Over December vacation I was fortunate to staff the Prozdor 9th Grade trip to Israel. Over the past decade I have been lucky to lead several Israel trips, but this particular experience was unique, as it was the first trip for Prozdor’s new Pirke Dorot program, run in conjunction with the Reali School in Haifa and their ninth graders. The trip, a celebration or our students’ learning and of Jewish peoplehood, was a smashing success. Facebook is already abuzz with tagged photos and new friendships, and the kids are already busy planning their next trips to see and stay with each other.
It’s difficult to distill eleven days of travel into a short and cogent posting, so I’m just going to share three snapshots that illustrate the highlights of this trip.
1. On Christmas Eve, the night of our arrival in Israel, forty of us set out from Beit Shmuel to head to the Kotel. Entering through Jaffa Gate, we encountered a horde of Christian pilgrims, and then took a right, making our way through the Armenian Quarter, arriving at the Kotel after a half-hour on foot. It was later in the evening, around 9:30, so it wasn’t as busy as it would have been at sundown, but in the men’s section an older Rabbi was giving an impassioned dvar Torah to a group of thirty or so men. I spent a few minutes praying and thinking at the wall itself, and after I placed my note in the Wall, I sat in reflection. Shortly after I sat down, the Rabbi’s dvar torah ended and the men approached the wall, where they proceeded to pray in a sing-song, call-and-repeat series of prayers. To call it “prayer” is not to do it justice; rarely have I heard such impassioned, pleading, emotional supplication in my life: a haunting, raucous, and tangible expression of their collective will. I experienced, in that moment, a clear perspective on what they were doing and what I was doing. They were trying, through their prayer, to vault over the Wall and into the space beyond, whereas I was trying to get to that same place through the cracks and channels in the rocks themselves. Whether they or I will be ultimately successful in our attempts is uncertain, but the clarity of that moment will stay with me for a while.
2. On Sunday morning we took a driving tour of the Carmel Forest, a few weeks removed from the wildfire that destroyed a large section of it. We climbed the Carmel from the coastal road, passing below Kibbutz Beit Oren and the spot where forty people died in a tragic bus fire, including Elad Riven, a student from Reali. The bus was quiet as we drove by the charred remains of the fire-ravaged trees, and a few minutes past the site of the tragedy we stopped at an outlook across the valley from Beit Oren and near the military prison, which afforded us a dramatic view of the coast all the way from Haifa to Hadera. As we exited the bus, the smell of ash and smoke was still strong in the air, so much so that I could taste it in every breath. Despite the desolation, signs of rebirth were there- shoots of green, the occasional flower, trees on the other side of the valley that were unharmed- but the most striking image was the crisp blue-and-white of the Israeli flag that stood in juxtaposition to the blackened tree that you can see in the picture right here. It was both sobering and hopeful.
3. Haifa is a city that I have some history with. On Otzma in 2000-1, I spent a few glorious months living in student dorms of the Jewish Agency and commuting to East Haifa to teach English at the Gavrieli School and volunteer in the Neve Yosef Community Center. I’ve been back to Haifa for two- or three-day stays since then, but this trip afforded me the chance to take a full week there. I went back to the school I taught at, went to my old neighborhood to the same bakery where I used to buy pita and pastries, and at every chance took the opportunity to go on long walks and runs. The highlight was undoubtedly when I left the Merkaz HaCarmel on New Year’s Day at 7 am, ran down to the German Colony and the Christmas tree made of recycled materials, and then ran back up to the Merkaz via the Stella Maris, Elijah's cave, and French Carmel. The views and my own personal history that I relived on that run was something very special, a rare private moment in a week filled with kids and intense group experiences.
When I left on the trip, I joked that I had traded my own three kids for twenty-four different kids. Now that I'm back, I can only hope that next time I head to Israel I'll be able to share it with them for the first time. I pray that happens speedily and in our days, bimhera, b'yamenu, bikarov.