Fundamentals in Hebron

Ownership and control of holy places is very much in the news these days in Israel.  Whether from committees sitting thousands of miles away or from local populations, hegemony over Israel’s holy sites is on the table.  Why people seek to “own” these sites is an interesting phenomenon and, I believe, fulfills a fundamental human need.

The human condition is  bleak – we are born, live and accomplish little, and die – quite depressing actually.  From the beginning, people have looked for a more optimistic picture.  The belief in something grander than oneself, whether that belief manifests itself as a religious faith or a belief in a cause, helps us overcome our own objective worthlessness.  Touching something physical which represents that ideal is a way to make tangible our connection to those beliefs.  Whether it was pilgrims chipping away at the Tomb of the Holy Sepulcher in the past or today’s marcher saving the flag from the most recent Gay Pride Parade,  physical reminders of our causes tie us to them more strongly.

Earlier this month UNESCO declared that the center of Hebron, the Cave of the Patriarchs  is an endangered Palestinian World Heritage site.  The Cave of the Patriarchs is the final resting place of the founders of monotheism:  Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah.  This declaration is one more step in distancing Jews from their holy sites, by declaring that Jewish hegemony  is “dangerous” to the site.

According to the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Hebron’s Old City and holy site  is (sic) under threat due to the irresponsible, illegal, and highly damaging actions of Israel, the occupying Power, which maintains a regime of separation and discrimination in the city based on ethnic background and religion.”

The battle over controlling holy sites is nothing new in Hebron.  The structure over the cave was built by Herod as a fortress with a mostly empty center.  In this courtyard, the Byzantines constructed a church.  Unique for the Byzantines, who persecuted the Jews and banned them from Jerusalem altogether, here, in Hebron, they actually allowed Jews access to a part.

hebron

On the eve of the Moslem conquest in 638 C.E., the Byzantines destroyed the church and tried to fill in and hide the entrance to the cave to prevent the Moslems from discovering the tombs.  Perhaps to bargain for some ownership, the Jews divulged the location of the cave to Omar ibn Hattib, the Moslem leader.  In appreciation, he allowed the Jews to build a synagogue in the courtyard, next to the newly-constructed mosque.

This Jewish-Moslem partnership lasted until 1100 C.E. when both the mosque and the synagogue were destroyed by Godfrey of Bouillon.  The Crusaders built a church and a monastery, and banned Jews and Moslems from Hebron completely.

History is fickle and in 1266 C.E. Baybars, the Mameluke, turned his sights on this Crusader outpost, capturing it and denying entrance to all non-Moslems.  Jews who wanted to touch the place where their forefathers were buried were delegated to ascending towards the building no farther than the seventh step.  Few Jews entered the building in the next 700 years.

After the Six Day War in 1967, the State of Israel claimed ownership and opened the building to all.  In February, 1994, a Jewish terrorist open fired into a group of Moslems praying at the site.  He was killed on the spot, and his actions denounced by the State of Israel.  Jewish religious leadership condemned this terror attack.  The State of Israel, in order to provide safety and security,  negotiated a division of the building, whereby everyone has (almost constant) access to parts of the building, but in separate areas.

In the light of history, one has to wonder what the UN’s agenda is in the matter of Hebron.  Claiming that it is Israel who “maintains a regime of separation and discrimination in the city based on ethnic background and religion” is ignoring history and distorting facts.  I think the UN should be protecting the rights of all who call Abraham their father to visit this site.   After all, touching holy places is fundamental for us all.

Dead Sea Dead

As I was researching an oft asked question about placing stones on Jewish graves, I stumbled on a connection to one of my favorite sites, Qumran.  Qumran, near the Dead Sea, attracts many visitors.  Discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the life of the Essenes, and a nice pit stop-on the way to  floating in the Dead Sea all combine to make it worthwhile.  During their visit to Qumran, most pass by the cemetery without stopping, but it gives us clues to one explanation of the contemporary custom.

