Part 1: Rachel Hausmann
Yoav, our guide, and Moshe, our driver, welcomed us to Israel on Shabbat afternoon.
After a Shehecheyanu moment (from a beautiful spot in Jaffa) overlooking the Mediterranean, we had dinner and Havdalah at a lovely outdoor restaurant — sans the Louisiana humidity and mosquitos!
Just before we checked into our hotel — HOTEL TAL BY THE BEACH — Rabbi Natan shared this prayer with us that truly captures the significance of our travels.
How far we’ve traveled, just for this,
To be here,
Precisely here, at this most sacred place,
Exactly now, at this most sacred time
for which we have devoutly hoped— and worked — and waited.
And so we pray for every happy circumstance that you may bless us with.
Help us cling dearly to this moment of our lives,
To hold it softly on our hands, and then, to fit it firmly in its place in memory.
Help us in the days of ahead
To wend our way through history.
Help us hear the echo of the words heard by prophets,
Of dry bones rising or of David’s wild dance on his way to Jerusalem.
As we go from place to place
May we go from strength to strength,
And find the words to offer silent prayers to You
Of time gone by, or yet to come,
Assured by the knowledge
That moments truly marked by prayer can never vanish in the wind.
ברוך אתה יי המחדש ימינו בקדם
Barukh atah Adonai, ham’chazesh yameinu k’kedem.
Blessed is God, who renews our days as of old.
After our delicious Israeli breakfast, our first stop was INDEPENDENCE HALL in Tel Aviv — reliving that historic day, May 14, 1948, 70 years ago, when David ben Gurion declared Israel’s independence.
We continued our travels through time as we drove north on the coastal plain along the Mediterranean. We explored the ancient remains of the coastal city of CAESAREA, built by Herod in 30 BCE and then lunched at the Port Cafe overlooking the clear aquamarine water of the Mediterranean.
A drive further north in the afternoon allowed us to explore the stunning and skillfully-restored underground city of AKKO which was built over hundreds of years by successive conquerors.
We ended our second day in THE LAND with our drive further north to our home away from home for the next four days — MEROM GOLAN.
It’s been an amazing journey thus far.
Part 2: Bree Quinn
Today is Monday and our first full day of exploring the area around the beautiful Golan Heights. After waking up in our cabins at the Merom Golan Hotel, we ate breakfast at the kibbutz dining hall, then headed out for a very full day.
Stop number one was my favorite-an Israeli nature reserve at the ancient civilization Dan. We hiked amongst ancient trees and rushing water, the same wilderness described in Psalms. It’s amazing to stand in awe of the same nature our ancestors did thousands of years ago! After some hiking, we explored the ruins of ancient Dan, which were uncovered by archaeologists in just the past twenty years. At this incredible site, archeologists uncovered a temple, two inscribed tablets, and Dan’s ancient wall and gates. Seeing the living proof of our written history cannot be described.
After visiting Dan, we made several shorter stops. The first was a memorial dedicated to 72 soldiers who died in a helicopter accident, a demonstration of just how serious Jews take honoring tho
se who pass. Then we headed to lunch in a Druze village. One of the families in this village hosted us for an incredible lunch and discussion about Druze history. After lunch we stopped at an abandoned Syrian Military Outpost. This outpost was used in actual battle before Israel was able to secure the Golan Heights. It was completely destroyed, desecrated, and abandoned. It’s hard to visit this place and not think about those who lose their lives fighting for their families and country-on both sides. After visiting this outpost-we went to an Olive Oil factory and vineyard. Two thriving Israeli business and that serve cutting edge products.
We ended our day with a Jeep ride up and down the mountains of the Golan Heights. We stopped at the very top, giving us a chance to watch the sunset, take in an breathtaking view of Israel, and t
ake a moment to reflect on all of the incredible moments from the day. Standing up there, staring down at the creation of God with our group was perhaps the most simple, yet moving part of the day. To stand there with people who have supported, loved, and changed my life- some in only a couple days truly brought the day’s experiences back to the core components of the human experience. I could imagine wandering shepherds, scared soldiers, and loving families staring out at this same view for thousands of years and contemplating life’s simple truths. Stop and look around every once in a while. Find peace amongst chaos. Love each other And most of all-keep a grateful heart.
Part 3: Lucas Spielfogel
8:45am — Here we go! Day 3! Lucas Spielfogel reporting from the Golan. Just finished a delicious breakfast. The bus is pulling out of the kibbutz as we make our way to Tzfat. I thought it would be fun to write this blog as the day goes on. Yesterday was fantastic and will be hard to top. Today will be different and equally meaningful. I think I speak for everyone on the bus in saying how thankful I am to be in this land of milk, honey, and hope. Bree and I feel such affection toward these passengers on our journey through Jewish time and space.
