Would you expect to find a Torah scribe atop the mountain fortress at Masada? That’s what happened during Congregation Bet Shalom’s Musical Mission to Israel, June 2-12. Just one day after our grandson Nicholas celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at Robinson’s Arch at the Kotel, he had the opportunity, along with the rest of our group, to fulfill the 613th mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah. Cantor Avi Alpert officiated with great warmth at Nic’s Bar Mitzvah (at age 18 — it’s never too late!) and the Bet Shalom group became almost like family.
Cantor Avi planned many musical experiences for this mission. I participated in several different services and especially enjoyed singing Kabbalat Shabbat services with the congregation at Shira Chadasha in Jerusalem — joyful, participatory, slow, clear and very lively! I found it very meaningful when our group sang Lecha Dodi just outside of a synagogue in Safed, the ancient city of the mystics. Finally, Cantor Avi performed an unplanned mini-concert for us (and others who happened to be there) at the Roman Ampitheater in Caesarea — an Italian aria in Hebrew and then Hatikva.
I’d like to introduce some of the Israelis we met on this mission.
• Arnon Sharlin was a teenager when he came to Tucson as part of a Lions Club Exchange Program and my husband, Bernie, and I hosted him at our home for two weeks. He now lives in a moshav north of Tel Aviv but came to Jerusalem with his family to meet with us. We enjoyed getting to know his family and arranged for his 9-year old daughter Roni and our 9-year old granddaughter Rachel to become pen pals. We hope this will continue our relationship with his family into the next generation.
• Edit Alfasi and her family own the Har Odem Winery in the Golan Heights. Edit’s brother Yoni is married to my cousin Carol, who suggested that we visit the winery for a wine-tasting event. Edit and her son welcomed us, gave a humorous presentation and conveyed the family’s passion for excellence in winemaking. We had several tastes of their wonderful wine.
• Ephraim Cohen, our guide at the First Aliya Museum, was originally from Rochester, N.Y. and made aliyah to Israel about 30 years ago. He combined humor, trivia, facts and emotions to teach us about the struggles of the early European settlers in Palestine. I wept throughout the final movie at the museum because I so strongly identified with these immigrants. Although my grandparents immigrated to the United States, they could easily have joined the many Zionists who settled here.
• We met Roni Keidar through Tucson’s Partnership2Gether with Hof Ashkelon and Kiryat Malachi. Roni and others in her moshav continue to live within rocket range of the Gaza Strip despite the attacks and ongoing fear. She believes all people should be treated with dignity, be able to travel and to find work. She maintains open communication with people from Gaza and she works for change and for peace. Roni took us to a site just across from the Gaza Strip and then to the Path to Peace Wall, where we each added a mosaic piece symbolizing our hopes for the future.
• Hila Kordana led us through the musical portion of our day with Tucson’s partners. Visiting the music center in Kiryat Malachi, we learned that music is really only part of the story. The director of the center provides guidance and instills confidence in the town’s young people, helping to keep them away from drugs and alcohol. At the music center, we enjoyed three different experiences: watching how the youth record their own music; listening to live music by young men on guitars and drums, one in his IDF uniform; and playing individual drums following a pattern the leader set for us. Afterward, we entered the music school and observed a guitar lesson, a singing lesson and a piano lesson. Outside the school, Cantor Avi and Hila sang a duet – two beautiful voices in harmony!
• Our tour guide, Mesha Seckbach, made our trip to Israel meaningful in so many ways. He suggested a variation in our original itinerary and took us to the awe-inspiring Banias waterfall in the Golan Heights. As we met Israelis along the way, he introduced us and gave cultural insights. Once we met backpackers who were completing the Israel Trail and Mesha explained that they often rested at the homes of Israelis who are called “Angels of the Trail.”
On the last day of our mission, I was happy to see our very own Oshrat Barel, the emissary (shlicha) from Israel to Tucson. After lunch at a kibbutz, we joined the Tucson-Israel partnership’s planning meeting. Oshrat is important to me as our local tie that binds us to our homeland, Israel. I will have so many lasting memories of Israel and the Israeli people.
Elinor Engelhard is a technical trainer in Tucson.