Congregation Anshei Israel’s 2014 Family Mission to Israel began with a flight that left Tucson at 6 a.m. on June 25. We arrived in Israel the following day at 1:30 p.m. Seeing the first sights of Israel from the plane as we approached Tel Aviv made the tiredness of the long journey melt away. All the planning and anticipation led to that moment, that first vision proclaiming we’d arrived and the experience of a lifetime was about to begin.
After meeting our tour guide Ami Braun, we boarded our bus to start the adventure that Rabbi Robert Eisen and Israel Maven Tours had planned for us. Our first stop was to plant trees, which for me was a fitting way to begin our adventure, having spent so much of my childhood allowance buying trees through the Jewish National Fund to plant in Israel.
Stopping at the Haas Promenade for that first breathtaking view of Jerusalem, we said the Shehecheyanu prayer of gratitude. The view of the walled city with the iconic golden dome in the background was awe-inspiring, as well as a little haunting.
Our first day in Jerusalem began like all of our days would, with an Israeli breakfast cornucopia of delights, from fresh fruits and vegetables, cheeses, eggs, cereals, to wonderful pastries and breads. With our stomachs satisfied we began our discovery of Jerusalem, starting in the old city, entering through the Jaffa gate. We were instantly transported back in time.
Making our way down the streets, we visited the four Sephardic synagogues in the Jewish Quarter: Yochanan Ben Zakai, Istanbuli Synagogue, Eliahu Hanavi Synagogue and Emtza’i Synagogue, all of them beautiful. The Cardo was next, initiating what would become one of the catch phrases of the trip — shop until you drop.
All of this was leading up to seeing the Kotel. We had all seen pictures of the Western Wall or watched a live feed on our computers, but it was a whole different feeling seeing it up close and personal. I made several trips to the Kotel to quietly pray at the wall during our stay in Jerusalem, which for me was truly a highlight.
The B’not Mitzvah of two young girls, Emilia Bregman and Rebecca Herschberg, became even more special by celebrating their simcha in Jerusalem. Yad Vashem was an emotional experience for us, as was learning more about Theodore Herzl by visiting his grave, as well as the graves of Yitzhak Rabin and Golda Meir at the Mount Herzl Cemetery.
Meir was someone I truly admired. I met her at a fundraising event for the Jewish Federation of Chicago that my grandfather took me to when I was around 11. I got a pat on the head from her. I was in Hebrew day school at the time. She was bigger than life, although I remember thinking that she looked like my bubbie. To me, she was the Israeli Eleanor Roosevelt.
One evening we visited with congregants at Anshei Israel’s sister synagogue, Shevet Achim in Gilo. It was a wonderful chance for us to talk with everyday Israeli people, to see the heart of Israel, as was a stop at the Malcha Mall. It was refreshing to see the cross-section of Israeli and Arab cultures, with both wandering about the mall, with no hint of tensions or troubles.
Our group traveled to Masada on the day we heard the horrible news of the discovery of Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Fraenkel’s dead bodies. At Masada’s ancient synagogue, Rabbi Eisen led us in prayer. Other tourists listened to the reading and joined in as we said Kaddish.
From the spirituality of Jerusalem and the tragedy of the murdered boys we traveled north. We stopped at Tel Megiddo to see layers of civilizations at the site of Armageddon, then on to Tzfat to enjoy the mystical/Kabbalistic offerings of that ancient city.
As we began our final days in Israel we made our way to the port city of Caesarea, with its impressive ruins. We sat in a Roman amphitheater and stood in the hippodrome imagining chariot races.
Leaving the ancient behind we arrived in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv to spend our last Shabbat. While there was music and dancing, the surreal sound of jets flying overhead was a reminder of reality in a troubled world.
Still, for our group there was the joy of welcoming the Shabbat after a wonderful week filled with wondrous sights. There was also a little sadness knowing that our time in Israel would soon come to an end. Wherever we went, memorials were set up for the three murdered boys, reminding us that amid the beauty, culture and spirituality of the modern State of Israel an everyday struggle continues.
Our journey ended with a wonderful farewell dinner, filled with laughter and reminiscences. We all felt forever being changed by the trip. For me, the mission deepened my connection to and my love for the land of Israel. I made a commitment to share my experience and to encourage everyone to make the journey. So we said to Israel L’hitraot, see you soon.