Day 5, 6, 7 & 8 – All In The Family

“Family Portrait” on IDF Base in Hebron

The last four days brought MJE on an epic journey from Gush Etzion, to Hebron, and back to Jerusalem for an amazing Shabbat. In Gush, we stood inside a bunker where the last fighters bravely stood before being massacred in the battle of Kfar Etzion during the War of Independence. As we passed the Mekor Chaim Yeshiva, we shared a moment of silence to remember the three Israeli teenagers kidnapped and killed last summer by Palestinian terrorists (2 of whom were students at this Yeshiva). During lunch at a vineyard, we heard from my dear friend Rabbi Ari Berman who spoke on the unexpectedly high level of happiness found in Israeli society. In Hebron we brought snacks to a military base and visited with the young heroes of the IDF who serve in this most difficult area. We prayed at Ma’arat Ha’machpala (Tomb of the Patriarchs/Matriarchs), one of the holiest places in Judaism. We ended the day by singing and dancing to the songs of our people in a Kumsitz hosted by the gracious Cohen couple back in Jerusalem.


With Rav Avigdor Nebensal

The next day we met with my Rebbe and teacher, Rabbi Avigdor Nebensal (former Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Quarter), arguably the most pious and scholarly person alive today and soaked up his simple yet profound answers to our complex questions. 




Lighting Shabbat Candles at The Kotel

We later welcomed in the Sabbath overlooking the Kotel (Western Wall) and heard a fascinating talk from teacher and author, Rabbi David Aaron about the function of “time” in our lives and in Judaism. On Shabbat, we reveled in the peace of Jerusalem and a hard earned day of pause and rest.

On our last day, we toured the religious neighborhoods of Old Jerusalem with Rabbi Benjy Levine, grandson of the Tzadik of Jerusalem, Reb Aryeh Levin.

Rabbi Benjy Levine captivating the audience

He delighted us with tales of growing up with his famed grandfather – the colorful characters and poignant stories that are the legacy of his family. We brought toiletries and other basic necessities to the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Base where we honored the memory of the lone soldiers (soldiers from outside of Israel who serve in the IDF) who gave their lives fighting for the State of Israel, and met some of the brave young men and women who serve under the lone soldier status today. Finally, we had lunch with David Sprung – a veteran of the Six Day War who shared with us what it was like to be among the first few soldiers to liberate Jerusalem. 

Needless to say, the last leg of this trip was packed with learning, emotion and meaning. There are so many things I could say about these last few days, but there is one thought, one simple but beautiful idea, that came up over and over again in every program and with every speaker: the Jewish people as a family. 


ONLY IN ISRAEL

Rabbi Ari Berman asked us “Why do you think Israelis are so happy despite the constant stress they are under?”. He explained that this happiness results from a sense of freedom and uninhibited self expression that can only come from the comfort of living amongst “family.” Israelis, he argued, despite their many differences and problems, consider each other “mispacha” (family). He shared with us a series of hilarious and touching “only in Israel” stories that illustrate just how deeply this family connection runs.

One time when lost and attempting to get to a hospital, a friend of Rabbi Ari stopped a man on the street to ask for directions. The directions proved complicated, so without hesitation the man said “open your door,” and he got in the car. Turn by turn he guided Rabbi Ari’s friend to where he needed to go. The driver assumed that the man probably had to go somewhere close to the hospital, so was using this as a convenient ride. The helper then answered his cell phone and apologized to his friend on the other line for being late: “Sorry, I’m on the other side of town, I had to help someone get to the hospital. I’ll make my way back over soon.” 

Only in Israel.

Rabbi Ari’s many stories sparked a discussion amongst the group, and the rest of the day participants excitedly shared their similar experiences.

