Our day began with a briefing by Professor Reuven Hazan of the Political Science Department at Hebrew University. Reuven spoke about The Labyrinth of Israeli Politics and the many ways in which the Israeli political system differs from the American system and how those differences affect the media’s reporting of Israel.
After the briefing, we went to the National Military Cemetery on Mt. Herzl to discuss landmark events in modern Israeli history in which many soldiers gave their lives. We visited the grave of Theodor Herzl and learned about the life of this visionary pioneer. We also saw the graves of Leaders of the Nation of Israel, including Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meir, and Shimon Peres.
From there we went to Pantry Packers to give back to the people of Israel. We participated in a tikkun olam project by packing commodity food staples for Israel’s poorest families. We donned gloves, aprons, and hair nets in order to fill bags of rice and quinoa.
After lunch at the Malcha Mall, we traveled to the Gazelle Valley Nature Reserve where we learned about the movement to conserve urban land for wildlife in the center of Jerusalem. We planted trees and then joined in a short blessing for creation. The Bible tells us that the first thing one should do when visiting Israel is to plant a tree. Every time we plant a tree we have the opportunity to remind ourselves that we are not subjects in the world, but partners in it.
After free time in the Mamilla pedestrian arcade, a very contemporary shopping area with a whiff of the past, we went to the Night Spectacular at the Tower of David Museum, where the walls of the Citadel serve as a stage for a night-time show which is a celebration of sight and sound, depicting the story of Jerusalem.
9:00 am found us at the top of Masada, Herod’s mountain palace and the site of the Jewish zealot’s last stand against the Roman Legionnaires. Our guide, Hillel, discussed Masada’s role as a symbol of Jewish defense and its current significance in modern Israel.
Riva Korn, one of our participants, shared her Masada experience.
“OK. We had to get up and be ready an hour earlier than before. It was a longer bus ride than usual. The skies were clear and a brilliant hue, and the weather hot and dry which, coming from humid Houston is a big deal. We listened with solemn faces as we heard the familiar story of our martyrs long ago. We learned how they stored food in pantries and collected water in cisterns. However, it was an unexpected meeting that brought joy and surprise to our faces.
There was a sofer writing a Sefer Torah inside the tiny shul at Masada. This Torah was going to be donated to an Israeli naval base. When I approached, he looked up and smiled, I didn’t want to disturb him. He asked for my name and my husband’s name. In his beautiful handwriting he wrote them with hearts on a small silver card. He did this for many of us. We all stood around holding our cards like trophies.
Masada may have ended many Jewish lives in martyred tragedy. We made it to the top and saw a slice of our history. But we survived. So many of us did. And we have the silver cards to prove it.”
Following our experience at Masada, our bus took us to the Crown Plaza Hotel at the Dead Sea where we enjoyed a sumptuous buffet lunch and many of us floated in the Dead Sea.
After a leisurely drive back to Jerusalem, we all enjoyed a free evening of eating, shopping, visiting with friends, or just going to bed early!
This morning we met again with Holocaust scholar, Dr. Rachel Korazim, to discuss the memory of the Holocaust in contemporary Israeli society. Rachel challenged us to view the Holocaust in a very different way as an introduction to our visit to Yad Vashem.
When we arrived at Yad Vashem, we met with Liz Victor Elsby, a former Houstonian who graduated from HSPVA in 1982. Liz, a member of Yad Vashem’s Education Department, led a session entitled How Do We Differentiate Multi-Age in Holocaust Education? She offered many helpful suggestions about teaching the Holocaust to young children through art, poetry, and music. From there, she led us on a guided visit through the Yad Vashem complex, the Jewish national memorial to the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, including the Avenue of the Righteous, the Historical Museum, and the Children’s Memorial.
From Yad Vashem, we had the opportunity to experience the sights, smells, and tastes of Jerusalem while walking through the Machaneh Yehuda open-air market. The market is an exciting (and very crowded) place to be on Friday afternoon, as many Israeli families are shopping to get ready for Shabbat.
As we move towards Shabbat, we are looking forward to a beautiful dinner at our hotel with five lone soldiers as guests.
We checked out of our hotel and departed Jerusalem early, driving northwards along the Jordan Valley. Our first stop was at Kassar al Yahud, the spot where the Jews crossed over the Jordan River into the Promised Land after wandering in the desert and the spot where John the Baptist baptized Jesus.
We drove on to the Kinneret Cemetery where we entered the world of the early Zionist pioneers and learned about their hopes and dreams, their trials and tribulations, and their ultimate success. We paused at the graves of legendary personalities such as Rachel the poetess and songwriter Naomi Shemer.
On the way to our hotel, we stopped for date and spice tasting at Tamar Bakfar on a family farmstead over one hundred years old on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. We also stopped to sample various liqueurs at Amiad Winery. We drove past Tiberias on the shores of Lake Kinneret and continued to the Upper Galilee to Tsfat, a center of Jewish mysticism for hundreds of years, and a contemporary artists’ colony. We met with artist Sheva Chaya in her studio for an interactive window in the world of Kabbalah, glass blowing, and questions of identity and Judaism.
Hillel guided us on a visit to the ancient Ari and Abuhav synagogues, with their great stories and mystical messages. We enjoyed a leisurely stroll through the quaint Artists’ Colony with plenty of time to shop in the galleries and craft shops.
At the end of a very long day, we checked in to our beautiful hotel at Kibbutz Kfar Blum. After dinner, we enjoyed a discussion with a kibbutz member on the ever-changing nature of kibbutz life today. We ended the evening with a fun-filled birthday party for Marla Shields, one of our participants, including a birthday cake and Israeli dancing.