Bill's Winter 2011 Trip to Israel Blog

Bill is one of many clergy leading a Winter 2011-2012 cross congregational trip to Israel. People from all over the San Francisco Bay Peninsula came together to see the sites of Israel. He kept a blog throughout the journey, and has shared it with us here.


Saturday, December 24

It's Christmas Eve! It's hard to tell that here in Tel Aviv. It's also hard to tell that it's also Shabbat. Well, there is a little less traffic, but otherwise it's not hugely religious here. It's a nice day just to relax. We wake up on the later side, have some breakfast, then the group takes a walk to Rabin Square, where Danny talks about not only Rabin and his legacy (Rabin Square is where the prime minister was assassinated in 1995), but also the conditions which led up to his murder. Once again, Danny walks through how Israel's borders were set, and the implications of giving up land. 

Rabin Square is also the site of last summer's Occupy Tel Aviv movement, which was the first of the many protests that swept across Europe and the U.S. The demonstration in Israel was mainly about the high price of housing in the country. There was a lot of sympathy in Israel because after young adults complete their compulsory military service, they get out to discover that there is no affordable housing for them. Those who go to college find that after graduating they are faced with the same problem. The protests in Tel Aviv reached into the hundreds of thousands, but dissipated fairly quickly after the prevailing public winds began to blow in a different direction. The shift came when people realized that there was plenty of affordable housing, just not in the most popular areas of Tel Aviv and other cities. The mayors of places like Yerocham, for example, came forward to offer their towns as examples of places that could use highly talented young people who could live for a fraction of Tel Aviv rents. No thanks, said the protestors, and soon the occupiers left their median strips and town squares and returned to everyday life.

So a word about the economy here. The Jerusalem Post reported that unemployment in the country was at five percent, and that the economy has been growing steadily. While there are certainly many who have been left behind, prosperity seems to be widespread. Unfortunately, prices have followed as well, and it is pretty expensive day-to-day here, as I mentioned earlier. Also, in fairness to the Occupiers, they did have a point about the cost of real estate. There has been an enormous jump in housing prices over the last few years, due in large part to foreign buyers- mostly French, if you listen to the person on the street- who don't even live here more than a few weeks a year. Some, like Lisa's friend Danny, advocate not allowing foreigners to buy in Israel unless they actually live here.

Leaving Rabin Square, Lisa and Emma head for Rehovot and the Ayalon Institute, where a kibbutz in the 1940s ran a secret bullet factory that helped arm the Hagana as it fought the British. We went to the Ayalon bullet factory on the last trip, and it was a real highlight, but this time, only the second group will be able to go. I have the opportunity to take a nice Shabbat walk with Rabbis Eisner and Feder. So for those who don't know Dennis and Dan, they are both great guys- funny, smart, and fun-loving. They are also completely dedicated to fostering collaboration among all of the Jewish organizations in our area. During the planning stages of this tour, Keshet, which is the tour company that organized and is leading us, communicated their wariness about Conservative and Reform congregations doing a trip together based on their previous negative experiences of making something like this work. We assured them that we, as a community, are different, and that has really borne itself out. Our group gets along fantastically well, and much of that is due to the leadership of the synagogues who see us as a united Jewish community, and not as one divided by synagogue lines.

We have a lot of excellent conversation, reflecting on the trip and filling in Dan, who has just arrived with Group B, on the highlights. At times, we can't remember exactly when we did what, as the days slur together a bit. Inevitably, we turn to how we can collaborate even more together. There is something in the Tel Aviv air that gets our juices flowing, thinking of what is possible rather than of what won't work. Here is a sampling. I share with Dennis and Dan that we had a very successful Young Adult- 20s and 30s- Friday night gathering over Sukkot, and are planning a couple more during the rest of the year. All of us see the need to fill the hole for so many in this demographic who are unaffiliated or alienated from Jewish community life. Wouldn't it be great if we all came together and created a program that rotated among our synagogues, given people exposure to the community and leaders of PTS, PTBE, PSC and CBJ? Dennis suggests that the programming for elder adults that is run by the JCC, is something we should think about being more actively involved in driving. All of us have individual programs, but wouldn't it be great if we could create scale by working together?

