Saturday, October 25, 2008

Break Two: Yom Kippur – Simchat Torah

Below is a description of my activities during my second break in my Overseas Program - October 8-21. Some days have more detail than others and overall, this is a fairly long description (6.5 pages typed) so feel free to skim and skip around. I hope that this provides answers to many of you who have asked what I did during the break.


I had originally wanted to go to Egypt during this break and spend a good deal of time researching different options and contacting various tour companies. However, in the wake of an increase in kidnappings in Egypt, warnings by Israeli authorities against travel to Egypt, and a warning from my international Terrorism professor, I decided against traveling to Egypt. Instead I started looking at a variety of options, but didn’t really solidify my trip until the day before I left (and then changed it part way through). There ended up being a lot less planning on this trip than the first one.

Thoughts on a Different Way to Travel

Most of this trip was spent staying with families instead of in youth hostels. While I did less of the “tourist” traveling on this trip than I had originally wanted to, I found the experience very enjoyable. I did not end up going to all of the museums that I had planned on, but I had the experience of living life like an Israeli. We traveled several days in a car instead of a bus, went to places (beach, restaurants, etc.) that tourists are unlikely to find, and more. It really gave me the feeling of a person living in Israel instead of a person visiting Israel.

Yom Kippur (October 8-9)

I was in Jerusalem for Yom Kippur, back with the Romm family in French Hill.

View previous post about this here.

Shabbat (October 10-11)

After the movie at the Romm’s, they took me over to the Schwartz’s.

View previous post about this here.

Saturday night – Sunday morning (October 11-13)

Back in Be’er Sheva. I had originally planned on being in Be’er Sheva Saturday night and Sunday and then going to the North on Sunday evening. This ended up changing and I was in Be’er Sheva until Monday morning. There is nothing really to write about here. I just took it easy and attempted to catch up on emails and random stuff after being gone.

The North (October 13-15)

Heading up North was a great time. While it could be described as the length of a long weekend, it seems like we did so much more in that time.

Aaron and I left Be’er Sheva on a 7:26 a.m. train and took it to the end of the line in the North at the Nahariya station. Ximena joined us North of Haifa from the station we would be returning to later in the day. We got off at the Nahariya station and took a taxi to Rosh Hanikra.

Rosh Hanikra is the Northern most site in Israel. It is on the Mediterranean Sea and consists of grottoes that the sea has carved into the rock (turned white from salt). We took a cable car down to the grottoes, saw a video about their creation, and walked the path through the grottoes. It was really beautiful and the sea was a great shade of blue. Back above the grottoes, we saw the border with Lebanon, which must have been closed for some time. We saw (sort of) the military establishment on the mountain and several soldiers hanging out.

We took the train back to the Lev HaMifratz station, North of Haifa. The station was attached to a shopping mall, which was kind of cool. We waited there while we figured out if we’d be able to stay with Barney (from our program) at his friend Nitay’s (Israeli) house or in a youth hostel in Haifa. It ended up that we could stay with Nitay. Barney and Nitay came to pick us up from the station and we went to his house in Tivon, a suburb to the Northeast of Haifa. It was a nice house in a nice area.

At their house, we met Nitay’s family. They were having a party for their family to celebrate the birth of Nitay’s sister’s baby a few months prior. It was kind of awkward being at a family party we weren’t invited to, but the family was very nice and welcoming and it was a good way to see how a large Israeli family interacts. Nitay’s mother and family are originally from Russia and his father and family are originally from Uruguay. They all knew English at some level. They gave us dinner – a lot of (really good) meat.

This was the evening that Sukkot was beginning and while we were still planning on traveling, there was no public transportation the first day of Sukkot – Monday night to Tuesday night (The beginning and end of the holiday are especially special). While this was originally going to be an issue for travel, it wasn’t now that we were staying with a family. Nitay’s dad has a company car and we got to use it – and the company paid for the gas.

After dinner, we hung out in Nitay’s room and got to know him. Afterwards, we went to a restaurant in Haifa and got waffles. I was not sure what to expect at first and Nitay told us not to worry, that he would order for us. This was good because the menus were in Hebrew, we couldn’t read them, and they didn’t have English menus. A bit later, the waitress brought us the most amazing things ever. They were huge waffles stuffed with milk chocolate and white chocolate and covered with chocolate and bananas. They came with two scoops of ice cream and two piles of whipped cream. It was amazing and I thought I might burst.

After the waffles, we drove around the area and to an overlook site that had some sort of monument on it. We hung out there for a while watching the lights of the city.