If you follow my blog, you already know that I like cemeteries.  In Qumran, we find an unusual Second Temple era cemetery, unusual because it is the cemetery of simple, regular folk.  The dearly departed of Qumran were not buried in lavish caves, and no elaborate monuments were erected.  The cemetery here consists of ditches dug in the ground and filled in with stones.  These are not the tombs of the rich and famous that we are used to seeing in Jerusalem.  In other places, nature and neglect erased tombs of simple folk but in  remote, dry Qumran, these tombs remained  preserved.

The casual observer will be hard-pressed to see any sign of Qumran’s cemetery – at least at first.  As we turn off the paved path, I ask people to please try to refrain from stepping on any stones.  We walk east through what could be any Judean desert landscape – that is to say, rocks EVERYWHERE.  And then we stop, and look hard.

“See that group of stones?  That’s a Jewish grave.  And here’s another parallel to the first.  And another.  And another.”

qumran-cemetery-burialsWithin a minute, one realizes that he is in a cemetery with hundreds of graves. One-thousand one-hundred graves have been identified, each marked by a mound of stones.  These are 2000 year old grave-stones, literally.  Before there were headstones, these piles of stones marked the location of the grave and kept wild animals out.  Through the normal course of time and nature, some stones would disperse.

A 15th century Jewish almanac of traditions quotes a 11th century source which states that Jewish tradition includes placing stones on Jewish graves.  The tradition goes back even earlier when a visitor to a grave had a responsibility to maintain it.  That included replacing the piles of grave-stones marking the final resting place of their dearly departed.

The next time you are in Qumran visit the cemetery, and maybe even participate in maintaining an ancient Jewish tomb by (re)placing a stone or two.

Related sites (Second Temple Burial):

  • Dominus Flevit Church
  • Absalom’s Pillar
  • Sidonian Caves in Beit Guvrin National Park

 

Eight Days a Week

Arial view of Kathisma Church

Arial view of Kathisma Church

I recently visited the Kathisma Church in southern Jerusalem.  The Katisma church was a Byzantine shrine from the 5th century.  The building was octagonal with its focus being a rock in the center, allegedly the spot where Mary stopped to rest on her flight to Egypt. The structure existed for several hundred years, even going through a phase as a mosque, maintaining its internal octagonal space, even as rooms were added to the exterior.   It got me thinking about a topic which seems to come up every once in a while in my head – octagonal buildings.  Why did the octagon emerge as a somewhat common shape for buildings?

Most buildings (or parts of buildings)  which have survived from the Byzantine era reflect the architectural sensitivities of the West.  The many synagogues and churches from this era are mostly basilical in shape.  A basilica is a rectangular building with an entry from the short side.  The internal space is divided into 3 parallel sections – a central nave flanked by side aisles.  The basilica was a development based on the Roman ideas of proportion and beauty, and as such, Western. In contrast, octagonal buildings reflect the Eastern sensibilities.
The most prominent octagonal building in Israel is the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount.  Built in the 7th century, it survives today in its original shape (the mosaics have undergone renovation).   Another notable octagonal building from the Byzantine period is the Domus Eclasia in Kfar Nahum.

And so one question which begs to be asked is whether eight is symbolic of some sort of religious/cultural ideal.   Besides the architectural considerations, are there philosophical explanations of 8-sided buildings?  Why is 8 important?

At the risk of sounding inane, the number 8 comes after the number 7. Seven represents the natural world.  With no religious underpinnings, humans organize their lives around 7.  It is said that 7 is the largest number you can gestalt, and so the largest intuitive number.  Eight is already not easily graspable – you have to count eight objects.

Not so Seven.  Seven is natural and Seven repeats, naturally.  We have the 6 days of work and the one day (the seventh) as the day of rest.  Then you repeat.  Seven and start over.   Or 7 musical notes in a scale.  (The 8th note in an OCTAVE is actually the first note in the next group.)  Seven and start over.

