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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Can you keep a secret?

Well, we made it home safe and sound.  A few of us caught a few hours of sleep here & there throughout the 12 hour flight, but clearly not enough to give us a sense of "restfulness".  Standing on the bima to conduct services last night, I realized JUST how over-the-top exhausted I really was.  I must thank Cantor Fishbein and our Adult Choir for bringing the ruach to the service that I was unable to provide, as my body began to collapse on itself from having been awake (mostly) for about 48 hours.  I found myself unable to find phrases I use every week.  Happy to say that I was able to get to sleep around 9:15pm and slept through the night. 

I was a little disappointed to wake up and find that I had to find my own breakfast.  I already miss the buffets provided at every hotel.  I was grateful, however, to my son for volunteering (happily) to fix breakfast for me.  It was delicious, and made me realize how great it is to be back home with my family.

So, I realized that I left everyone "hanging" at the end of my last posting.  As I was preparing to finish typing, the Continental Airlines agent made the first boarding call -- which, as we all know, means that EVERYONE must begin rushing the gate, regardless of what rows are called.  So...I rushed along with everyone else.

Where I left off, however, is the BIG SECRET.  If ever you have a chance to visit Israel, you must add the Ayalon Institute on Kibbutzim Hill to your itinerary.  This was my second visit to this site which was the location of a secret bullet factory dug 25-feet underground.  With only one usable entrance, hidden beneath a moveable clothes washer, this factory was staffed by 45 sworn-to-secrecy kibbutzniks during the earliest days of Israel's struggle for independence and security.  The engineering, talent, and chutzpah of these pioneers is unmatched.  Yet those who participated in this part of the war-effort would say that they were "just doing their job."

In the coming few days I look forward to reviewing my photos and recalling the many remarkable experiences this trip provided for all who participated.  I also look forward to sharing my reflections with my faithful blog-readers.

Rabbi Jeffrey Astrachan

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Hurry Up and Wait...

For this post, I think I'll review the day, chronologically, in reverse.

At the moment, our little group is sitting as patiently as possible in the "holding pen" at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv.  It is now 10:35pm, local time.  Our flight doesn't leave until 11:50pm.  We've been at the airport since 8:15pm.  We've already walked the terminal, shopped to get rid of our remaining shekels, and "people watched" all the people there are to watch.  And so we wait...

Our farewell dinner at Maganda Restaurant was "ehhh."  The closure was wonderful... the food... not so much.  Prior to our dinner we gathered on the promenade on the edge of the beach for a very emotional closing ceremony, during which I awarded Allen with the first-ever "Golden Camel Award".  He'll explain when we're all home.  Suffice it to say, he EARNED it!

Our last touring stop was a mitzvah opportunity through an organization presently called, "Leket Israel", formerly called "Table to Table."  This organization uses volunteers and very generous food-producers to gather fruits and veggies from the fields to distribute to hungry Israelis in need throughout the country.  This is a wonderful organization, and we were honored to have picked (LITERALLY) over a ton of oranges in less than two hours.  We worked hard, sweat much, and laughed often.  It was a great way to end our touring -- even if the poor planning had us spend the rest of the day a bit dusty and dirty.  Live and learn... a small price to pay for doing a mitzvah!!!

We picked oranges after lunch -- at a burger bar nearby the Weizmann Institute of Sciences, where we had spent much of the earlier part of the day.  After a little introduction to this remarkable learning and research institute, we also had the chance to tour part of the home was occupied by Chaim and his wife.  We were supposed to eat lunch on the campus of the Institute, but we ran into a few problems.  FIRST, the cafeteria we wanted to eat at was closed for two weeks for remodeling.  SO, we walked to the secondary restaurant.  HOWEVER, because the first restaurant is closed, the second restaurant was struggling to feed the overflow crowd.  We were denied entry so they could accomodate the dining needs of the Institute's students, faculty, and researchers.  Off to the bus for option #3... burgers.

The highlight of our touring today was actually our first stop...

Unfortunately we are boarding now, so I'll have to save that for later...  Sorry...

Rabbi Jeffrey Astrachan

Almost the End...