As we get more and more excited, our attention turns to our youth counselors who are leading the trip with Danny. Tamar Cohen Rand and Asaf Solomon are in their mid-20s, and grew up here, the children of Olim, immigrants to Israel. They are outstanding. Tamar has a background in early childhood education, and Asaf has worked with teens and is getting his tour guide license soon. Both of them led the Kehilla High School trip last year that my students, Max and Ashley Kaplan, were on, and rumor has it that they were wonderful with the teens. What if, we ponder, our four congregations, together with the Day School, and perhaps the JCC, all pitch in to bring someone like Asaf or Tamar to the Peninsula, to do Israel programming with our congregations, especially with the youth. We can take turns housing this person, and they can rotate among our congregations, leading programs at each of them, and also bringing together our teens, for example, for periodic programs together? The possibilities are limitless.

I mention all of these ideas so that people can get the sense of what we can create to continue pushing forward the paradigm of cooperation and formation of broader Jewish community. I also relate this so you start thinking about other ways to pull us all together, and to think about participating in this kind of program, investing both time and financial resources.

As Shabbat ends, we do Havdalah and light Hanukkah candles together, as we have done each night, then head to Independence Hall, where David Ben-Gurion declared Israel a state on May 14, 1948, 5 Iyar, 5708. We watch a film about the event, then go to the actual room where the 37 signatories of the Declaration of Independence gathered together with other dignitaries. Our docent is fantastic- animated and passionate, and she moves us emotionally. At the conclusion of the presentation, we listen to excerpts of Ben Gurion's speech, and stand together to sing Hatikva. There are more than a few moist eyes among our group. 

Leaving Independence Hall, we walk to our next feeding. Our destination is an excellent Yemenite restaurant, Meganda, in the Yemenite Quarter. This area of Tel Aviv is quickly gentrifying, although remnants of the old neighborhood are still interspersed among the new buildings. One sees extremes of poverty and wealth next to each other, and in many ways, this reflects a reality of Israel today. Our notion of Israel and the kibbutz, of a society without vast gaps between the haves and the have-nots, is simply fiction. Income disparity in Israel, while not at the level of the U.S. or the U.K., is quite high. According to recent research (there is an excellent TEDtalk about this (, income gaps lead to a host of issues, social, political, and health-related, and Israel is experiencing many of these problems, as we are in the U.S. We enjoy our dinner, although any pretenses I had toward maintaining weight has long since gone out the window given the volume of delicious food we have experienced. The bus returns us to the hotel, and we look forward to another meaningful and full day.

Friday, December 23, 2011

This morning we will wake up late to a view of old Jaffa and the sea. Today is a late wakeup, and we have the added bonus of not being on the bus today. I've decided to take a break from writing for a couple of days so I can be more present in the moment. I do enjoy sharing our experiences within this journal, but the problem with writing extensively is that I'm sometimes missing what's going on outside. Much of the desert is a blur that went by as I have been looking down at my screen. For me, taking pictures presents the same problem, although I have also been taking a lot of pictures and video of the group. Before the trip, Rabbis Feder, Eisner and I decided that we would take pictures and video to be produced into a video that we will play at our community Yom Ha-atzmaut celebration. The pictures and words we are sharing are important in creating greater connection to Israel for the community. 

The touring starts in the first neighborhood of Tel Aviv, Neve Tzedek. This area was founded in 1909 by 66 Jewish families who lived in Jaffa, and who decided to establish a Jewish community outside of the Arab neighborhoods in which they were living. Anybody who has been to Tel Aviv knows how cosmopolitan and built up the city is, so for many it is shocking to see that in 1909, the city was simply sand dunes as far as the eye could see looking east from the sea. Neve Tzedek today is a blend of the old and new Tel Aviv, as it is a very hip shopping area with excellent restaurants. After touring Neve Tzedek, we take a quick bus ride to Nachalat Binyamin, which is a pedestrian street that turns into a crafts fair every Friday. It's located next to the Carmel Shuk, so many people shop for their produce for Shabbat, and peruse the jewelry, household decorations, and other crafts that are on display. We do quite well, buying some unique gifts for friends and family, and walk back to the hotel for to get ready for Shabbat.

Tonight will be special, not only because it is our first Shabbat together, but also because the rest of our group, including Leslie Weinstein and Charlie, Rabbi Feder, and ten other people are arriving in time for Kabbalat Shabbat. It will be really nice to have everybody together for the first time. We have a couple of hours before our Kabbalat Shabbat service, and I get together with my colleagues, Dennis Eisner of Beth El, Dan Feder of PTS, and Elana Jagoda of Beth El, to plan the service. As they are all from Reform Temples, and the Siddur we are using is Mishkan Tefilla, also from the Reform movement, there will be some differences from our regular Beth Jacob service. All of them are very open to making sure that everyone from CBJ will feel comfortable, though, and we make adjustments to make the service meaningful for everyone.

