Northern Adventures

A Tel of Two Cities

Tel Dan

I think we just visited the Garden of Eden. Well, maybe not the actual garden. The biblical story of the Garden of Eden is based upon the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Iraq. But the place that feels most Edeny to me is a place called Dan, in the very northern area of Israel. The Tribe of Dan moved to this northern area after the Philistines kicked them out of their coastal home. The place they moved to, the northern area of Dan has a spring that gushes copius amounts of cool water. In fact, the river Dan becomes the largest tributary to the Jordan River. The cool water and the shade of the trees create a beautiful and comfortable place to be.

We went on a short walk in into the forest, passed by an old, defunct grain mill from hundreds of years ago, and waded into a cool pool to see if we could walk on the water (the trick is to step on the stones).

By the way, the rumors that I got lost while on the walk is not true, even if everyone else knows it is.

I had visited Dan almost 40 years ago, as I participated in an archeological dig that was the only place that King David is referred to outside of the Bible. At that time, we had discovered the oldest extent arch at the time made out of mud bricks and is estimated to be over 4000 years old.

Tel Faher

After leaving Dan, we visited Tel Faher, an abandoned Syrian outpost that once threatened the northern towns of Israel. If someone wanted to threaten the people of Camarillo, they could just sit atop the hills of Newbury Park that overlooks Camarillo and lob bullets and grenades in their direction. The topography is very similar in an area called the Golan Heights which overlooks the Hula valley below which contains many Israeli communities. As we visited Tel Faher, we could see how the Syrians were dug into the hillside with easily defended trenches and tunnels. The Israelis know they had to dislodge those Syrians and the others who were threatening the lives of their northern citizens. During the Six-Day War, a group of brave soldiers broke through the Syrian lines and land mind and defeated the Syrians. In many ways, it was like a modern version of the story of Chanukah. Right after the war, Israel decided to annex the Golan which they conquered during the war.

We then had lunch in a Druze villiage called Mas’ade. The Druze are an Arab community with its own religion that is neither Muslim, Christian or Jewish. The restaurant, called Al-Sultan has the best falafel balls and Turkish salad that many of us had ever had.

Odem Adventures

We then divided into two groups: one went for a wine tasting at Odem winery. Because the Golan Heights are actually a defunct volcano, the earth is dark and rich. I think the consensus was that the Cabernet was their best wine.

The other group visited the Odem Freedom Farm Animal Rescue Center and learned about their efforts to heal people and animals that are both suffering from emotional or physical trauma.

Still high up on the Golan Heights, we got in Jeeps or SUVs and drove down some of the very roads that the Golani soldiers used to reach Tel Faher. For a stretch of the ride, we saw cobblestones on what seemed like an otherwise dirt road. These cobblestones were laid by the Romans some 2000 years ago after they took control of the Holy Land. Finally, we fully descended the Golan Heights and returned to our hotel at Kibbut Kfar Blum for another delicious meal and some needed rest.

A Study in Contrasts

Today was filled with moment of contrasts, as are so many moments in Israel. From new and old, Jewish and Roman, beaches and mountains, we often find ourselves navigating between different landscapes, cultures, and traditions.

Jewish and Roman; New and Ancient

We left the new and vibrant city of Tel Aviv after having had a wonderful night. Many members of our group used their last night in Tel Aviv to take walks along the beach and eat at nice restaurants. However, Rick Dictor, a long-time TAE member, instead attended the pro-democracy rally and was deeply moved by his experience. Hopefully he can share more in a future post.

As we headed north along the coast, we came to an ancient construction that is just over 2000 years old. It was built by King Harod, the last of the Jewish Kings.  To be honest, he wasn’t deeply Jewish. What was more important to him was currying favor with and impressing the Romans who were his benefactors. He did rebuild and expand the ancient Temple building, which was important to many of the religious Jews of the time. In fact, the Western Wall that we visit today was part of Harod’s expansion project for the ancient Temple. However he wanted to impress the Romans in a bigger and less “Jewy” way.

His idea was to build a large theater right along the ocean. Think what you will about Harod, he knew how to select a beautiful setting for his four-thousand-seat theater, with the sounds of the waves just off in the distance. The plays they produced could be grand or even bawdy, but they certainly not within the Jewish mode of entertainment in the ancient world. Harod also built a hippodrome to race chariots, a favorite Roman activity. However, and in that same spot, over a hundred years into the future, Rabbi Akiba, was executed for supporting a rebellion against Rome.

Harod’s insistence of becoming more Roman than the Romans themselves showed the promise and challenge of adopting other people’s ideas and practices, and making them our own.

