At first glance the notion of a group of young Jewish Poles to Israel during a war seems absurd. Who would come? How would they cope? What could they learn about Israel when the country is bombarded every day by rockets indiscriminately spewing venomous daggers?
The answer each member of the trip will give is…an immense amount can be learned, and no one would think of going home. In fact two more Poles arrived in the middle of the trip, despite the rockets, despite the hardships of a country at war. At the end of the trip I spoke with several who didn’t want to leave!
Coping? Just fine! They were situated in Jerusalem, studying day and night while spending several days touring the country. I personally spent two wonderful days with them touring the Judean desert, the Jordan valley, the Galilee and spending an amazing weekend in Tzefat.
How does this all make sense? Two words should answer our query—Shavei Israel! Shavei Israel is the brainchild of Michael Freund, an American idealist who made aliya with his family to Israel years ago, got involved in politics (Deputy of Communications Director in the office of PM Netanyahu), engaged in the business world but for the last ten years has focused his energies on one mission—returning lost Jewish souls to Israel and the Jewish people.
Shavei Israel is responsible for the return of Benei Menashe, Jews from India; Subbotnik Jews from Russia; crypto Jews from Spain, and many other hidden Jews all over the world. Shavei finds them, facilitates exploration of their Jewish identity and ultimately, returns them to their homeland and to their people.
Poland has been one of their projects for the last ten years with a majority of the time representing them in Krakow Rabbi Boaz Pash. Today, I am their emissary and it is an honor to work for such an organization.
For the past year I have been working in Krakow which includes teaching many Torah classes, leading a trip to Israel six months ago and participating in their Shavei Israel summer seminar a few weeks ago. This trip is an important aspect of the Shavei educational component as they heavily subsidize Israel seminars which endear the group to Torah, Israel and the Jewish people. Having concluded my tour guiding course I was chosen to take the group on a tiyul on Friday which would culminate in Tzfat for Shabbat. Two days in the summer, despite a war and intermittent falling missiles, were for us an adventure into the land, history and people of Israel.
We began early in the morning dropping almost a thousand meters to the location of the lowest place on earth. We did not dip in the Dead Sea though; instead we hiked through a canyon called Nachal Og just west of the Sea. Nachal Og is a beautiful canyon which winds its way down from the mountains of Judea to the sea.
Millions of years of erosion and sedimentary deposits created a deep crevice in the land, opening it to magnificent depressions and narrow passageways.
It was not a simple tiyul, though. For some it was a battle against fear and anxiety. There are two or three areas where it is extremely difficult to climb to the next level and metal spokes are drilled into the rock, which makes for an adventure, but everyone persevered and conquered the terrain. After two hours of hiking in the early sun we concluded just in time and boarded the bus and on to our next destination.
Driving up the Bikaa valley we learned about the geological formations on the eastern border of Israel, the children of Israel’s entrance point into the land (Jericho), the great monasteries built in the Byzantine era and Crusader fortresses (Belvoir) hovering over the mountains. Closing out the trip we reached Bet Shean, a Roman city built on an ancient Israelite city…built on an ancient Egyptian city…
After a hike and a drive we were ready for our second destination of our trip: Nahal Hakibbutzim. Nestled under the historic Gilad mountain range (where Saul and Jonathan fought and ultimately died in battle with the Philistines), the waters rolling off the mountain gather in many intense streams on the way to the Jordan River. This area is so fertile that one Babylonian Amora (Resh Lakish) considered this to be the Garden of Eden.
Unique throughout all of Israel, in which deep streams are sparse, this stretch of a bit more than a mile has waters almost five feet deep with a soft sandy, base, making it a pleasure for adult and child to swim down, especially on warm summer days. At different points an artificial slide was created for added fun.
Our next stop brought us to one of the four holy cities in Israel: Tiberius. The city, resting on the bank of the Sea of Galilee, was built by Herod Antipas in 20 CE in honor of Roman Emperor Tiberius and it became the center of Jewish life in Israel during the Mishnaic Period (ca. 200 CE) and Byzantine era (324-640 CE). Perhaps most well known as the final resting place the Sanhedrin after being exiled from Jerusalem, It was also the place where Rabbi Judah Nasi compiled the Mishna, the city where the Jerusalem Talmud was compiled, and Modern Hebrew vowels were constructed.