We meet in a ballroom at the hotel, and arrange the chairs in a circle so that everyone can see each other. Elana is the cantorial soloist at Beth El, and leads us as she plays her guitar. There is a feeling of overwhelming joy in the room, and I can feel that most everyone quickly gets into the spirit of the singing. Which is not hard to do because Elana has one of the most beautiful, transcendent voices that I have ever heard leading a service. And it's not just her voice; it's the spirituality that emanates from her and the inclusiveness that she radiates that makes the davening all the more spiritual. As I daven, I think how fortunate each of our synagogues on the Peninsula are to have amazing Cantors: Barbara, Elana, Doron, and Barry. Shabbat dinner follows, and we share nice bottles of wine together at our individual tables. There is something so meaningful about reciting the priestly blessing over our children and making kiddush in Israel. I feel so privileged to be able to bless Aviva, but I do miss Shira and Michelle as we make Shabbat. When we finish eating, most everyone returns upstairs, and I join the Keshet staff and my colleagues for some post-dinner schmoozing and Birkat Hamazon. Danny leads us, and sings the Al ha-Nissim, which is inserted on Hanukkah, to a tune that he learned from his grandfather many years ago. We all return to our rooms for a much appreciated early night.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The phone rings at 4:30 AM, awakening us for a pre-dawn hike along the edge of the Makhtesh. In the desert heights, it is chilly in the morning, cold enough to require gloves, which of course I didn't bring. Walking along the ridge of the Makhtesh, one gets the sense of the awesomeness of the abyss, lurking not far from where we crunch the rocks beneath our feet. As we are closing in on the new moon, and there is a shroud of fog, the receding lights of Mizpeh Ramon light our path. Although the hike is optional, 22 of the 32 people in our Group A have chosen to come along. The group spans all ages, from seven to eighties. While our walk isn't terribly rigorous, it is fairly steep in some places, and there are steep drops not too far away. 

After about 45 minutes of walking, we come to a place where we can all sit down, and we have a short prayer session. It's not a traditional Shacharit service, but a few prayers of thanksgiving for being awake and together. When we come to the Birchot HaShachar, the morning blessings, we each substitute our own blessing, saying what we are individually thankful for. We also say the Shema and have time for silent reflection as well. Like the vast majority of people I know, I find the presence of God to be strongest when I am in a place of awesome nature. The combination of the morning chill and the vast Makhtesh make for a powerful spiritual experience.

Returning to the hotel, we pack our bags for the move to Tel Aviv and enjoy another fantastic Israeli breakfast courtesy of the Ramon Inn. We head north on Route 40 toward our first stop, which is an ancient Nabatean city. The Nabateans were Arabs who developed a spice route more than 2,000 years ago, and the remains of their city, which changed hands to the Romans and then the Byzantines, sits high on a hill overlooking the road. We explore the city and sit in what was a church as Danny explains the history of conquest of the land from the Babylonians through the Persians, Greeks, Seleucids, Romans and Byzantines. Once again, I am amazed by how good his teaching is, far beyond what most tour guides bring. I'm also struck by the fact that I've never been here before today, on my tenth trip to Israel. There is so much to see in this small country that every trip brings new discoveries and connections.

Our next visit is to the grave of David and Paula Ben-Gurion in Sde Boker, a place I have been to several times. Ben-Gurion was the first prime minister of Israel, and the only past prime minister buried outside of Jerusalem. So why is he buried here? He wanted to be buried in the Negev so that people would come visit his grave, thereby bringing tourists to the desert. Ben-Gurion was an ardent proponent of settling the Negev, and lived many of the last years of his life there.

From Sde Boker, we drive to Yerocham, a desert settlement town. Yerocham was a place where many North Africans settled, and for many years was severely economically depressed. The town seems to be doing better now, but it still suffers from a reputation of being somewhat less than the garden spot of Israel. It is in Yerocham that I will have one of the most meaningful experiences I have ever had in Israel. Through an organization called Culinary Queens of Yerucham, we ate lunch in someone's home. Well, that doesn't come close to capturing the experience. Culinary Queens arranges for tour groups to be hosted by local women, mainly middle-aged and older, and their families. This home hospitality gives is meant to give the women dignity by allowing them to do something that they do well, namely cook traditional recipes, in exchange for much-needed money, without them needing to come to the state for welfare.

Our hosts are delightful, she from Libya and he from Tunisia, who have been in Yerocham for more than forty years. He gives us a talk about their experiences, and is an animated and funny speaker. And the food! Aside from the sheer volume, the flavors are absolutely incredible. It's hard to describe the salads, the North African chicken, the meatballs and the homemade (!!) couscous. Of course, we need dessert, and the semolina and honey cake is unique (and filling). Then cinnamon tea with roasted peanuts, and since it's Hanukkah, there's homemade sufganiyot. We roll out of the house, and hope that the driver has put air in the tires to support the extra weight they will have to bear.