My goodness!  How the time has flown...  I'm sitting on the bus as I type this almost-final blog entry (you have to love the technology available to use the internet while mobile!!!).  The group is -- at the same time -- exhausted and rejuvinated from 8 days of very intense touring, learning, sharing, bonding, EATING, and connecting.  We have traveled from the "old" to the "new" and have learned much about how our great historic Land of Israel has been transformed into our beloved State of Israel.

I'm one day behind on my postings (forgive me, we've been busy) so I'd like to share with you a bit about yesterday's events...
Our eight day of traveling included tours to the historic home of Mayor Meir Dizengoff -- the first elected official of Tel Aviv -- which now serves as Tel Aviv's "Independence Hall", the actual site where Israel's independence was officially declared on May 14, 1948 (5 Iyar).

From this very moving visit we boarded our bus to travel a short distance to the Palmach museum... a relatively new exhibition that walks visitors through the history of Israel's famous defense force through a simulated and extraordinarily well-conceived mock-up of a small Palmach unit of young men and women willing to sacrifice their lives for the security of Israel (Palestine, at the time).  No photos were allowed around or inside this building.  When you have a chance to visit Israel... make sure to put this stop on your itinerary!

Next on our itinerary... a brief stop in the middle of bustling Tel Aviv for a visit to "Rabin Square", the site of the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin.  This memorial -- placed at the bottom of the very steps where Rabin was killed -- is simple and modest, and a great reminder of the great cost that comes with attempts at peace.

And we ended our shorter touring day with a walk through the ancient city of "Old Jaffa", the  Biblical port city which was featured most prominently in the story of Jonah from the Bible.  This city is more than 4,000 years old and today carries with it a remarkable charm.  As we peered over the ancient city wall, we could both see and feel the progress of time, looking over the Mediterranean into downtown Tel Aviv.

Walking back to our hotel along the beach, we were treated to a wonderful sunset over the water...

Of course, what would the day be without a final night's celebration of Chanukah.  Iris led us in lighting the candles, as we stood together to sing the blessings for the last time.  This was a very emotional time, as we realized we had fulfilled part of the mission of this trip in grand style...celebrating all eight nights of Chanukah in the land of Israel.

One more day to tour and enjoy, then we board our flight for our 12-hour journey back to the States.  I will TRY to find the time to post about our final day of traveling.  That might have to wait until we touch down back home.  At this point...we get a little busy!

Rabbi Jeffrey Astrachan

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

North by Northwest

Really making the most of our final few days in Israel, we left Haifa for Tel Aviv, but not before a drive up to the Northwestern-most point of Israel -- Rosh Hanikra -- right on the Lebanese border.  These naturally-carved grottoes were dug out of the limestone and chalkstone by the Mediterranean Sea over millions of years.  One might wonder if the water still effects this area today... from personal testimony of one who was smashed with a wall of water, I would say "yes."  Debbie lost her pedometer to the sea here as well; and both Wally and Jessica had to dance around in order to avoid the rush of water that came running along the cave floor (like a mini flash-flood).  I've been to this spot many times (one of my favorite spots in all of Israel), and only once before had the sea been this active.  A truly magnificent stop to get our morning going.

I know we all look a bit chilly in the third picture, but I am happy to say that yesterday was really the chilliest day we've had.  Today it was again back in the upper-70's and sunny.

From here we drove only about 20 minutes to the ancient ruins of Akko (also sometimes called "Acre").  A fascinating place on the water's-edge dating back to the time of the Crusader period, and used by the Knights Templar (among others) as part of the Crusades.  In addition, this fortress was also used as a prison by the British in the earliest part of the 20th-century.  A fascinating piece of history... and an on-going active excavation site.  We also had a chance to walk through the Arab bazaar in Akko and enjoy some very interesting and exciting sights, smells, and tastes...

On to the Tishby winery -- a 100 year old family-owned winery making strictly kosher reds, whites, and ports.  While not really on the level of "fine wines" the experience of tasting their products was certainly a great deal of fun, and wonderful way to share the afternoon as a group.

And finally, a brief visit to Cesarea and the ancient Roman hippodrome.  A great way to end the day, watching the sun setting over the Sea and posing for a fun picture on a metal artist's rendering of a horse and chariot...

