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If you are someone who has a “bucket list,” you absolutely must add the following to it:  “Visit the Western Galilee Region of Israel and discover our fabulous Partnership with Israel.
I have just had the privilege of spending four days discovering the beauty of this part of Israel and meeting with the amazing people who bring it to life.  For those of you who do not know what the Partnership with Israel is, let me give you the short description.  The Partnership is a consortium of 16 cities in the United States (including Canton, Ohio), which, through their local United Jewish Community and the Jewish Agency organizations, have partnered with the region of Israel known as the Western Galilee.  This program, “promotes people-to-people relationships through cultural, social, medical, educational and economic programs.” 

For those of you have not yet been to Israel, the Western Galilee is the most northern part of Israel on the Mediterranean Coast.  It is, in a word, breathtaking.  Over the past four days, a group of five rabbis, one cantor,and one congregational president explored this area and yet I feel as if we barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer.  We met with numerous Israeli volunteers who make this Partnership run.  They are involved in the Arts, Education, Archaeology, and so much more.  We visited the major partner institutions such as the Western Galilee College, the Ghetto Fighter’s Museum, Hafuch al Hafuch Center (for at-risk Jewish and Arab teens), and the Western Galilee Hospital with one of the most amazing Emergency Response programs in existence.  We met with an archaeologist who heads a dig on Kibbutz Cabri, where right in the middle of the avacado orchards, there has been discovered a Canaanite Palace believed to be almost 3,800 years old.  We toured the Old City of Akko, the oldest, continuously running seaport in the world, visited an ancient jail used to house Jewish resistance members who fought against Turkish and then British rule.  We drove as far north as one can go before entering Lebanon and understood, first hand, just how close some of the North’s cities and villages are to those who threaten their very existence.

Our hosts for this Mission were warm and attentive.  They met our every need and answered our unending stream of questions.  We learned more about the social, political and religious issues facing Israel, enjoyed exceptional home hospitality and got very little sleep!  It was a pleasure to share this experience with our Temple President, John Spera, and I hope that we will be able to adequately share this experience with all of you.

We returned to Jerusalem early this evening and will spend the next three days here with a guide seeing the sights, visiting a variety of museums and celebrating Shabbat together before we all return to our respective cities.  There will most likely be at least one more update before I head home to all of you in Canton, so keep checking in!  We have been following the weather in the US several times a day and hope that you are staying warm and safe.  We pray for a break in the snow so that we may return safely to all of you!

L’Hitraot Yerushalayim

I’m going to make an attempt to update the last couple of days, which of course, were very full!!  Friday evening, Dena and I went to Kol HaNeshama for Shabbat services.  This is a wonderful Reform Congregation in Jerusalem, one of the first in this city.  The congregation is a mix of local Jersalemites, visitors from congregations in the United States and Europe and a variety of others.  The service is almost  entirely done in song and is very lively and moving.  The people are so welcoming and this was one of the congregations I visited often during the year I lived in Jerusalem.  The weather had been rainy and cold all day but as we left the synagogue, it began to pour.  Of course, neither of us thought to bring an umbrella and it was impossible to find a cab.  So, by the time Dena and I reached the restaurant for dinner, we were drenched through and through! 

Most everything is closed on Shabbat in Jerusalem but we still managed to find a few things to do!!  We explored the Arab, Christian and Armenian Quarters of the Old City, a whole different flavor and fell from the Jewish Quarter.  One of the main attractions of the Armenian Quarter is the beautiful hand-painted tile which is made there.  Make sure to stop my office when I return so that you can see my newly acquired name plaque on the door!!  The Arab market is nothing short of crazy with hundreds of small shops and lots of very aggressive salesmen who love you until you don’t buy from them!  They would all be wonderful at selling time-shares in Hawaii or Florida!!

We walked back to our hotel via the Jaffa Gate and Dena took some time to pack as she was heading home very early Sunday morning.  One more trip to Ben Yehuda Street where we thought we were going to have dinner and ended up eating double scoops from an amazing Gelato stand.  Nothing like a nutritious, wholesome meal!

Dena left for Seattle on Sunday very early in the morning and I spent the day playing in the city before leaving for Tel Aviv.  My brother-in-law, Rafi Kramer, is an Israeli who lives in the Chicago area now but his sister and family live in Tel Aviv.  I was able to connect with them and to spend the night in their lovely apartment overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. 

This morning, after a taxi ride to Ben Gurion Airport, I met up with part of the group who will be spending the next week with the Partnership With Israel program in the Western Galilee.  Rabbi Stan Miles from Louisville, Kentucky and Rabbi Aryeh Azriel from Omaha, Nebraska were the first two rabbis to arrive.  It’s an amazing coincidence that these two gentlemen are here as I have known them both for many years.  Rabbi Miles was my rabbinic mentor during my second year of rabbinical school and Rabbi Azriel was my camp counselor in 1974 at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute Camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin!  The fourth member of our group is our own John Spera!!  It was so great to see him and I am very excited to be able to share this experience with our wonderful Temple Israel president.