We return to Tel Aviv after our desert experience, and I have mixed emotions. On the one hand, I love the silence and calm of the desert, and could have spent a lot more time there. On the other hand, I am happy to return to the big city and its stimuli, even though the contrast with the desert is so stark. We check back into the Renaissance and freshen up before dinner. We'll be here for four nights, and it is really nice to be able to unpack everything from suitcases and put our clothes in drawers and in the closet. It's a much more settled feeling than the nomadic living out of our bags. Tonight's destination is an old favorite, Piccola Pasta on Ben-Yehuda Street, which has great pasta and a fabulous wine list. Aviva and I head to the restaurant with Lisa and Emma, and we meet Lisa's old friend Danny there. Danny and Lisa went to SF State together, and he made aliyah in 1988. As always, dinner is delicious, but none of us (except for Danny) can eat very much as we're still feeling the effects of Yerocham.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Today, we get to have a late start (8:30) before heading out for a day of desert touring. The breakfast at the Ramon Inn is quite spectacular; in addition to the standard salads, cheeses and eggs of Israeli breakfasts, they also have shakshouka, homemade jellies (eggplant! fennel and apple!), and an array of other hot foods. It's a great way to fuel up before hitting the day running, although it's also a good way to pack on a few extra pounds.

The bus winds down the hill to our first stop today in the Makhtesh. As we navigate the s-curves that will deposit us half a kilometer below, I flashback to the bike ride, and I know that even today there is no way I navigate the extreme downhill. Even in a bus, it's a relief to get to the bottom, and we stop a few minutes later on a hill that reveals the geology of the Makhtesh. The rocks are lighter than you would imagine, having been formed with more air inside them than normal. Activity from long-dormant volcanoes is evident as well. We take a short drive to a wadi, which is a dry riverbed, to see the sedimentary rock formations of hundreds of millions of years. Examining the rocks closely, there are so many different hues that really illustrate the polychromatic nature of the desert. I'm thinking of my bnei mitzvah rock collection as I stoop to collect a purple one.

Leaving the geology lesson, we ascend back to the desert highlands and make our way to Mizpe Revivim, which was a settlement in the Negev. While there, we watch a film describing the early days of the settlement, then listen to our guide, Danny Ehrlich, walk us through the history of how the colonial powers divided up the Middle East, laying the groundwork for the borders and divisions that we have today. In all the time that I have studied and learned about the Middle East, I have never heard a lecture that so completely and objectively described what happened in the last couple of hundred years to create the countries of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran. Of course, I say that it is objective knowing full well that people with other political agendas would refute the facts. The biggest takeaway is that the Israelis and the Arabs are negotiating based on different definitions of borders, so that even the basis for negotiations can't be agreed upon. We explore the settlement, now abandoned, and eat a pack lunch together.

Onward we trek to Ben Gurion University, located in Sde Boker, where we listen to a lecture and see a slide presentation about solar energy. The talk is fairly technical, but compelling. They are certainly doing cutting-edge solar technology development, and I was thinking about all of the people in our community who are working with solar energy companies. We look at the massive arrays pointed at the sun, and hope that these will someday lessen our dependence on other fuels.

Not too far from Sde Boker, we visit a Bedouin encampment, which is set up as a tourist stop. We listen to Salem, a Bedouin man, who tells us about Bedouin life. The Bedouins are a group of Muslim Arabs who mostly inhabit the Negev, are citizens of Israel, and serve in the army. Many of them still live in temporary housing, moving seasonally. Others have established Bedouin towns, living permanently in one place. The Bedouins are allowed to have four wives by their tradition, although in Israel this is illegal. Salem informs us that when the police come to investigate a possible polygamous relationship, they are told that the person in fact has only one wife, and perhaps a couple of other "friends." Salem also demonstrates for us how he grinds coffee in an urn that serves as a mortar and pestle. He beats a mesmerizing rhythm with the stick, and tells us that when he grinds coffee, it is a signal to people to gather at his tent for hospitality. Salem also plays a string instrument and sings a couple of traditional Bedouin songs.