Eight represents that which goes beyond 7, which is above nature – supernatural.  Like the song by the Beatles, loving someone “eight days a week” shows that you are not in the realm of normal.  The first “8” in the Bible has to do with Abraham, the father of monotheism.  He is commanded to circumcise his son, Isaac, on the 8th day.  A human body is formed through natural means (7) and on day 8, the human body goes above and beyond nature.  Other 8’s include the holiday of Shmini Atzeret, the “8” holiday, which follows the Festival of Tabernacles – Sukkot.  There is the celebration of the harvest (natural) and then the holiday which pushes beyond the natural – Shmini Atzeret.  Shavuot, Pentecost, comes after 7 cycles of 7 days.  It is day 50, super x supernatural and the day on which the most supernatural event of the Jewish tradition occurs – the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

Also, the Temple is dedicated over 8 days, signifying the Temple’s role in helping people to go beyond the physical, natural world and reach something beyond themselves.  And during the second Temple period, the holiday of Chanukkah celebrating the rededication of the Temple will last 8 days.
On a larger timescale, There are 6 years of planting and working fields, and one (the seventh) where the field lays fallow.  The Jubilee year is the year which goes beyond the natural cycle and occurs in the 50th year (7 x 7 + 1).
In Christianity, Jesus reveals himself 8 times after he is resurrected.  His name in Greek (where letters=numbers as in Hebrew gematria), totals 888.

Constantine understands this symbolism and so, when he dedicates major churches will celebrate for 8 days, and the shape of at least parts of the new churches will be eight-sided.  Very often the octagonal sections will be the baptistries, those structures dedicated to baptism – the act symbolizing going beyond the physical and natural.  This is the case throughout the centuries.  The baptistery in Florence is an octagon and the baptismal font in Pisa is octagonal – both of these buildings were built in the Middle Ages well after the Byzantines.  On a more eccleasitical level, the custom of local celebrations lasting 8 days will become prevalent in the church and are called “octaves”.
You may find all this a bit sketchy.  After all, maybe they just liked octagons, or maybe an octagon was practically as close as they could get to a circle, or some other strictly practical reason.  But I don’t believe that strict logic gives us the most complete story.  How  a society builds says as much about its character as what clothes you wear speaks volumes about a person’s personality.  I have a house with blue stripes.  That says something about me (I am not afraid to be different) and about the community in which I live (they allow houses with blue stripes).  These elements are not random or practical, but thought out and reflect important values.  Similarly, the octagonal structures were built with purpose and message.  They are meant to inspire you to push beyond the natural boundaries and to connect with the extraordinary in your life.

Birthright to the Max

maxThere have been posts on facebook about an article written recently laying at least some of the “blame” for Max Steinberg’s death on the institution of Birthright. The headline’s subtext states, “A Birthright trip convinced an American with shaky Hebrew that he was ready to die for another country.”

Even before I read the article, I knew that it would upset me.

Condensing the decisions and actions of a person on one factor is infantile.  But beyond that, the one statement quoted above has so many problems that I barely know where to start.

1.  “A Birthright trip convinced an American”:  Birthright is not there to convince anyone of anything.  It is meant to expose people to viewpoints and experiences to which they would not otherwise have been exposed.  I have had some trips where the participants say that the main Jewish value in their lives is Bagels and Lox!  I am not so happy about that, but it is allowed to happen, and sometimes it does.

2.  “with shaky Hebrew”:  The fact that Max had shaky Hebrew says nothing about the depth of his commitment to this country.  Israel was built by people who had shaky Hebrew.  Hebrew only returned to usage on a daily basis a little over 100 years ago.  Herzl didn’t speak Hebrew.  Golda Meir spoke Hebrew with a Midwestern accent.  The state of Israel is built on immigrants who have shaky Hebrew.  Intel’s chips and cherry tomatoes, as well as much of the cell phone technology, were developed by people who did not speak perfect Hebrew and yet had to get along here and communicate.  Think about how many US citizens are being shut out of contributing creatively because of their shaky English.