A magnificent way to end our day of touring.  The group went separate ways for dinner.  Six of us walked 20 minutes to Old Jaffa for a wonderful dinner at a restaurant called "Aladin".  Here's what was left after picking through a whole Sea Bream fish:

I must say that this one belonged to Ken.  However, my plate looked just the same.  Happy plate...happy belly!

Nothing left to do but walk back to the hotel and go to sleep...

Laila Tov! (Good night!),

Rabbi Jeffrey Astrachan

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Bumps and Borders

If any of us weren't completely awake after breakfast at the Kibbutz, certainly our first activity of the day would change things.  We drove for a bit in order to meet up with two of the finest-quality Jeeps to ascend to the Golan Heights.  Splitting into two groups, we were treated to a ride over some very rough terrain, across a small stretch of the Jordan River, and up to the point of the Syrian positions still evidenced by live minefields and empty "pillbox" bunkers.

Now fully awake, this is the BEST time to take us shopping for Israeli-made Naot shoes/sandals.  And where better to purchase, then from the actual factory, itself? 

As we were preparing to head out of the store back to the bus, a very strange event occured... RAIN!  For just a brief period, geshem fell from the heavens.  And the funny thing is that whenever rain comes after a long spell of dryness, what do people do?  Like everyone else, we found ourselves -- like fools -- looking UP!

As I sit to write this post right now (a day late, as usual), I'm on the bus and it's raining pretty hard.  This whole day (Tuesday) has been a pretty gray and rainy day.  So good for Israel... and for those of us who have "endured" 80+ temps thus far, we'll deal with it.  It's really quite hard to compain at this point.

Anyway, from Naot, we headed to the Israel/Syrian border overlook point in "neutral" territory monitored by the United Nations.  This area -- called Har Bental -- is not a great place to stay long when the weather isn't great.  Besides being cold and windy, the guide forgot his jacket and was freezing. 

Off to lunch at a wonderful restaurant called Je'uni.  A cafe that we enjoyed for about 90 minutes.  Delicious food served in an enclosed patio area with heaters.  While waiting for our meals the custom of the place is to bring brain-teaser types of wooden puzzles for the guests to try to solve.  We had a great time, and solved most of them.  A great stop, and a nice break from the walking, walking, walking...

After lunch, a long drive to the ancient city of Tz'fat -- the "home" of the mystical teachings of Judaism called "Kabbalah".  Unfortunately, we did NOT run into Madonna.  However, we did visit a magnificent synagogue, and spent about an hour in the art gallery of Tomer and Ketty Camus who produce some of the most magnificent modern Jewish paintings and 3-dimensional art.  Several of us bought pieces from the artists, themselves, who were just delightful and -- in typical Israel style -- offered each of us "a very special price." (Read with Middle Eastern accent)

When we entered Tz'fat the sun was shining.  By the time we left the gallery, the sun had set.  And so, our day was nearly complete.

We headed off for a very long ride to Haifa (about 2 1/2 hours) and got caught in a bit of traffic.  However, we arrived in time for Chanukah candle-lighting and a beautiful stroll through the upper levels of the tiered streets of Haifa.  This was the first night our little group split up for dinner, some opting to stay at the hotel, others finding pizza or veggie meals, and a few of us choosing (upon recommendation) a fantastic fish restaurant called "Jacko's".  Ken and I each enjoyed "Drum fish" while Jessica had a delicious pasta entree.

The day came to a wonderful end with a good night's sleep.  Off to the next day's events...

Rabbi Jeffrey Astrachan

Monday, December 6, 2010

Dining, Donations, and Digging

As I've mentioned, the food -- especially the breakfasts -- in Israel is just wonderful.  I always look forward to so many elements of my visits to Israel... among them, the opportunities to enjoy combination of the varieties, colors, and tastes of foods I might not otherwise find so readily at home.  So, here are a few pictures of what I'm talking about...

And if it would help, here's a video of the whole smorgasbord...

The question I'm often asked:  Do all Israelis eat like this every morning?  The answer:  ABSOLUTELY!!!  As long as they stay in a hotel! 

