Digging [with] This Group

Filled with Treasures

This bucket is filled with treasures, well actually trash. The items in this bucket were dumped in a man-made cave about 2200 years ago. It wasn’t placed here by the Israelites but by the Edomites, a tribe who lived in the Judean desert and who was thought to be “cousins” of the Israelites.  If we look back in the Torah, Abraham had two children: Jacob and Esau. Jacob’s descendants became the Israelites while Esau’s descendants became the Edomites who usually lived across the Jordan river. However, at this time, they lived in an area southwest of Jerusalem called Meresha in the modern Bet Hagovrin national park.

The Edomites lived in homes that they built over hand-carved storage caves. At one point, the descendants of the Maccabees told them that they had to leave, convert, or die. They chose to leave. But before they did, they plundered their own homes and threw the debris into their own storage caves. Thousands of years later, volunteers like us excavated these caves to uncover their detritus. We scraped the dirt floors with our pick-axes, placed the contents into a bucket for rocks, a bucket for treasures, and a bucket for dirt. We then created a bucket brigade and lifted the buckets to the surface where we shifted the dirt to Renee’ reveal any other treasures.  The contents of the bucket is the what we found. It included bones (probably from dinner), charcoal (which shows what they cooked or burnt), and various pottery. Because the room was underground, it was cool and comfortable. We could easily have dug for another few hours, easily. Upon its return, there contents is going to be examined at home, it’s information woven into our understanding of this place and our connection to it.

We then drove back, some of us stopped at the Israel museum and the rest returned to our hotel to pack. We ended the evening, and our trip with a gathering and a dinner. At our gathering, we shared how the trip affected us and and what we plan on bringing home with us.

Personally, this trip was a different experience than I have previously had in Israel. There is something powerful about experiencing Israel with people within our community and family.  There were several parents who came for the joy of seeing Israel through the eyes of their children and spouses. I felt the same way in sharing new Israel experiences with Sandy. She and I both cherish the friendships and relationships that developed while on our trek. We also found great joy in creating new friendships with people we invited to join us from around the country. While most travelers were TAE members, we symbolically extended our circle of friendship and hope those relationships will last as well.

Like the archeological dig this morning, we all ended up with a collection of objects that we hold within our hearts and minds. And while our objects are often memories and experiences, they are no less precious to us. In fact the experiences may be even more important because out of our personal daily experiences, we create our stories of what is meaningful to us and how we fit in. As we experienced Israel and heard about its struggles, its history and its successes, we asked ourselves, what does this mean to me? What does Tel Aviv, hub of Israel as a Start-Up Nation, mean to me? What does the very creation of the state mean to us, or the heroism of protecting the land from those who attracted us in ‘48 and ‘67? How do we relate to those who also have a claim and a history and s life here? What is our place in a city that is Holly to three religions? And there have been so many more questions of personal significance. And the person gently, encouragingly asking those questions was Uri Feinberg who is more than just a guide, he is a teacher in the highest sense of that word.

Or next question and my next post will be “What’s next?” How do we carry these experiences forward and provide people who did not attend this trip to deepen their connection to Israel and the TAE community.

Should We Celebrate a Failure?

Today we traveled to Masada, but its story is not entirely straightforward, in fact, its quite tragic on many levels. Let me give you the overview:

  1. A group of religious extremists and their families escape a rebellion that the helped foment
  2. They take over a palace refuge
  3. Their enemy comes and surrounds them
  4. When they can no longer hold out, they all kill themselves

Yikes! Why is this a story that we celebrate? Should we venerate this place or forget it? One of the greatest gifts of our tour educator, Uri Feinberg, is his ability not to answer these questions simply and definitively. Rather, he is always trying to provide more context to see the complex stories that lay beneath the simple, judgements of something being good or bad, noble or ignoble. The same is true for Masada.

To arrive at Masada, we rose very early and boarded our bus. We traveled east from Jerusalem, snaking our way through the Judean hills down to the Jordan valley. We turned right and headed south, hugging the west bank of the Dead Sea until we would see the flat, somewhat anvil shape of Masada.