3.  “that he was ready to die”:  Maybe Max was ready to die.  This is actually part of the statement that I agree with.  But before you go getting all crazed with thinking that I am a war-monger, suicide-mission aficionado, let’s look at the flip side.

People who are ready to die, are engaged and willfully living.  They are two sides of the same coin.  Simple self-preservation with nothing behind it is selfish.  It says, “I am the most important idea in the world.  I deserve to be alive because I am me.”

Is that why we are alive?

In Judaism, there is the idea of tikkun olam – fixing the world.  “For six days you should do all your work.”  What work?  Tikkun olam.  Each of us will see this differently.  Whether your life’s work is in charity, or making a better world for our children, or advancing business in order to improve the world, or whatever.  Once you know what you are living for, you know in what situations you are willing to die.

So, Max was ready to die, according to this article.  If so, he reached a level that many of us don’t reach until we are much older or at all.  Self-awareness of what we are doing on this planet and why we are alive is an aspiration.

4.  “for another country”:  Israel is not just another country.  Max got the message that Israel is home.  That is a Birthright message.  And home isn’t always warm, fuzzy, chocolate cookies all the time.  Sometimes home is the “my boyfriend dumped me and I need someplace to be” refuge.  Home is when mom hugs you and then yells at you for not washing your dishes.  Home is where you need to take out the trash and work at making it liveable.  And yet, home is just simply home – that place where you can just be.  That is what Israel is for world Jewry.

And when Jews are being killed in Europe, Chana Senesh is coming to parachute in to help you.  She won’t give up secrets.  She left Israel-home to help her fellow Jews in Europe.  And when Jews are hijacked and sitting in an airport in Uganda, the Israeli army is coming to get them out.  Yes, your mom would do that for you.

So what did Birthright do for Max Steinberg?  What did Max get from his 10-day all-expense paid trip to Israel?  Maybe some ideas, maybe a free ticket, maybe a feeling, maybe some friends or mentors.  Max Steinberg became Max Steinberg.  And I think that instead of searching for somewhere to place the blame for his death, we should celebrate everything that made up his life.

May his memory be a blessing.

I am a Tour Educator who has been guiding Birthright groups for the last 3 years.  Max could have been on my trip (but he wasn’t).  To date, of the 450 participants on my trips, only 1 has stayed to join the army, but 450 have returned to their lives with a taste of what Israel and being Jewish means to them.

Three Boys

three boys

In my family, we hitchhike. In my family, we pick up hitchhikers. We ask for and receive help from random people we meet. We belong to a community and accept others into our community.

We live as Jews with smiles on our faces and hope in our hearts.

As I look at the myriad of pictures of the three boys, Gil-ad, Ayal, and Naftali, I see the faces of my children and my friends. Happy, proud Jews living in our land.

Apart from the terrible loss of these three boys, our boys, I worry about the future. We need strength to continue to raise our children with hope and trust. I don’t want my children to live in a world where you don’t help others because of the “what if’s”; I don’t want my children to grow up thinking that strangers are dangerous.

No, and No.

To take away our sense of family, of unity, of security in our own land is to give victory to the terrorists. The minute we become strangers to each other and to the land, is the moment when we have given up on the promise and the hope.
May G-d give us all strength to continue on the path.
Am Israel Hai!

Patience and Promise

So, I should be working on the millions of things I have to do before my upcoming Birthright and guiding trips, but I heard a story tonite that needs to be told.  It so urgently needs to be told, that I am putting all else on hold.  It is a story about patience – but, wait, I am getting ahead of myself.