Following Salem, we eat together in the tent, sitting on cushions around a central platter of chicken, rice, potatoes, and middle eastern salads. It is quite delicious. During dinner, we have a spirited discussion about Reform and Conservative Judaism, inclusiveness, and collaboration among synagogues such as we are experiencing on this trip. We return to our hotel early, at 6:15, and light Hanukkah candles together, marking the second night. Many in the group go to sleep early in anticipation of an early wake-up for tomorrow's pre-dawn hike.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Waking up Tuesday morning, we rush to pack our bags to load onto the bus as we are traveling to the desert today, to stay in Mizpeh Ramon. For me, the hardest part of touring with a group is the nomadic nature of going from one hotel to another. Compounding matters, since we're here for two weeks with almost no access to laundry facilities, we have not packed light. I feel a bit like a turtle carrying around his house on his back.

We're headed for Tel Azeka, southeast of Tel Aviv, and the place where David defeated Goliath according to the Bible. Danny Ehrlich, our tour leader, gives us a really interesting, complete account of the story as it appears in 1 Samuel. While we're listening to his presentation, another group, one filled with Israeli high school students arrives and begins learning the same story we are. One member of our group points out how different field trips are in Israel from the ones our kids go on. Our kids go to museums to learn about history and culture; in Israel, they go to the actual site where Biblical events might have happened. There is something amazing about having the ability to stand in the place where history was made, rather than just reading about it.

Driving south from Tel Azeka, we visit Bet Guvrin, where we will participate in an archeological dig. The area around Bet Guvrin was conquered by the Maccabees in the late 2nd century BCE, and the excavations have yielded a number of important discoveries: the first known ketubah, written on some pieces of pottery; silver coins with Antiochus IX on them; golden earrings with the goddess Nike; pieces of a stele that describe an incident detailed in 2 Maccabees. All of these were unearthed by visitors like us who were digging as part of tour groups and the like. Would we find such treasures? Well, no, but it was a lot of fun especially for the kids.

The caves in which we were digging were not caves at all, but basements of old houses. The houses above were destroyed by their owners who fled the area after the Maccabees gave them the choice of either converting to Judaism or being executed. It's a strange incident in that it's one of the only times that we know of in which Jews attempted to forcibly convert those of another people. Following our dig, we headed for another cave/basement in which we did a little spelunking. The kids really loved this part, even more than the dig, because we all got to shimmy and crawl through some tight spaces. Many of the rooms had cubbyholes carved into the rock that archeologists believed were for keeping pigeons or doves.

As we continued our drive to Mizpeh Ramon on Route 40, we encountered a couple of things you don't see every day in California. One was a sign with a picture of a camel that said, Caution- Camels Near Road. The other was a truck that entered the roadway towing a flatbed on which a tank rested. Nearing Sde Boker,which we will visit in the next couple of days, I start to recall some memories of my bike ride as we drove over highway that I had traversed on my bicycle. The rest of the ride to Mizpeh Ramon, much of it uphill, is similarly filled with memories. There are parts of the road that I can remember riding over, the scenery evocative of what was the greatest adventure of my life.

We enter Mizpeh Ramon and drive to the edge of the Makhtesh, where we get out to marvel at the incredible geologic formation that is like a crater, but isn't, geologically speaking. It is simply breathtaking to see, one of those views that never fails to amaze and inspire. The Ramon Inn, our home for the next two days is the place where we stayed on our 2008 CBJ trip, and on my bike ride. The hotel has a somewhat strange setup in that it's a former apartment block, and there are no elevators. We head to our room on the second floor, then return to the lobby to light our candles for the first night of Hanukkah. I give a quick drash on the miracle of Hanukkah being the bringing together of Jews of all kinds- chasidim, Maccabees, Hellenized Jews- and how us coming together as a North Peninsula community is in the spirit of Hanukkah. The kids light the candles and we all sing together with Elana Jagoda Kay of Beth El playing the guitar and leading us in the Brachot with her beautiful voice. There is something simply magical about lighting a dozen Hanukkiot in the lobby of a hotel, with everyone singing together, including several of the staff members.

Monday, December 19, 2011

I awoke Monday morning with a brilliant plan. First, I would take the bags to the hotel in Tel Aviv, leaving them either in our room or in storage. Then, I would return immediately to Zichron, stopping in Binyamina, ten minutes from the Blooms', to purchase train tickets for our return to Tel Aviv. Very smooth. The roundtrip, including finding parking in Binyamina- a challenge that I answered by parking on the sidewalk like a true Israeli would- took less than two-and-a-half hours. So I arrive back at the Blooms house at 12:30, with plenty of time before our 3:11 train. Beth drops us off at the train with time to spare, and we get to the metal detector where the security guy tells us that the train is not running. I of course figure he is joking, somehow .p me, but no, the train really isn't running. Well, it is running to Netanya, but not to Tel Aviv, which is several stops down the line. OK, so why isn't it running? "I don't know- there's a problem." Great. This is not a minor disruption; thousands of people commute to and from Tel Aviv and rely on the train. People at the airport are also scrambling to find a way to get to their destinations.

