Israel 2014- Am Yisrael Chai

As Shabbat approaches in Jerusalem I feel truly blessed to be leading the Davis Academy’s 2014 Israel Trip. It’s been an amazing journey with an amazing group of students and chaperones. I’ve been blogging each day on a Google Blog that helps chronicle how we live our menschlichkeit values at The Davis Academy, but wanted to copy yesterday’s post here so I could revisit it in the future. As I don’t know how to cross post I’m simply cutting and pasting and hoping that works!




[It’s almost 10pm on a typical Thursday and we are stuck in an epic Jerusalem traffic jam right outside the walls of the Old City. How did we end up here??? It’s a good story.]


We started our day with a visit to a very unique place—Yad L’Kashish (“Lifeline for the Elderly”). Yad L’Kashish employs more than 300 Israeli senior citizens, many of them Holocaust survivors. These senior citizens work as artisans, carefully creating beautiful pieces of art ranging from simple greeting cards to magnificent tallitot, from elaborate pottery to adorable stuffed animals.  Prior to entering Yad L’Kashish Morah Sigal shared that when she was a graduate student she worked in a home for the elderly in Beersheva. In spite of her loving and dedicated spirit she reported that the residents in the home suffered not only from the typical ailments of old age, but from severe neglect, boredom, and a sense of irrelevance. They’d been forgotten. Little did we know that “memory and forgetting” would be one of our day’s themes.  She was particularly moved by the sense of meaning and purpose that comes with working at Yad L’Kashish. As we watched an elderly man carefully sand and dust a dreidel we spontaneously burst into the song, “Sevivon.” If your child brings home a souvenir from Yad L’Kashish you will know that it was made with love and care by a truly special person at a truly special place.


[FYI—we are about to drive our 50 passenger bus on the opposite side of the street to circumvent this traffic jam!]


After Yad L’Kashish we visited Yad V’shem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial. As has been the case for the last couple of years the kids were not only engaged but profoundly knowledgeable about the Shoah, due primarily to Ms. Schwartz’s exceptional teaching on this topic. We receive many compliments as we travel through Israel, but the compliment we received from our Yad V’Shem tour guide—that we were the finest group of middle school students she had ever toured—that means a lot. The trick at Yad V’shem is knowing how deeply to dive into the horrific events of the Shoah and the implications of the Shoah. Ms. Scwhartz’s devotion to teaching the Shoah helps ensure that the kids know how to respond to the experience of touring this sacred site.


[And magically the traffic has eased up. NO, we didn’t have to drive on the wrong side of the road.]


Yad V’shem sits at the foot of Mt. Herzl, Israel’s most revered military cemetery. It has become a Davis tradition to ascend from Yad V’shem to Mt. Herzl. In so doing we reenact the journey from the darkest chapter of Jewish history to the brightest. But we don’t fully reach the light, because Mt. Herzl further reinforces the fact that Israel was not established and is not protected without great cost. Among the tens of thousands of graves, we always visit the newest section of the cemetery. There we saw several graves that weren’t there just last year.


While standing on Mt. Herzl we had a fascinating discussion. The graves from earlier eras are all uniformly adorned. They have identical inscriptions and all look the same. Soldiers are not buried according to rank and the feeling is one of equality and dignity. On the other hand, newer graves are adorned with various types of shrines, pictures, and artifacts. Many of the newer graves give you a sense of who the fallen soldier was—what he or she looked like, words he or she lived by, favorite objects, pieces of their uniform, banners or postcards from favorite places, sports jerseys, and so on. Our tour guides asked us to consider which we thought was more appropriate for Mt. Herzl– uniformity or individuality. They shared that this issue had stirred great controversy. The kids spoke beautifully in defense of their various positions, most of them dwelling in the grey, rather than black or white. Later, standing at the grave of Theodor Herzl, Mr. O’Dell offered the idea that it is the life we lead, rather than our headstone, that is the truest and most important monument/testament to our existence. Instead of staring at Herzl’s tomb he asked us to turn around and look at the country that Herzl dreamt.


The Hebrew word cavod (“respect”) comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for “heavy” (ca-ved). Cavod was another of the day’s themes.


After another pizur meal we headed back to the Kotel for a tour of the underground tunnels there. It was a beautiful evening and we expected the Kotel to be relatively tranquil, allowing our kids additional time to be in a reflective, spiritual space. Instead we arrived 25 minutes before a Swearing In Ceremony for a squadron of several hundred Israeli Paratroopers. Together we toured the tunnels and then joined with thousands of Israelis of all stripes for the swearing in ceremony during which each paratrooper received two items: a gun and a Tanach. Afterward we celebrated with the soldiers and their families. We sang, “Am Yisrael Chai” and shared in the many feasts that were taking place all around us. Grandmothers and mothers of soldiers offered our kids home baked delicacies and our kids gracefully and gratefully accepted. It was a unique celebration—the type of celebration that is, in essence, a prayer. Watching grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers and fathers cry with joy, younger siblings look up with admiration, boyfriends and girlfriends hug and take “selfies”—knowing that to be a guardian of Israel is to be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice if that is what it takes. Surely there was someone in attendance who had lost a child, a relative, a friend, a neighbor, or a classmate, in service of the State of Israel. The seamless merger of deep joy and honest emotion made it  a truly Jewish celebration. Menawhile, as “Am Yisrael” celebrated we could see fireworks coming from East Jerusalem—the sign of a Muslim wedding celebration. Jerusalem is a place where all people come to celebrate.


We had intended to conclude our day at the Kotel with the prayer for the State of Israel and the Mishebeirach for the soldiers of the IDF. Instead we got to witness this incredible ceremony—a living testament that the lives that were sacrificed, both during the Shoah and in defense of the State of Israel—that they were not lost in vain.


Here’s a shot video of the singing of Hatikvah at the IDF Ceremony:





[And now we just passed a motorcade that was CLEARLY carrying the Prime Minister or some government official of equal status.]



So that’s the story of how we ended up in the epic Jerusalem traffic jam and almost had to drive down the wrong side of the road. I love Jerusalem. I met my wife here and began my formal rabbinical studies here. I even lived in an orthodox yeshiva in the Old City for a summer while translating a Hebrew book from 1809 called “Characteristics of the Rabbinate”. In spite of this deep connection, in my heart of hearts I’m glad I don’t live in Jerusalem. There are just too many stray cats. But it sure is a great place to call home. If they didn’t understand what our tour guides meant when they greeted us at the airport with the words, “Welcome Home!” They definitely get it now.

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