Bill's Arava Institute and Hazon Israel Ride 2009

Bill rode in the Arava Institute and Hazon Israel Ride '09, Cycling for Peace, Partnership and Environmental Protection. He kept a blog throughout the journey, and has shared it with us here.

  • Tuesday, May 5, 2009 - I did it! 

It’s actually a little overwhelming, and as I walked around Tel Aviv today, it started to sink in.  I rode over 250 miles, from Tel Aviv to Eilat, along the Mediterranean, through three different desert climates, up and down hills, into the wind, and coasting in the slipstream of the pack.  I really have this unbelievable feeling inside, of accomplishment, of being proud of myself, and of awe and humility for what I encountered over the past week.  It’s hard to describe; the word that comes to mind is ecstasy.  I’m really, really happy.

So let me catch up on the last two days and how I got here.  We set out Monday morning from Kibbutz Ketura by bus.  Actually, not all of us- nine people, whose group was aptly named “Meshugaim” climbed the 9 miles to the junction where our bus dropped us off.  We were all given the option to climb, but with 44 miles to go after the climb, I chose the bus.  As it turns out,, I should have done the climb because the day was to be shorter than we thought. 

As we left the dropoff point, we immediately had a short climb, and I realized that my legs felt better than they had all week.  I was in the front of the pack and riding really smoothly, effortlessly- elbows bent, knees in, high cadence.  We were riding 23 km to our first rest stop, and though there was a headwind, our pace was really strong.  That is until I shifted to take a decline more efficiently and off came my chain.  AGGH!  It was the first time all week that I had had any mechanical issues, and it was right in the middle of my best riding. 

Fortunately, David Freeman, our (volunteer) ride chairman and Aussie extraordinaire was riding next to me.  David is an expert on chain replacement without touching the greasy chain and getting dirty.  Alas, after five minutes of trying, he couldn’t do it.  I started pulling on the chain, trying to get it back on, to no avail.  Rider after rider passed by, until finally two stopped and were able to figure it out.  The chain had gone over the pedal, and it was a simple fix to get it back where it was supposed to be.  I was probably stopped for ten minutes, and in all that time, there were riders passing me.  In fact, when I got back on the bike, the support van with the mechanics never came into view. I had no idea that our pack was so splintered- there was probably 5 km of separation from the front to the back. 

So I tried to make it up, but now without any cover, and I realized why I was feeling so fresh before.  Riding in a pack, the slipstream really makes a big difference.  Riding into the wind alone was a lot of work!  But I was still feeling strong, so I started to make up ground and pass riders as we all struggled together.  The rest stop was a welcome break, though, and we were able to fuel up together in an area where there were trees growing.  When you ride through the desert, you really start to appreciate what an oasis is.  The trees we sat under provided shade and breeze and helped to mitigate the heat that was beginning to appear.

Setting out from the rest stop, we past the 47km sign (Eilat would be at 0km), and within a kilometer, the wind had picked up noticeably.  So much so that even slight downhills required a lot of pedaling and earned little in the way of forward progress.  By the 43km sign, the wind was really blowing hard, and the previously vertical reflectors on the side of the road were now bent all the way to the pavement.  We were really laboring.  Now, sand began blowing into our faces as well, and controlling the bike was very difficult.  A truck flew by on the other side of the road, and the force of its wake almost blew me over.  By the 42km marker, which took me about ten minutes to reach, it was really unpleasant to ride.  Actually, it was darn near impossible, even for many of the stronger riders.

Finally, just after the 41km sign, we pulled off the road at a bus stop, and waited for the pack to regroup.  As we sat there, the wind howling, the particles that blew into our legs felt like small pins hitting us.  The ride organizers wisely decided that further riding was going to be too dangerous, and called for the bus to meet us at the previous rest stop to which we were driven in vans.  We had gone 6km in about 45 minutes, after averaging about 27km/hour over the first 23km.  Several riders remarked that it was the worst weather condition that they had ever ridden in.  One of them pulled into the bus stop and exclaimed that he was riding 3 km/hour at one point! 