5:45pm — We are back on the bus, and there is a lot to cover. Tzfat was outstanding. We began with a visit to a thriving art gallery filled with arresting pieces by more than eighty artists. Among them were Marc Chagall and Nicky Imbar, “The Legend.” While everyone has heard of Chagall, it seemed none of us had heard of Imbar, whose story is hard to comprehend. After the Nazis killed his wife and children in front of him, Nicky grew angry and determined to escape from Dachau. He put his expert sculpting skills to work, creating a makeshift paste from bread, sand, and water to craft over the course of 9+ months a mask perfectly resembling one of the Nazi guards whose face Imbar had memorized. He was somehow able to steal a uniform from the laundry and eventually walked out of Dachau while his “comrades” saluted him. Nicky has since made his mark and fulfilled his life’s purpose constructing masterpieces that tell a story of grief and triumph, “from Holocaust to resurrection.”
The story inspired us and set the tone for a moving day in Tzfat’s Old City. Our tour, which included a visit to one of the oldest synagogues in the world, immersed us in the magic and mysticism of one of Israel’s four holy cities. Yoav and Natan helped reveal “things behind things,” layers of meaning resting beneath the city’s haunting physical beauty. Around noon, Yoav turned us loose, and we dispersed for lunch and freestyle exploration.
Around 1:30pm we regrouped and walked to the home of a local aeronautical engineer and Orthodox Jew, Yichael, who makes preservative-free wine as a side hustle. Unlike yesterday’s vineyard visit, today’s began with extensive framing. We sat around him like schoolchildren, in a den soulful as the city it sits within, as Yichael explained his simple process for making pure wine — that is, stomping on every last grape with his own two feet and storing the juice in oak and clay barrels. The lack of preservatives offers a healthy alternative to traditionally-made wine, he explained, but the fermented fruit only cooperates for the tastebuds of good people. The wine “checks your soul,” vinegary for bad people, delicious for mensches. Each of the six varietals was an acquired taste for sure but, thankfully, no one in our group tasted vinegar. All our souls checked out.
In just three days, we’ve learned so much about wine’s place in Judaism. We’ve learned it leads to wisdom, and Yichael was generous with his pearls. He urged us to “work on our souls to make them modest,” an ironic tidbit from a man who repeatedly declared his wine “unbelievable.” Still, it was a gem worth pocketing. We also learned about his wine’s uncommon benefits, like providing its drinkers with increased energy and improved driving skills. We put his word to the test by feeding our bus driver Moshe a two-liter clay vat of Merlot to enhance his already supernatural motoring chops. Sadly, his soul didn’t check out. JK. Kidding aside, the visit with Yichael was something. Many of us left with bottles and giant clay jugs in tow — Bree and me included. We all left a bit wiser, with a great taste in our mouths and lots to ponder on the way to our next excursion.
As I write this from the bus, we sit wet-tushed from a paddle down the River Jordan. Apart from dodging rafts of spirited twenty-somethings fulfilling their birthright, the float was relaxing. Now we are heading back to the kibbutz to freshen up before dinner and a lecture on the Middle East conflict, a discussion sure to uncover more things behind things. So far, another A+ day.
10:10pm — Finally back in the room. What a day. There isn’t room and I certainly don’t have the content command (or energy) to adequately recap Elliot Chodoff’s lecture. He was warm and engaging, gracious and accommodating, even long after we had overstayed our welcome. He sugarcoated nothing. I feel safe saying we all left more concerned than we came in. Elliott gave us a lot to chew on, and much of it tasted like vinegar. But I think we also all left feeling prouder to be Jewish and more obligated to this place, our homeland. I know I did. I’m glad this lecture was early in the trip. It will frame how I understand everything going forward, and I look forward to the discussions it will spark over bottles of red. Wine and wonder indeed.
Part 4: Charlene & Neal Pickus
Wednesday 30 May
After another amazing breakfast we got a tour of Kibbutz Merom Golan from Amir, a Kibbutznik. We’ve been staying at this Kibbutz for 3 nights so far. The Kibbutz actually runs the hotel we’re staying in. From Amir we learned that the Kibbutz is huge – it has about 700 residents, a 2 km perimeter with an additional 5000 acres of grassland for cows. It is quite the business conglomerate involved in quarry operations, poultry, cattle, apples and a vineyard. There might be more but my note taking leaves a lot to be desired. You cannot imagine a more peaceful environment. While we were standing in the middle of a traffic free road listening to Amir we saw happy children running and biking. The surrounding area is also peaceful and beautiful. I can see why some people came to visit and never left.