As we began our journey out of Jerusalem, we made a few wonderful stops along the way, including a visit to the Knesset -- Israel's parliament.  Unfortunately, no photographs were allowed.  Therefore, I have none to show you.  If you'd like to see what it looks like (inside and out) you can most assuredly find some good shots (taken both legally and not-so-much) through Google.

However, I do have some great photos of our visits to Hadassah Hospital (including the famous Chagall windows crowning the magnificent synagogue inside the main hospital building) and an Ethiopian Absorption Center just outside of Jerusalem.  At both of these locations our group was proud to donate dozens of hand-knit childrens' sweaters, scarves, hats, and mittons made by members of the Stitches of Love group through Jewish Family Services.  Making the presentations were our very own Jessica and Deb (not using last names here on the blog!).  Attached below are some pix of the donation events at these two locations:

Following our visit to the Knesset (including lunch in the SAME dining room where the "REAL" members of Knesset eat --- everyone say "OOooohhhhh!!!!!") we spent time helping the Israeli Archaeological Department sift through ancient rubble which had been removed from within the walls of the Old City, under the Al Aqsa Mosque at the site of the Dome of the Rock.  This is really a very long, unfortunate, set of circumstances having much to do with a project by the Muslim community to gain a stronger foothold into this piece of real estate by secretly constructing a new mosque deeper into the Temple Mount area.  All the dirt they removed in this very quick project (a few years ago) was literally discarded into a heap just outside the walls of the Old City.  Of course, given that this area was also the site of the ancient Jerusalem Temple, there is strong belief that many important Temple artifacts were likely in this rubble.  So...  let the digging and sifting begin.

After a presentation by the chief archaeologist of the dig-site, we gathered around individual work-stations and sifted through buckets of debris.  Each of us found small shards of pottery, glass, mosaic tiles, and tiny bone-fragments.  But Kelly was the big winner!!!!  All sifting came to a standstill when the head of the dig called us to gather around a show-table.  Kelly had found a rather sizeable piece of pottery from a 2nd Century Roman oil lamp.  We could easily see the intricate design which adorned the rim of this lamp.  The place was "abuzz" with excitement, as this was considered a "significant" find:

Here are a few other "eyewitness" accounts of the activity:

Out of Jerusalem we went... dusty and shmutsy from the sifting... but very happy to have had the day we had.  Many then got to enjoy a 2 1/2 hour bus ride up to the North -- through barriers and checkpoints.  At one point, two soldiers with VERY loaded weapons boarded the bus to walk up and down the aisle -- just to read our faces and make sure there wasn't anyone on the bus that wasn't supposed to be there.  Really a perfect example of the sobering reality of life in Israel... but at the same time rather comforting to know how vigilant the Israeli army is at doing its job so well.

We checked into our hotel at Kibbutz Lavi in the North, then enjoyed the lighting of our Chanukiyah in the main corridor (with about 50 other chanukiyot), ate a delicious buffet dinner, then a few of us sat in the bar and enjoyed an hour of conversation with our bus driver, D'ror.  We spoke about being a secular Jew in Israel, learned a little Hebrew, and just had a great time sharing cultures.

Another great day...

Rabbi Jeffrey Astrachan

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Hot Fun in the Desert Sun

Great fun today as we headed South to through the desert down to Masada, the Dead Sea, and the Ahava factory.  Honestly, a truly excellent way to connect with the Land of Israel on Shabbat!

The first thought that came to my mind this morning as we drove out of Jerusalem was just how quickly the scenery changes from businesses, homes, Walls, and people... to absolutely NOTHINGNESS.  Within a span of 30 seconds the landscape changes completely and its as if we have been transported to another world.  Enormous sand dunes, mountains rising sharply from the earth, randomly spotted Bedouin shanties and sheep replace commonplace homes and throngs of people.

We descend from 3,500 feet ABOVE sea level, to 1,200 feet BELOW sea level in a matter of 20 minutes... and our ears remind us of this throughout the descent.

On our right...hills and valleys.  On our left, we eventually come to a small section of the Dead Sea.  And then, rising high above the hills we spot the mountain called "Masada".  After ascending by cable-car, the story of Herod's palatial fortress is told to us, as well as its later use as the last hold-out of a group of 1,000 Jews who sought to maintain their faith and their freedom from Roman oppressors.  We are amazed by the sophistication of construction and planning that created this place.