One participant shared a story from her time living in Tel Aviv. It was her first time in Israel for Yom Kippur and she did not realize how early everything shuts down. When in a cab on her way back to the city late afternoon, erev Yom Kippur, her driver asked if she was prepared for the holiday – did she have groceries to prepare a meal before and after the fast, because nothing would be open… She did not. Her driver took her to the one store in all of Tel Aviv that was still open. The line was of course around the corner. He turned the meter off and waited for her while she did her last minute shopping, then brought her home, free of charge.

Only in Israel.

Another MJE participant on our trip, his first time in Israel, explained that he lost his sunglasses on the first day during a hike. He went to try and buy a new pair on the kibbutz where we were staying, but they did not have any. The store clerk took the sunglasses off his own face and said “here, take mine.”

Only in Israel. 

I shared with the group my own story, from a trip to Israel with my wife Jill and our newborn Yosef, many years ago. We were shopping in the very religious part of Jerusalem, in the section of Meah Shearim, when Yosef started crying – he was hungry. I ducked into the closest shop, a small dusty Jewish bookstore and asked the owner if he knew of a place my wife could nurse. In Hebrew the Chasid sitting behind the counter asked me: “she needs this now”? Hearing our son wailing at the top of his lungs I smiled and answered: “Yes!”. He said there was nowhere else to go and immediately started asking the customers looking around his store to leave. He then handed me a large ring of keys and showed me how to lock the door of the store after he too would leave. Before he did so he pulled up a chair for Jill and poured her a glass of water and said: “it’s clean” and then left the store. I locked him out his store and after about 15 minutes we were finished and I let him back in. By that time I had I had a number of items sitting on his counter which I was going to purchase from him as a way of saying thanks but he wouldn’t allow it. This Chasid said that he had just performed a “chesed” for a fellow Jew and if that chesed were to remain pure and holy he could not receive anything in return. I picked up a pair of Tzitzit and said: “but I need a pair anyway!” He proceeded to show me another store where they sell such items. I left the store with nothing other than the extraordinary love of a fellow Jew.

The “Only in Israel” stories are endless, but they all illustrate the same point – to be in Israel is to be amongst family. **Please share yours in the comments section!**

THE CALL OF DUTY

One of the songs our group sang many times, taken from the Mishna in Pirkei Avot, in the Ethics of our Sages reads the following:

Lo alecha ligmor, v’lo ata ben chorin lehibatel mimena


Soldier on Base in Hebron

“It’s not for you to finish the task, but you are not free to cease from trying”. Judaism teaches that though we might never be be able to accomplish all that the Torah wishes us to do, each of us must do our part and never give up trying to do more.

When we met with the soldiers in Hebron and the lone soldiers in Jerusalem, we were reminded of this all important teaching – for each of us to do our part. At the same age most American teens are heading off to college to study and party, Israelis and volunteers from abroad are putting on a uniform to protect the land and people of Israel.


Soldier on Base in Hebron

When the Israeli soldiers in Hebron greeted our group, they called us brothers and sisters. They were so grateful for our visit and explained that our support abroad means the world to them. I was so struck by the humility with which they serve, as if it is no skin off their backs. I told them they are not just fighting for their country, their service in the IDF protects their whole family – and that includes us Jews living in the diaspora. Because of them, we live safer and can carry ourselves with pride in New York. We tried to thank them, but they kept thanking us back. To them, they weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary. They were doing what any decent son or daughter would do for his/her parents and family.

Saying a Prayer for our Soldiers


When we asked a lone soldier why he chose to give up some of his best years and join the IDF, he answered “It wasn’t a question, or a choice. I knew I had to protect my family.”

A Lone Soldier explains his motivations for joining the IDF. A plaque for Mikey Levin can be seen in the background. 

PRIDE AS AN ANTIDOTE

My Sons Praying at The Wall

We are far from a perfect family. We argue and are unnecessarily divisive. Just a few weeks ago on Tisha B’av we recounted how the second Temple was destroyed because of Sinat Chinam or baseless hatred between Jews.

Every family has its differences. Every family fights. But as Rabbi Benjy Levine reminded us, echoing the spirit of his saintly grandfather, these differences must be worked out with respect, tolerance and love. 


