Traveling to Israel is like entering a time machine, where you connect to the past amidst advanced technology. Rabbi Israel Becker and his wife Esther of Congregation Chofetz Chayim led five people on a spiritual journey to Israel Oct. 15-26 with the theme of “Where the Past Shapes Your Soul.”
“Our missions to Israel are a reflection of what Esther and I do in Tucson to enrich people’s lives through Judaism and Torah,” says Becker. “Connecting with the past inspires us to look forward to the future.” This is the third time the Beckers have led a tour to Israel.
“Every time I go to Israel it’s a new experience,” says Becker. He says it is important to travel to Israel to discover ourselves as we connect to G-d and our people.
“The theme of the trip was important to me,” says Ellie Adelman. “It was my first trip to Israel, and it made me feel a deep connection with the people of Israel, where the new interconnects with the ancient. I’m amazed at the perseverance of the Jews — they always come back, there is always a yearning to return to Israel despite all that the Jews have been through.”
Lyn Lewis, who traveled to Israel with the Beckers in 2014, says that this year’s trip was more spiritual. “It was easy to connect with the theme of the trip because living history was at your fingertips, connecting the land with Judaism,” says Lewis. “The trip really had an impact on my heart and soul, and it was very moving to look out over the horizon and to know that people gave their lives to farm and build up the land and the cities.”
The group visited the Kotel, or Western Wall, the last remnant of the Temple, with some participants going three times during their stay in Israel.
“We left to go to the Wall while it was still dark to participate in a sunrise service,” says Becker. He explains that it is special to be there when darkness transcends into light. The Talmud teaches that redemption of the Jewish people will be like the sunrise; it starts slowly, then bursts forth to full light.
Mark Zimmerman, who now lives in Las Vegas, got to know the Beckers from attending Shabbat services at Chofetz Chayim. He went to Israel a week ahead of the group, then joined them, and stayed for another week afterward to get a fuller experience.
“I appreciated praying at the Wall in the quiet of the dawn,” he says. “At 6:11 a.m. there was no noise from tourists and tour buses. It is the quiet moments that bring out spirituality and emotion.” He added that he was amazed at the large number of tourists present at most of the places he visited, but acknowledged that this is good for Israel.
Sue Ross first visited Israel 48 years ago with her husband, Sonny, when she was 20 years old. One of the most dramatic differences between then and now, she says, was at the Wall. In 1969, less than two years after the Six-Day War, she remembers that a bar mitzvah was taking place, and that there were fewer people, but more soldiers.
“Now there are many more people, and I went to the Kotel three times, including at sunrise,” Ross says. “I am the same age as the modern state of Israel, I was born in July of 1948, and this trip made me feel a greater connection to Israel as our homeland.”
“You can look at photos, but visiting someplace like the Western Wall and actually touching the Wall, makes a big difference,” says Adelman. “Being at the location of the Holy of Holies [the core of the First and Second Temples, built around the Foundation Stone], being at the place where Abraham brought Isaac after being commanded by G-d to sacrifice his son, and praying and putting a message in the Wall made it all real.”
When she heard that the Beckers were planning a trip to Israel, Ruth Polizzi signed up immediately. She says the rabbi provided inspirational tidbits of Torah that enhanced the history of each site, and she was amazed at how little she knew of Israel’s history.
“It was important for me to go on this trip,” says Polizzi. “It was not only a once-in-a-lifetime trip, it was a connection to my husband, Jerry, who died on Oct. 17 of last year. I went for both of us, and since the anniversary of his death occurred during the trip, I felt like he was there.
“I went to the Kotel three times. During one of those times I placed a message to my husband in the Wall. I couldn’t believe how many messages there were — it was hard to find a spot.”
Many other biblical and historical sites were on the schedule. Some of these included ruins of ancient synagogues, Zippori, where Jewish life thrived under Roman rule, the City of David where nearly 4,000 years of history are represented, Chevron (Hebron) Israel’s second holiest city, and the Old City of Jerusalem.
“I was especially moved by the ancient cemetery in Tzfat,” says Becker. “We prayed there and connected with the luminaries who are buried there.”
The most famous rabbi buried in this cemetery is Rabbi Isaac Luria, a kabbalist who came to Tzfat in 1530 from Egypt. Also buried there is Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, who is best known for composing the “Lecha Dodi” song, and Rabbi Yosef Caro, a kabbalist and Torah scholar who is best known for writing the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law. Caro wrote the Shulchan Aruch to make the laws of the Torah easier for Jews, who had been dispersed throughout the world because of the Spanish expulsion.
“At Tzfat, Rabbi Becker explained the connection between the rabbis of the 16th century and modern Judaism,” says Zimmerman. “I found it very meaningful that ‘Lecha Dodi’ is still sung in services in modern synagogues, and the Shulchan Aruch is still a part of today’s Judaism. The Temple may have been lost, but not Judaism. It sets a mood that stays with you.”
For Ross, the highlight of the trip was her visit to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. She says it had a tremendous impact on her because her husband’s parents were Holocaust survivors. Her father-in-law lost his first wife and four children under 10 years old. She thinks that her mother-in-law survived because she was a big, strong woman who was used as a worker. Ross’s husband was 3 years old when he and his parents came to the United States.
“I went to the Auschwitz room, where I saw my mother-in-law in one of the photos,” says Ross. “I had seen this photo at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D. C., where there is a wall of hair taken from the women at Auschwitz. In the photo, my mother-in-law has no hair.
“It took so much energy to view the exhibits and I was very shaken. My own hair stood on end.”
On the lighter side, the trip included visits to a winery, market places, a robotic milking plant, and a camel ride. Zimmerman describes the camel ride as “hilarious,” despite “holding on for dear life and thinking I was going to fall off.”
At the robotic milking plant at Moshav Avnei Eitan, cows are trained to enter a machine-operated milking barn on their own a few times a day. They are given food, a spray bath and are hooked up to milking machines automatically. Polizzi says she enjoyed bottle-feeding a calf at the farm.
Adelman enjoyed the market places where artwork and jewelry were for sale. The market they visited before Shabbat, she says, had wall-to-wall people and an amazing variety of fresh produce and baked goods.
On Oct. 25 the Beckers were delighted to have their tour group join them at the wedding of the Beckers’ granddaughter, Yael Adelman, to Shmuel Posner. Yael’s parents are Toba (the Becker’s eldest daughter) and Faivel Adelman, who live in Israel with their other children. All members of the tour group consider this to be a wonderful culmination of their Israel experience.
“The wedding was a happy community celebration, with the focus on the joy of living, the creation of a new family and hope for future,” says Lewis. “But I was definitely sad to leave Israel and am looking forward to going back.”
Korene Charnofsky Cohen is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.