When we set out in the bus, the sand and dust were flying across the road and visibility was reduced dramatically. It was an awesome sight, nature asserting herself and dominating human efforts.  The wind even slowed our bus; the driver was telling us that he couldn’t pick up speed because of the wind.  We found out later that the storm had affected most of Israel, causing property damage and being disruptive. 

Our route took us right up to the Egyptian border, and was a hilly one indeed.  A funny thing about the hills, though.  From the bus, the hills looked really daunting, so much so that I was thinking to myself, how could one do these on a bike?  But on the bike, your perspective is different.  You see the hills and think, yes, I can!  In December, when we rode from Ketura to Mizpeh Ramon in our bus, several people on the trip remarked that the hills looked fairly impossible. I know that they were doubting that these were navigable by bicycle, but those hills were eminently conquerable.

Anyway, we continued our climb to Har Hizkiyahu, 850 meters in altitude and hard by the Egyptian border.  On a clear day, that is one without a sandstorm, one can see four countries: Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.  We missed out on the latter, but as we stood in the wind and looked into Egypt, a border guard on the Egyptian side came out of his tower post to look at us.  It seemed like this may be one of the least desirable postings a soldier could have, the Siberia of Egypt.  You can imagine how one winds up there: “But general, how was I to know that she was your daughter?”

We left our overlook, and arrived at the descent into Eilat, a 6 mile downhill thrill ride that the organizers felt was safe enough to attempt.  At the bottom, everyone gathered at a traffic circle where we took a picture together and prepared to ride as one group to the Red Sea where lunch and free beer (one of the sweetest two-word combinations in the English language) awaited.  As we rode along the road fronting the seaport, I couldn’t help but reflect on where we’d been and how far we’d come.  It seemed almost surreal that only a week earlier we were just gathering in Tel Aviv, 260 miles earlier.

The day was one of a tired but triumphant celebration.  We ate lunch, drank beer and sat together, smiles dominating every table.  Lea Goldstein arrived to join Brian, and it was wonderful to see someone else from home and share some Israel with her.  The rest of the day was reserved for rest and relaxation.  At 7PM, we gathered for dinner, a wonderful banquet of more meat and salads.  We were all talking about how the challenge now is not to eat as much as we did on the ride! 

As we sat at dinner, recounting the day and how crazy the sandstorm was, Bill Slott, our guide on the ride, told us that sandstorms had two characteristics.  First, they always end at night, and second, it always rains at the end of a sandstorm.  We, however were in Eilat, so that seemed fairly remote.  Until ten minutes later when a drop hit the table.  Then another.  And another and a few and a LOT of big drops.  Then the sky flashed and a rumble of distant thunder.  It was raining in Eilat.  Wait a minute, let me rephrase that.  IT WAS RAINING IN EILAT!!!!  In a place where only 25mm of rain fall each year, this was an event.  Off and on through our final banquet, we were rained on, and boy did it feel good. 

I was honored to be asked to say a few words about my experience, so I touched on what I wrote about the other day:  A rigorous test like what we just finished shows you the strengths within you and lays bare your weaknesses, challenging you to improve yourself, assuring you that you can do it, but that it takes work.  I also thanked, and want to thank here in print, our incredible crew and staff.  From the ride organizers, to the Hazon team, to the riders, to the mechanics, to the educational staff, to the people who set up the rest stops, words cannot express what an amazing job they did with patience, humor and dedication. It was a lot of fun hanging out after dinner and partying with them too- hopefully we will get to meet them in the Bay Area or on our next trek to Israel. 

As I’ve mentioned before, the ride benefits Hazon and the Arava Institute.  The Arava Institute is headquartered at Kibbutz Ketura, where the Director, David Lehrer, our guide, Bill Slott, and the founder, Alon Tal (who rode with us for a couple of days) are members.  I needed to mention in my short remarks how awed I am by the commitment they made, and continue to make, in building the Land of Israel.  We often think of the chalutzim, the pioneers, as being only the people whose graves we visit, who came to drain the swamps and work the land.  But the modern-day Chalutzim are those like David, Bill and Alon who made aliyah to build this incredible place, the Jewish homeland.

