trade and made it the huge fortress that would shield the zealots years later. Usually we hear only the story of the zealots, and how they gave their lives so that the Romans would not take them as slaves. It has become a symbol for Israeli pride, the underdogs that would give their lives rather than fail in their mission. It used to be that units of the Israeli Army would climb Masada to hold their Bible in one hand and their gun in the other to be sworn in as soldier of Tzahal, but today they have changed that view. Today they go to places where their commanders have had successes, because today the Israeli army has known many successes and should go to a place that means victory rather than sacrifice.

While we were up on Masada, we took a moment for blessing a very special couple. Two days earlier, Larry and Sandra Serota celebrated their 35th anniversary, so up on Masada we took a moment for them to renew their vows. It was a beautiful moment, hearing the words each of them had written for each other on top of a beautiful mountain in a space that itself is a celebration of the past and a way to look forward toward a wonderful future.


After Masada, we make our way to Ein Gedi, the amazing nature preserve where David hid from Saul when Saul wanted to kill him (I Sam 23-24). We hiked up to the waterfalls and took a moment to refresh in this oasis in the desert before we went to the lowest place on earth.


At the Dead Sea, we relaxed in the thick water, and let the warmth and the minerals soothe us as we floated effortlessly in the super-salty sea. We rubbed mud on our skin, let the healing seep in, and marveled at how easy it is to float.

Today we had gone from one of the heights of Israel (Jerusalem), to a physical high point in Israel's history that is a spiritual low point considering how we feel about sacrifice, to the lowest point on earth that is a physical high point. It was a day filled with irony and wonder, and a long day that led to us hitting our mattresses hard that night.


The future, the new, and back again...

Today begins with a trip to Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu. Like many kibbutzim there are groves of citrus, dates, and bananas. Fields of vegetation span as far as the eye can see. What makes Sde Eliyahu different is its organic processes. Perhaps you're thinking, "Organic? That's been around for a while. I can get organic food anywhere!" But this kibbutz has been organic since the 1970's, when their founder realized that with the families living so close to the fields, it didn't make sense to spray all these chemicals right where their kids were playing. So they sent their leader to a conference in Switzerland so he could learn about this new way of growing food without chemicals. So in Israel Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu was the first organic farm in Israel, and one of the first in the world.

We are again reminded that big innovations can come in small packages when we tour the kibbutz Bio Bee (pronounced "Bee-o Bee") farm. They breed bees for farmers to use for pollination, and all kinds of predatory bugs that eat smaller bugs that can damage crops. For example, when a bug that lays eggs that turn into larvae that eat through the leaves of tomato and cucumber plants, a farmer might purchase tiny asps from Bio Bee. These wasps either eat the larvae or lay eggs in them. Either way, the larvae are destroyed and the crops are saved, and the wasps have no other foods that they eat, so the plants remain safe. Our guide told us that in order for the bugs they sell to be successful, they must breed faster than their prey, and the must not eat any plant life. It is an amazing display of Israeli innovation and creativity, the two characteristics that make Israeli society so successful today.

After the tour of the kibbutz, we went to a nature reserve called Sachne, which was a beautiful, natural pool flanked by man-made waterfalls and guarded by towers and shelters. It was a perfect way to relax and wash off the dust of the north as we prepared for our drive into Jerusalem.


"One does cannot go down to Jerusalem, one can only ascend."

And ascend we did. We went up to Mt. Scopus, admired the iconic view, said Shechecheyanu, and made our way into Jerusalem. Once again, we welcomed the group home. We had a free night in Jerusalem, each of us going our own way. Some went to the Kotel, some to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, some to Ben Yehuda Street. All of us comfortable in this bustling city. Jerusalem does not look like it did when I was here last. Some of the sights are changed, some are not there, and new ones have arisen in their place. But it still feels like home.

Monday, June 22, 2015


Approaching the new....

This morning we learned mostly about the wars leading up to '67, and the importance of the land in the Golan Heights. It is pretty much information you can get in any religious school textbook, so we did it on Jeeps.

Tearing through the Golan, our driver told us about Eli Cohen. Eli Cohen was a Jewish Egyptian, who served as a spy for Israel during the Syrian conquest. The northern part of Israel is dry and very hot, and he told the Syrian general that they were making a mistake with their layout. They needed to build a road that led to all the bunkers so that he could check on all of his troops more easily, and he should plant big trees by each one, so they could get some shade in the hot, Israeli summer. The general thought this was brilliant, so he did exactly as Cohen had suggested. When the Haganah stormed the Golan Heights, each bunker was plainly pointed out by the big, non-indigenous trees around each one, and easy to get to because of the general's road.

After our Jeep tour, we drove to the Syrian border and peered over the lookout as we talked about the importance of the piece of land on which we stood. As our guide Muki spoke about the Yom Kippur War, we heard a rumble that sounded like a clipped bit of thunder. Then the puff of smoke in the distance gave away the target of the shell that had exploded moments ago in Syria. "That's the civil war," Muki reminded us. Right there as we spoke about a war from almost 50 years ago, we saw the results of a war going on today. Right before our eyes, we saw proof that Syrians are being killed by other Syrians.

