Joshua L. Schonfeld

Some notes from Israel — summer 2019

As we just returned from our visit to Israel, I thought I would share some thoughts jotted down while we were on our journey…

I cannot help but notice that I am always surprised and amazed by certain aspects of this place. It is simply  wonderful to be here. That said, just like every other country, I am aware that Israel must contend with a number of challenges. Those issues are not the subject of this post.

As noted previously, I have been visiting Israel since 1968. On each trip, I keep learning more about our people’s history and about myself.

One the most profound mornings of this trip involved a trip to The Temple Mount Sifting Project. Suzanne, our youngest son Aaron and I spent time searching through some of the soil from the Temple Mount excavated by the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement almost 20 years ago—without any respect for archeology or history.  The project’s goal is to find artifacts and reconstruct the history of this holy site (where The First and Second Temples once stood). This has been done by archeologists and volunteers who have been sifting through the many tons of soil unceremoniously dumped over a hillside in the Kidron Valley, near The Old City of Jerusalem. For more information on what happened, visit their website.

Luckily, during our visit, we had the place to ourselves, as the three of us were the only ones who signed up for the first session of the day. After a short film and some additional questions and answers with the resident archeologist (Yuval), we then spent time sifting though buckets of soil to find artifacts from this holy and special place. After finishing each bucket and sorting what we found, we reviewed our findings with Yuval, who explained what we had revealed (and made sure we did not miss anything). It was an amazing experience!

Although everything significant will be taken to a lab and analyzed further, we did get an educated preview while on-site from Yuval. We had good luck that morning because we found pottery, including detailed fragments of oil lanterns from the time of the Second Temple and Byzantine periods, tiles from ancient mosaics and a Roman nail. On top of that, there were two other exceptional finds: a coin—likely from the time of the Crusaders, and an ancient nail head (or hobnail) from the sandal of a Roman soldier. The nail-head was especially significant because, as Yuval explained, it could have been from the sole of a sandal that belonged to one of the Roman soldiers who conquered Jerusalem in 70 CE.  Simply incredible. We were deeply and profoundly moved. That morning, we literally grasped our people’s history. We touched ancient soil and artifacts—and in doing so reached back across the centuries and the generations to connect back to the time of the Beit HaMigdash (the Temple).

Another one of the places where we see the long connection to the land is in Caesarea, an ancient port north of Tel Aviv and south of Haifa. Somewhere in my parents’ house are pictures of me visiting in this site (and Jerusalem) in 1968. Around our house are pictures of all of our more recent family visits. As with Jerusalem, I have been visiting Caesarea for more than 50 years.

It is amazing that archeologists keep revealing new finds about this ancient and beautiful site on the shores of the Mediterranean. The layers that are revealed on land and beneath the sea continuously provide new information about this ancient place. The spectacular new visitor center presents the layers of history associated with this place—including the remains of an ancient synagogue. The stunningly blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea and the ancient port are a wonderful and powerful combination.

One point Yuval made is similar to one my father made repeatedly. The Romans who conquered and destroyed Jerusalem are long gone, as are many of the empires that followed. And, as my father liked to point out—the Nazis who tried to destroy us (including our family) are also dead and gone.  However, we, the Jewish people, survive—and thrive.

In that spirit, it is not just the ancient sites that we visit, we also visit relatives and friends (relationships that, in some cases, now extend to the fourth generation). We also always enjoy the terrific food scenes in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.  Along the way I truly enjoy the chance to refresh my Hebrew skills.

In a particularly spiritual moment, we attended lovely Shabbat services at the Kotel (Western Wall) as the sun set over Jerusalem. It is still one of the most moving experiences—seeing the Western Wall Plaza filled with Jews from all over the world, singing and dancing, welcoming the Sabbath together, in a place where we have done so for thousands of years.  Afterwards, experiencing a Shabbat meal overlooking the walls of The Old City was truly magical.

Over the years, I have noticed that something similar always occurs during each visit to Israel—it is though my soul has been nourished. I feel at peace and a sense of connectedness when in Israel that is unlike any place else. Hearing Hebrew spoken in the streets and the chance to speak it (even if it is somewhat broken) makes me happy. And, as the years go by, the draw to this place grows. Just as the archeologists brush away the dust of the centuries, these visits reveal new layers of my spirit.

There is one more point to be made about our trip this year: some family health issues have intervened. With G-d’s (and the Doctors’) help things will work out.  That circumstance, however, made everything I just described even more intense and focused—especially those moments spent in prayer.

None of us knows what life has in store for us but I do know more than ever that our fates are tied to this place, and to our brothers and sisters who live in our homeland. The Mida (value) of Ahavat Yisrael (love of Israel) instilled in me by my grandparents, parents and teachers inspires us to return here again and again.  We are proud to stand with our people and hope that our children and succeeding generations will continue on this pathway.

We will keep returning, exploring and living.  We still have much to do.

About the Author
Josh Schonfeld lives with his family in Potomac, Maryland. He is originally from St. Louis, Missouri. He has served as a board member for a number of Jewish communal organizations and is an active member of the community.
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