Today, Tuesday, is easy to summarize.  I woke up a little later than usual (7:15), had a final breakfast with some of my new friends, and jumped on a flight to Tel Aviv.  I was sitting with Mickey Rosen, the other West Coaster on the ride (from LA), and we were marveling that in 45 minutes in the air, we covered the same distance that it took us 5 days in the saddle to traverse.  I had a wonderful lunch on the Tel Aviv pier with Tanya Levy, our tour guide on the December trip (and the best tour guide in Israel!), who came down from Jerusalem to meet me.  After lunch, I walked to Nachalat Binyamin, the craft market, and through Shuk ha-Carmel, the food market, grabbed a pint at the local Irish pub, and wrote this up. 

Finally, two points:  first, if you can do this ride, do it. It can be life-changing.   Second, I need to express my gratitude to everyone who made it possible for me to take this journey and to share it.  Apryl Stern, who transformed our website into the marvel that it is, posted all of my ramblings and pictures.  I am humbled and honored by the incredible support of all who donated to this cause; I will thank you individually as well, but know how grateful I am. I am also so incredibly grateful for the support of all of you whose encouragement helped get me through, and whose Facebook words were so greatly appreciated.  More broadly, thank you to this very special community who enabled me to take some time to have this experience, and especially to Rabbi Ezray, whose leadership we are lucky to have.

My greatest thanks go to four very special people.  First, my friend and fellow rider, Brian Greenberg, a true mensch; thank you for sharing this experience with me. Not many people at CBJ know Brian, although he is a regular at Saturday morning study, but he is a man who embodies all of the Jewish and human values to which we can aspire.  He is a man of anava, humility, and of great chesed. 

And of course, I never would have been able to do this without the love and support of Michelle, Aviva and Shira.  It has been difficult being away from you, but cell phones and Skype have helped to bridge the distance and bring you along on the ride with me.  I am truly blessed and love you very, very much.

Thank you all for reading.

  • Sunday, May 3, 2009

Another 60 miles successfully traversed, we are enjoying the hospitality of Kibbutz Ketura, home of the Arava Institute.  Today was not as difficult as some of the other days so far because many of the miles were downhill.  Although I don’t particularly enjoy downhills, strangely enough, so those were stressful for me.  But the rest of the ride was relatively flat, with only a couple of short climbs.  Today was the most desolate ride, with nothing but desert for miles and miles.  And yet the desert is far from monochromatic.  It is a vast collection of tans, browns, off-whites and whites, dull greens and ochres. 

Yesterday was a very restful day, one of doing virtually nothing.  Well, nothing and eating, really. The Ramon Inn, where we spent Shabbat, is particularly noted for its excellent food, and it was difficult not to overindulge.   In fact, that has been the situation at every place we’ve been. The Israeli breakfast is renowned for its plenty.  And during the time on the bike, we haven’t gone more than an hour and a half without stopping to eat, drink and refresh.  One thing about this ride- they do feed us a lot!

Before I go into more about today, I do want to reflect a little more about yesterday, particularly Havdalah.  As a group, we walked to the edge of the Makhtesh Ramon, a geological wonder that is not quite a crater and not quite a canyon.  It is quite simply one of the most incredible sights one could ever see, 2000 feet deep, 25 miles long and 2-10 miles wide.  Looking out over the Makhtesh literally takes one’s breath away as one considers its enormity (not to mention the vertigo). 

Before we began Havdalah, we were asked to break into small groups to talk about what we had experienced over the week, what we had accomplished, or whatever we wanted to share.  I shared why I am here.  It began when Greg Sterling rode two years ago, and I thought, yeah, that sounds really cool.  Especially because the Arava Institute is doing such amazing work, not only in the environmental arena, but also in creating opportunities for fellowship and dialogue among Jews and Arabs.  In fact, it is fairly unique.  When the Gaza war broke out this past December, this may have been the only place in the entire Middle East where Jews and Arabs were arguing with each other, expressing their feelings, and ultimately coming together.  Would that the rest of the world could follow their lead. 