What do you do when your mother insults you, or your son disrespects you? How do you rise above, be the bigger person, and work things out from a place of love and respect?

There are of course many strategies for dealing with family turmoil, but when it comes to the family of Israel I think the best antidote to tension and intolerance is Jewish pride.

David Sprung, our last speaker on the trip, was among the soldiers who liberated Jerusalem in 1967. He recounted what it was like to come across the Kotel for the first time, covered in garbage since the Jordanians used it as a garbage dump: 

“It was the most beautiful thing we had ever seen,” he explained, “something came over us, secular and religious Jews alike, and we couldn’t help but run and kiss it. Haredi Jews, who just a day before didn’t recognize the State of Israel, came up to us soldiers and kissed our lapels crying ‘thank you’. For once, there was no secular or religious, no conservative, no reform, no Ashkenazi, no Sephardic – there was but one Jewish heartbeat.”


The Whole “Mishpucha”

Jewish pride can ultimately remind us that we are but one family with one heart.

This past Shabbat as I stood at the Kotel, I saw before me my own sons praying and being good to each other. I stepped back and saw they were amongst MJE participants, who were coming together as one minyan to pray as a group. I took another step back and saw the entirety of the mens’ side, and yet another step back and saw the womens.’ One more step back and I saw the people of Israel. With every step, that singular Jewish heartbeat grew stronger and stronger. My pride turned to awe and I thought to myself “what a great family we are.”

PARTICIPANT OF THE DAY

Name: Debbi Ascher 

Profession: Director of Supply Chain Management for the NYC School Food & Nutrition Division


# trips to Israel (including this): 1!!!

Jewish Background/ affiliation: Conservative/ Cultural  

In her words…


How did you get on this trip? 
I was determined to go to Israel this year. It was actually one of the resolutions I had made with myself for the new year. For the past 8 or 9 years it has been a huge desire for me to visit Israel, connect with my people, my culture and my history. It was so important for me to go on this journey, but more importantly to go with the right people. People that shared my interests, a group I felt I could also learn from. I was familiar with Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE) and attended a few events years ago, but decided to reconnect when I heard about an Israeli heritage trip. I met with Rabbi Jonathon Feldman and decided to attend his weekly classes/talks. I found these sessions to be very insightful and really enjoyed and looked forward to these “Tuesday Talks”. 


What are your brief reflections on the day (or the trip overall)?  
This is extremely difficult for me to express in just a short paragraph, but here I go. What I will say is that what I took from this experience has been so incredibly meaningful and special to me. I wholeheartedly loved every moment from hiking at Gamla, visiting the Golan Heights, Amuka, Hevron, spending time with the Israeli soldiers, to driving through the tunnel singing “Oseh Shalom” and seeing the beauty of Jerusalem for the very first time. The feelings I have experienced on this trip have been overwhelmingly emotional and I am so grateful for this wonderful experience. Toda Rabah to MJE! Until next time…


Fun fact about yourself…
I own a pair of juggling sticks!



Day 4: Why Does Jerusalem Make Us Cry?

The Heritage Group Arrives in Jerusalem

Brett Fishberg in Israel for the first time, commented on our arrival in Jerusalem yesterday: “I was surprised, I just didn’t think I’d get this emotional”.

Why does coming to Jerusalem for the first time, and specifically praying at the Western Wall evoke such powerful feelings and emotions?

There is of course no one reason, and the experience is always a unique and personal one. For some the emotion comes from the knowledge that one is standing in the closest proximity to where the Temple of old once stood. For others, the impact of seeing so many being outwardly, openly and proudly Jewish viscerally connects them to Am Yisrael – to the nation of Israel. They feel part of a people and become overwhelmed with pride, comfort, and a sense of belonging. Some cry when they internalize that for the first time in modern history, we are able to visit our beloved Jerusalem, and recognize in their core the importance of the State of Israel. This trip to the Kotel (Western Wall) I realized one more potential reason some become so emotional. As Michelle, another of our trip participants shared, for those who struggle with God and prayer, seeing so many other people opening up and surrendering to something greater, somehow gives permission to be more open and vulnerable to a relationship with God.