From atop Masada, 6 of us opt to walk down the clearly-defined yet treacherous "snake path", while the rest of the group descends by cable-car.  We manage the walk (which, by cable car takes about 45 seconds) in nearly an hour.  No sweat... and we all made it to the gift shop, welcomed by cheers from the well-rested members of our group.

On to the Ahava cosmetics factory/outlet.  Due to it being Shabbat, the factory itself was closed.  However, never missing an opportunity, the store was open and fully staffed.  We did have the place to ourselves, thanks to great timing by our guide to have us there right during the popular tourist lunch time.  After watching a brief live introduction/demonstration of each of the product lines we hit the shelves.  For a small group, I believe we did quite a bit of damage and certainly helped the local economy!!!

From Ahava, we drove across the street to the shore of the Dead Sea.  Half the group opted to go into the water, while the rest served as official photographers or enjoyed a light nosh at the snack bar and conversation with our guide and driver.

45 minutes of floating in the water was enough to enjoy the experience.  Definitely a "must do" on any Israel tour.  Again, it was amazing to have 80+ degree temps in December.  A great opportunity to enjoy the Dead Sea.

From the Dead Sea to the Stinky Camel... Only a few brave souls climbed aboard the waiting camel (one at a time) for a 2 minute "ride" around the dirt parking lot of a chazarai store along the roadside back up to Jerusalem.  A great time was had by most, and off we drove back to our hotel.

After a very brief rest we gathered for our evening stroll to Ben Yehuda Street for dinner and our last bit of Jerusalem shopping.  We detoured to try to find a unique "fire juggling" show in celebration of Chanukah.  We found where it was going to be, but it was delayed.  However, across the street we stumble upon what appeared to be some kind of a peaceful demonstration right next to the Prime Minister's residence.  Upon closer examination, we discovered it was part of a daily ongoing vigil for Gilad Shalit, the Israel soldier who -- as we were reminded by a large placard -- was captured 1,632 days ago.  A very large crowd was assembled in solidarity.  There were speeches and live performances, and the lighting of a large Chanukiyah... all with thoughts directed toward Gilad, with prayers for his safe and expedient return.

When we arrived at Ben Yehuda street, life was just returning to the area.  In fact, we were the first customers at a wonderful restaurant called Cafe Rimon where we enjoyed burgers and steaks, a little beer and wine, and a lot of good laughs.  Celebrating our last night in Jerusalem was bittersweet, but truly a great time.

We will miss our City of Gold... but we know we will return another day.

Tomorrow we head out of Jerusalem on our way North to Kibbutz Lavi and the surrounding area of the Galilee.  But before we leave this magnificent city of old and new, we have much to do.  We will visit Hadassah Hospital and the Chagal windows (and make a donation of knitted items from Stitches of Love), visit an Ethiopian Absorption Center (and make a donatio nof knitted items from Stitches of Love), take a tour of the Knesset (Israel's parliament), participate in an active excavation site, and then drive 2+ hours to Kibbutz Lavi.'s time to go pack.  Much to do before heading to bed.

Rabbi Jeffrey Astrachan

Friday, December 3, 2010

A Remarkable Day

From the moment you wake up on Friday morning in Jerusalem you know something is different... It's in the air like the smell of the first snowfall of the season.  Except, well, it's 80 degrees here!  :)  So much for waxing poetic!

However, when you are in J'salem on Friday -- watching as everyone around you scurries to prepare for Shabbat -- it's as if the rest of the world doesn't exist.  Once you visit J'salem, you come to understand and appreciate the fact that there REALLY IS such a thing as "Jewish Time."  And the clock starts ticking at sun-up on the morning before Shabbat.  It's as if a starter-pistol is fired to begin the "frantic" before the "calm."  More about this in a moment...

We began our day with the same traditional Israel breakfast buffet.  I still haven't taken any pictures of this...but I will.  It's really a sight to behold.  If you've never seen it, and you think I only talk about food -- you'll appreciate what I'm talking about once I post a few pictures of the endless amount of choices available at breakfast.