I also had personal motivation for doing the ride, an impetus that crosses into my professional and family life as well.  For the first time in my adult life, I have had a goal to set and to reach for my own betterment.  Training for the ride over the last several months has made me push myself physically and mentally, and while I’m still getting into good shape, I have certainly improved.  I also wanted to be able to conquer the hills, both uphill and downhill.  Unfortunately, I’m not where I need to be yet going down due to my fear of heights, but I’ve made it up all the hills (and those who went on the December trip can vouch for the steepness of some of them!).  And I know that someday I’ll fly down the hills again with reckless abandon. 

Another incredibly positive experience has been getting to know some of my fellow riders.  As I mentioned on Wednesday, we have the opportunity to pull up next each other and schmooze.  It really makes the time pass a lot quicker.  Plus, we learn each other’s stories.  At Havdalah last night, a few people shared their stories.  Andy from White Plains lost his mother a week before the ride, but came anyway as a way of honoring her memory.  Andrew from Brooklyn shared his incredibly tragic, heart-rending story of losing his wife and unborn son when she suffered a sudden death on his birthday.  Most of us were in tears as he talked about how he had set out on the ride to find solace in the solitude of the desert, but that he had in the end also found comfort in a community of riders.  And Josh, 12 years old and about to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah, told us that he had set a new speed record (since broken), but don’t tell his mom!

Then, we sang Havdalah together, a chorus of voices arising from the edge of the Makhtesh.  When the candles were doused, we sang niggunim and a couple of our Israeli and Jordanian staffers broke out their drums and people started dancing.  It was a wonderful way to end Shabbat together.

This morning we left early, as usual, to get on the road before the weather became too hot.  We’ve actually had very good luck with the weather- this afternoon was the first time it started to really feel like desert heat.  Tomorrow promises to be a hot one though, so it’s a good thing it’s a short ride albeit very hilly.  Before we set out, we gathered on the edge of the Makhtesh for Shacharit.  Davening in such a venue is very different from davening in the chapel, for example.  Especially when we read the part about how awesome creation is, and creation sprawls out in front of us.

  • Friday, May 1, 2009

Today was a hard day.  After yesterday’s 73 miles, we followed up with 43 miles, including a couple of pretty hard climbs.  The day started in Mashabei Sade, from where we set out for Sde Boker, 14 miles away.  Sde Boker is the place where David Ben Gurion is buried, and the ride would take us to his and his wife Paula’s graves. 

Ben Gurion is buried in the middle of the desert, kind of in the middle of nowhere.  The story goes that he was on his way back to Eilat when he was prime minister, and ran into a group of young people who had set up tents in the area.  When he asked what they were doing there, they told him that they were establishing a kibbutz and settling the Negev.  Whereupon Ben Gurion asked if he could join them.  Needless to say, they were taken aback.  Here was an old man, the prime minister of the country, asking to join their kibbutz! 

After some deliberations, they decided to admit him, and when word reached Ben Gurion in Jerusalem, he quit as prime minister to become a kibbutznik.  As our guide said, it would be like George Washington asking a group of homesteaders in the wild west if he could join them.  Ben Gurion did eventually return to politics, but he retired to Sde Boker and died there in 1973.  The main part of the story was his push to settle the Negev, which comprises 60 percent of Israel. With the Coastal Plain and central Israel becoming more and more crowded, the Negev is a potential answer to the question of what to do with everyone.  Of course the major question is water, as I mentioned yesterday. 

We left Ben Gurion’s grave for a side trek, mountain biking to a natural pool, Ein Akev, in which the water is icy cold and 20 feet deep.  Jumping in was quite a shock to the system!  I really loved the mountain biking, riding on a rocky path, flying downhill in semi-control, pushing uphill.  I’m not sure why descending on a mountain bike doesn’t freak me out, but I’ll go with it- what a thrill.  Hopefully I’ll do more of it when I get home.

We returned to Sde Boker for lunch, realizing that we still had 20 miles, with two major climbs to do.  The terrain is rocky and hilly, with cliffs alternating layers of tan, beige, cream and reddish-brown.  Some scrub brush grows there, but otherwise there isn’t much vegetation.  As kilometer after kilometer ticked off, the group strung out along the highway.  I was somewhere in the back of the middle, the stronger riders way ahead, and the average ones like me struggling to get over the hills.  Riding on the major road between Beer Sheva and Eilat means that there will be some traffic, but it’s not heavy, and the cars and trucks gave us wide berth.  After the first major climb, we had a rest stop next to Israel’s maximum security prison, welcome if not scenic.  The ride staff is excellent at keeping us hydrated and well fed, as you burn off a tremendous amount of calories while riding.  In fact, a word about the ride staff- they are really excellent, making sure everyone has what they need.

