"You can’t get that close to history anywhere else."
I am Jewish, I am an American. Always will be. No one is prouder of his heritage than I am, yet, I have never been to Israel. Why? To be honest, I always thought there were better places to go on “vacation” like Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, Canada, Europe and even Las Vegas. Places where my family and I would bond and escape the day-to-day routines we all find ourselves in. Places where we could play, lie in the sun and “relax.”
I’ve always been someone who loves being Jewish. I knew Israel was the spiritual homeland of our people, but somehow thought if I went to Israel I would not really fit in. I don’t speak Hebrew and there was a piece of me that thought my lack of Orthodox Judaism would keep me from really enjoying much if I went there. Something like my experience in Hebrew School in Brooklyn, one that I did not want to repeat. As I said, it always seemed there was a better place to go.
This year our family decided to go. Why? Because we are Jews and somewhere in the back of our minds we rationalized that the time was right. It seemed safe. We had the extra funds to do it, the kids were getting older and college would soon be knocking on their doors. The Temple extended the invitation and we signed up.
Now that we are back home, there are some things about our trip that I wanted to share. I will not tell you that it was the best vacation we ever experienced, because it was not. We were on the go each day, just about falling into our beds each night. What I will tell you from the bottom of my heart is that it was the best trip I and my family have ever been on!
Why? There are many reasons.
First, there is nothing like being in a country where you are the majority, a Jewish State. Every Jewish person should experience just that. There is nothing as curious and cool as seeing mezuzahs on almost every door post, hotel doors, on every restaurant door, on the stores in the mall and on every door at the Army and Air Force bases we visited.
Next, there is a sweetness about a place where wishing each other “Shabbat Shalom” or “Good Shabbos” is not done because you went to temple, but because everyone does it. Much of the country closes down for 24 hours and it’s really just like saying, “Have a good weekend!” It rolls off of everyone’s tongue, both secular and religious.
Moreover, it was quite curious to go to a huge, modern mall on Christmas Day and not see large, red bows or a Santa Claus (I actually missed the old guy) and not hear a good rendition of “Jingle Bells.” Speaking of malls, it was amazing to visit one that had a kippa (yarmulke) stand and a food court with dairy restaurants on one side and meat ones on the other.
It is a truly beautiful country, something I did not realize. A bus ride will get you from the most spectacular shores to the most desolate deserts, to the peaks of beautiful mountains all within a few hours.
In Israel, the Bible is no longer a storybook but actually becomes a living narrative. More than a few times we found ourselves sitting there with our mouths open when our tour guide said, “This is the road Abraham walked on and here is where he tried to sacrifice Isaac.” Or, when we drove into a small valley and our guide told us to “Look over at that hill. It’s the spot where David slew Goliath.”
We took great pride in seeing a generation of young people who were all committed to doing whatever it took to make sure their country would be there for their children, something we Americans take for granted each day. We watched children playing in a kibbutz in a town close to the Gaza where at any second a terrorist could emerge from a tunnel, yet they still played and smiled.
There was also the emotional realization of our family that after thousands of years of wandering and the death of six million of our people, we Jews are stronger than ever, still here and now have a place where we can go if the need arises. More significantly, a country that has a commitment to rescue any Jewish community in peril, no matter where it is found. Seeing Yad Vashem made that equally as important.
Also incredible was the archeological dig where we dug up pieces of pottery, plates, an urn and a coin used by the Macabees over 2,200 years ago. They were the last people to touch it before we did. You can’t get that close to history anywhere else.
In speaking of history, I cannot forget about the Western Wall (or Kotel as it’s known here) at sundown on a Friday evening, teeming with Jews of all kinds -- ultra-Orthodox, Lubavich, army soldiers with rifles, old wrinkled Yemenites with long beards and young people dancing who looked like they stepped out of Woodstock. Most importantly, there were people who looked just like “us.” All at a Jewish holy place where first we prayed individually, then prayed as a family (talk about a bonding moment) and lastly with our Rabbi (who was also fantastic) as a congregation. It was an unforgettable experience.
There was so much more. It was wonderful meeting and traveling with the people from our Temple. We became pretty close after our ten days together. The hospitality of our Israeli hosts who went out of their way to make us feel very much at home. A TBA prayer service on Masada, Tel Aviv, and a world-class city. The Army and Air Force Base visits. The Dead Sea. I could go on but I think you get the picture.
At next year’s seder table and for the rest of our lives, “Next Year in Jerusalem” will take on a whole new meaning for each of us. Jerusalem is a place we have been to, a place we know, and a place we now love.
It really did beat a month in the Caribbean. Go!
For information on how you can see Israel for yourself on a UJC Mission, please contact UJC Missions at (212) 284-6519 or visit us on the web at www.ujc.org/travel