After breakfast we boarded our bus and drove to Yad Vashem, Israel's national Holocaust memorial/museum.  We arrived prior to our schedule entrance time, so we took advantage of the available time by walking through the deeply emotional Children's Memorial in memory of the 1.5 million children who perished in the Holocaust.  One can not help but be moved by the endless reflections of candlelight in the surrounding mirrors, and the continuous recitation of the names, ages, and countries of origin of these young souls.

We then walked to the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles and stopped by the trees planted in honor of Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenburg. 

Oskar Schindler's tree

The group then spent nearly 2 hours walking through the museum exhibits, learning about and becoming witnesses to the atrocities of humanity's most evil of spirits in our darkest of days.

The experience of visiting Yad Vashem concluded with a brief stop at the Valley of the Lost Communities, a remarkable maze-like monument to all those communities throughout Europe which once knew Jewish life.  While visiting this site, the group spent time praying a brief memorial service led by various trip participants.

The Valley of the Lost Communities

Perhaps the very best way to change one's mood from the dark emotions associated with Yad Vashem is to move to a place of great life-affirming chaos.  And so we boarded our bus and headed off to Machane Yehuda -- the incredible outdoor Jewish marketplace (shuk) to watch the real locals prepare for Shabbat.  I've attached a few photos and videos to TRY to help you grasp the feelings of intense passion and joy associated with this experience.  This wasn't just about shopping for food.  This was about preparing to welcome the Sabbath like you welcome the greatest love of your life.  This is a ritual as sacred as any, and it is repeated EVERY Friday.

Notice in one of the videos below, the warning cries of the Rabbi's shofar (not me!) as he runs through the market shouting at the merchants to close in time for Shabbat.  It is a fantastic element to this place that -- in so many ways -- it seems that time forgot...  But I can assure you that everyone there knows exactly what time it is.  As Shabbat approached, the crowds quickly began to disperse in order to make it home just in time to set their gorgeous fresh flowers on their Shabbos tables, and to eat the freshly baked challah, to cook their freshly prepared fish and meats, and to celebrate with magnificent fresh fruits, veggies, and of course sweets purchased just for this one weekly event.  This is TRULY the epitome of the commandment to "remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy."

Sorry the video is sideways... forgot I can't shoot the video vertically.

Following the day's excursion we arrived back to the hotel just in time to join about 100 Orthodox Jews in the lobby for the lighting of the 3rd night's Chanukah candles.  We (and many others) arrived after the head rabbi had declared sundown, so we had to light our chanukiyot off to the side, away from "their" section of the lobby.  It's quite remarkable how the caste/class system seems to be alive-and-well here in the Land. 

We walked across the street to enjoy the concluding prayers at the Orthodox "Great Synagogue."  A magnificent men's choir led the singing.  At the end of the service, the packed-house all stood together and exited the sanctuary ready to return home for Shabbat dinner.

We did the same.  Back across the street we walked.  Our Shabbat dinner buffet was lovely, and the diversity of people throughout the dining room made the experience truly special for us.  We had two tables of what we believe were Morrocan Jews to one side, and three tables of Christian pilgrims to the other side.  And in between them was our small group... and a magnificent and ENORMOUS chocolate & halva birthday cake.  What a great way to usher in another year of life!!! 

I am grateful to my group for their outpouring of love in celebration of my birthday.  It was especially meaningful, since the last time I celebrated a birthday in Israel, I turned 10!  I am sure I will remember this one as vividly and as warmly as I remember the previous one.  Thanks to the group for this nice surprise celebration...

Well, that's about it for today's activities.  Off to bed in preparation for another full day tomorrow:  Massada, the Dead Sea, Ahava factory, and a night on Ben Yehuda street!!!

Shabbat Shalom to all... and to all a good night!!!

Rabbi Jeffrey Astrachan

Bar Mitzvah Celebration at The Wall

A Bar Mitzvah is celebrated a "little" differently in Jerusalem... This was taken ON THE WAY TO the Wall for the Bar Mitzvah.

Here's some photos of what the men's side of The Wall looks like on a typical Thursday morning... Remember, traditionally the Torah is read on Shabbat, Mondays, and Thursdays.  Thursday is a VERY big day here...