My wife, Lyn, and I recently returned from the Congregation Chofetz Chayim/Southwest Torah Institute 2014 Israel Experience, filled with enthusiasm for the trip and the many unique experiences we shared with a group of 13 led by Rabbi Israel and Esther Becker.
The tour was designed to allow each of us to discover our personal place in Jewish history. Many of us had been to Israel before, but we had not experienced Israel with this much passion and knowledge of Torah.
Our fantastic tour guide, Meir Eisenman, a 30-year-old seventh generation Israeli, had a phenomenal knowledge of the Torah and the land of Israel and a deep belief in everything he shared with us. Working in tandem with Rabbi Becker he took us on one amazing journey after another, connecting each site with the entire Torah, Prophets, Talmud and modern Jewish history.
We had the privilege of visiting Ponevez Yeshiva in Bnei-Brak, one of the largest Torah centers in the world with over 1,200 students. It was rebuilt in Israel after being destroyed in the Holocaust. A group of us peered into the study hall listening to the rhythmic humming of the yeshiva students’ voices. I never saw a yeshiva before, let alone one with so many students. It blew me away. I really appreciate now how Torah learning is a symbol of Jewish survival.
In Tel Aviv, Rabbi Becker arranged for the group to meet with Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the youngest survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp, former chief rabbi of the State of Israel and current chief rabbi of Tel Aviv. As we sat with Rabbi Lau in his study, he inspired us with his discussions of Torah, present day Israeli politics, Jewish history and the need for charity. No words can do justice to simply being in Rabbi Lau’s presence. He brilliantly conveyed to us how we are part of a continuum of thousands of years of Jewish history. Rabbi Lau illustrated the Jewish tradition’s consistency and continuity by comparing a hypothetical meeting of a contemporary Italian and Julius Caesar, who would be unable to communicate or recognize each other’s customs, and someone named Moshe today, who, upon meeting Moses, would still speak the same language, and share the same culture, dreams and aspirations, even after thousands of years.
The archaeological and biblical sights on the tour were also riveting for me. The Umm El Kanatir (Mother of the Arches) synagogue in the Golan Heights sent chills up my spine. The site is approximately 1,500 years old. The synagogue was destroyed by the Golan earthquake in 749 C.E. and is now being reconstructed using high-tech 3-D computer scanning of every stone, rock and column. A special crane lifts and inserts the blocks in the correct sequence. A decades-long project like this takes love and dedication.
At Rachel’s Tomb, we stood next to an Israeli soldier who was deep in prayer, with an Uzi on his shoulder. The Israelis we met saw the land not as real estate to be bought, sold or traded, but a living entity held in trust for G-d. Outside of Shilo, we met a young Israeli and we asked him why he lived on disputed territory. His response was “I grew up here; my family is here, where else should I go?”
For the first half of the trip, we stayed in the Lower Galilee at Kibbutz Lavi. We couldn’t help but feel spiritually uplifted, amid its botanical-like gardens. I attended Shabbat services at the kibbutz synagogue, and for a half-hour after services I sat quietly alone, listening to the birds singing outside the building and enjoying true Shabbat tranquility.
Meir told us that the best way to see Jerusalem was to start at the top of the Mount of Olives and hike down to the Old CIty of Jerusalem. The walk down was both sobering and wonderful since it represents hundreds, if not thousands, of years of Jewish history and one of the best views of Jerusalem.
As exquisitely expressed by Howard and Claire Peck of Atlanta who joined our group, “We walked, we jeeped, we laughed, we cried, we celebrated, we shared and we grew.”
For Lyn and I, this was not just a trip, it was a life-changing experience, bringing us to the depths of our eternal selves.
As we left, Lyn and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to move to Jerusalem for a year?”
Clifford Altfeld is an attorney in Tucson.