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Becoming a Part of Israel

06/25/2019 08:50:51 AM


Rabbi Brad Levenberg

Just two weeks ago, I was sitting in a synagogue in the suburbs of Jerusalem, Kol Haneshama, introducing our Temple Sinai community to this incredible Reform congregation in Israel. I was able to enjoy the service, whose melodies have been among the favorites that we use in our services here in Atlanta, and it was wonderful to have returned once again to my “home away from home” congregation. 
Amidst the prayers, the melodies, and the Israeli community which we were joining, I was able to see the look on the faces of our Sinai travelers. There were 53 of us in attendance that night and the look on their faces was…confusion. Bewilderment. Our Sinai crew…had no idea what was going on. And for good reason. A core addition to the ritual life of the Jewish people, added by the early Reformers, was to permit worship in the vernacular. That’s why we have sermons in English here in Atlanta, why in Moscow there are readings in Russian interspersed with the liturgy, and why, in Israel, the service is conducted almost exclusively in Hebrew. Our folks may have recognized some of the melodies, but the all-Hebrew immersive was, perhaps, a bit much. Still, from my vantage point, I smiled a wry smile and did what all good rabbis do in America: I began announcing page numbers to those sitting around me, inviting them to share with others.

Traveling with Temple Sinai has been a wonderful privilege; a gift that not all clergy are able to enjoy as each congregation has different culture regarding trips and clergy time outside the building. While in Israel, we met up with other rabbis, some of whom were traveling for the first time on an Israel trip with their congregations, and who were amazed to hear that Sinai has so many travel opportunities, including our regular trips to Israel. 

Let me tell you why we so enjoy the opportunity to travel to Israel with Sinai. 
First, we appreciate the opportunity to travel to Israel with people who have never before been to our Promised Land. For some, it was never realistic to go, either due to finances or the ability to travel for more than a week away from state-side obligations. For others, the desire had not been there but there happened to be a partner, or a child, or a parent, or an experience that made the trip not only possible, but also important. These first timers approach Israel with eyes wide, marveling at the beautiful and striking Israeli soldiers, posing for pictures with them. They take pictures of street signs, of stop signs, of storefronts with Hebrew writing, even though they may not be able to read the words. They use their Hebrew the best that they can– with basic and common Hebrew words being rendered unintelligible due to a Southern accent – Todah Raba becomes Toe-Dah. They order falafel and, with surprise, marvel that it is better than that place in Marietta or Buckhead. 
The first timers lose their breath a lot. The first site of the Kotel, The Wall, takes their breath away. The first time they see Jerusalem, emerging from the tunnel that funnels traffic to the southern part of the city, takes their breath away. They lose their breath at the skyscrapers of modern Tel Aviv, at the reality that the Jordan River actually exists, that the borders with Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon in the North are so close. They lose their breath at the archeological sites and then lose their breath again when they realize that they can touch those sites, walk on those sites, in some cases, climb those sites. And they always take pictures posing with those sites.

First timers get to breakfast early to try all the things that comprise the Israeli breakfasts, buffet lines of fresh fruits, vegetables, Chinese food – yes, it’s always on the buffet for some reason. And they have conversations about how they are so surprised by it all and that it is a lot to take in. Israel gives good first impression.
For the second timers, the experience is different. They comment on the soldiers, on the signs, on the food. They take their pictures, sometimes at sites they visited 10 or 15 or 19 years ago. They are more nostalgic. For all the photos of Israel from 1948 or 1967, for all that those photos make a lasting impression leading first-timers to marvel at how much things have changed, said with excitement, second-timers seem almost disappointed that things have changed, that their favorite site has been modernized, that construction has rendered their old hang-out unrecognizable. They ask not the first timer question, “How can this change so quickly” but rather the question reserved for second-timers, “How could this change so quickly.” 
While first-timers marvel at the reality that the myths of our Jewish past are tangible, second timers confront the myths that they created based upon their own first visit. But that usually only happens for the first day or so. For by the second or third day, Second Timers are creating a new set of memories. It’s almost as if they have realized that you can only have one first date, that you must ask different questions on a second date, a date that moves past the interview and into the relationship. Second timers ask not, “What is this” when confronted with the toppings at the Falafel stand; they simply say “yes” and embrace the experience. They don’t need back-story in the same way; they are free to receive the gifts of Israel that are unique to second-timers. They are taken differently by the familiar sites like the wall; they confront how they have changed from their first trip to the next, how they are seeing things differently, surrounded by different people. A number of our second timers recalled traveling to Israel as children; now they were traveling their with their own children. Rebecca and I had a similar experience recently, when we watched a TV show that was among her favorites when she was starting High School, a teen drama called My So Called Life. After re-watching it at a different place in her life, she said to me, “You know, when I first watched it, I connected with the main character, and I was so critical of her parents. Now, I connect with the parents, and can’t believe the main character could make so many poor choices.” Second timers have the gift of nostalgia while also making lasting memories for their kids. They see it from both sides. And that realization hits every…
Then there are those of us who have been multiple times, who love seeing Israel, who embrace the changes while gravitating toward the familiar. We have our favorite places that we love to share – the Waffle Lady, our favorite falafel stand, universally introduced as “the best falafel stand in Israel” despite being a different stand in each city. We tell stories about a transformative moment that happened to us while standing in this spot or that spot, and we pause frequently, realizing that we are both storytellers and characters in stories that will one day be told by those with whom we are traveling. We see the look in the eyes of everyone – the wonder in the eyes of the first-timers, the recognition of the complexity in the eyes of the second-timers. We, too, marvel at how much of Israel has changed over the years, what has been lost due to that change and, most especially, what is newly discovered. We get to create new memories in a familiar place with new faces asking familiar questions. We take out our phones to take pictures with less frequency, and when we do, we rarely take pictures of the buildings but more take pictures of the people we know interacting with the sites. And we smile, a lot, because we know what will resonate with our companions and that we will get to hear them talk about their reflections on the bus or over coffee or a meal or a late-night visit.
There were 53 of us regulars, with a few people joining on at some spots along the way. And we were 530 conversations and reflections. We laughed through Tel Aviv, we splashed through the Jordan, we cried at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial. We bonded, we connected, and we made space in our already full hearts for a love of Israel. Yes, it is a privilege to be a part of that, and I am hopeful that one day each and every one in this room will have an opportunity to travel to Israel, whether on a Sinai trip or a similar trip that provides opportunities for connection.
In the end, whether a first timer, a second timer, or a seasoned pilgrim, Israel is about a relationship, a relationship with a land half a world away. It’s about a journey, it’s about struggle, it’s about triumph, and it’s about hope. It’s about timelessness and change, it’s about identity. It’s about questions and, despite the fortunes spent on tchotchkes in gift-shops, it’s the stories that become the best souvenirs. It’s about realizing that Israel is a part of you and, for a few days, you got to be a part of Israel. 

Click here to check out more photos from the Exploring Israel Family Trip in our Facebook album. 

Wed, February 19 2020 24 Sh'vat 5780