What we were looking at is a refuge created by King Harod, the last of the Jewish kings who was both remarkable builder (Cesarea, refurbishing of the Temple, Herodian, and Masada), and homicidal, megalomaniacal, paranoid, delusional, maniac. Other than that, I’m sure he was a nice guy. Perched on the top of a fairly flat mountain, surrounded by sheer cliffs of between 200-400’ high, he built Masada as a possible refuge should his position as king became untenable. Just his luck, he never needed it. But some sixty or so years later, the citizens of his kingdom did need it. The Jews were oppressed by the occupying power, Rome. We are the descendants of the Rabbis who tried to work with the Romans. However, the group that would come to occupy Masada, whom we call the Zealots, would use violence against them to throw off Roman rule. They would even use violence against fellow Jews who did not agree with them, executing several Jewish leaders publicly. In many ways, the Zealots helped foment the rebellion against Rome that they were now running away from. But run they did, to the mountain fortress of the long-dead King Harod.

The Zealots snuck up and killed the Roman guards that stood watch, and then occupied the entire mountain. From the top of Masada, they could see the Dead Sea, Harod had created systems to capture fresh water which would flash-flood down from Jerusalem, they had massive storehouses of food. All-in-all, it was a decent place to hide, except for the fact that Rome was coming for them.

The Romans set up camps, the wall of which can be seen to this day. After years of waiting them out, the Romans set up a ramp, built by Jewish slaves, upon which they would send up their huge battering ram. As safe as Masada was, it didn’t stand a chance against the power of Rome.

The Zealots knew that the walls would be breached, and even though they were the once who helped foment the rebellion and were only getting what, in a sense, they deserved, I couldn’t help feeling compassion for their predicament. Rather than giving up and submitting themselves to slavery, they collectively ended their lives, and rather than burning their storehouses, they left them for the Romans to find in order to show that they didn’t do so out of a lack of food.

So what do we make of this extremist group who helped foment a war and were ultimately hunted down and killed by their own hands? Perhaps one meaning of their story is not the particulars of them as Zealots, but of Israelis who of the courage and fortitude to fight back against to odds and enemies that work against them. While this can be a story of misplaced fanaticism, it can also be a story of ongoing struggle for a place for the Jewish people to survive and thrive under our own sovereignty. But this time, we come, not as Zealots, but as a nation happy to live peaceably within the community of nations. Ultimately, the meaning of Masada is our to decide.

From this low-point in Jewish history, we traveled to the lowest place on earth, the Dead Sea. For decades the Dead Sea has been shrinking due to the waters that have fed it being redirected towards drinking and agriculture. Nonetheless, we made our way down to the shore and ventured in. Because the Dead Sea is so salty, many times that of the oceans, human bodies become buoyant and float when laying on its surface. We took the mineral-laden mud on this shores of the sea and rubbed it over our bodies in the belief that our skin would look younger and healthier as a result. While I can’t vouch for the truth of that claim, there is no doubt that doing so was extraordinarily fun. We rinsed off the salt that seeped into our eyes and inflamed other open wounds, and we headed back to Jerusalem.

For Shabbat, we headed to a public Kabbalat Shabbat celebration at a former train station turned into an outdoor mall. A small group of singers and musicians help this religious and secular crowd to prepare for Shabbat by singing many of the Psalms and mystical poems that comprise the Kabbalat Shabbat service. Kabbalat Shabbat means “receiving Shabbat” and is meant to create the experience of a wedding celebration between the people of Israel and God. It was a joyous atmosphere that was an organic part of the public culture of the Jewish state.

We then walked back to our hotel through Yamin Moshe, the first Jewish settlement outside the protective walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Encouraged by Moses (Moshe) Montefiore, the establishment of this settlement outside the walls allowed the growth of Jerusalem into the largest city in Israel today.

We then enjoyed a Shabbat dinner and some singing around the Shabbat table. What a wonderful day to welcome Shabbat into our midst.

