Friday, close to sunset in Jerusalem, a siren sounds heralding the start of the Sabbath. The Muslim call to prayer and Christian church bells echo across the city. Rabbi Thomas Louchheim, his wife, Marcia, and members of their family, along with members of Congregation Or Chadash, were awed by the enchantment of a Shabbat service conducted on a balcony overlooking Jerusalem.
“There is nothing more incredible than being in Jerusalem on the Sabbath,” says Joan Morris, who participated in the trip along with her husband, Keith Trantow. “We were invited by Hebrew Union College to participate in this service, and while the service was similar to the ones we have at Or Chadash, it took on a spiritual meaning I never felt before.”
“I have been to other places around the world, but Israel is not just another piece of geography,” says Trantow. “The trip was the most remarkable experience, especially the mystical, spiritual feeling of this Shabbat service in Jerusalem.”
On the trip, which took place from June 14-26, the group of 21 people visited historic and religious sites and museums, explored different cultures and shopped in an artisans’ market. This was the congregation’s second trip to Israel, and participants ranged in age from their 20s to their 70s.
“I like traveling with members of the congregation because this is a way to interact with them on a personal level and get to better know what Judaism means to them,” says Louchheim. “I try to help them with the meaning of the history, religion and culture that we experience on the trip, so they can gain a better understanding of Judaism and its relationship to Israel.” Louchheim has been to Israel four times, including living there while studying at Hebrew Union College, where he met Marcia, who also was studying at the seminary. The Louchheim’s four children, Katie, Jacob, Daniel (and his fiancée Grace Kolack) and Benjamin also had been to Israel before this trip, traveling with Tucson Hebrew Academy, Birthright Israel or the March of the Living.
“Going to Israel with Rabbi Louchheim and his family and the group from our congregation was extra-special,” says Morris. “We all became one family within one day.”
Soozie Hazan says it enhanced the experience to have young adults on the trip. “It was wonderful to see the faces of my son and his wife who had not been to Israel before,” she says. “The rabbi answered my son David’s questions and it helped him to connect to Judaism and have a deep connection to Israel.”
The trip took them from 6,000-year-old cities to the skyscrapers of modern Israel. Participants say it was impressive to walk among archaeological sites connected to events in the Torah and also enjoy modern technology, including a spectacular sound and light show at the Tower of David. “This is a land filled with thousands of years of history, and yet modernity is all around you,” says Morris. “The Israelis keep on achieving in education, science and the arts.”
“It is amazing to walk on stones laid down 2,000 years ago and see remains of buildings, aqueducts and irrigation systems that have stood the test of time,” Louchheim says, marveling that ancient engineering has provided the basis for modern construction. Visiting ancient sites also provides connections to other religions and cultures, which he believes is important for Jews to see. One of the sites, Meggido, dating back 6,000 years, is important to Christians who believe, as stated in the Book of Revelation, that this is where Armageddon (the final battle leading to the end of the world) will take place. The Or Chadash group also visited Beit Shean, which has more than 20 layers of remains dating back 6,000 years. Inhabitants included the Egyptians, Romans, Crusaders, Ottomans and British; now, modern Israelis live in the area.
“One of the things that impressed me the most was the amount of development and modernization that has happened in Israel since I was there 10 years ago,” says Elliot Framan, who helped plan the trip. His wife, Andrea Davis, was even more impressed since she had not been to Israel since 1960. “Tel Aviv and other cities have developed high-end communities balanced by parks,” he says. “I see this industriousness as the Israelis’ determination to survive and show that they are there to stay.”
Lunch in the home of a Druze family provided the group with a look at another culture as a grandmother prepared the meal and talked about life in a Druze village. “Visiting with the Druze provided us with this wonderful connection to a minority group that is successfully living in Israel,” says Louchheim. The Druze follow a monotheistic religion based on Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which also incorporates elements of other religions. The Druze hold positions in Israeli politics and also serve in the Israel Defense Forces.
Surprisingly, it was a Michigan-born actor who introduced the group to Bedouin life as they ate dinner in a tent. They also had fun riding camels. “The bus driver said ‘Joan, you are going to do this,’ and he lifted me up on the camel,” says Morris, citing one of the times she was able to participate in an activity through the kindness of others. She has trouble walking and because some parts of the trip require long walks or climbing, she relied on the guides to tell her what she would be able to do. “I was motivated by the sheer desire to see everything on the trip, and the group helped me in difficult areas,” she says.
For Reform Jews, visiting the Western Wall right now evokes complex feelings. “Although I and Marcia have been to the Wall, we did not go this year,” says Louchheim. “We remained at a nearby plaza as a protest to the lack of an egalitarian section. This isn’t just an ordinary wall, it is the holiest place on Earth for Jews.”
Arlene Kutoroff felt that she needed to pray at the Wall, but agrees that women and men should be able to pray together at the Wall. She wonders, “Why can’t we learn to honor and respect differences in belief and find a compromise?” Despite mixed feelings about the Wall and issues relating to peace in the Middle East, Kutoroff says it is magical to be in Israel surrounded by so many Jewish people. “Where else can your group sit in a corner of a hotel lobby and do a Shabbat service and no one thinks you’re crazy?” She was with Or Chadash on the 2014 trip to Israel, but this trip was especially meaningful because her 30-year-old son, Alex, accompanied her.
Everyone expressed a desire to go back to Israel. “People say that when you go to Israel you feel like that’s your homeland,” says Framan. “I’ve traveled all over the world, but haven’t had that feeling anywhere else.” Morris says that for her and her husband, the trip was “beyond anything we had imagined” and they need to “see this miracle nation again.” Maybe she will be wearing her “I climbed Masada” T-shirt.
Korene Charnofsky Cohen is a freelance writer and editor in