In the morning (Tuesday), we got up, ate breakfast, and made our decisions about what to do that day. We drove towards the Kineret, Sea of the Galilee, and went back to the Jordan River, near where we had been on our group trip and Ximena, who is not Jewish, got rebaptized. We then drove to a store to pick water and a few snacks and then on to a beach. We went to a beach that was popular with Israelis (but wasn’t too crowded. It was a free beach (many beaches in Tiberias on the Sea now charge a fee. It was on the other side of the Sea from Tiberias and down a road that I don’t see a tour bus making it through. It was a nice beach and the water was great.

After the beach, we drove most of the way around the Sea and sort of through the lower Golan Heights to the North of the Kineret. We went to a moshav (we thought it was a kibbutz) where we went ATVing. They were on Israeli time – meaning not ready when we got there. We took an ATV and a Ranger. Only Nitay and Aaron (who has an International Driving Permit) were allowed to drive. We went down some paths through the orchards and down to the Kineret again before returning to our starting point on the moshav. It was very enjoyable, although not quite the off-roading I had expected. I decided that it was a good thing to be able to see the orchards (I found out they were Mango) in Israel during Sukkot, the Fall harvest festival. We were very dusty after this.

On the way back to Tivon, we stopped at a restaurant that Nitay said was popular with many Israelis after going to the Kineret or the Galilee. They had great chicken and brought us pita and salads as well as Turkish coffee and candy after the meal. It was really good. That night we hung out at Nitay’s house and then went to his friend’s house. Nitay’s friend was having a party in his Sukkah for another of their friends who had just finished his time in the army. While there it started sprinkling (i.e. a little rain) so we moved under their awning and we played cards. I learned an Israeli card game that is like a combination of Go Fish, Gin Rummy, and Texas Hold ‘em. While I didn’t like it at first, it ended up being fun and I was fairly good at it.

We went back to Nitay’s house to sleep. We left in the morning.

Be’er Sheva (October 15-17)

I had planned on going to Tel-Aviv with Aaron on Wednesday, but that didn’t end up happening. Aaron and Ximena decided that they wanted to go to Egypt after all and I was not feeling well. I had figured that I would go to Tel-Aviv by myself, but decided to go back to Be’er Sheva to rest and try to feel better. In Be’er Sheva, I took medicine, relaxed, and hung out with the people from my group who were still in the city.

Between Yom Kippur and the end of Sukkot, the University was basically shut down. Many entrances to campus were closed, many buildings were closed, and restaurants on and near campus were closed. It was kind of crazy.

Shabbat in Jerusalem (October 17-18)

I went to Jerusalem on Friday to stay with the Romm’s. It was fun traveling during Sukkot. There were Sukkot at the bus stations, outside restaurants and shops on the sidewalk, and around homes and on balconies, especially in Jerusalem. When I got to the French Hill neighborhood, I saw Sukkot all over the place. They were literally hidden away in every nick and cranny of outside of the buildings.

I spent Shabbat with the Romm’s, going to services, eating in the Sukkah, and hanging out. It was a good time. I enjoy the Hallel service that is included during Sukkot and I liked singing the psalms in Jerusalem. It felt like I was becoming part of the family when they welcomed guests at the synagogue during services on Saturday and when someone mentioned that the lady left me out, she said that I was more like a regular than a guest.

Sunday – Jerusalem, Hebron, and the West Bank (October 19)

I got up early to go to morning services (I used the lulav and etrog) and then we went to the Fuschberg Center for Conservative Judaism where Rabbi Romm works in downtown Jerusalem. Along the way, he pointed out different significant buildings. I left him and walked down the street to the Sheraton Plaza Hotel where I met Barney and Ximena and we went on an organized tour of Hebron.

The tour was led by the director of the Hebron Fund and I knew it would contain many observant Jews and be rather right-wing, but I figured that would make the tour more interesting. I was still caught off guard though when our tour guide mentioned as we drove off from the hotel (about 10:00 a.m. on a bullet proof bus) that if we answer his questions, we should let him know what yeshiva we go to so that he can report back on us.

We drove along the security fence/barrier/wall (depending on what word you choose to use) and went to Rachel’s Tomb. I had thought that it was actually in Bethlehem (which I had been looking forward to visiting) but it was actually more of an enclave set into the security wall. There was a symbolic grave marker inside that people were praying at. While it was cool, I was a bit confused as to what we were supposed to do there.

Driving through the West Bank we saw a few olive trees, but most of the areas we were in had grape trees. We saw several checkpoints that didn’t really seem to be too worried about letting people through and a number of villiages, both Jewish and Arab.

In Hebron, we went to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the Me'arat HaMachpela. Outside we were told about the community and about the tombs and their history, their significance, and the history of the building (built by King Herod during the same period as the Second Temple). The building was converted under Ottoman rule into a Mosque and now, the Jews and Muslims each have control of about 50% of the building. Inside are symbolic tombs for the patriarchs and matriarchs that are buried in caves (off limits) below the building. Ten days a year, on holy days that are pre arranged, the entire building is open to only Jews and on ten different days, to only Muslims. Two years ago, one of the holy days was the same – Hoshana Rabah and a Friday in Ramadan – and the entire building was split – open to each religion at different times, without incident. We prayed Minha there.

