Rabbi Israel Becker and his wife, Esther, who have led Congregation Chofetz Chayim since 1979, have visited Israel dozens of times and lived there for extended periods in the ’60s and ’70s. But until last month, the Beckers had never led a group of their fellow Tucsonans on a trip to the Holy Land.
Thirteen Tucsonans and two out-of-towners joined the Beckers for the Southwest Torah Institute’s Eretz Avoteinu (Land of our Forefathers) trip May 1-15. Caerie and Michelle Houchins from St. Louis were matched with the Beckers through the Israeli tour company, Keshet, that helped them plan the trip, says the rabbi, and joined all the pre-trip classes via Skype video calls.
“Our dream on this trip was to show people Israel through our eyes, to take them to places that moved us,” says Esther.
They succeeded so well that on their final night in Israel, Bernadette Donfeld told the group, “I feel like I won the Golden Ticket,” says Esther, her voice trembling, with tears in her eyes.
“It was more than a trip; it was an emotional roller coaster” with each day surpassing the one before, Donfeld told the AJP, adding that the participants all talked about how hard it would be to convey to friends and family “how wonderful this trip was.”
One of the main themes of the trip, says Becker, was “connecting to the reality of Torah transmission,” the passing down of written and oral Jewish law and tradition through the ages, particularly in the centuries since the destruction of the Second Temple.
Thus the places the group visited were not mere tourist attractions. “Every spot connects to our history, our souls as Jews,” he says.
One example is the grave of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai in Tiberius, where Becker related the tale of ben Zakkai’s courage and cunning during the Roman siege of Jerusalem, when schisms existed between rabbis in favor of dialogue with the Romans and more militant Jews who wanted to fight the Romans.
Due to the uncertainty of victory over the mighty Romans, which could be achieved only with G-d’s help, dialogue was the better choice at the time, explains the rabbi.
Faking his own death, ben Zakkai was smuggled out of the city in a coffin so he could negotiate with Vespasian, whom he correctly predicted would soon be the Roman emperor. Vespasian was bent on destroying Jerusalem, but he did grant ben Zakkai’s request to spare the city of Yavneh and its sages, preserving the Sanhedrin (rabbinic court), which led to the recording of the oral law in writing in the Mishnah and the Talmud.
Ben Zakkai’s “vision set the tone for our trip and for the survival of Jewish life,” says the rabbi. Evidence of the Roman occupation in Tiberius and the surrounding area brought the era to life for the tour group. In addition, the rabbi explains, “in our tradition a grave is not a place of death but of life. The grave of a holy person is a pipeline [to G-d]“ and when you connect to the soul of that person, “your prayers are elevated.”
For the first week, the group stayed at the Kibbutz Lavi Hotel in the lower Galilee, and for many participants, spending Shabbat on the kibbutz was a memorable experience.
“We walked to the synagogue, which was right around the corner. The weather was so perfect and the services were incredible,” with singing in harmony and celebrations of a Bar Mitzvah and a bris, says Stacy Gottesman. “It was probably the most fun Shabbat ever.”
Gottesman, 35, who joined her parents, Bonnie and Michael Gottesman, says the trip fulfilled a need to get away from the pressures of everyday life “and reconnect with HaShem.”
“It taught me that Judaism isn’t just a religion, it’s a lifestyle. Everything we do has meaning.” Being in Israel, she says, helped make sense of why certain prayers are said in synagogue, and
gave her the unique experience of being part of the majority instead of a minority. She also appreciated the simplicity of the Israeli way of life compared with the materialism of our society, and enjoyed the sight of Israeli children playing freely in the streets.
Raised in the Reform tradition, Gottesman says she worships at Chofetz Chayim because the Beckers are “so open and kind and they’re always wanting to teach you.”
While only the Houchins from St. Louis were her age, everyone was “young at heart. They were a lot of fun,” she says.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think fondly of the trip, which is rare for me,” says Bob Donfeld, who’d been to Israel twice before but never on an organized tour. He’s a past president of Chofetz Chayim and he and Bernadette are among the synagogue’s founders, though they are “not Orthodox from a lifestyle standpoint,” he notes.
Being in Israel for Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day) was very moving, he says.
On Yom Hazikaron, the group visited a kibbutz in Gush Etzion, an area that was destroyed in 1948 and rebuilt after the 1967 war. When the memorial sirens went off, four Israeli jets flew overhead at treetop level. “That was kind of a chilling thing,” he says, adding that the group also got the chance to spend time with Israel Defense Forces soldiers.
“I call them babies even though we Americans have 19-year-olds [in the military]. You see these Jewish kids and you think of them as babies, but they’re armed to the teeth,” he says. “That was very emotional, knowing that they’re fighting for Jews and fighting for Israel.”
Near Kibbutz Malkia in northern Israel, where the group planted a kiwi tree, Nancy Dubois also was moved by the sight of Israeli soldiers “the same age as my own kids” protecting the border with Lebanon. And as kibbutz children frolicked in a jumping castle at a party, she says, “We looked up and saw Hezbollah soldiers on the lookout. You could see them with your naked eye, on the mountaintop.”
Dubois was struck by the contrast between Memorial Day in the United States, which “is all about barbecues and baseball games” and Yom Hazikaron In Israel, where you see “masses of people pouring out of cemeteries … it’s really all about paying honor to the dead.”
One of the group’s most intense experiences was a visit to the town of Itamar, where five members of the Fogel family were murdered in March by terrorists from a nearby Arab town. The mayor “walked us through what happened that horrendous night,” says Dubois, while her husband, Jeff, says he finds himself unable to discuss the Itamar visit yet. “Maybe in a year or two, but I don’t think it’ll be easy to discuss even then,” he says. Bernadette Donfeld recalls the poignancy of seeing the children’s toys and bicycles still lying beside the house. “To see the bravery of these people, living in this outskirts town where they’re just totally surrounded by a people that are out to kill them, that was incredibly moving,” she says.
For Jeff Dubois, one of the most remarkable aspects of the trip was the realization that as recently as 44 years ago, he would have been unable to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem or visit the Cave of Machpelah (the Tomb of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs in Hebron). Their experiences were so powerful, he says, that although he and Nancy originally planned to spend a day on their own, they couldn’t find a single day of group activities they wanted to miss.
The action-packed trip included many more quintessentially Israeli tourist moments: helping sift archaeological artifacts from earth removed by the Arabs near the Temple Mount, exploring the mosaic-covered Tunisian synagogue in Acco, picnicking beside the watery grottos of Rosh Hanikra. There were visits to Yad Vashem and Masada, a tour of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, and a meeting with Ethiopian immigrants who trekked to Israel on foot through the Sudan.
The expertise of the Keshet tour guide, Peter Abelow, added immeasurably to the teachings provided by the Beckers, says Bernadette Donfeld. Becker notes that when he and Esther first told Abelow, one of Keshet’s directors, about their plans for the Tucson group, Abelow offered to serve as their guide himself — something he only does for two or three groups a year.
The Beckers are planning another Israel trip in two years, and many of this year’s participants are hoping to join them. “Whatever trip they do, sign us up,” says Bernadette Donfeld.