Carnie says I have six to eight minutes to sum up the 10 amazing days I spent in Israel. Sounds hard, right? I can actually summarize my whole trip in two words…the same two words spoken to us by our tour guide, Amir, once we boarded the bus after exiting the plane in Tel Aviv. Amir said to us, “WELCOME HOME.” That is how I experienced Israel.
Initially, I applied for Rubin Israel because I thought it would be fun to go to Israel. I haven’t been out of the country since I started having children, and with starting a new business, I might never get out again! I also applied because Israel fascinates me on some level. So, it seemed reasonable to apply.
That being said…I really did not expect to be chosen. And even after I was chosen, I went about life acknowledging that I was going, but not really believing it was actually going to happen…it was 11 p.m. the night before when I realized that I really did need to finish packing! Until the wee morning hours, I cried, mainly because I couldn’t believe I was leaving my 18 month old who I was still breastfeeding and my 7 year old. What was I thinking? How would my husband survive? Three kids, school, homework, lunches, dinner. So it was with some trepidation that I left.
My initial impression of Israel had to do with being surrounded by Jews. Even though St. Louis has a thriving Jewish community, the most Jews I have ever been around outside of shul or specific Jewish events is Schnucks in Ladue just before Shabbos. So, for me, the realization that I was surrounded by Jews doing everyday things, inside and outside of religious activity, was an empowering and comfortable moment for me. There is something extraordinary about realizing that you are a majority and not a minority. I remember having butterflies in my stomach and thinking, “So this is what it is like to be in a Jewish state.”
We spent our first four days in Jerusalem and that place is remarkable. Never before have I seen so many different looking Jews. Secular. Religious. Chassidic. Haredi. The interesting men who cupped their eyes as they passed by me to avoid accidentally catching my gaze. Children, unattended, playing and running in the streets with their friends. Women dressed in long skirts like me!
Mordechai Beck’s words speak to me in a way I would not have truly understood until I had actually walked the streets myself. He wrote, “Jerusalem is always with us. Even if you are a stranger, Jerusalem is not strange to you. To walk its streets is to acknowledge the generations that have walked here beforehand -- if not physically, then in other, less tangible ways. The place is familiar because it is a city you yourself carry around with you wherever you are going -- a boundless Jerusalem that finds its bounds here, a timeless city that is caught inside these walls.”
Just before Shabbos we arrived at the market. It was aromatic, colorful and busy! Everyone was preparing for Shabbat. The group of young friends drank coffee, checked their watches often and socialized. A determined man without the kippah was just as hurried in his search as the clearly religious woman with the long skirt and all of her hair tucked under a beautiful, sparkly scarf. The baked goods were mouth watering. And kosher. In Jerusalem, it seemed like everything everywhere was kosher. Nothing was off limits.
We went to the Kotel that first night. It was Shabbos. I knew my experience at the Wall could go either way. I had already heard stories about people who went with great expectations and were disappointed. I had done my homework before leaving for Israel. Well, actually my homework was just calling Carnie in advance to find out exactly what I was supposed to do when I got there. Was there something in particular I was supposed to pray? Could I carry my small book of Psalms there on Shabbat? Let me tell you, as you already know, it is extremely comforting to have a rabbi that is available and present.
We stopped to the side before entering the Kotel area and made Kiddish off to the side. And then, we were there. Wow! It was surreal! The men’s side was active! Swarms of black-hatted men singing, dancing and swirling in a large circular whirlpool-like configuration. So this is how one welcomes Shabbat with joy! Their energy was amazing. I imagine that the males on this trip wondered how the heck they were going to actually get to the Wall in the sea of celebration!
