Israel at the crossroads

I was fast asleep when I heard the phone ringing. I looked at the clock: 5:40 AM. Too exhausted (I had only gone to sleep at 4:30), I went back to sleep.

Ten seconds later, it buzzed again. I stumbled out of bed.


“Hi David, it’s Danny and Aimee calling from Jerusalem. We have some bad news…. Your flight from Boston to Newark has been cancelled and the 65 people on that flight have been rebooked on later flights. Given the snow that is on the way, you probably won’t arrive in Israel until Friday, Shabbat or even Sunday. We need to decide what to do.”

Clearly, this was a dream. And the me in the dream would respond. But I didn’t.

“David? David, are you there?”

This wasn’t a dream and that was not good.

I got my bearings. There were no earlier flights because people had scrambled to beat the impending snowstorm.

“What are our options?”

“Well, you could take the later flights, missing some of the trip or you could charter a bus to Newark for the flight to Israel.”

“OK, fine…let’s do that.”

“But first we have one other problem. You don’t have your seats anymore on tonight’s flight to Tel-Aviv.”

“What? Why not?”

“Because the computer, learning that the plane to Newark could not get to Boston due to the storm, also cancelled your seats off the flight tonight to Tel-Aviv, rebooking you on a flight tomorrow to Newark and on to Tel-Aviv. By then the storm will be at its height, so that scenario will probably not work either…. So, we will work on getting your seats on tonight’s plane back; you work on the bus.”

You need a bus; it’s not even six in the morning. What would you do?

Right, I typed into Google “emergency bus charter.”

I started calling – no answer, it was too early. Finally, a company picked up.

“Sorry, we don’t have any buses in the entire Boston area.”

“Where did all the buses go?”

Apparently, many were rented previously and others were emergency storm rentals. Suffice it to say, there were no free buses in all of Massachusetts.

Finally, I tried Gogo Charter Bus Company, Tony answered. He told me that he could get me a bus from CT, but I needed to pay right now on my credit card $1800.

I realized I didn’t know who he was – did he even have a bus? I told him to hold. I had to check if we got our tickets to Israel back. We did. And I reserved the bus. There is more to this story, since we needed an additional bus.

Tony’s bus came two hours late (and you can imagine I wasn’t at all stressed during that time!). The bus was barely functional. Heat on one side and air conditioning on the other. And, in order to get the bathroom light on, you had to turn the rest of the lights off!

After a long ride that included a strange tour of downtown Newark, we arrived – they had cancelled our seats so families and couples were no longer sitting together. And they deleted our kosher meals.

But, we made it!

Once we landed in Israel, everything went according to plan. We were in great hands.

In Israel, the experience was incredible.

While half the group had never been to Israel and half had been before (some of them many times), there was something for everyone.

Let me share a few highlights to reflect the intensity and joyfulness of our experience and the complexity of the situation that Israel finds itself in today:

First, the spiritual aspects. There is something about being in Israel that changes the spiritual energy for me.

The first full morning, we held an optional Shaharit on the beach in Tel-Aviv. I am not sure how to explain it, but there was a calming, sustaining energy to that tefillah that stayed with us for the entire trip.

Maybe it was the feeling of thankfulness that we had made it before the storm, maybe it was the crashing waves hitting the shore or maybe the spectacular sight of the sunrise, but we all felt it.

Shaharit on the Beach in Tel Aviv

It continued with singing and dancing as we davened Kabbalat Shabbat welcoming the Sabbath. Our children led Lekha Dodi; this outdoor, Israel ruah – Israel spirit continued to build throughout Shabbat.

We visited different synagogues including Masorti (Conservative) shuls that felt somewhat like Emunah with a more Israeli style.

Kehilat Sinai Tel Aviv 2014

Waking up early one morning, we hiked up Masada, watching the sun rise from the top of the mountain. It was there where we davened Shaharit and celebrated with ten of our young people who had already had or would have their B’nei Mitzvah.