Sea to Mountains

We left the ocean-side theater and drove up to the hill/mountain country of Tsfat. Tsfat is known for many things. It is the seat of government for the northern region of Israel and is one of Judaism’s four holy cities: Jerusalem, Tiberias, Hebron and Tsfat. There is something mystical and magical that happens on mountains. The Torah was given on a mountain. Moses died on a mountain, so did his brother, Aaron, the High Priest. Harod’s Temple was placed on a sacred mountain. There is something about mountains that leads many people to experience God’s presence in those high places. And having a direct, personal experience of God is the essence of mysticism: people can experience and learn from direct contact with God’s presence. We explored the synagogue of the Rabbi Isaac Luria who came up with a radical new way of experiencing God. Rather than try to find where God is? Luria suggested that God is actually endless divine light that goes on, literally, forever. However, if God fills up the entire universe, then there is no room for humanity and the universe. By reading the Torah very carefully, he came to view God as having created a bubble within God’s divine light. That bubble made room for humanity. These mystics came to believe that, if we wanted to experience God directly, we seek God in the place where God is absence, not the places where god is present.

Mystics are not the only people who help us see the world radically differently. Artists, too, can open us up to new ways of the world, and Tsfat is filled with artists. Even their doors and windows are small, beautiful pieces of art.

If you look upon the walls themselves, it is as though they have a beautiful heart that beats to a divine pulse. The artist’s colony in Tsvat is a place of pilgrimage where people seek beautiful art, often with some kind of Jewish theme. It was wonderful to see the mezuzot, tallitot, and Havdalah candles that were on a mission to enhance people’s Jewish lives.

However, not all gifts are religious. Sandy and I purchased a bottle Golani whisky and the Katzrin Distillery’s Gold Label Arat. We shared it with the other adults on the group and appreciated the artistry placed in this bottle of spirits.

Urban to Pastoral

Our final moment of contrasts is when we remembered how we left Tel Aviv this morning, only to end the day at the Guest House of Kibbutz Kfar Blum. Really more a hotel than a guest house, the name of this property is  Pastoral: Hotel Kfar Bloom guest house. As we stepped off the bus, we could feel any tension of the trip melt away as we breathed in the clean air and felt totally at peace.


Bullets and Significance

Today was an absolutely magnificent day, but I need to convey our experiences a bit out of order.

We began today’s tour with our wonderful driver, Yoram who handles this huge bus like it’s a sports car. I still can’t believe how he maneuvers this behemoth. Thank you, Yoram!

We explored two themes today: bullets and visions.

Bullets: Noble and Tragic

We began our day at the Ayalon Institute which was unfamiliar to me as it opened after I studied, and toured in Israel. The institute tells the story of a small group of men and women who are sworn to secrecy upon the likely consequence of death. Our tour guide explained that the Ayalon institute is primarily comprised of a few buildings with one unique surprise. This institute operated during the years that the British ran Palestine before Israel became a state. The British did not want violence to break out in Palestine, so they outlawed the possession of firearms and the production of bullets. It was already clear that the British would be leaving and that the neighboring Arab countries would attack the fledgling state. Among the things they needed most was bullets.

They had a two-step solution to their problem: step 1) buy some old, second-hand bullet-producing machinery from Poland and smuggle it into Palestine (the name or the lane before it becomes the State or Israel), step 2) don’t get killed by the British. Creating bullets was highly illegal. If caught, there is every possibility that the British would have executed the bullet producers. In order to prevent that, a group of dedicated teens and twenty-somethings risked their lives by cleverly building an underground bunker to house the production of the bullets.

One entrance to the bunker was hidden under an industrial washing machine (a la Walter White’s drug production equipment in the television show “Breaking Bad”)

One of our students becomes adept a shortening the bullet casing. The person who worked at this station was called “the mohel.”

The quarters where the bullets were produced where tight, the machinery was loud, and keeping it a secret was crucial. Our guide described the ingenuity required to hide their activities. Fortunately, they were never caught, but they did produce over two million 9mm bullets that contributed to Israel’s prevailing over the enemy countries that surrounded them.


Tragedy in Tel Aviv

While the bullets from Ayalon played a crucial role in the war of independence, other bullets were tragically employed to perpetuate a great tragedy. After Yitzchak Rabin signed the Oslo accords giving a good portion of the west bank to the Palestinians. Some people loved his bold move, other hated it, and him, with a passion. There was weeks of vicious and violent rhetoric depicting Rabin as a Nazi or wearing a keffiyeh, the head covering worn by Arabs, including Yassar Arafat.   One of those haters was a religious Jewish law student who snuck up behind Rabin and murdered him in cold blood. The country was devastated and in many ways it still is. People drew graffiti on walls saying, “We’re sorry” and “End violence” as can be seen behind Uri, our guide. Later, a proper memorial was created to honor his memory.