As a result of thriving Jewish life and the holy history of Tiberius many holy rabbis are buried in Tiberius. We visited the graves of Rabbi Akiva, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai, the Shl”a as well as Maimonides and other Tannaim from the Mishna.
Each site afforded us the opportunity to speak of these towering personalities and their influence on Jewish life over the centuries.
Although it was a Friday afternoon and Shabbat in Tzfat was next on the agenda, I couldn’t resist showing the group an ancient Synagogue called Arbel. Dated back to the early Byzantine era, we were able to behold its original doorway made of limestone with a groove for a mezuza and we noted its direction facing Jerusalem. This short visit was our last stop before journeying to the third holy city of our day (Jerusalem, Tiberius and now) Tzfat.
We arrived at Ascent hotel Tel Aviv with enough time to prepare ourselves for Shabbat and make it early to the Beirav Shul in the heart of the old city of Tzfat. Veteran followers of Reb Shlomo Carlebach, with sweet voices, no concept of time and huge hearts invited us to sing, dance and spiritually rise to accept the holiness of Shabbat. That spirit ushered us into our Shabbat meal where we continued to sing and share Divrei Torah. I began to hear the stories of some young Poles.
Sandra is 21 and living in Warsaw. Until two years ago she was Christian; her family hid her Jewish identity from her and only through serious research and determination did Sandra uncover that not only did she come from an Halakhic line of Jewish women but her great grandfather was the leader of the Jewish community! Today she is studied Judaism (as well as a Law degree) and involved in the Jewish community in Warsaw, and loving her experience in Israel. A similar story could be told by Olga, Daniel, Grzegorz and many others. What an inspiration!
Shabbat morning we prayed, ate some more, sang a lot more, some rested and then we met for a walking tour of Tzfat. There are three significant time periods in the Jewish history of Tzfat: the Crusader (beginning of the 11th century), the golden age of Jewish scholarship and mysticism (beginning of the 16th century) and modern Israel with the founding of the State.
We began our tour at the Crusader castle at the highest point of the city and then jumped almost thousand years to discuss the miraculous victory of the Jews in 1948 with the Davidka gun and a small group of Palmach fighters. Rabbi Avraham Zeida Heller (great grandson of Krakow’s Rabbi Yomtov Lipmann Heller), the chief rabbi of Tzfat at the time remarked that the war was won with actions and miracles: the actions were the prayers of all the inhabitants around the clock; the miracle was that the Palmach fighters arrived just in time!
Winding our way downward we reached the holy synagogues of Tzfat starting with the most important Jewish personality of Tzfat—Rabbi Joseph Karo. The author of the Shulchan Aruch and ‘Rabbi of All of Israel’, Rabbi Karo’s synagogue is still functioning today and we were able to take a peek during the mincha service. Other synagogues included the Ar”I and the Alshich, as well as the beautiful Abuhav Shul.
We concluded our tour in a little alley called ‘simtat hamashiach’. The atmosphere in Tzfat is very mystical with many Jews actively waiting for the messiah to arrive every day. A story is told of ‘savta Yocheved’, an old lady who all her life would sit by her windowsill and look longingly down her alley awaiting the return of the Messiah. She reasoned that it is not possible that the Messiah should arrive and not come through Tzfat! This reflects the very palpable feeling of elevated spiritual consciousness, which permeates the ancient city.
We returned for a wonderful ‘seuda shlishit’ with more songs and a wonderful melodic Havdalah filled with dancing and good feelings. Our journey back to Jerusalem was quiet, each participant trying to internalize all that Tzfat provided. The trip would continue for another ten days but I would only meet them one more time, giving a lecture to them on the laws of Shabbat. I hope to meet this unique group of young Jewish Poles again, watching them grow in Judaism and love for the land of Israel.
Jeremiah the prophet speaks to the Jews going into exile and promises them that there will be reward in their efforts to return from the enemies’ lands. “There is hope for you in the end, says God, and the children will return to their boundaries”. How fortunate are we to have Michael Freund and the Shavei Israel organization to make the dreams of so many hidden Jews come true.
For more information about Shavei Israel, www.shavei.org