We find out later that some cable was cut, either accidentally or intentionally, we're not sure which. Rumor had it that it was disgruntled railway workers who decided to air their grievances in a more destructive way than a simple strike. Either way, it was back to the Blooms to check the Egged bus schedule. We find a bus leaving at 4:15 that arrives at 6:03 into central Tel Aviv, where we can pick up a taxi. Although the bus does arrive on time, our arrival time is of course an optimistic estimation. The bus seemingly stops at every corner in Binyamina and Hadera, and we arrive into Tel Aviv at 6:30. A quick taxi ride, a run to our room to freshen up, and we still make it to our opening dinner at 7:30 in the hotel restaurant.

The bus ride was really a study in the polyglot nature of Israeli society. The black-suited Orthodox man, the Arab women, the burly blond man yelling into his phone in Russian, and most of all the many black men and women, show that there is really no such person as a "typical Israeli". Israel has always been a country of immigrants, and the latest wave is of black Africans, many of whom are not Jews but economic and political migrants. This has caused a big problem for Israel, which struggles to absorb such an influx, many of whom have simply walked across the border from the Sinai desert. Unfortunately, this has also led to an expansion of a problem that Israel has struggled with, namely discrimination and outright racism. It's more than a bit disillusioning to think of bigotry in Israel, a Jewish state, the Holy Land, our homeland. But for immigrants, this has been the case for many years, just as in our own country. A Jewish state, one which should be following the precepts of the Torah, should never allow racism and bigotry to exist in its midst. I struggle with this piece of Israel.

Anyway, it was nice to eat with the group, making new acquaintances and renewing others. From CBJ, Lisa Levine Sporer and her daughter Emma, and Josie and Bill Kamin, with Bill's grandson Austin had arrived. As with many Israeli hotel breakfasts, dinner was a large buffet, offering more variety and volume of food than one could possibly need. It felt a little like a Las Vegas buffet, sans the shrimp. After dinner, Aviva and I joined Lisa and Emma for a refreshing walk up the seaside promenade to the Tel Aviv pier. We marveled at how mild the weather remained at night; we didn't even need jackets. It was a relaxing end to a periodically stressful day.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

It is Sunday night, and as I wait for my laundry to be done, I'm going to take some time to reflect on our first few days in Israel. Shabbat provided an excellent opportunity to gather my thoughts and reflect on the past week. In some ways, it's hard to believe that we left Redwood City only four days ago. Aviva and I arrived in the wee hours of Thursday morning with the chance to acclimate to the time change before the official trip begins. I'm writing this in David and Beth Bloom's very comfortable house in Zichron Yaakov. Zichron, as everyone here knows it, is a winery town, founded in 1882 by Romanian immigrants. The following year, Baron Edmond de Rothschild became the patron of the town, establishing a winery, Carmel, and planning the community as an agricultural settlement. As a wine lover, it is heartening to me that the first winery in Israel was planted not solely for commercial purposes, but as a Zionist act. Zichron is about 20 miles south of Haifa, and less than an hour's drive to the beach in Tel Aviv. It's also a town with a huge anglo population, so most people speak English.

Of course, not everyone does; the first day we were here, we went out to lunch for pizza, and the waitress spoke no English at all. We got by on our Hebrew, but there was definitely some gesticulating going on. The next day, we got our pre-Shabbat sharma (very tasty, by the way), and the owner kept repeating, "Number 1 in Israel!" referring to his food. That was not exactly the extent of his English, but his vocabulary was pretty limited. For most of the time that we ate, sitting outside the stand, he was on the sidewalk, kibitzing with passersby, trumpeting his product, and occasionally walking from store to store, leaving his counter unattended. It's hard to imagine the same scene at home, especially leaving one's restaurant completely open. That's Israel.

So as I stop to reflect, it is hard to believe that the last time I was in Israel was 2-1/2 years ago when I did my bike ride. I had been fortunate in the 2 years before the ride to have made four trips here, so the lapse in time from my last visit felt very long indeed. When the North Peninsula clergy began planning a Hanukkah trip together, we were excited that we could put a trip together for all ages and experience levels, blending together the various synagogue communities that comprise our area. Based on the successes of CBJ's 2008 trip, and the Beth El and Peninsula Temple Shalom visits in the last couple of years, we were optimistic that we would attract a large number of people, at least enough to fill two buses. Unfortunately, we didn't have as many sign-ups as we thought we would, and there will be 45 of us here, including nine from CBJ. Don't get me wrong: I'm delighted that we have a nice group, and I am looking forward to getting to know everyone. But I would not be truthful if I said that I wasn't at least a little disappointed. Hopefully, our next trip will be more popular (keep December 2013 open).