Also in Hebron we saw the three neighborhoods with Jewish families, Tel Hebron, Beit Hadassah, and the Avraham Avinu synagogue and neighborhood (they have one of the oldest Sephardic Torahs in the world). We also went to a museum there about the Jewish community in Hebron. There were a lot of soldiers around the area and a lot of tourists there (they told us that visits during Sukkot were popular). We also saw the blocked off crossing into the Palestinian Authority controlled parts of Hebron (90%+ of the city).

There were definitely pro-settlement sentiments on this trip, as I’d expected, but the tour leader, while acknowledging that he has Arab friends, didn’t really agree that the Hebron settlers had issues with the army or soldiers in the area. He did say that before there was “peace” that the Jewish and Palestinian settlers got along a lot better. Interesting…

I enjoyed seeing the West Bank. While there were a lot of checkpoints, they didn’t really seem to be stopping and checking a lot of cars, but maybe I was there on a day the media was focusing on this area… We got back a little after 5:00 p.m.

Back in Jerusalem, I left Ximena and Barney and went back to the Fuschberg Center where I met Rabbi Romm. We went back to his home, had dinner in the Sukkah, etc.

Jerusalem – Hoshana Rabah and Simchat Torah (October 20-21)

In the morning we went to services, which were longer due to Hoshana Rabah. We used the lulav and etrog and then took willow branches and hit the ground in a symbolic asking for rain for the land.

After services, Rabbi Romm took me on a drive around the neighborhood and showed me the outside of the Hebrew University campus (closed for the holiday) and several views over Jerusalem and the Old City as well as towards Jordan. Looking over East Jerusalem, we saw a number of Palestinian villiages. While we didn’t see the refugee camps, the villages definitely did not look as poor as the media makes them out to be.

We went to Ammunition Hill which is the site of a battle between Israel and Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War that led to the reunification of Jerusalem. We went through the museum and walked through the trenches that were a major part of the battle.

Afterwards, we went to Mea Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, and walked around for a bit. It was amazing to see Sukkot on almost every single balcony and outside buildings. The place was busy as people prepared for Simchat Torah, full of people wearing black or white for the holidays. We went to a bakery next to a shmura matza (handmade matza) factory. We walked through several streets of the neighborhood. Most in the area do not watch t.v. and thus, Rabbis send people messages by posting signs on buildings. Rabbi Romm read one to me saying that watching any film is not permitted, even if it could lead to the fulfillment of a mitzvah, because this could also lead one astray as well as another sign saying that during Sukkot, women are only allowed to walk on one side of the street at night.

We then went back to the Romm’s house and relaxed and got ready for Simchat Torah. While I had originally wanted to go the Kotel, the Western Wall, on this day (I didn’t as car access was blocked due to so many visitors to the Old City during Sukkot), it ended up being a great day.

Simchat Torah was great in Jerusalem. I spent it at Ramot Zion, the Conservative Synagogue, with the Romm’s. I had thought that I might be at the Kotel or at another Orthodox synagogue, but I had a great time. We went to services at night and we danced with the Torah in the sanctuary, outside on the roof of the social hall/auditorium and then in the auditorium. I got to hold the Torah for part of the time outside and we danced and sang a number of Jewish and Israeli popular songs, some of which I hadn’t sang since I was in USY. We then read a little (as opposed to finishing the Torah and starting over) from the Torah, but unlike my synagogue, did not call everyone up to the Torah for an aliyah (they did it in the morning).

In the morning we went back to services. Services were longer due to Simchat Torah as well as Shmini Atzeret being the same day in Israel. We once again had a great time dancing with the Torah outside and inside and then read a lot from the Torah. We finished the end of Devarim/Deuteronomy and then started again with the beginning of Bereshit/Genesis. They did a number of group aliyahs to cover the entire congregation: Kohens, Levis, Rabbis and their families, New Parents and Grandparents, Parents of 3+ children, different sections of the sanctuary (left, center, right, balcony), etc. I heard a number of tropes (melodies in which the Torah is read) used due to the diverse makeup of the synagogue including one from Italy and one from Yemen.

We napped in the afternoon and went back to the synagogue for the afternoon and evening services as well as Havdalah. While there I met a member of the synagogue who I had previously seen but had never been introduced to. He moved to Israel from Pisa, Italy 69 years ago. He is a Professor of Bible at Hebrew University and travels around the world. When he gives lessons, he can quote specific verses, even without preparation. I really liked him.

My time in Jerusalem for the holidays was great. The Romm’s said they enjoyed having me and invited me back for Shabbat again sometime.

Now it is on to class. I have class now until I go home – we have no more breaks.

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