DL and BM Masada 2014 Two

The feeling was electric – singing and dancing ‘mazal tov,’ atop a place of such profound historical significance. Dancing “Mazal Tov” atop Masada

Our children and adults led the service, read Torah, had aliyot while wearing the new tallitot and tefillin. It was pretty powerful.

Sharon and Ari Davening on Masada 2014

In Jerusalem, we prayed both at the Kotel and underground, on the Kotel Tunnel Tour – standing just meters from where the Holy Temple stood.

DL davening at Kotel 2014

On that Friday night, we hustled through the Jewish quarter to reserve a balcony overlooking the Kotel.

Kids Kotel 2014 Two

Here, we could pray in an egalitarian manner, as I believe is correct, while appreciating the traditional site from a short distance away. It was the best of both worlds!

But perhaps the most unforgettable religious experience occurred while we were on the Golan Heights.

We had planned a short visit where we would daven minhah (the afternoon service).

But while our guides were describing some of the fighting from the ‘67 and ‘73 wars, we started to hear explosions. Mortar rounds were being fired from a few miles away.

We were nervous.

Our guides told us not to worry. The Syrian Civil War we were hearing was so far away that we were safe. Only if we could see large plumes of white smoke, were we really close.

Just then, explosions rang in our areas, followed by huge plumes of smoke.

We got a bit scared.

We had planned to daven minhah there – and now, we also prayed for the many innocents who were being killed, caught in the crossfire of this humanitarian disaster that the world seems unable or unwilling to stop.
It was a minhah none of us will forget. We touched on the political situation and explored the borders of Israel.

Kids Leading Ashrei on Golan 2014 Minhah Syrian Civil War

Amy Z. on Camel-back
While the kids and some adults rode camels, many of the adults visited the Israeli city of Sderot on the Gaza border. We saw some of the thousands of missiles that Hamas has launched on this town, its people, its school and its children.
We passed the playground with its reinforced concrete play area/shelters. Look at this caterpillar with one foot thick concrete walls.
Caterpillar/Bomb Shelter
We stopped along the Jordan River (which is more like a creek) and watched Christians get baptized in the site where they believe Jesus got baptized. While from our perspective, he was a Jew immersing in living, natural waters, as we do to this day in a mikveh, we also appreciated the power of this place in the Christian tradition.
Baptizing in the Jordan Creek 2014
And there, twenty feet away, was a Jordanian soldier standing on his side of the creek/river. You could feel both the closeness and the vulnerability.

In the north, we met up with Israel soldiers guarding the border with Lebanon, which is now under the control of the Hezbollah, a terrorist organization controlled by Iran, bent on Israel’s destruction.

Pausing on their rounds, the soldiers pulled up in their jeeps and humvees. We thanked these young men for guarding the border, presenting gifts that we had brought, telling them how we pray for their safety here in Lexington and then we prayed with them right there. They thanked us for our support and told us how much we do for them simply by visiting them.

Ari and DL with Soldiers 2014

We were next to Kibbutz Malke’ah, which was founded by young Jews who had survived Auschwitz. Then one member of our group who had many family members killed in Auschwitz and some who had survived told the soldiers about how much she appreciated their presence. Had they only been around in 1941….

There was not a dry eye in the group.

Temple Emunah Group with Soldiers

While at the Kibbutz, we could see Israel’s guard towers and just a short distance away, Hezbollah’s guard towers. Eitan, a member of the kibbutz, told us we needed to help him plant a new kiwi tree where one had died.

Planting a Tree on the Border

At 20 meters from the border, the significance was clear. Our children planted a tree – something that has roots to symbolize both that we are here and are not leaving and that we are building for a peaceful tomorrow – emphasizing the planting, not the fighting.

Kids on Border of Lebanon 2014

We also explored things on the Palestinian side. The adults went into the West Bank near Ramallah and Beir Zeit University to the first planned Palestinian city: Rawabi.