Tonite and tomorrow, Israel celebrates Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Our community, like many around Israel, holds a ceremony in the evening to mark this day.  The ceremony is organized and run by the 12th grade class and features a skit with readings, music, an introduction by the local Rabbi, and the lighting of torches.  The 12th graders have all had the opportunity to go on their high school trip to Poland and spent time learning about the Holocaust and generally do a pretty decent job at choosing appropriate readings and music.  The local Rabbi speaks, usually about the importance of living and building the state of Israel after the Holocaust, and what a fabulous community we live in that takes in so many immigrants to strengthen the Jewish state.  The other parts of the ceremony usually run without surprise or incident.

More of a wildcard is the lighting of the 6 torches which represent the 6 million Jews who were killed.  Traditionally, torches would be lit by the survivors to remember their family members who were lost, individuals representing masses.  It has been almost 70 years since the Holocaust.

70 years is a long time.

Think how hard it is to find people who themselves survived the holocaust.  So, generally, we get one or two survivors and then we fill in with people whose parents, relatives, aunts, uncles, etc. survived.  The survivors who light a torch, are often frail, or not native Hebrew speakers, and are helped by their children and grandchildren who read a memorial passage written by someone in the family.  It is nice, but sometimes lacks passion.

This year, there was a family led by an elderly woman who went to light their candle.  The grandchild, Elisheva,  started reading about the family, telling their story.  Her grandmother, Mindy, came from a small town.  When the Germans came into the town, they carted off the Jewish population to a concentration camp in Poland.  There, Mindy’s entire family was killed;  her parents, her siblings, her grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins.  She alone survived.  All in total, 31 of her relatives were killed.

After the war, Mindy came to Israel.  Mindy only had one child, Chana, Elisheva’s mother and Chana had raised children and grandchildren.  Mindy’s granddaughter continued that they were lighting this torch to remember their entire family who was killed.  Elisheva handed the torch to her grandmother and Mindy started speaking.

“I am lighting this torch to remember my family who died in the Holocaust at the hands of the Germans:  Shlomi, Moishe, Freidel, Sarahleh, Dovid….”  She paused slightly before each of their names and did not use their proper names but rather their nicknames.  You could hear in her voice, that as she recited the names, she revisited their faces.  Name after name.  31 people.  Her entire family.
 rosh hashana - 2014
Then, her voice cracking, Mindy continued.  “Two days ago, another great-grandchild was born for me.  Two days ago, my 31st descendent came into the world.  31 descendents for 31 of my family members who were killed.  This is my revenge.  This is my answer to the Nazis who wanted to eliminate the Jewish people.  The revenge of life and not of death.”

70 years is a long time.

MIndy had to wait almost 70 years for those 31 relatives to come back into her life.

70 years of hope.
70 years of yearning.
70 years of patience.
70 years of belief in the Jewish promise.

“Know that your children will be strangers in a land not their own.  They will be oppressed, but I will execute judgement on the nation which oppresses them, and in the end, they will go free with great wealth….They will return to their land.”

Patience and promise.  And if anyone asks about the survival of the Jewish people throughout the ages, throughout the hardships, I would have to say that the belief in the promise and the willingness to wait for it, are a big part of the answer.  Come to Israel for a visit and let me help you discover your part in the promise.

A Broken Pot

Today, Israel and the Jewish people lost a great leader, Rav Ovadia Yosef.

Rav Ovadia was a child prodigy, publishing his first commentary on the Bible at age 9.  He could have stayed in the study halls and closed himself in the Orthodox Jewish world, but he set out to make the world a better place.

He was a pioneer in championing the rights of marginalized populations.  He started at home, with the Sefardi Jewish population (Jews from Arab lands), setting up yeshivot (Jewish religious academies) for them, and going on to establish Shas, a political party to give them a voice in Israeli governance.

But Rav Ovadia was not content to simply push for rights for his natural constituency.  He went on to provide Jewish answers to issues faced by other populations.  He found Jewish answers for widows who lost their husbands in the Yom Kippur War; to Jewish populations in Russia and Ethiopia to reclaim their roots; to Israeli farmers who wanted to follow Jewish law without losing their livelihood.