Jerusalem: Forever Old and New

A Moment of Celebration

I am always interested in the moment of change, the moment of transformation when a person might begin as a child and end up as an adult. I’m sure that we might believe that we found exactly that at our B’nei Mitzvah service this morning, and we would be mistaken, because, while this morning was, in fact, a bar/bat mitzvah service, no one “becomes” anything or changes their status between from a child to an adult. But one does celebrate. The occasion that we call a B’nei Mitvah service is actually the first time that a person celebrates performing parts of the service (being called up for an Aliyah or reading the Torah) that they are only allowed to do once they become an adult. We held our B’nei Mitzvah service today because, the public reading of the Torah traditionally took place on Monday or Thursday with the longer Torah reading on Shabbat. At our service, we had several of our kids and adults leading our service and reading Torah. Mazal Tov to Cole Saltzman, Blake Varon, Jacob Weisberg, and Lili Weisberg, as well as our adults who celebrated their B’nei Mitzvah: Selina Alko, Rick Dictor, Ginger Qualls, and Tamara Saltzman. Our service took place on a special, private rooftop area that overlooks the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. We followed the service with the one thing we do more than anything else during this trip – eat, in this case a lovely and delicious celebratory brunch.

Flowing Under the City of David

We then traveled to what is believed to be the City of David, the original location of ancient Jerusalem that was captured and established by King David three thousand years ago. We saw several ancient storage rooms and even and indoor commode of a very wealth person and perhaps of King David himself. We descended into an ancient water tunnel that was built by King Hezikiah to bring water from a spring that was outside the walls of ancient Jerusalem and bring it safely under the walls and into a pool within the safety of the walls themselves. The waters of that spring have been flowing constantly for as many as 2800 years. At times narrow with a low ceiling with a water level that occasionally came up to our mid-thigh, the tunnel is long and dark, and the water cool and refreshing. There are no lights down in the tunnel, so we were armed only with tiny LED flashlights that created a mysterious and otherworldly experience.

We then continued to ascend to Jerusalem in another tunnel that used to carry water out of the Temple and down through David’s City. We ended up at the excavations at the southwestern corner of the ancient Temple where the stones from the temple still lay where the Romans pushed them off of the wall nearly 2000 years ago. We sat in front of a shop where pilgrims to the ancient Temple might have purchased a sacrifice to bring to the priests as an offering. We rededicated this place by having Torah read at this very spot just as it might have been read in ancient times (Thanks to Jacob Weisberg for the inspiring reading).

At the Western Wall

We then wrote personal notes which we placed in the cracks of the Western Wall. Whether God hears the sentiments written on those notes will never be know for sure, but clearly, the messages lovingly placed in those cracks carry the highest hopes and aspirations of those who write them.

We then walked up on the rooftops of the Old City, overlooking the golden Dome of the Rock and heard a story as to why God might have chosen the Temple Mount as the place for the ancient Temple itself. We then made our way out the Yafo (Jaffe) gate and saw the borderline between West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem which became inaccessible between the times of War of Independence in 1948 and the Six Day War in 1967.

In so many ways, Jerusalem is the beating heart, not only of the Jewish People but of Muslims and Christians alike. Our hope is that Jerusalem lives up to its name as an Ir Shalem, a city of peace, where multiple religious groups can serve like facets of a jewel, each connecting to God in their own way.

Out of the Depths I Call – From Jerusalem I Answer

Out of the Depths I Call

These words are quote from Psalm 130 and speak of the anguish of having no one to remember us when we are gone. This happened at a tragic scale during some of the darkest years of our people, during the years of the Holocaust

Yad Vashem

Part of the modern story of the Jewish people  passes through the dark tunnel of the Second World War and the Holocaust. We are still feeling the emotional aftermath of those years of horror and will for decades to come. This morning, we explored the story itself through the preeminent Holocaust museum in the world, Yad Vashem. The name Yad Vashem comes from Isaiah and means a “memorial and a name” and refers to the museum’s mission of both telling the story of the Holocaust itself, but also of remembering all of those who have no one else to remember them.

The structure itself is built into the actual mountain with both ends sticking out into the air. As we entered, we saw images of Jewish life in Europe that was lost in subsequent years. The museum then carries us through the different stages which led to the Nazi Holocaust including dehumanization, concentration, and extermination.The museum exhibit ends in a room with the notebooks containing the names of all of the people who have been killed in the Holocaust. Unfortunately, some of those shelves remain empty because thee is no one to remember them, and so we maintain empty shelves with empty books and continue to tell their stories.