Another participant from our trip was walking away from the Kotel crying. When asked about her experience she answered: “I just had so much to say to God”. I realized she probably feels that way because admittedly she doesn’t pray regularly but the holiness of the place coupled with seeing so many others pouring out their heart, makes it that much easier. It was as if she gave herself permission to have that relationship with God for the first time in a long time – as if she hadn’t seen a loved one for many years – hadn’t visited, hadn’t called. Then upon reaching the Kotel, it was like she reunited with her loved one, got a hug and just let go of all she had been holding in. The physical proximity to such a holy place and all the others around allowed her to experience that closeness.

The challenge is maintaining some semblance of that feeling when not in Jerusalem, when not at a place as holy as the Kotel. By definition it can’t be the same because God’s presence, or “Shechinah,” is truly strongest there. But perhaps having this experience of spiritual catharsis in Jerusalem can help us keep the channels open for greater communication between ourselves and the Almighty, on a more regular basis.

PARTICIPANT OF THE DAY

Name: Brett Fishberg

Profession: IT Tech Sales


# trips to Israel (including this): 1!!!

Jewish Background/ affiliation: Grew up a Reform Jew who belonged to a Conservative Synagogue in California. Now lives in NY and only goes to services for High Holidays.   

In his words…


How did you get on this trip?  My brother who lives in NY but is not affiliated with MJE forwarded me the link about the Israel trip and it just so happened to fit in my schedule for work.  


What are your brief reflections on the day (or the trip overall)?  Being that this is my first trip to Israel I didn’t know exactly what to expect. Everyone told me that I would have that “Aww Haww” moment and for me it was our first trip to Jerusalem.  Rabbi Ezra Cohen, Rabbi Mark Wildes, and my roommate Rich started playing the song Jerusalem of Gold (‘Yerushalayim Shel Zachav’) as we approached the Overlook of Jerusalem and at that moment I understood what everyone had been telling me. I instantly felt that I belonged and a sense of pride for my religion came over me. That feeling was even intensified later that night when I visited the Western Wall for the first time.  As the MJE group started praying and inserting their personal notes and messages into the crevices of the wall I began to get a warm feeling and real sense that I was finally home. Overall, I have had an amazing experience with MJE filled with new friends and memories that I will never forget. Thank you very much for the opportunity and new appreciation for my religion and life. 


Fun fact about yourself…
Even though I know I can’t sing I still find myself singing in the shower.

Day 3: What is Kabbalah Anyway?

Avraham Lowenthal in his store in Tzfat
REFLECTION OF THE DAY – “What is Kabbalah anyway?”
Yesterday we spent the day in the holy city of Tzfat. Besides being an important part of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, it is considered the center of Kabbalah due to the many great Rabbis and Kabbalists who emigrated there in the late 1400’s/early 1500’s following the expulsion of Jews from Spain.

But what is Kabbalah, really? In our generation Kabbalah has been presented as something new and even separate from classical Judaism. Nothing could be further from the truth: Kabbalah is as old as Judaism and its teachings are as central to Torah as anything else we may have learned in Jewish school.

There is a strong Jewish tradition that when the Torah was revealed to the Jewish people at Sinai, an oral explanation or way of understanding the Torah was also revealed and passed from generation to generation – what we call, the Oral Torah. That Oral Torah contained both a revealed and more rational part as well as a more spiritual and hidden aspect. Much of the revealed part is today found in the Talmud while the hidden and more metaphysical parts make up what we call the Kabbalah. So Kabbalah has been around at least as long as the Torah itself and is an integral way of understanding our Judaism, a way that resonates with more and more young people today.