Our driver Chaim  loaded us into a very plush mini-van and headed a short drive out of Tel Aviv to have lunch at a lovely resort.  We piled back into the van and drove a couple of hours to our hotel just south of Akko.  Chaim was kind enough to take us the scenic route and described all of major sites along the way.  We were able to drive through Haifa and to see the beautiful Bahai Temple and its gardens.

We have now arrived at the Palm Beach Hotel, our home away from home for the next few days.  It’s a lovely place with rooms that overlook the Mediterranean Sea.  In a little less than an hour we will meet with our guide Heidi Benish, who will educate all of us on this unique place in Israel. 

Keep tuning in for updates!!

The past four days have been non-stop running.  We have covered hundreds of kilometers and thousands of years, visited crusader ruins, Herodian palaces and natural springs.  Israel is a tiny little country with just about every climate, archaeology and topography imaginable.

On Sunday we met our travel companions, Chelle and Steven from Tampa, Florida.  Chelle was last in Israel at age 16  and this is Steven’s first trip.  Today we drove along the Mediterranean Sea road to Caesarea, the ancient Roman capital of the area.  The ruins are truly remarkable with a Roman theater, aqueduct and ancient port as well as the excavations of the Crusader’s city.  The last time I was in Caesarea was in 2001 and I seem to recall that only the aquaducts were there so it was fantastic to see how much more excavation and reconstruction had taken place.   We continued our journey onto Haifa, Israel’s largest port city.  The views were breathtaking and looking down on the Bahai Temple with its Persian Gardens was simply spectacular.  Driving further north along the coast we reached Rosh Hanikra.  Once there we took a cable car down the steep cliffs to see the amazing grottos carved by the sea. From there we drove up the coast to Akko, an ancient port city which dates back almost 8,000 years.  We walked through its colorful bazaar and visiting part of a Crusader castle.  The afternoon was topped off with a gorgeous We drove on to Kibbutz Lavi, which would be our home for the next two nights.  The kibbutz was quite lovely and after enjoying a delicious and plentiful dinner, it was not at all difficult to fall asleep!! On Monday we journeyed to the mystical city of Safed, the center of Kabbalistic practice.  Our day also included a wild jeep ride through the Golan Heights as we passed former Syrian bunkers on our way to Mt. Bental and the panoramic views that stretched deep into Syria.  Our day concluded with a stop at Tel Dan, the site at which the famous inscription, “Beit David,” was discovered by archaeologists from the Hebrew Union College.  Experts believe that this inscription provides the only non-Biblical evidence of the existence of King David.  Our day ended with a hike to Banias Springs which along with Tel Dan are both sources of the Jordan River.  Tonight we spent another evening at Kibbutz Lavi.

After a hearty breakfast, we said goodbye to the Kibbutz and traveld to Tiberias to visit the grave of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, also known as Rambam.  Tiberias is a town of great significance to both Christians and Jews and was the home of one of Judaism’s most important academies.  Continuing our journey, we droved along the shores of the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee and then headed south to Beit She’an, to tour the extensively excavated Roman city once covered by a mudslide.  Our next stop took us to Beit Alpha to see the beautiful mosaic floor of and ancient synagogue and finally, we proceeded to Gan Hashlosha to dip our feet into the sparkling warm waters flowing from the springs at the foot of the Gilboa Mountain.  Our final drive continued via the Jordan Valley to Jerusalem.  As we ascended to Jerusalem, we paused at Mt. Scopus to recite Shehecheyanu and to enjoy a kiddush as we entered the Holy City.

Any sensible tourist would have had an early supper and turned in for the night.  Not so for Dena and me!  We simply couldn’t resist walking to the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, shopping for souveniers and dining at Rimon, one of the many Beit Cafes.  We finally made it back to our hotel in time to fall into bed and quickly to sleep.  It had certainly been another very full day!!

Stay tuned for the next update…Jerusalem:  Ancient and New!!

The past three days have been nothing short of amazing.  Judging from the soreness in my feet, legs, back and just about everywhere else, I know that we must have walked many miles.  Jerusalem has been blessed with typical winter weather…we have had everything from sunshine to pouring rain to gusty winds to hail, all within minutes of each other!  So here is what has been on the agenda over the past 36 hours…Mea Sha’arim, David’s Citadel, the four Spanish Synagogues, many churches, Ben Yehudah Street, Mt. Herzl Cemetery, Yad V’Shem, Ammunition Hill, the Cardo, the Western Wall Tunnels, the Kotel, King David’s Tomb, Israel Museum, Shrine of the Book, the Knesset and Menorah.  We finished the evening with a wonderful dinner at a restaurant called, “Ima,” where we dined on delicious Sephardi cuisine including all kinds of salads, soups, kabobs and a HALAVAH PARFAIT for dessert!!