For those who had been to Yad Vashem decades ago and remember the focus on the pictures of horror, that is not the emphasis of the updated museum, rather it focuses on the decisions people make that leads to or responds to the destruction of a people.

For me most arresting was the children’s memorial which used to be a single candle in a large, cavernous room. In this updated version (now almost 20 years old), a single candle is reflected in a series of mirrors that are continually bounced around until it feels as though the single light becomes a million lights filling the room. Just as a single light or two can fill a large space, so could the lives of these souls filled up their communities.

We ended with saying kaddish for all those who have no one to say kaddish for them.

Machaneh Yehuda

From Yad Vashem, we traveled to a vibrant section of Jerusalem, a place called Yad Vashem. This outdoor market was our location for lunch and we, sheep, grazed upon the borekas, falafel, shawarma and more. Several people who had tried and disliked the delicacy, halva, changed their minds when tasting what true halva can be like.

Genesis Land

We then traveled to a place called Genesis Land located in the hills of Judea. We rode on camels to the tent of our ancestor, Abraham, who famous for his hospitality and generosity to others. He described the importance of hospitality in his own life and how he, and his nephew, Lot, divided up the land itself. While the “performance” of “Abraham” might be a little hokey, it was powerful to experience how our ancient ancestors traveled, and the actual places that are mentioned in the bible itself. The terrain is harsh and unforgiving, but the hospitality of neighbors like Abraham allow the entire community to survive.

Lights and Stones

Finally, several people went to see a spectacular light show that takes place on David’s Tower, one of the strongholds built into the walls of the Old City. In this sound and light show, the entire outer wall of David’s tower and beyond are transformed into canvas that conveys both history and the dazzling hope for the future. Others of our group made their way to the Western Wall to feel the enormity of the stones that carry overwhelming religious significance.

Tomorrow we will be celebrating the B’nai Mitzvah of several of the people on the tour, both child and adult, and we will get to know some of the oldest stones of the city even better.

You Got to Go Down Before Going Up

Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, the 18th century Chassidic master, once gave a d’var Torah explaining why Moses had to descend down into the chaos of Egypt. Nachman said that we often have to descend in order to arise. It is true of many creative processes where we feel like we have made a mess before we organize it into something beautiful and meaningful. It was also true for use today.

After leaving the Kibbutz, we drove down to a spot on the Jordan River. The word “Jordan” comes from the Hebrew word yored “descend.” The day before, we stood in the headwaters of the Jordan as the Dan spring leaked out and became the Dan River. But today, we see where those waters have gone. The answers is, “down south.” We joined those waters by climbing into our rafts and becoming human flotsam, at least for a bit. The Jordan river is cool to touch and flows smoothly for the most part, As it meanders, small roots and branches jut into our path, making it only slightly perilous to those of us who have not mastered the steering on a floating vehicle without a steering wheel. Some of us did bump along the shore a bit and then twirl helplessly like a confused dreidel in July, but we managed to thread that watery needle without too much difficulty. However, we did learn something shocking. We have pirates in our midst.  I hesitate to call anyone out publicly, but when Andy Begun splashes his own rabbi and then other members of other boats floating by, there must be consequences.  Thank goodness we didn’t have a plank that he could walk.  It’s good that we are moving towards the High Holy Days. Hopefully, we will find it in our hearts to forgive him.


After we descended down the Jordan, we stopped at an unlikely place for a light, summer tour. We took some time to stop at the Kineret cemetery where we visited the grave of the great Israeli poet Rachel. She was one of the most influential poets of the Second Aliyah which took place from 1904-1914. She didn’t plan on moving to Israel, only visiting. But she was so deeply touched by the people she met on a trip to Israel that she stayed and became an expert in agriculture.  When she contracted tuberculosis, her career as a kubbutznik had to end so that she wouldn’t infect the entire community, so she retreated to her room and expanded her poetry which is known to all Israelis at some level. Here is one of her selections after she had to give up her agricultural career on the kibbutz and curtail the rest of the ways she was contributing to the establishment of Israel.