At times, I was questioning whether I had the legs to do the whole ride, but 2 hours after leaving Sde Boker, we finally arrived in Mizpeh Ramon, altitude 3000 feet.  My hands are semi-numb from gripping the handlebars, a result of being still a novice biker, my nether region is, well, a little sore, and my legs seem to wobble when I walk.  In fact, at this point it’s easier to catalogue the parts of my body that don’t ache.  But it’s all been worth it so far.  I feel like I’ve done things I never could have.  The physical part of the ride is pretty rigorous, but it’s the mental part that’s even more challenging.  As you come around a corner, having successfully climbed a steep hill, you find another climb awaiting you.  It’s long, it’s steep, and you wonder if you can do it again.  You have to switch your mind into a space that says, “Yes I can!”  and you put yourself on auto pilot. 

When Yeshaya Ballon spoke at the shul after his November ride, he said that you never appreciate Shabbat so much as when you get to Mizpeh Ramon and have a day off the bike after 3 days of riding.  He’s right!  Shabbat will be an amazing day of rest before the last 2 days and 120+ miles of hot desert riding.   I need a massage!

  • Thursday, April 30, 2009

73 miles!  This was by far the longest I’d ever ridden in one day. We started out in Ashkeon, right on the Mediterranean, and we began to head inland, south-southeast toward the desert. We are finally getting away from urban riding and onto the open road.  The serious cyclists in the group are excited about being able to “throw the hammer down”, and the cappuccino crowd (I’m probably one of these!) is just happy not to have to dodge urban impediments.

Our first rest stop was at Nir-Am, a reservoir overlooking Gaza.  It’s a little strange to be so close to Gaza, but all is quiet.  Our route takes us near Sderot, through the Eshkol region (which I heard afterward had a couple of mortars fall there, although we didn’t know that at the time).  Our next rest stop is 13 miles down the road, at the Be’eri bike shop. In the middle of nowhere, there is a bike shop with an attached café.  As more and more people are getting involved with biking in Israel- tourists and locals alike- there is a demand for a shop in an area where there are a lot of great trails, especially off-road.  I pick up some climbing bars here, which should help alleviate the pressure on my hands, and will also help me to tackle the big uphills that are coming. 

We lunch at a very nice gas station after 41 miles of riding, and the ride leaders give us an explanation of waste management.  It still boggles my mind that Israel is so behind when it comes to recycling, and progress is very slow.  Only 7% of Tel Aviv recycles, and the rest of the country isn’t much better.  With 32 miles to go, we set out again as the scenery becomes more and more desert like, sandier here than what we’ll find further south.  Just before arriving at our destination, we rest at Golda Park, where there is a little pool fed by a spring. Legend has it that this is the spot where Hagar and Ishmael found water after they were cast out by Abraham on Sarah’s advice. 

Everywhere you go in Israel, it seems that you find places of biblical significance.  Tomorrow, we’ll go through Midbar Zin, the area where Moses hit the rock he was supposed to have spoken to, and was punished by not being allowed to enter the Land of Israel, which at that time was much smaller than current day Israel.

A few words about water.  Ashkelon boasts the world’s largest desalination plant.  In a country where finding water is the major issue of natural resources, it is critical that alternative sources are found.  Israel is in its fifth year of drought, although it’s a little less severe this year thanks to some March rains.  It’s a conundrum, really.  On the one hand, the Negev is where the population needs to spread to in order to relieve the congestion of the middle of the country.  On the other hand, settling the Negev puts enormous pressure on the existing water resources of the country.  JNF has built a number of reservoirs in the desert, and there are many other efforts to create water availability, but the strain is going to be getting worse over the next few years.  Desalination is a big part of the solution, but it really isn’t clear what impact it will have in the long term.

  • Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Finally, we’re off! The first few miles of the ride will be city riding through the streets of Tel Aviv, which is still sleeping off Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations of the night before. We ride through the detritus that is the aftermath of last night, stopping at Rabin Square and Independence Hall before making our way south to Yafo. We stop again for a photo op just at the beginning of Yafo on the sea, and then start to ride through town and into Bat Yam along the beach promenade. The boulevard is becoming crowded and people shout out to us as we go by. After a few miles of riding, we stop at the Superland amusement park, and fuel up on nuts, dried fruit and powerade. The staff makes sure everyone tops up their water bottles and eats something.

We have a couple of hairy segments along the way, riding on a couple of major highways with traffic whizzing by us, and having to cross lanes, but the staff was good about making sure we got through in one piece. Plus, being Yom Ha’atzmaut, the traffic was lighter than usual. Still, a little gnarly!

The ride strings out at times, the better riders wanting to flex their muscles and pick up the pace. I wish I could keep up with them and take advantage of slipstream riding, but I can’t, so I’ll battle the elements myself. Well not really by myself- one of the nice things about the ride is that there is the opportunity to make connections with fellow riders. So occasionally we’ll pull up next to each other and have a little chat before one or the other of us feels like pushing off and riding a little faster. The group of 35 includes ages 12-74, mostly male and from the US with 2 Canadians and 2 Australians. There are also riders from the Arava staff, and lead riders and chase riders who help set and keep up the pace. So we are a nice compact group.

The route has a few uphills, but nothing too strenuous. I ride leisurely, taking in the neighborhoods through which we are riding. As I was training at home, I had a chance to notice the world at 15mph, the flowers, the trees, the scenery, in a way I hadn’t done before. Today, I get to do the same thing, riding at a pace that lets me enjoy the smell of the wildflowers, the site of the gnarled cacti with their pink flowers blooming, and the suburban style neighborhoods of Yavne and the surrounding area.

As we shoot into Ashkelon, it seems the whole city is partying. Private homes are holding bbq’s and we yell Hag Sameach! As we cruise by. On a large green space there are hundreds of people gathered as families, enjoying their holiday. We pull into Ashkelon beach at 3:00, well ahead of schedule, and having ridden almost exactly 50 miles, which is about the length of my longest ride.

In Ashkelon, the beach scene is also a huge party for the holiday, which for many secular Israelis is the biggest holiday of the year. Again, Yom Ha-atzmaut is different from our 4th of July in that it independence is much closer to the people here than in the U.S. After the Yom HaZikaron commemoration, David Lehrer, the Director of the Arava Institute, remarked to me that for many secular Israelis, Yom HaZikaron is their Yom Kippur in terms of solemn observance. Similarly, Yom Ha-atzmaut is the most celebratory day.

  • Monday, April 27, 2009

I can’t possibly do justice in words to what I experienced tonight.  Tonight is Yom HaZikaron, Israeli Memorial Day.  It is a very different day from what we celebrate in the U.S., where Memorial Day to most is the unofficial first day of summer.  Yom HaZikaron is the day when Israel remembers the 22,570 killed since 1860 when Jews first settled outside the walls of Jerusalem.  Tel Aviv held a tekes, a ceremony, in Kikkar Rabin, a large plaza next to the spot where Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995.  By the time I arrived at the square, a huge crowd had already assembled.

At exactly 8:00 PM, for one minute, a siren sounded. Everybody immediately became silent, standing still, in an act mirrored throughout the country.  Some bent their heads, many stood with vacant looks. Over the thousands gathered in the square, a sliver of moon hovered.  The only sound piercing the silence was the sharp cry of an infant.  When the siren ended, people slowly began moving and resumed conversations. 

After a few minutes, more and more people arrived for the tekes.  I made my way around the crowd to the far side from where I had been standing.  Thousands of people were here. I noticed that the vast majority was young- twenties, maybe early thirties. At 9:00 the tekes began.  The emcee spoke words of introduction and a singer took the stage.  She had a beautiful voice, filling the plaza with the pathos of her song.  Large screens projected her image with subtitles of the song’s lyrics.  When she finished, nobody applauded. 