It is a travesty that it is so difficult to gain peace in this region. Even when Israel is not the direct target of their violence, there is violence. Some of us took it pretty hard, others walked silently back down to the bus. En route to our next stop, the bus was just a little quieter....

Entering Tzfat is a windy, bumpy experience that leaves one mystified that so many people can get to this city by bus. This was a wonderful chance to see art, learn a little bit about Jewish Mysticism and two of the men who made it more mainstream, Rabbi Isaac Luria and Rabbi Joseph Caro. Visiting their synagogues we witnessed two near misses of shells and shrapnel that had no reason taking no lives, but they took no lives. Tzfat is a mystical place, full of miracle and wonder, and we stood as witnesses to its wonder, praying for the miracle of peace in our time in Syria, Israel, and around the world.


Sunday, June 21, 2015


Out with the new, in with the old...

Today we left the old/new meritage and traveled back to the time of King Herod. Built by King Herod in honor of Augustus Caesar, Caesaria was a huge port built to allow Herod to fulfill his Edifice Complex by bringing in quarried stones from all over the known world. It served as the capital of the Jewish province of the Roman Empire, until it was taken by the Muslims in the 7th century. Because of all the pagan statues, the Muslims destroyed much of the city and built a mosque there. In the Crusades, the Christians took much of it back, and then abandoned it until he 19th century, when a kibbutz was built nearby. 

A young kibbutznik named Hannah Senesch strolled on the beach that used to be Caesaria, writing the poem called On the Way to Caesaria, which would become known as, "Eli Eli." She had no idea that the beach on which she walked was covering a huge hippodrome, source of entertainment during the time of Herod, and covered over by the marauding Muslims. It was not until about 25 years ago that those were excavated. Strolling the ruins, we got a sense of the beauty of the Mediterranean, combined with the majesty of the ingenuity of Herod's builders. 

After a jaunt to a mall for falafel (yum!) we found ourselves in Acco, once again immersed in the rich history that is Israel. In the time of the crusades, it was a strategic position for entry into the Holy Land. Tunnels under the city and huge underground rooms provided a place for Christian priests to establish themselves so that the knights could rally in the city that was their entry point into Palestine.

As a city that served as a strategic point for entry from the north, it changed hands from Muslim to Christian and back often enough that it remains a multi-faith city. This made it easy for us to travel to the Al Jezzar Mosque in the old city. Many of our group had never been in a mosque before, and it was an interesting glimpse into Muslim religious culture. Since it is Ramadan, there were several men praying quietly on their own, or relaxing in the cool mosque, perhaps to help deal with their late-day hunger. We were able to chat a little with the guards and ask questions about Islam. They too find great import in ritual washing (like a Christian Baptism or a Jewish Mikveh or hand washing), and had a washing station outside the mosque. They too have set time for prayer--five times a day--and had a schedule on a digital plaque inside the mosque so worshippers know when next to be at prayer. They too have public and private prayer, allowing the imam to give sermons when leading prayers, or allowing worshippers to sit quietly when praying on their own.

An interesting difference is the lack of imagery in the mosque. It is only decorated with geometric shapes and calligraphy, lest anyone mistake a human or animal figure as an idol, thereby breaking what we call the "second commandment." It makes for an intricate and beautiful decor all around the inside, almost reminiscent of kabbalistic meditation pieces. But more about those tomorrow when we enter Tzfat.


We start in Jaffa, in front of a sculpture of a whale. Our guide Muki reminds us that this is the only Biblical reference in the entire city, an homage to Jonah, who fled from here on a ship, only to be swallowed by a "great fish." He says we lacked the imagination to think of anything but a whale, even though God could surely create a fish big enough to swallow Jonah without it being a whale.

Jaffa is beautiful, and it is a wonderful mixture of ancient and new. Walking the uneven streets with stairs everywhere, we are reminded of the throngs that must have crowded the alleys when Jaffa was a thriving port. Homes designed without running water, they now have all the modern amenities, just no more space than they ever did.

We move to the old port, once the gateway to Israel, now the most activity is an old man eating lunch. When technology changed and large boats could no longer dock in the shallower Jaffa Port, they moved north, as did many of the residents of Jaffa. Not much is left but the memory of its greatness, like the sculpture of the stone egg, out of which grows an actual orange tree. It remembers the birth of the nation out of Jaffa, but cannot sustain from Jaffa, as it hovers over the stone path, casting a shadow of its greatness, but unable to root.