The women’s side was smaller than I had imagined it would be. It was much more subdued. Still, I was nervous about getting to the actual Wall. I may have even asked Margo, “How do we get up there?” and she may have answered, “Just push your way through!” It wasn’t so hard. I made it to the stones, to an area close to the men’s section and wedged myself between two petite, older women who were fervently praying as I image Hannah did when she begged G-d to give her a child. Somewhere to the left and behind me were five or six teenage girls, standing shoulder to shoulder, singing an angelic sounding Niggun. Off in the distance I could hear the men and their joyous shouts to G-d and each other. It was other-world…but it was also comfortable, like wearing flannel pajamas. I had a feeling of being so-out-of-place but right-where-I-am-supposed-to-be in the same moment, and being surrounded by the intense energy of those around me really allowed me to experience a kind of joy that I am not accustomed to on Shabbat and one I hope to be able to draw on in the future.
The next night when Shabbat was over and so were all the activities on our agenda, Jim and I opted to visit the Wall again as opposed to going out for a nightcap or calling it a day. I personally wanted to go there again in a more focused way. I was curious what it would be like when it wasn’t Shabbat. I was inspired to have a perspective change (this is a reoccurring theme in my visit to Israel)…I was inspired and beckoned to open myself to receive G-d…as if G-d was searching for me as much as I search for Him. My experience was one of opening and receiving, of allowing myself to be present in that moment, at that holy place, even if just for a moment, and then soaking that moment up. I am still absorbing and processing it.
Leaving Jerusalem was hard, especially because I knew we would not be back. I missed it the moment we left and I still miss it.
Some other highlights of the trip include the many opportunities we had to connect with regular Israelis, professional Israelis and Israeli families, spiritual people, secular people, even a dinner with St. Louis people! We “speed dated” with Israelis, broke into groups of two and spent dinner with a family from Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek. The family I was paired with, Orit and Ram, happens to have a sister who belongs here, B’nai Amoona! We met with a hostage negotiator, socio-religious professor, toured the security fence and spent time with lone soldiers. We went to the Dead Sea, hiked Masada (or at least for me, took the cable car up Masada). We played soccer with children who had been removed from their homes by the courts. At Kibbuyz Dalia, we met with emerging Ethiopean leaders who work with at-risk children and heard their diverse personal journeys to Israel as well as the challenges they face. We participated in a Yemenite henna pre-bridal party where we ate delicious food, drank wine, carried fertility candles for Margo and danced all night. We were able to visit, interact with and get a real feel for where some of our Federation dollars are being spent and how worthy these causes are.
One of my favorite evenings was dinner in the West Bank with Amir. He graciously hosted our whole group, welcomed us to his home, made us dinner, and helped us process our experience thus far. Raised on a kibbutz after his mother passed away, Amir is strongly non-religious and, by American standards, borders on anti-religious. It was his WELCOME HOME that helped define my trip and it was he who, along with Margo’s programming, that opened my eyes to Judaism in a new light. Judaism not as a religion, but Judaism as a peoplehood, an extended family. Although I have heard the terms “peoplehood” and “our land” and so on, being in Israel made those terms real for me. The connection I made to the PEOPLE and to the LAND were unexpected but beautiful gifts that the Rubins, Amir and Margo gave to me. I did not expect to cry at the airport when it was time to go but I did, because I did not want to leave Israel, my people or my land.
Since returning, literally a day does not pass where my thoughts are not drifting back to Israel. I won’t lie. I miss Jerusalem. I am in contact with a few of the people I met there, including an attorney named Elana from Mavoi Satum who is interested in building partnerships in America to begin a dialogue for support regarding the issue of agunot. Mavoi Satum has as its core mission to aid mesuravot get (women whose husbands won't give them a get/divorce) on the individual level while promoting broad legal-religious reform in order to prevent the problem from afflicting others in the future. She is a solution-driven person and I am really excited to work with her in trying to establish a program called “Friends in America.”
I am indebted to Ron and Pam Rubin for their generosity and vision. This program has allowed me to connect to Israel in a way I did not even know was possible. I am still on my Israel-high and from what Celeste tells me, it may never go away! That would be fine with me.