Anyway, several months ago, we decided that I would be the CBJ clergy leader on the trip, which was exciting, although I was not relishing two weeks away from my family. Soon after, Aviva was asking me if she could go with me. Given a lot of factors, I told her no. She kept working on me. I kept saying no. Shortly before the High Holidays, I was talking with a couple of friends, and they told me that I should reconsider my decision. "She's almost 11. Soon she won't even acknowledge your existence!" (very comforting) "How often will you have the chance to have one-on-one time with one of your kids?" (good point) "Think about what you teach: when your kid asks you to go to Israel, you say yes." (that got me) So I mentioned to Rabbi Ezray in casual conversation that Aviva really wanted to go, but I wasn't sure. He just looked at me and said, "Take her." So Aviva and I are here. Of course Shira now has some Daddy time in the bank, so hopefully she'll want to do an Israel trip together too.

Right after making the decision, and finding some frequent flyer tickets to get us here, I was so happy that Michelle and I decided to have her come with me. I know that part of Aviva's motivation is wanting to scout out locations for her Bat Mitzvah, which believe it or not will be in two years. Ever since our trip three years ago, she's been wanting to have her Bat Mitzvah in Israel. Another piece certainly stems from her experience at Camp Ramah this past summer from which she emerged wanting to learn Hebrew. Whatever the reason may be, it really is gratifying when your children share in something that is so important to you, as Israel is to me.

Fortunately, Aviva is an easy traveler since it is a long flight to get here. Actually, one must take at least two flights to get here under the best of circumstances, but we, with the help of our frequent flyer program, embarked on three flights to get here. First, we stopped in Seattle. Good coffee (and great croissants!). Then, we flew overnight to Frankfurt, where we arrived at 10 AM for a 12-hour layover. We snoozed for a few hours in a hotel room, then zipped into town to catch the Christmas Market. Germany is famous for their Christmas markets, and Frankfurt is one of the larger ones. The market blends blocks of kitschy souvenir booths with merchants selling fine handcrafted items, adds in a lot of hot wine (called gluhwein) and smoking sausages, takes place under a sprinkle of occasional rain showers, and gathers a lot of German bon vivants. It was a lot of fun, and a definite contrast with Israel, where there is nary a Christmas light, at least where we have been so far.

When we finally arrive on Thurs morning at 3:30, we collect our bags and discover that we have missed the train to Zichron by about 10 minutes. Israel has a very good train system, and the train comes right to the Terminal at Ben Gurion. We have almost an hour to kill, so we grab a little bite to eat, and realize that our 2 croissants are outrageously expensive, even for airport food. This is emblematic of what is going on here right now. Remember the protests in Tel Aviv this summer over how expensive the cost of living has become? I can vouch firsthand for the demonstrators' just cause. As we're finding out at the falafel stand, the Supersol supermarket, and the Carmel market in Tel Aviv, food is very expensive, at least comparable to the Bay Area.

We arrive at the Blooms around 6:30 AM,catch a few hours of sleep, then head out to lunch for pizza. After lunch, I head to the post office to fill my Cellcom (Israeli Sim) card, where I experience the miracle of Haukkah a few days early; there is nobody waiting in line and I am in and out in exactly two minutes. Anybody who has been to a post office in Israel is now thinking that I am making this up, but it is absolutely true. Leaving the kids at the playground unsupervised is normal, as everyone watches each others' kids. The predominant language is English with some Hebrew mixed in. Daniel tells me that his class is 40% Anglo. We eat a simple dinner, then grab a few hours sleep before waking up early as our bodies grapple with adjusting to the time difference.

Friday is a half-day at Adie and Daniel's school, so they take off to spend time with Aviva. We all head out to an Israeli buffet breakfast at a hotel overlooking the water. Israeli breakfasts are truly remarkable in their variety and their volume. Eggs, cheeses, fruits, salads, breads, fish, juices, coffee, etc. enough for a small platoon of the army. Things are very fresh, and it is good to eat a fresh green salad for breakfast. Zichron is on a hill, and we look down on the Mediterranean Sea and the large fish ponds in front of it.