The emcee returned to the stage and told of a soldier who had been killed in action. In the corner of the screen, a woman signed his words.  The screen then filled with a picture of the soldier and his dates of birth and death.  He was 21 when he met his end in 2006.  His mother shared memories of him, then his sister did the same, both in taped interviews.  After two minutes, another singer took the stage and sang an equally mournful song.  Looking around at the thousands of spectators, one could see many moist eyes and not a few tears.  For an hour and a half, this continued: songs, brief speeches, stories of those killed.  For an hour and a half, all were rapt, focusing on the singers, the speeches, the stories.  Some in the crowd were singing along, many were holding each other.

Israel’s independence is not as remote as ours.  It is a struggle that plays itself out every day, sometimes more acutely than others, but always in the story.  Sadly, death in the service of one’s country is not remote either.  I could not tell you who knew the soldiers personally.  But I can say that each of their stories touched the members of the gathering personally.

On my short walk back to the hotel, I realized that the people who were in Kikkar Rabin tonight were not spectators at all.  They were participants.  The stories we heard were their stories, and the songs that were sung were their songs.  An Israeli friend once told me that there was a huge difference between Israelis and Diaspora Jews because Israelis served in the army, laying their lives on the line.  Yesterday, I mentioned that making aliyah required a huge commitment, especially if it means committing one’s children to the defense of Israel.  Tonight I understand even more clearly what a huge commitment that can be.

  • Sunday, April 26, 2009

Shavua tov! Sunday in Israel is a workday, so I am trying my best to look like I’m part of the workforce, sitting in Mayer, drinking coffee and typing on my laptop. Actually, I think I’m probably looking more like a “screenwriter”, but this is a nice, tranquil place from which to blog. Jetlag seems to be receding somewhat, and a gym workout this morning seems to be helping the process.

As I said on Friday, the preparations for Yom Ha’atzmaut are continuing. More apartments have Israeli flags hanging out their windows, and flags have appeared on the lightpoles on King George Street, a major thoroughfare. Walking over to Mayer from my apartment, four jets in close formation flew overhead, trailing blue and white smoke, probably practicing for a show for the holiday.

Even more than usual, being here at this time makes me reflect on the complex miracle that is the State of Israel. There is a home for the Jewish people, where Hebrew is the spoken language, and where all kinds of Jews, secular or religious; Ashkenazi or Mizrachi; cynical or optimistic live together. As we know, it’s not always (or often) harmonious, and there is a tremendous amount of social and political conflict. In short, it’s a real place, with real issues. I’ve talked about this before. Too often, we see Israel in nostalgia rather than reality. We recall the idealized image of the chalutzim, the pioneers, clearing swamps and creating kibbutzim where everyone is equal, and measure the current society against that ideal. The reality of Israel, of course, is different, and it is at turns frustrating, maddening and incredibly enveloping. Most of all, when I am here, it feels like home.

Because so many people know of this feeling I have of Israel being home, and probably owing to my being here fairly often, I am frequently asked the question of whether I would consider living here.  The answer, on the record, is yes, I would consider it, but actually doing it is a completely different issue.  First and foremost, of course, would be whether it was the right thing for my family, especially considering that I would be committing my children to a completely different future, one which would include the army.  

So to answer the question that so many ask, I’m not making Aliyah anytime soon.  When I start the process of considering it, though, I will let you know!

  • Saturday, April 25, 2009

Pirkei Avot 3:4 states, “…if three have eaten at one table and have spoken over it words of Torah, it is as if they had eaten from the table of God.” From this teaching, I feel like when I left Asher and Karen’s house Friday night at 12:30 AM, I left the table of God. Because the whole meal, we talked Torah. We discussed the Parshat Ha’shavua, the siddur, halacha, Talmud. The meal itself was delicious, but it was elevated beyond satiation by learning together. As I said on Friday, Asher’s home is Haredi, ultra-orthodox, and we disagree more than we agree on matters of Jewish law, philosophy and theology. So we not only had wonderful discussion, we did it with sacred divergence!

