Thursday, January 13, 2011

Landed in New York

We landed safely in New York, and here ends our adventure!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv was our destination today, the last of our trip. We awoke in Netanya, and our hotel is across the street from the Mediterranean Sea. We traveled south to spend the day in Tel Aviv-Yaffo, beginning with the site where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in November 1995. We stood where he did and learned about his life and tragic death, including his work and hopes for peace.

We spent a few hours walking through the vibrant downtown area and enjoyed lunch and shopping in a very busy market on Allenby Street. From there we went to the Old City of Yaffo (Jaffa) for a tour, and then to the modern port.

We returned to Netanya to have a closing conversation, pack ad get ready for our departure. We will leave for the airport at 1:00 a.m. local time (8 hours ahead of CST). Swiss Air to Zurich and then to JFK. As of right now, the airports are open in New York.

This will be the last post from Israel. It was a great trip and thanks for sharing it with us via cyberspace.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tragedies Remembered, Deserts Traversed

Monday and Tuesday

We began Monday very early and visited Yad Vashem, the extraordinary Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. We were there for several hour with a guided personal tour, followed by a lecture by a Dutch survivor who shared her story of resistance. Lisha Rose - The Tulips are Red.

We spent many hours en route to the Bedouin encampment and stopped for lunch at a small shopping mall.

Kfar Hanokdim is a camp in the desert, a few miles from Masada and the Dead Sea, where we enjoyed Bedouin hospitality. This included a hafla meal and overnight accommodations in a giant tent. Remarkably, most people slept! We awoke very early to the desert alarm clock (a Bedouin guide turning on the lights and letting in the cold). Even though it was chilly outside, being with friends warmed the desert night air. We had a chance to debrief the powerful experiences earlier in the day at Yad Vashem, and talked again about the importance of Jewish memory to identity.

Next we drove to Masada, Herod's desert fortress. We climbed the Roman ramp and saw the magnificent archaeological ruins and learned about the siege of 73 CE that ended a stand-off between Jewish zealots who refused to yield to the Roman army.

Then to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. Participants floated in the dense salt water and relaxed for a few hours before our long drive to Netanya, near Tel Aviv on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. We enjoyed a night out on the promenande.

We are staying at the Galil Hotel in Netanya tonight, and will tour Tel Aviv tomorrow - our last full day.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Creating Jewish Memories

Our morning began with an inspirational lecture by Avraham Infeld, president emeritus of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.  He spoke of Jewish memory and how, through various means of connecting to our Jewish identities, we can remain unified without being uniform.

We then left for Mount Herzl and its military cemetery.  In addition to visiting the grave of Theodor Herzl, father of Modern Zionism, we paid tribute to fallen heroes Yitzhak Rabin, Michael Levin, Hannah Senesh and Yonatan Netanyahu.  Our group's 8 soldiers led a moving ceremony to commemorate Israel's losses in battle.

We drove from Mount Herzl to the town of Rishon LeZion for our tzedakah project with elementary school students, many of whom were born in Ethiopia.  This was a lot of fun and very rewarding.  The kids made art projects with our participants and had a great time.  The highlight was their obsession with one of our students who seems to look like Justin Bieber.  It was like a rock star had shown up at their school.

We had a meaningful conversation with the soldiers about how much they had become a part of our group so quickly.  Many participants reflected that encountering Israeli peers was like reuniting with family rather than just making new friends.  When the soldiers took their leave it was very sad but, if this group is like others before it, the relationships will continue and we will someday soon welcome these soldiers to Austin.
Later in the afternoon we returned to our Jerusalem hotel for a preparatory discussion about tomorrow's visit to Yad Vashem.  We discussed the importance of memories and names, and four of our group had a small ceremony (with everyone present) to receive their Hebrew names.  We talked about the meanings of many of our Hebrew names, and learned about their linguistic origins.

After another big dinner we enjoyed some short Israeli films with filmmakers from the Maale School.  Then off to bed, because tomorrow we have a long day that will begin with the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem and conclude in a Bedouin Tent in the desert.  (If the Bedouin experience does not include internet access, the next update will be the following day).