He spoke his mind, even when it went against his own Sefardi constituency, the religious or political right, or the Israeli government.  He weighed issues from afresh, and seemingly changed his stance when conditions changed.

Today, as I watched his faithful pray for his recovery, I was reminded of a story of another great Rabbi, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi.  Rabbi Yehuda lived in Beit Shearim for most of his life.  However, when his health started to fade, he moved to Tzippori, the “Big City”, where there were better doctors.  He lived there for quite some time, heading the Rabbinical court and leading the Jewish population which lived in that mixed city.  He, too, like Rav Ovadia, had to deal with the issues of modernity and finding a Jewish way through modern issues.

His illness finally caught up with him in Tzippori where, by that time, he had a large following of students.  As Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi lay in his home in Tzippori suffering from his illness, his students stood outside of his house praying for his recovery.  (I imagine it must have looked like some of the pictures today taken outside of the room of Rav Ovadia.)  Inside the house, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s maid was attending to him.  She saw how he suffered and how his soul longed to be free of his body.  She understood, however, that G-d would not take Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi away from his praying students.  The maid ascended to the roof above the second story with a ceramic pot.  She took the pot and threw it to the ground.  You can imagine the loud sound the pot made as it shattered.  The students, not knowing what was going on, gasped at hearing the noise from the pot.  In that moment, no one was praying, and Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi took his last breath.  His soul was freed from the suffering of his body.

Today, Rav Ovadia’s soul has been freed from his physical existance.  The Jewish people has lost a great leader.

Next time you are in Israel, visit Tzippori and pay tribute to great Jewish leaders from the past, the challenges they faced and the legacies they left behind.

May the remembrance of righteous people be a blessing for us all.

Storytime

The holiday of Passover approaches.  You can feel it in the hot bursts of spring air – sharav as it is called in modern parlance in Israel.  You can feel it in the stores  – extending their hours to accommodate harried shoppers.  You can feel it in your home – as you search for something between spring cleaning and removing all traces of anything leavened.  You can even feel it in your nose and your stomach – as those traditional smells and tastes fill your senses.

But as we are busy feeling the holiday in all these other ways, all these sensual ways, sometimes we forget to feel Passover with our emotions.  This year in getting ready for the holiday, I am trying to focus a bit on what it is about Passover, and specifically the Seder (festive meal) on the first night, that WORKS.  The Jewish people have been more or less celebrating this ceremony for at least the last 3300 years or so, and even in today’s mostly secular Israeli society, Passover Seder is still celebrated
by the vast majority of the country’s Jews.

So what is it that WORKS?

The Passover meal has many components:  wine, matzah, symbolic   foods, family, and story through the recitation of the Hagada.  This story that we tell at the meal is not a simple “Once upon a time” but a complex of many different elements.  But I believe that the many different ways of telling the story – through talmudic discourse,  parable, songs, and all the different forms which exist in the Hagada, all have some common threads.  They are meant to inspire us, to give us hope, and even to nudge us in the right direction.

Inspiration might seem passe in today’s world.  We are all so sophisticated – we know that behind every success lies a lot of hard work and even a lot of sadness.  We have been jaded by the people we admire having really sad lives – movie stars who get involved in drugs, politicians who get caught breaking the law, religious leaders whose personal lives are devoid of religion, athletes who abuse their own bodies.

Even our own children and their peers are not exempt.  Youth was once the symbol of endless possibility, but now is more likely to be associated with trouble, gangs and unplanned pregnancy.  Young adults today report that although sexual taboos have been erased, they are severely short in the falling-in-love category.  It really hit home when I was walking with a man aged 23 who told me, “I will never be really, really happy.”  Shocking that at age 23, he had already given up.

The Hagada comes to change all that.  Once the Jewish people were at the bottom.  The very bottom.  The 49th level of despair (out of 50).  The Hagada comes to share the success story.