I was interested that Asher claimed to know less about Halacha than his wife, Karen. Asher studies Talmud in Yeshiva most every day but they don’t really learn halacha in those sessions. Karen, on the other hand, is far more steeped in the laws and rules, especially of the home and of Shabbat observance. We didn’t really get into a discussion about the roles of men and women in the home, but it is clear that there are not only different responsibilities, but also different knowledge needs. Asher and Karen have five children, ranging from 8 years old to 2 months, a really beautiful family.

Before I got to their apartment for dinner, I attempted to meet Asher at shul for Kabbalat Shabbat. Unfortunately, I wound up a half-block from the synagogue I was supposed to be at, and wound up in front of a building with 4 virtually simultaneous services that was across the street from another building with 2 other services. So I heard L’cha Dodi 6 times, with 4 different tunes! While all the services were ultra-Orthodox, they were also quite different. The Chassidic services were much more animated and they sang more niggunim, wordless tunes. It was fun to look at the service from outside, and see the silhouettes of the daveners’ various hats through the window as they swayed rhythmically buy asynchronously back and forth and side to side.

Saturday morning services went on without me as I slept off my jetlag, so I arrived at Asher and Karen’s for Shabbat lunch a little late. We had cholent (!) and various Israeli salads and of course olives, and again had Torah discussion. This time, we talked more about Conservative halacha and theology. Asher is very interested in how we see Jewish law, and where we see God as the authority in our lives. Again, sacred divergence.

One of the things that I realized as we talked was that at CBJ, we have tremendously different views when it comes to Judaism. One only needs to spend 10 minutes in Saturday morning study to know this. But what we don’t have is much of the Orthodox perspective, and that to me is unfortunate. There is a lot we can learn from our Orthodox brothers and sisters, even if we reject their philosophy or approach to Judaism. Part of my sabbatical study will be to learn with Orthodox teachers to understand better our traditions and laws.

Finally, I always say that you can’t help but run into someone you know in Jerusalem. Friday afternoon, as I returned from a pre-Shabbat trip to Machane Yehuda, the Israeli shuk (market), I ran into the Solomons, Ed, Lauren and Olivia. Lauren is studying her spring semester just outside of Jerusalem in the NFTY-EIE high school program and Ed and Olivia were visiting her. We had plans to meet for dinner Saturday night, but we managed to see each other Friday afternoon quite by accident. It always happens! Dinner, by the way, was wonderful- there is something very special about being together in Israel. I hope to be able to do this with all my students over the next few years!

  • Friday, April 24, 2009

So this is the first in what I hope will be many postings, and hopefully my postings after this one will also include pictures (if I figure out how to work my new camera). I am happy to report that I made it to Jerusalem early this morning, settled in somewhat, and am now writing from Mayer, home of Jerusalem’s best croissant and espresso.

My trip here took 27 hours, given the long layover in London that my frequent flyer tickets mandated. In a way, that’s not such a bad thing- it only heightens the anticipation of finally arriving in Israel. Oh, who am I kidding. It was a long day! But as we crossed over the coast, the indescribable feeling of, “Yeah, I’m back!” came over me for the ninth time in my life. Walking through the airport, with all the signs in Hebrew, and the chatter of the language about, it feels like being home.

I look forward not only to my bike ride, but also to celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut in Israel for the first time in my life. Although the holiday isn’t until Wednesday, many cars are driving around with small Israeli flags (much like we might have Raiders or Giants flags attached to our windows) that read “Am Yisrael Chai” in Hebrew. On the road to Jerusalem from the airport, there were stretches with flags waving from light poles as the country prepares for its independence day. Even though I’ve only been here for 3 hours on this trip, I can already feel the anticipation.

Another exciting celebration that we will celebrate tonight is Shabbat. I am always struck by how the Jewish calendar here is the driving rhythm of everyday life. Everyone, regardless of his or her observance level, wishes each other Shabbat Shalom. Tomorrow, while Jerusalem won’t be totally devoid of traffic, it will be much quieter, and hopefully will be a full day of rest for me (after synagogue, of course!). Tonight, I will have the pleasure of dinner with my very close friend and study partner, Asher and his family. Since he is ultra-Orthodox, it should also be quite a discussion!

Shabbat Shalom to all from Israel. 5 days until the ride!!