Today, shortly after breakfast, our guide to the Dead Sea (and now our friend), Michal, picked us up and took us to Machane Yehuda, the most incredible market on earth.  We ate our way from one end to the other taking in the smells, sights and sounds of Jerusalem as she prepares for Shabbat.  You cannot fully appreciate this market without experiencing it first had but suffice it to say that no farmer’s market you have ever been to even comes close!!  After purchasing fruit, halvah, olives and tons of spices, we made our way back to Ben Yehuda Street for some final souvenier shopping.  Despite the cold and rain, we had a marvelous time and we are not resting a bit before heading off to Shabbat services at Kol HaNeshama and dinner at Lavan, a restaurant overlooking the Old City.  Shabbat Shalom to you all!

Last three days have been crazy running around but I will update tonight…I promise!  Next posting, click the tab at the top of the screen.

Touring and Trekking

The problem with not writing for a couple of days is that it’s virtually impossible to catch up. But, I’ll make every effort to do so!! Our guide, Inon, picked us up bright and early on Friday morning and took us to the Beit HaT’futsot, the Diaspora Museum, on the lovely campus of Tel Aviv University. The museum tells the history of the expulsion of the Jews following the Second Temple period up to the Chalutzim, the pioneers of the early settlement of the Land of Israel. The history is quite fascinating, particularly the hundreds of lands to which the Jews were strewn and the customs, both religious and secular which Jews developed in order to adapt to life in their new places of residence. It never ceases to amaze me how Jews were able to survive despite the never-ending attempts to destroy us.

Our next stop was Rabin Square, the site of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin on November 4, 1995. Inon was able to give us a first-hand account as he had been there on that fateful night with members of his kibbutz.  The mood of the country was extremely positive as the Oslo Accord had been signed and Israelis believed that peace was at hand. Hundreds of thousands were packed into the square that day, celebrating joyously, when a murmur began to move through the crowd that Rabin had been shot. It wasn’t until several hours later, while Inon and members of his kibbutz were riding the buses home, that they heard the news that Rabin had died.  How devastating for the entire country.

From Rabin Square we drove to Jaffa, a 6,000 year old port city. Jaffa was the port into which travelers from all over the world entered and was considered the Gateway to Jerusalem. One can only imagine the amount of commerce and industry that took place in that city on the Mediterranean Sea. The weather was spectacular and the view across the water to the modern city of Tel Aviv was almost surreal. The disparity between the ancient and the modern was truly remarkable. The Jaffa flea market had bargains galore but we controlled ourselves! We did sample some mini handmade pizzas from the Abulaffia Bakery as well as indulging in fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, pressed right in front of our eyes. The heck with anti-oxidants, it was just plain delicious!!

Our next stop was the area known as Neve Tzedek, one of the first neighborhoods of modern Tel Aviv. Our of guide dropped us off at the corner of Nachalat Benyamin, Allenby and the Carmel Market and from that point we meandered through the market for a couple of hours, admiring the work of the artisans, people-watching and enjoying the glorious weather. As we exited the market, we found ourselves in the midst of what seemed like thousands of young people, blaring disco music and outdoor bars. This was a Shabbat/Tu B’shevat celebration, Tel Aviv style!  It took at least 30 minutes to finally see daylight and we ducked into the nearest restaurant for a late lunch/early dinner. To say that this had been a tiring day would be a gross understatement! Between the sun, the touring and the jet lag, we hit the sack at the un-Godly hour of 6:30 pm!!

…It is now Shabbat and there is not much one can do except…GO TO MASADA!!  We hired an amazing guide named Michal, who picked us up at 6 am.  There is no way to describe this day except to say Masada, Dead Sea float, Mud Packs at the Dead Sea Spa, Hiking the Trails and enjoying the waterfalls at Ein Gedi, and discovering the ruins at Quran.  You have to experience all of this for yourself!!

Touring Tel Aviv

Decisions, Decisions

After a typical Israeli breakfast at the hotel (a meal that is intended to last for the entire day!!) we met our guide, Inon, and set off for a very full day of touring.  We began at Independence Hall where the establishment of the State of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948.  It was a very moving presentation which ended with a recording of Ben Gurion’s famous speech followed by the singing of Ha Tikvah. 

The next stop took us to Yad Mordechai, a kibbutz named for Mordechai Anilevitz, the 23 year old leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.  Yad Mordechai is the site of the battlefield where 55 Israeli fighters held off an attack by the Egyptians just days after the declaration of Israel’s independence.  

Next onto the Ayalon Institute, a fascinating underground munitions factory, where 45 young freedom fighters worked in secret for three years, to produce ammunition for the Hagganah.  Hidden underground beneath the bakery and the laundry of the kibbutz, this idealistic group managed to survive this dangerous work in order to produce and test thousands of bullets which were then smuggled out and supplied to the the underground movement prior to 1948. 

The last stop of the day took us to the “Mini-Israel,” a new thirteen acre park with miniature models of the important sites throughout Israel.  Although a bit “kitschy,” it was nonetheless entertaining to be able to walk the entire State of Israel in about 45 minutes and to be able to see everything from David’s Citadel to Masada to Eilat!  The models were remarkably true to life and gave an accurate representation of the scope of Israel’s important historic and religious sites.

The jet-lag kicked in late this afternoon but after a light supper and a little walk around the hotel, so did the second wind!  Tomorrow will be another very full day so it’s Lailah Tov for now!