That Jewish terrorist had a different vision for how Israel should relate to their Arab neighbors and unilaterally destroyed a potential path to peace. But there are other competing perspectives that offer positive and compelling visions for what Israel could become.

Different Visions of Jews and Israel

On Shabbat afternoon we discussed the different images that Israelis have for their own counties as exemplified in two cities: Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. For many people Jerusalem represents holiness and resistance to change. It is the focal point of Judaism’s past and anchors our religious relationship to Israel in both a positive and negative sense. Jerusalem grounds our relationship with God as experienced through the ancient Temple and more tangibly through the Western Wall. But Jerusalem can also be an anchor, holding us back from the changes  we must make to adjust to our future. In contrast, Tel Aviv is a hopeful city, new and ever-changing. Just as stones are a central symbol of Jerusalem, technology is one of the products of Tel Aviv. And yet, some may think of Tel Aviv as a balloon, head in the air, dreaming of the future, but disconnected from deeper truths.

The power and promise of Israel is that there is a place for both, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Their competing visions remain in tension with one another, but that tension can be creative and can check the excesses of either vision on its own. It is not surprising that we begin with Tel Aviv and end with Jerusalem, but it could just as easily been in the opposite order as you will see when we discuss ANU.

ANU – Us, All Us Jews

In the spirit of Tel Aviv as ever changing, there is an imagine that is held in the hearts of many Israelis and it captured in spirit of the Diaspora Museum. Bet Hatfuzot, as it was known, told the story of the time when the Jews were kicked out of the Land of Israel and dispersed throughout much of the world. These dispersions occurred several times over our history and created Jewish communities that exist outside of Israel. Because these Jewish communities outside of Israel are the result of being dispersed, they are collectively called “the diaspora.” The Diaspora Museum paid homage to those communities outside of Israel because, according to the narrative of the museum’s curators, now those diaspora communities are of far less importance now that Israel has been reestablished. These communities are vestiges that we should remember in a museum, but we should also acknowledge them as no longer important.

As more Jews from a very vibrant diaspora attended this museum, we understood the well-meaning but patronizing message that is implied: the Jewish life in diaspora communities is, second rate or at least not as consequential. In time, the museum began to falter and was to be closed, but the indomitable spirit of Tel Aviv wouldn’t have it. Workers at the museum took over the building, allowing Bet Hafutzot to die, but in its place, created a deeper and more inclusive Jewish story that sees diaspora communities as well as Jewish life in Israel to contribute to the ongoing vitality of our people. Now, Jewish music from around the world is celebrated, as is Jewish dance and art. The voices of Jewish women who have been silenced for too many years, are now include and acknowledged. The museum recognizes that Jewish life is not epitomized by a man with a long white beard studying Talmud. While that is an important and beautiful expression, so is a passion for social justice, a commitment creating new Jewish rituals, an embrace of mysticism and other spiritual practices.

The name of this new museum is ANU which means “we” or “us.”  It affirms that Judaism is not a single, monolithic entity, rather it is dynamic, inclusive and multifaceted. What a beautiful and hopeful message that we will bring back into our lives.

Creating Something from Nothing

One of God’s great powers (according to theologians) is God’s ability to create Yesh M’Ayin, something from nothing. We are rarely called upon to create something from nothing. Maybe we create a painting from a blank canvas or a new story from a black piece of paper, but those are insignificant compared to creating a new city or even a new country. However, that is exactly what we learned about today by exploring what was created in Tel Aviv.

Uri explains significance of beginning of Tel Aviv

Exploring Tel Aviv History in Four Panels

We began by exploring a huge, 1000 square foot mosaic that tells the story of the founding of Tel Aviv in four panels and in four color schemes ranging from 1. Green – where a green garden where a green garden exists, but it was planted and tended by others. 2. Yellow refers to the sand where Tel Aviv will be built, 3. Red – representing the labor and culture of the new town, and finally 4. Blue – where the visage of a woman looks lovingly down on a town with all its color.

But a city is one facet of what was created inside the buildings of Tel Aviv. We gathered outside a building that has long been under renovation. Inside that building, David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, read a 35 minute declaration announcing Israel’s formation. Just like with the US Declaration of Independence, Israel’s declaration was met with an immediate war with her neighbors.

It is truly remarkable that the work of those men and women, now sentry-five years later. has led such a dynamic and vibrant country. Sure, problems remain and probably always will, but the strength, wisdom and perseverance of those founders is truly remarkable.

Group of visitors

Our group outside of Diezengoff house (aka Independence Hall). Notice Waldo (Uri) in the corner.

Burgeoning Marketplace

We then headed to Nachalat Benyamin which is an open-air market that meets twice-a-week on Tuesday and Fridays. This street fair requires all of the artists to be approved by a committee, create individual hand-made work, and sell their own art.