To My Land by Rachel

I cannot offer you, my land,
In praise, heroic deeds;
One tree I planted on the way
Which to the Jordan leads.
One narrow path to my feet yields,
Which runs across the fields.

I know how humble are the gifts
The child offers her mother:
A cry of joy one glorious day,
When shines the sun in splendor;
And, shed for you, a secret tear
To see the shabby clothes you wear.

Our guide, Uri, gave us some paper, some pens and some time to write our own words or pictures.  Here are a few of them.

If Someone by Cole

If someone gave me the choice of God or money.
I would answer sincerely, it would not be funny.
God provides shelter and food for my family to feed,
Money provides selfishness and a little bit of greed.
God provides love to heal the sadness,
Money provides cars but too much would be madness.
God is full of truth while money is lies,
God keeps people together, money just makes goodbyes.
I would choose God and I’d choose it with purpose,
Money would kill me, drowning beneath life’s surface.

I think Cole would have fit perfectly into the socialistic kibbutzim of Rachel.

Here’s my submission called A Field of Stones

“A Field of Stones” A field of stones standing on end,
inscribed with our most persistent remnant,
Adam son of Adam
Bat daughter of Bat.
There are stones arrayed like plates in a restaurant
carrying the recipes of our ancestors
whose ongoing love will live in our bellies.
And there are stones we carry in our chests,
beating the rhythm of our lives.

We have but one question:
What will we write on our stone hearts?
Will it be, “Here is a person who has fun,
who consumes the world before being consumed themselves.
Or will we write, Here lies a person who mattered,
whose heart and life are worthy to be in a field of stones,
turned on their edges
and visited by those whose hearts are also uncarved stones.

Another Aliyah

For our next Aliyah (remember, Aliyah means “ascent”), we traveled down the path of the Jordan River, down the Jordan River valley and turned right after we passed Jericho, that ancient city of biblical fame where Joshua, successor to Moses as leader of the Israelites, knocked down the walls through the blasting of shofars. Once we turned right, we began a slow, steady ascent up through the Judean Hills. We heard the story of Naomi Shemer, whose grave was just a few feet away from Rachel’s. Shemer was asked my Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek to write a song for the Israel Song Festival, not as a entry, just as a song to celebrate Israel’s nineteenths independence day. Jerusalem was still a divided city at that time with Jews not able to travel to the east side with the Old City and Temple Mount. Here words are filled with longing.

Jerusalem of Gold
The mountain air is clear as wine
And the scent of pines
Is carried on the breeze of twilight
With the sound of bells.

And in the slumber of tree and stone
Captive in her dream
The city that sits solitary
And in its midst is a wall.

Jerusalem of gold
And of copper, and of light
Behold I am a violin for all your songs.

How the cisterns have dried
The market-place is empty
And no one frequents the Temple Mount
In the Old City.

And in the caves in the mountain
Winds are howling
And no one descends to the Dead Sea
By way of Jericho.


But as I come to sing to you today,
And to adorn crowns to you (i.e. to tell your praise)
I am the smallest of the youngest of your children (i.e. the least worthy of doing so)
And of the last poet (i.e. of all the poets born).

For your name scorches the lips
Like the kiss of a seraph
If I forget thee, Jerusalem,
Which is all gold…

Days later the Six-Days War broke out and that longing turned into embrace as we returned to Jerusalem again. She was asked to add a final verse and wrote:

We have returned to the cisterns
To the market and to the market-place
A ram’s horn calls out on the Temple Mount
In the Old City.

And in the caves in the mountain
Thousands of suns shine –
We will once again descend to the Dead Sea
By way of Jericho!

That last like, “by way of Jerico” should be translated “by the Jericho road,” the very road we were traveling on the very moment we heard her words. We had actually traveled through a tunnel at the time, our bus covered by darkness, smelling the rosemary that Uri had given us – rosemary is so prevalent in Jerusalem. As the final chorus rang out, we emerged from the tunnel and turned to our left — and we could see the golden dome over the Temple Mount. We had arisen. We had finally arrived.

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.