Palestinian Flag in Rawabi

There we toured what will hopefully, become a city of 32,000 people or more with tree-lined streets, beautiful apartments, schools and businesses laid out in thoughtful manner.

Building Rawabi 2014

Mr. Masri, the Palestinian founder of this project, spoke with us of Qatar’s $1 billion investment in this project. If it succeeds, it could be a game-changer, since it will be a modern home for middle-class and upper-middle class Palestinians who will hopefully have well-paying jobs, bringing stability to their city and the entire area. If it fails…let’s not think about it.

Mister Masri

Right now, Mr. Masri is trying to get Israel to give him a water line so he does not have to keep on trucking in water.

One member of our group asked Mr. Masri about teaching tolerance because some Palestinian textbooks say: “kill the Jews.” He said that if you ask people what it means, it is not Jews, but Israelis, or Israelis who are part of the occupation.

While people may believe that, the word used in Arabic is “yahud,” meaning yehudi or Jew. Even in this somewhat moderate place, much more change is needed.

We walked the streets of Jerusalem, seeing the Arab and Jewish tensions first hand.

We sent Emunah volunteers to pack food for the hungry and another group to paint a school for at-risk children.

paint a school for at-risk children

paint a school for at-risk children2

We sent a third group of volunteers on an Ultra-Orthodox bus as “freedom riders,” protesting that they have men sit in the front and women in the back of some bus lines.


We toured the Technion in Haifa, appreciating the life saving breakthroughs they are making there and we looked at the separation wall which, in some places, keeps Palestinians from their lands, but, has also saved the lives of untold Israelis.

We could feel Israel’s vulnerability on its borders and acknowledge its morally problematic position in parts of the West Bank.

Overall, we deepened our connections to Israel in all its complexities. But, the most vital moments of the trip, were not the places, but the people. We strengthened our bonds as a community, we met new people and renewed and deepened our relationships with those we already knew.

Whether we were dancing, eating, singing, playing games, schmoozing, learning, listening, hiking or rappelling, we did it as a group, as an extended family, a mishpahah.

Eating at McDonald's 2014

Rapelling Nahat Tzin 2014 Matan

DL no hands Nahat Tzin 2014

For the last five weeks, we have been reading Torah portions about sacred space, mostly related to the building of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites utilized in the wilderness.

It was quite elaborate. As Millie said in her d’var Torah, it was “an ancient arts-and-crafts festival.”

But what was the point of all this stuff? Why did the people need this intricately built sacred space? What was it for?

At the end of the parashah, which is also the end of the book of Exodus, the book of Shemot, the Torah informs us: ki anan Adonai al ha-mishkan yomam v’eish teheyeh layla bo l’einei khol-beit-Yisrael b’khol mas’eihem – For over the Mishkan, this portable sanctuary, a cloud of God rested by day, and fire would appear [in the cloud] by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.” (Ex 40:38)

Fire on Mishkan

The importance of this space transcends the actual building, it allows the Israelites to experience God’s presence – the kavod.

And then the Israelites become a sacred community – a kehillah kedoshah with the Mishkan at the center.

That is what happened to us on this trip – the places we visited and the experiences we had helped to transform ourselves into a closer community, one that could struggle with difficult religious, political, and moral questions.

A community that could challenge both positions.

A community that could appreciate the miracle of Israel and the rebirth of the Jewish people in our own land after 2000 years of exile and the Holocaust and a community that could question some of Israel’s practices.

A community that hopes that both Israelis and Palestinians will take bold steps for peace.

We, as the larger Emunah community, know that Israel lives in that nuanced place. While it can be hard to experience all that, I, for one, wouldn’t want it any other way.

And it’s definitely worth getting woken up at 5:40 AM to make it all happen.

About the Author
Spiritual leader of Temple Emunah, Lexington, Mass. since 2004, David Lerner also serves as the immediate past president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston and After his ordination at Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner served at NSS Beth El in Highland Park, IL.