And to inspire us.

Not just to inspire us to climb out of whatever pit we are in, but also to  inspire us to gather positive energy from our own  stories. Every person has an inspiring story.  Our stories make up who we are, where we have been, and our outlook on where we are going.  We don’t often take the time to articulate those stories, elaborate on those stories and even tweek them a bit to make them better stories (we will probably claim that actually, that is the way it happened….).  Sometimes, sadly, we even forget that we have those stories.

This year at the Passover Seder, ask the person next to you to share their own personal “Hagada”.  If they are shy, wait until they have had a glass of wine or so.  Life is good and there are amazing stories of blessing and persistence, survival and overcoming hurdles.  And they are jumping in the waves with you, walking around the store with you, cleaning your house with you, sitting next to you at your Passover seder – just listen and share.  Life is good.

checking rice pesach 2012Chag Sameach!  Happy Passover!

Mission Statement

I am currently enrolled in a course for sharpening skills as a Birthright Tour Educator.  Today we were assigned homework to write a “Mission Statement” of sorts to answer the question:  What are you trying to accomplish during your work?

When I started to think about this question, I thought specifically about Birthright groups.  What is it that I am looking to do during the 10 days I have with them?  How do I see myself as a person who has influence on them as a group and individually?  How do I want them to change (if at all) during the trip?  I started here because it is very controlled.  I know more or less who they are; I understand more or less what the Birthright organization is trying to accomplish.  So, in almost no time at all, I came up with my “Mission Statement” as far as Birthright is concerned.

I, as a Moreh Derech (Tour Guide/Educator, for lack of a better translation), during the 10 days they are with me, am looking to create for them a Jewish community and strengthen their connection to their Jewish soul.

The first phase of my formula is creating a Jewish community.  Heavy stuff.  But this is exactly what we do on the bus – create a community.

One of the first questions I get asked by participants is, “Why did you
move to Israel?”

My answer is simply and without hesitation, “Quality of Life.”  I explain that the quality of life provided by the community is one of the driving factors which brought me here and kept me here for the last 18 years.

Then for 10 days, we travel together, eat together, have fun together, talk together, work together.  Very quickly, a community is built.  When the Israeli soldiers/students arrive, we deal with the issues of accepting newcomers to our community.  As a Moreh Derech, my role here is in running ice breakers and team building activities, as well as keeping a finger on the pulse to make sure that everyone finds their place in the community.  I want them to experience community because, in my opinion, this is one of the most important goals of strengthening their Jewish connection – seeing themselves as part of a larger community.  It doesn’t particularly matter to me whether the community they will be most comfortable will be one of a religious Jewish community, a cultural Jewish community, an educational Jewish community, an Israeli Jewish community or a social Jewish community.  The importance is the connection with fellow Jews as part of a larger whole.

People are not simply cogs in a machine, however, we have individuality.  Because each one of us sees our Jewish soul a bit differently, each one of us connects more to one facet or another, as we have discussed extensively over the past few days in the course.  Each person’s individual identity is unique, and so,  my work within the group needs to be varied.  How to get this result, this strengthening of each participants’ soul?  Through wide-ranging programs, including activities to get them to think, guiding segments which connect them to place, introductions to people who can inspire them, all on the backdrop of the beauty of the land.

The other part of this work is not shying away from the things that are less than optimal.   When I read parts of the Tanach, I see depictions of personalities who are less than perfect.   For me, I see the holy people in the Tanach as people first, with all the imperfections of people;  and because I am also imperfect, I can connect to them.  This doesn’t mean that they are not holy.  We have much to learn from imperfect people.  I believe that this philosophy lends itself to personal growth at least as strongly as the wonderful, optimal bits.

Each and every participant will, hopefully, at the end of the 10 days find something in the experience which connects to his individual Jewish soul.  As a Birthright participant, this is the instruction that we give them over and over, wear your name tag – be comfortable with your unique Jewish soul, however it manifests.