What is it about this ancient wisdom that speaks to some many young people today? Our generation today craves spirituality more than ever before. Our grandparents’ generation, consisting primarily of immigrants and second generation Americans, was focused on surviving and making it financially in a new world. They really didn’t have the luxury or time to ask the big questions and pursue a life of spirituality and inner meaning. Of course there were many important exceptions, but for the most part the kind of Judaism they bequeathed to their children was lacking in meaning and inner depth. Their children, living a more comfortable life in the suburbs of America began searching for more. Since the Judaism available to them seemed cold and ritualistic, Jews looking for contentment and fulfillment either looked to professional advancement or towards the Eastern religions for a spiritual path. They simply didn’t think Judaism contained a real path of enlightenment and spirituality or that could provide inner happiness.

In Tzfat we met Avraham Lowenthal, a Kabbalistic artist who shared with us that growing up In California he felt Judaism offered nothing in the way of real spirituality. However, as a college student at the University of Michigan, he was introduced to the works of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, a noted author on Kabbalah, and his life was changed forever. He ultimately learned that Judaism did indeed contain great depth and spirituality. With his beard and peyos (sidelocks), dressed in all white and in his very chill West Coast cadence Avraham remarked: ”Guys…this wisdom of Torah is just so deep and awesome. You need to study the inner parts of Torah to see how powerful and spiritual Judaism really is”.

PARTICIPANT OF THE DAY

Julie & Camel

Name: Julie Stein

Profession: personal injury attorney for a small plaintiff’s firm


# trips to Israel (including this): 3

Jewish Background/ affiliation: Grew up in a conservative household with Shabbat dinner on Friday. She has become a regular at MJE downtown and really loves the people and the events/activities.

In her words…


How do you get on this trip?
The last time I went to Israel was almost 10 years ago. I have been anxious to return and this trip was the perfect opportunity. It’s so important to support Israel at all times!

What are your brief reflections on the day (or the trip overall)?
Yesterday was amazing-I specifically loved Amuka. When I was praying for my friends and myself I felt a strong spiritual connection and felt very connected to the land.

Fun fact about yourself…
When I was 4 years old a car crashed in my bedroom.


Julie Praying at the grave of Rabbi Yonatan Ben Uziel in Amuka. Amuka means “depths” and this site is known to help find one’s soulmate.


DRINK OF THE DAY – Israeli Craft Beer!?

Just a few years ago, there were pretty much two options for beer drinkers in Israel: Goldstar and Maccabee (bad and worse). To the delight of many of the participants on the trip, we learned in Tzfat that Israel has a very up and coming craft beer scene. While traveling abroad in the U.S., many Israelis apparently picked up on the success of the microbrewery scene and noticed a business opportunity. Following their natural entrepreneurial inclinations, many have been able to successfully launch holy land home brewed craft beer brands. Great news for Jews who enjoy their brews! 


Day 2 : Giving Not Taking

REFLECTION OF THE DAY – “Giving Not Taking”


Yesterday as we stood In the Golan Heights overlooking Syria, we listened to the story of a the great Israeli spy, Eli Cohen. We sat under one of the eucalyptus tree he suggested the Syrians plant to give shade to their troops. In doing so the Israeli spy revealed where the Syrian bunkers were located. As a result of Eli Cohen’s efforts Israel not only gained vital intelligence on the Syrians but enabled Israel to be much more effective in defeating Syria in the Six Day War.

I had heard this story many times before but never realized that the last mission Eli Cohen carried out, the one during which he was caught  and ultimately lost his life, was a mission the Israeli’s said he could sit out since he had done so much already. It was only after he learned that the unique position he had developed in the Syrian government would make him the perfect person for the job, that he once again volunteered.

Our tour guide Tuvia Book shared that that was the attitude which inspired him in 2006 to return to Israel from Australia, where he was living at the time, to join up with his IDF unit when Israel was forced back into Lebanon. On the flight to Israel were dozens of others from all over the world who volunteered to return to Israel to serve in Lebanon. All of these heroes had been inspired by the same spirit of giving and not taking. 