Throngs of people find deal after deal at the Carmel air market

Just around the corner from the arts and crafts market is a produce market called the Carmel market. Fragrant spices, sweet pastries, and farm-fresh fruits and vegetables line the narrow streets where it is easy to get swept away by the sea of people who pass by on foot, especially on Friday when people shop and prepare for Shabbat. Just as God created the world and the Zionist leaders created a nation, on Friday afternoon, the simple act of creating a meal for one’s family and friends takes center stage.

Shabbat at Kehillat Birkat Shalom in Kibbut Gezer

And speaking of Shabbat, ours was absolutely lovely. We were hosted by Kehilat Birkat Shalom (Congregation Blessing of Peace) that is located on and is part of Kibbutz Gezer. If anyone has read James Michener’ tome The Source, then you should know that they fictional Tel Makor described in the book is based on the Tel Gezer from which the kibbutz gets its name.

Rabbi Steve Burnstein of Kehilat Birkat Shalom

We were welcomed by Rabbi Steve Burnstein who was born in Kansas and moved to Israel around thirty years ago. We learned that, on every kibbutz, they are trying to figure out how they will be organized in the future. Will they be fully socialist where all money and resources are share? Will they become totally privatized where everyone owns their own home and possessions? Or will it be a hybrid? We will only learn what will happen by keeping connected during this ongoing story.

Rabbi Burnstein led us in a beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat service that can be found here. Like many things on Kibbutz, it was informal and hamish. We were then treated to a dinner outdoors at the kibbutz that was absolutely delicious. But even more importantly, we sat with Kibbutz members who were incredibly open to answering questions and engaging in meaningful discussion.

Kibbutz – TAE person-to-person encounter

Sandy and I chatted with three kibbutz members who were also brothers: one was in college in Jerusalem, one in his active army service, and one still in high school. Like many students in Israel, the two older brothers had devoted a year to public service between high school and college. There is such a strong sense of personal responsibility to others among the children raised on kibbutzim that I can’t help but wonder if they have found a delicate balance that we sometimes lack in our highly privatized lives.

people carrying chairs

Everyone Carries Chairs on Kibbutz

As the evening wound down, we all adopted that same spirit of mutual responsibility as we cleaned up the chairs and headed back to the hotel, excited for another busy day tomorrow.

Shabbat at Kehilat Birkat Shalom

The Great Meeting

People who have visited Israel often experience something I call “The Great Meeting” where they run across some thing or someone of importance or significance. For Sandy and me, the beginning of our Great Meeting happened two minutes after looking down at the beach from our room. We decided to spend a few minutes walking along the shore and within thirty second, we met TAE member Stacy Gold who was traveling in Israel with her family. It was such a great pleasure to run into Stacy and two of her three kids along the beautiful Tel Aviv beach.

That wonderful, chance encounter is par for the course in Israel and only the first of many delightful encounters.

As the members of the tour gathered, those of us who were already in Israel went to lunch at Dr. Shakshuka in Yafo (Joffa) What’s Shakshuka? If the name Dr. Shakshuka sounds familiar, it is because he was one of the restaurants featured on the Netflix Show Somebody Feed Phil.

Our second Great Meeting took place later in the afternoon as we collectively met with our long-time friend and tour educator, Uri Feinberg, who lead us around the ancient City of Yafo which served as a port for thousands of years. Our tour educator, Uri, demonstrated how a tel is developed (as in Tel Aviv). Using a number of hats representing generations of people who build their civilization on the top of previous civilizations, Uri demonstrated how large hills develop where archeologists can dig down through the layers and discover the more ancient civilization preserved underneath. Tel Aviv is an actual hill that is comprised of the remains of several civilizations dating back thousands of years.

Yafo rises as a hill above the waters of the Mediterranean. Using its height to provide a good vantage point, we took pictures of ourselves with the expansive Tel Aviv skyline in the background. At that very place, Uri shared some of the history of Theodore Herzl who provided leadership, foresight and had the prescience to all but predict the year of the establishment of the State of Israel and inspired the creation of Tel Aviv. It was not lost on me that our ability to stand in a free and bustling Israel, even with the many challenges that she faces, is nothing short of a miracle and a dream of thousand of years of Jewish hope.

Israel also provides a reason for Jews around the world to gather. Along with our TAE members, we have been joined by a group of friends on our trip who hail from Canada, Wisconsin, Illinois, New York, and, of course, Texas. At the marvelous
Maganda restaurant, we had a wonderful opening dinner where we all met one another and began creating new relationships and strengthening old ones. Just as our chance meeting on the Tel Aviv beach was a “great meeting,” so is the coming together of Jews from across the country who are here to explore, engage, and connect.