Taken to the wider audience, these specific goals can be quite easily broadened.  As a Moreh Derech I want to accomplish two things.  Firstly, I aim to provide opportunities for personal growth, through acquisition of knowledge, opening up to varied possibilities or helping people learn about themselves.  Secondly, I strive to facilitate connections between people.  And of course, G-d has given us the best guiding aid in the world for obtaining these goals – the Land of Israel and all that is offered therein!

My dream, then is to take these goals and to apply them to everything I do, not only in my work as a Moreh Derech, but in life in general.  I don’t just apply these ideas because they help me focus my work; I apply them because they are the essence of my being.

Some Things Never Change

Some things never change.

(OK, I know that never is a long time, but in historic time, topography/geology doesn’t change.)  Routes that develop naturally (through usage and not through planning) form where the topography makes such routes easy.  People and animals tend to be lazy.  If they need to get from point A to point B, then they will pick the way on which they expend the least energy to make the journey.
The same is true with fording bodies of water, such as rivers and streams.  Generally, places where the topography made fording easier in the past are the same places where bridges are built today to cross those bodies of water.One such example has to do with the Jordan.  By looking at the Jordan today and the available crossing points today, you can relate these places to Jordan crossings from the Bible.Why does the Jordan have only a few places available for crossing?
The places where the water is fordable are the places where the nehalim (streams) coming from the west empty into the banks of the Jordan (or in the vicinity). The nehalim carry with them silt from the mountains and create a sort of “sand bank” where the Jordan is narrower and easier to cross. In these silty spots, one could send a boat with a pulley system, or in Roman times, even build a bridge.

What are these crossing places?   Starting in the North, the beginnings of the Jordan are in the swampy Hula Valley.  There is no crossing a swamp, so the first available place to cross was where the geology changes – at the juncture of the Hula Valley and the Heights of Corazin, at the Bnot Yaacov bridge.

South of the Kinneret there are several crossings of the Jordan.
Tzemach – immediately to the south of the Kinneret
Gesher – at the confluence of the Yarmuk (from the east)  and the Jordan
The Jordan River Crossing – opposite Beit Shean – at the mouth of Nahal Harod
Adam Bridge – at the mouth of Nahal Tirtza (this one leads directly to Shchem/Nablus and is mostly likely the route the Patriarchs took when entering the Land)

Qesr al-Yahud – at the mouth of Nahal Prat.

Qesr al Yehud (Castle of the Jews) is being developed by the Tourism Ministry as a site for tourists.  The site was off-limits for civilians for over 30 years – a closed military area  – as it lies on the Israel – Hashemite kingdom of Jordan border.  Before that time, however, many monasteries and  capellas sat near this area of the Jordan and many pilgrims visited.

What makes a point on a route into a destination?  Routes, and especially confluences of routes or crossing points, are points of human meetings and activities.

Qasr al Yehud is thought to be the spot where the Children of Israel crossed the Jordan on their  way in to Israel (Joshua 3:7-17). It is where Elijah and Elisha forded the Jordan on Elijah’s journey to the divine chariot (II Kings 2:1-12).  According to Christian tradition, it is also the place where John baptized Jesus (Matthew 3:1-17).  

It brings up an interesting debate. I hear frequently from people I guide, “How can we really know that this is the exact spot where such-and-such an event took place?”  And I understand from where the question is coming.  Biblical events happened a long time ago (at least in the historic framework), and there are no signs left stating: “The Children of Israel crossed here” or similar things. But what I can tell  people is that the topography and geology during the Biblical era was extremely similar to what it is today. It is reasonable, therefore, to place Biblical events in places where the physical lay of the land indicates that such an event would have been likely.

Walking and touring the Land of Israel today, with eyes open to the physical surroundings, helps one have a unique perspective on Biblical events.  Come to Qesr al Yehud and see for yourself!