As it is Friday at the beginning of winter, Shabbat begins early, at 4:00 PM, so I head out to shop for provisions to cook shabbat dinner. The Supersol is not yet overrun by people preparing for Shabbat, and I manage to find a parking space in their garage and avoid people's elbows as they jostle for what they need. I really love the fact that I can go to the supermarket and buy any meat I need since all of it is Kosher. I settle on some hens, grab some paella rice, and prepare to cook a big shabbat dinner. It's nice to have Shabbat dinner again with our friends the Blooms, and we end early, relishing the chance to catch up on some much needed sleep. Sadly, that never happens. We wind up being Up half the night with a partying neighbor and his friends shouting and drinking. I'm told later that this is called "Bayit-Rake", which basically means that the house has been abandoned by parents and the kids are running roughshod over the neighbors' sleep patterns.

our lack of sleep means that we don't get up in time for synagogue, which is a shame since I always look forward to davening in different places, especially in Israel. The Blooms attend one of several Orthodox synagogues, which is not uncommon in Israel. We are much more used to going to one particular place at which we are members, and where we see our friends week in and week out. Here in Israel, people synagogue hop much more frequently, usually going to the place closest to where they'll be eating lunch. Shabbat is a lazy day to catch up on reading, dozing, hanging out by the pool, and reflecting on the past week. It is tempting to jump into the pool as it is warm outside (75 degrees), but the water is very cold, so I satisfy myself with a dip of a toe.

For lunch, we have what I affectionately call "Shabbos take-out." We warm up prepared food that we had bought on Friday afternoon before Shabbat. Again, this is something that I miss from my days in New York and L.A., and which I so appreciate here. One can go to the store and buy already made food, and not have to worry about what to make for lunch on Shabbat. As Shabbat ends, the Blooms host Avot u'vanim, literally fathers and sons, in which a local rabbi comes over and parents and children study together. The rabbi who comes over is a Modern Orthodox rabbi named Yair Silverman, who was the Rabbi at Beth El in Berkeley before making aliyah six years ago. Yair is a really nice young (to me!) guy whose brother Noam is the Rabbi at Hausner Day School. It's nice studying together with Aviva, and as I look down the table at Adie and Daniel, I think about the special bond that the kids all have with each other. Aviva, Adie and Daniel were born nine days apart, went to preschool together, and were Shabbat buddies before the Blooms made aliyah last summer. It's really nice to see the kids reconnecting with each other. Next year, Adie will celebrate her Bat Mitzvah, at age 12, and Daniel's will be at the beginning of 2014, a week before Aviva has hers at CBJ.

Sunday, Aviva and I drive David's Prius to Tel Aviv, which is about an hour's drive. Our destination is Shuk haCarmel, the Carmel Market, where we can buy produce for dinner, cheddar cheese for Daniel, who misses that comfort of home, and look for some gifts. We spend over an hour in the Shuk, and my wallet feels much lighter. It seems that everything I bought cost 50 shekels somehow. I have the feeling that everyone is gouging me, but at least we buy some quality produce. It's nice to walk around the neighborhood in the warm sunlight, and even nicer to go to the beach. There's not a cloud in the sky, and the water is so blue and green, dotted with paddle boarders and a few swimmers. As we drive home, I realize a couple of things. First, that this was my first time driving in Tel Aviv and I survived it; I had driven in Jerusalem and other parts of Israel, but not in Tel Aviv. The second is that I don't feel Israel in this part of the country as an expression of biblical life. It's just day-to-day living by people who speak a biblical language. And although there are definitely Orthodox in Zichron and in Tel Aviv, they are certainly in the vast minority of people we've seen. It's very different in many ways from the stereotype that many have in their minds when they visualize Israel. I know that Jerusalem is different, and it's a big reason why I prefer the more "secular" places in Israel.

When we get home, I'm looking forward to cooking another dinner. For me, cooking is a way of relaxing, a Zen-like activity if you pardon the expression. I know that not everybody finds cooking to be a stress remover, but for me, that is exactly what it is. Before dinner, though, I drive around the Zichron area and notice how beautiful the sun is. I also notice a nearby Arab village which is shocking in its dilapidation. The abandoned buildings, graffiti, and tightly packed houses bring to mind crushing poverty. It's a disturbing image, to be sure. 

Tonight will be our last night at the Bloom's, as the trip starts tomorrow, and we will be joining everybody in Tel Aviv. I take advantage of my last night to cook, and we have a satisfying dinner together. When we finish, I decide that it is high time to get started on this journal, so I frepair to the sofa, turn on the TV, and watch the Giants-Redskins football game as I type. NFL football on TV. This is Israel.

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