After the Kibbutz tour we drove to the Gilabon Gorge for a moderately difficult hike that took about two hours. The weather continued to be beautiful and not too warm so the hiking was pleasant. It was an up and downhill hike that finished with a beautiful waterfall. Kudos to Natan and Yoav for arranging for the ice cream truck waiting for us at the end of the hike.
We were definitely ready for lunch when we all got back to the bus. We wound up at a great restaurant called Amian located in an artists colony. If you go, don’t skip desert.
Lunch was followed by wine tasting at a special vineyard – the place where Rabbi Natan and Sam held their Israeli reception. It was fantastic! The wine was great, as was the treatment we received from the owner.
Whew! I know you’re thinking there can’t be more – but there was. We then had an incredible visit with a special forces brigade. It was truly inspiring to be greeted and oriented by incredibly mature and poised 19 and 20 year olds. These young adults were totally committed to the idea of defending their homeland by being the best soldiers possible. We got a tour of the base and learned that they are treated very well, but the Israeli government only provides the absolute necessities. Fund raising is going on to make life a little more pleasant for these brave soldiers. The base we visited is fund raising in order to build a fitness facility. Those interested in contributing can contact Rabbi Natan.
We had dinner back at the Kibbutz – it was yummy!
Part 5: Charlene & Neal Pickus
Thursday, May 31
Another great breakfast at the Kibbutz after our last night there. We’re hitting the road for a drive to Beit She’an National Park. Beit Shean is one of the oldest cities in Israel. It was settled about 6000 years ago and has remained continually inhabited since then. Extensive excavation of a large mound there revealed over 20 layers of remains from ancient civilizations. Canaanite Temples pre-date Egyptian occupation of the region. Yoav gave us a great tour of the site and we were clambering up ancient stairs in a theater and admiring the construction of an ancient public toilet.
Next stop was Kibbutz Sde-Eliyahu, a communal kibbutz. This Kibbutz grows all kinds of vegetables, fruits and spices. It also has two industries; poultry and “Bio-Bee”. Bio-Bee is the business developing organic pest solutions and also selling bumble bees to the agriculture industry. This was a fascinating tour followed by a great lunch prepared and served to us by the kibbutzim.
We left there and headed for the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The drive took us through West Bank territories and Yoav gave an informative talk on the bus explaining the situation to us. We stopped at what appeared to be a highway rest inhabited by several stores, restaurants and camels.
We arrived at the Israel Museum and toured for about an hour. It’a beautiful museum and anyone interested in the history of Judaism should not miss it.
We got to Hotel Harmony, our home for the next 4 nights. We were greeted by happy hour and with no scheduled activities we all went exploring. Jerusalem at night has a lot of energy – lots of people, activity and noise. The fallafal should not be missed.
Part 6: Carin & John Carlson
Gotta say this has been one of the most memorable trips we have ever been honored to be part of.
We spent the first two days visiting places Carin and I, for all our prior days in Israel, had not yet had the pleasure to experence. From the formation of Tel Aviv and the stirring formation of the State of Israel in Jaffa/Tel Aviv, to the amazing story of the building of Ceasarea and it’s influence on world history since before the time of Roman rule. Not to mention the exploration of the stunning remains of Crusader fortifications in Acco and the role they played in the battle for Israel’s independence, just unforgetable!
For the last four days we have been exploring the Golan and the Gallilie, I don’t think we have left one stone unturned but I do know we drove over a whole bunch of ’em!
For the years we lived here this was the area we were most familiar with. Yet we have found so much more depth underneath it all on this trip! From the hospitality of a Druz family on Mount Hermon to the party barbecue on a Moshav (I have pictures) to the wine tasting (oh the wine tasting!) Especially Chateau Golan where we chipped in and bought a really big bottle of 10 year old Cabernet which we used at our farewell dinner at the kibbutz tonight, so much fun! But getting to know the people and their stories was priceless
Not to mention the education over the border situation and what drives Israels stance regarding the Golan. The Golan is a wonder and no-one leaves here unchanged. I will miss this place the most.
We even got to visit an IDF training base and visit with several soldiers. Despite the troubles in the south, they were there to do a job and no-one was gonna deter them. We will be discussing how the congregation can help these brave kids when we get back.
Our group has become so much closer through all we have seen and done, I think I will count that alone as worth the the cost. All the rest is langiappe.
John and Carin