We ended our day with a Kumzits (Jewish musical sing-a-long) on the beach of the Kineret led by former Reggae musician, now Chasid, Alon Ram. After singing soulful songs late into the night Alon ended our day with the same message, telling us that if we wanted to transform this world into heaven we have to be prepared to be givers and not takers.

Israel exists only because of the many who have selflessly given to her. May we, the recipients of her beauty and rich history, be inspired to give in all parts of our lives.

Israel/ Syrian border – ISIS controlled village in the distance

PARTICIPANT OF THE DAY



Name: Arielle Hyatt


Profession: Chorus Teacher, Dir. Non Profit, Singer/Performer

# trips to Israel (including this): 1(!!!)

Jewish Background/ affiliation: Reform


In her words… 


How do you get on this trip?
I recieved an email from MJE regarding the trip, and decided to apply last minute since my trip last year was cancelled.  I have never been!

What are your brief reflections on the day (or the trip overall)?
Yesterday was so exciting and incredible! We hiked down the side of a mountain to the world’s oldest synagouge. It was a challenge, and truly magnificent.  It was a surreal experience to sit on the same stones where my ancestors sat to pray.


Fun fact about yourself…
I played Margot in Legally Blonde on Broadway!

Day 1: On the Land and On the Food [MJE Israel Edidin/Heritage Trip – Beyond the Headlines Series]

Just an hour after landing at Ben-Gurion airport for the 16th annual MJE EdidinHeritage trip to Israel, our group of 45 participants enjoyed a delicious Italian dinner (go figure) and heard from an IDF soldier in the reserves about his experiences in the army. When asked “What is the most important thing American Jews can do for Israel?”, he answered “Have our back, be with us.”

As American Jews living so far away from the mother ship, it is imperative that we keep Israel in the forefront of our minds and have her back. But when the headlines about attacks, elections, and the looming existential threat of Iran are all we interact with, this duty becomes heavy and at times daunting. It is equally as crucial that we connect with the heart of Israel – the people, the food, the land, the history, the culture – so that we remember why we care and why we fight the good fight.

While in Israel, I will be blogging daily to do just this – to bring you Israel beyond the headlines. Each day, we will highlight activities, places, people and of course, food. We hope that as you read you get the urge to come visit yourself, and that it revitalizes your moral support abroad.

PARTICIPANT OF THE DAY



Name: Jason Parnes

Profession: CPA, assurance
# trips to Israel (including this): 2
Jewish Background/ affiliation: Secular/ Reform


In his words…


How do you get on this trip?
I received an email from MJE regarding a trip to Israel at a subsidized rate. I wanted to go back since Birthright so it seemed like the perfect opportunity! It all happened so quickly – I seriously can’t believe I’m here, it’s pretty surreal. 
What are your brief reflections on the day (or the trip overall)?
It’s incredible! It is only the first day and everyone treats each other like an old friend. 

Fun fact about yourself…
This season will mark my 11th year as fantasy football commissioner with the same group of guys. 


REFLECTION OF THE DAY – “On the Land and On the Food”

MJE Participants Enjoy Dinner At “Don Vito” in Or Yehuda, Israel


Back to that amazing Italian dinner. As always, we finished the meal with Bircat Hamazon- the Grace After Meals. As I shared with the group, the second blessing of the Bircat Hamazon, “on the land and on the food” refers to the land of Israel. This means we recognize the centrality of Israel after every meal. Israel is so central to our being, so basic to our continued existence, that it’s combined with our thanks for our most basic need, for food. One of the goals of our trip, besides inspiring our group as to the beauty and relevance of Israel in our lives, is to demonstrate the absolute necessity of Israel to the Jewish people. No different from food, we simply cannot be without Israel. This is a message we hope will be heard by all peace loving people as Israel continues to face external threats. Just as we all require nourishment to lead healthy lives, the Jewish people need Israel and we must therefore ensure she survives and thrives.