We seem to have arrived in Israel at the height of the sniffles season.  Our tour educator, Yael Menashe, with whom we have been since the first day, must be replaced tomorrow because she is without a voice.  And our guard/medic, Inbar Garji, will also be replaced tomorrow.  So we'll get to meet even more Israelis than we anticipated, though we'll miss these new members of our Texas family.

Finally, let us say that it has been a pleasure to share this journey with the 38 participants.  Though we are both well-traveled through this land, it is like seeing it all for the first time through the eyes of our students.  We are encouraging them to come back and to bring their families with them!

  • Ayala Peer, Texas Hillel Jewish Agency Israel Fellow
  • Rabbi David Komerofsky (AKA DKom), Texas Hillel Executive Director 

Saturday, January 8, 2011


On Friday night, after dinner, everyone chose between 4 service options (Conservative, Orthodox, Reform and alternative), just like we have at Texas Hillel.  To give you an idea of how pluralistic Hillel’s approach to Jewish community is, the Orthodox service was led by Texas Hillel’s executive director who is a Reform rabbi.  Where else in the world could you imagine such a thing?

There were also some optional discussion groups on topics of interest to Jewish college students.

The Taglit-Birthright Israel participants were able to sleep late today!  Some chose to attend worship services in the neighborhood (a planned walk to the Western Wall had to be cut short because it started to rain).

Everyone enjoyed a festive Shabbat lunch and then we had the Shabbat afternoon service (mincha), including 3 B‘not Mitzvah from our group.  They were called to the Torah for the blessings and had a nice celebration.

In the afternoon we had a program with our 8 Israeli soldiers.  They gave a mock boot camp experience and shared with the participants what daily life in the IDF is like.  They are a delightful group, and have built nice relationships with everyone.  They personalized what being an Israeli is really like.

We joined all of the other groups at the hotel for Havdalah (the end of Shabbat) on the hotel rooftop.  Jerusalem is very quiet on Shabbat, but comes to life when the sun goes down on Saturday.  We saw this firsthand on Ben Yehuda Street, where we spent the evening shopping, eating and enjoying the street performers.  Ben Yehuda Street is a long pedestrian mall in the city center, full of shops and cafes.

Tomorrow we will begin another full day in Jerusalem.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Friday in Jerusalem

We began this Friday morning, our first full day in Jerusalem, with a lecture about Middle East politics by Neil Lazarus. He explained the geography of the region and the complicated history of the many conflicts over land and ideology.

We then drove straight to the Old City of Jerusalem. We entered via the Zion Gate and explored the Jewish Quarter. After a discussion about the location and purpose of the Temple, we made our way to the Western Wall for a very memorable and meaningful personal encounter with 2,000 years of Jewish history.

We shopped and braved the Friday afternoon crowds at the Machane Yehuda market. What an experience!

We returned to the hotel to prepare for Shabbat. Along with the many other groups at our hotel we will celebrate Shabbat tonight and tomorrow, with many options for worship, reflection and conversation.

Tomorrow we will relax, and a few of our group have chosen to participate in a Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony. Jerusalem is very quiet on Shabbat, but comes to life on Saturday nights. We will go to the famous Ben Yehuda Street tomorrow night.

Shabbat Shalom!

Our Group

The Jerusalem Welcome Ceremony (courtesy of Piera Kempner)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Jerusalem of Gold

Jerusalem of Gold

This morning we awoke in Tiberias and visited the Sapir Station to learn about the National Water Carrier. Israel leads the world in water desalination, and the 47-year-old system to move fresh water from the Sea of Galilee and underwater aquifers to the rest of the country has made the desert bloom.

Lunch was at a mall in Alonim. There was Israeli frozen yogurt. Even McDonald's with a drive-thru.

A 2 hour drive to Jerusalem allowed us to see some of the security fence protecting Israel from parts of the West Bank. We sang "Jerusalem of Gold" as we ascended the Judaean Hills and entered Israel's capital city.

We joined 6 other buses for the welcome ceremony at the Haas Promenade overlooking the Old City. We then learned some of the 4,000 years old history of Jerusalem and headed to the mega-event. There were 4,000 Taglit-Birthright Israel participants, lots of live music, and even an in-person presentation by Prime Minister Netanyahu.

We will stay tonight at the Shalom Hotel in Jerusalem and tour more of the city tomorrow.