We go from there to Tel Aviv, the birthplace of Israel, and on Rothschild Street we visit Independence Hall. Even though Jews recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the signing of the Declaration of Independence was in Tel Aviv in 1948 because Jerusalem was under siege. We talk about Herzl and his dream, the men who made it come to fruition, and the people who have a home because of them. We travel back in time, hearing voices that ring in those halls many times a day, but new to us, as we sit next to David Ben Gurion, Chaim Weissman, and Golda Meir. 

As Shabbat approaches, we make our way to Herzliya, to experience Beit Tefilah Yisraeli, a wonderful musical service by the bay. A nod to Herzl's Altneuland, we sing words that are 2000 years old, to melodies 20 years old, with modern equipment like microphones and speakers, and with a spirit that transcends time. Shabbat begins in the Holy Land, and we rest.
Shabbat ends with Havdalah, separation. We walk to the beach for our ceremony, and again I am struck by the mixture of old and new. A friend I have known for 37 years finds us in Israel. He joins us by the beach for Havdalah (a beautiful moment shared by the group), and we walk to get a beer. I have known him for so long that it is easy to step into the old banter, easy to marvel at how easy it is to find such connections in Israel. 

This is a miraculous place, and we aren't even halfway through yet.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Dolezal, Jenner, and Deuteronomy 22

There has been a lot of talk in the news this week about Rachel Dolezal. She is the former president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP who has been presenting herself as a black woman for the past several years. She has had the proverbial finger wagged at her from all angles since her parents called it to the attention of the NAACP that she is a white woman of Czech and German heritage. She has been accused by some critics of putting blackface, though she claims that she identifies as black, as she said when interviewed by Matt Lauer.

Some newscasters have referred to her as transracial, and compared her to Caitlyn Jenner, and for a while that had me going. "Maybe she was not happy in the body she was born with," I wondered. "Maybe she had the wrong label like the crayon in RED." But there is a flaw to that connection, and I think it is insulting to Caitlyn Jenner (and Laverne Cox and Isis King and Lana Warshowski and Chaz Bono and people you may know and love) to attempt the comparison.

Deuteronomy 22:5 says, "A woman shall not wear the trappings of a man, and a man shall not put on a woman's garment, for there are an abomination to Adonai your God, anyone who does this." For years the Reform movement has interpreted this along with other liberal Jews explaining that this is not simply about wearing clothing that "belong" to the opposite sex. There are plenty of cultures that have different views of what men wear compared to what women wear. My wife Natalie told me once that some Ethiopian men who emigrate to Israel are embarrassed by being forced to wear pants, which are seen by them as women's clothing. Just last week I sat near a man at a Bat Mitzvah service wearing a kilt. Deuteronomy 22 is not about the actual clothing, it is about intentionally trying to deceive people in order to be treated in a way that would garner personal gain or avoid a particular responsibility.

So Rachel Dolezal has missed the mark on two points. First, as an interviewee on CNN put it, "It doesn't flow both ways." It is much easier for the average white person to darken their skin and perm their hair than it is for the average black person to do the reverse. There is such a thing as a light-toned black woman, but there is no such thing as a dark-toned white person. Though there may be some rare cases where someone has passed for white, the typical black person could not turn the tables and do what Dolezal did.

Second, it was done as deception. Caitlyn Jenner, to use the most recent pop culture example, came out openly and honestly. After careful deliberation and discussion with loved ones and friends, she made her courageous announcement to the world stage on which she spent a great deal of time as Bruce, Olympic champion and television personality. She now feels she can be herself, and probably has a great sense of relief after years of living as Bruce.

Dolezal was not honest. She may have been mistaken as black at first, may have never come out and said, "I am a black woman," but she never corrected anyone, either. She took the post as NAACP president while those who supported her believed she was a black woman. She derived personal gain from this deception, directly violating the biblical injunction to not protray yourself as what you are not.

Had she come to the NAACP as the blond white girl whose picture we have seen all over the news and said, "I identify as a black woman," who knows what would have happened? She could have been a pioneer for the transracial movement. The NAACP's leadership is not restricted to people of a particular race, so they probably would have welcomed her as someone who feels more comfortable in a skin other than that to which she was born. Instead of having a conversation about what race means or if it is possible to transcend certain boundaries, we are having a conversation about someone who tricked us all, and turned it into a joke or a shaking of the head.


We landed in the airport after a 14-hour flight, got our things together, and began our journey. It's like any other airport in the world. There are Duty Free stores, news stands, and restaurants. But the signs are all in Hebrew, and it feels special, because you step into a city that uses the Holy language as its everyday tongue.

We drive on a normal highway with normal traffic, and then we get hit by: Tel Aviv. It is such a perfect mixture os the beautiful colors coming off of the Mediterranean, contrasted by the greys and browns of the towering city. The smell of sea air and baked goods contrasted by sweat and cigarettes. The sounds of young and old chatting and laughing over the noise of the car horns and roaring engines. Tel Aviv barrages the senses and invigorates the soul.

Even without the energy to do much in this amazing city, we get ready for an early bedtime as we hug and wish each other, "Welcome home."