Our Congregation B'nai Shalom Israel trip is off to a great start. It is hard to believe that we have only been here since Friday evening - we have already seen and experienced so much!
We had very smooth and straightforward flights. Once we'd met our tour guides we were taken straight to Jerusalem. The first thing that we notice is that one truly ascends to Jerusalem - the bus began to climb the winding road about 2/3rds into our 1 hour ride to the capital city. Entering from the west of the city, we were taken to the Tayelet for our first amazing view. There we had our own brief Kabbalat Shabbat service as the afternoon began to transition to dusk.
After checking in to our hotel in the heart of downtown Jerusalem we had a short walk to a delicious, muti-course meal - an opportunity to taste some of the best that Jerusalem has to offer and a wonderful time for our group to really start to connect with each other.
Today - Shabbat - we started off the day after an incredible breakfast spread with another amazing view - this time from the Mount of Olives. This gave us an opportunity to drive through some of the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. From our viewing point we could see the gravestones of all those buried on the sides of the Mount, and we learned about the location of the original City of David and how the current walled Old City came into being and slowly took shape. Our wonderful lead guide, Noam, engages us all every step of the way with the help of Ben and Lily - the two youngest members of our tour - renacting a biblical scene between the Jebusite King and King David when David acquired the land to begin to build his city.
From there we entered the Old City via the Damascus Gate into the Muslim quarter and we immediately had all our senses bombarded with the sounds, smells and colors of the market. The city was bustling with energy - while the Jewish quarter remains quiet on Shabbat the rest of the city is open for business. Traveling by foot from the Muslim quarter to the Jewish quarter our group began to get a true sense of the geography and what it truly means when people speak of dividing the city - a task that seems quite impossible as one narrow, winding street in one quarter leads directly in the narrow streets of the next.
We arrived at the Kotel - the Western Wall. We took a little time in the area of the wall divided for men and women and prayer notes were placed in the cracks. Then we walked over to the continuation of the wall in the excavated Robinson's arch area - an area now designated for egalitarian prayer services. We were there alone and took the opportunity to have a short morning service together. Both on Friday night and Shabbat morning, our melodies, poems and readings highlighted the Jerusalem we were experiencing right before us through our liturgy.
Lunch brought us back to the Muslim quarter for some of the best falafel and hummous that Jerusalem has to offer. Then a tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - by far the most crowded site we visited all day, reminding us Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land is an enormous source of tourism to Israel, far outscaling Jewish travel by dint of being such a large world population.
In the afternoon, some of us stayed with Noam to explore more of the old city and some of us headed over for some time at the Israel museum. Both groups had an amazing experience - some wonderful exhibits at the museum, including the Dead Sea Scrolls and findings from the Cairo Geniza. In the old city we took in more views, and had a chance meeting and conversation with a Jewish Israeli of Yemenite descent and a Palestinian Arab from Haifa who were making a documentary about their friendship and the challenges of identity and who were gracious in sharing some of this with us. With this exchange, as with so much of what we saw today, the complexity and many faces of Israel were brought to us in very real and concrete ways. We also stopped in at a 200 year old functioning tehina factory - the smell of sesame for several hundred feet around was incredible!
Perhaps no clearer example of this was our closing program, which we shared with member of St Stephen's Church who are also traveling from Westborough. Two members of Seeds for Peace - a Jewish Israeli and an Arab Muslim from East Jerusalem - took us through a very intense experience of the challenges of truly listening to each others' narratives. They left us with a sense of great sadness at how few Israelis and Palestinians have these opportunities and how remarkable their friendship is. There is still much to debrief from this experience, not only for our group but also, I hope, with the church group back in Westborough. Pictured below is Father Jesse Abell of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church and Micali Morin, who is in Israel for a High School Semester program with NFTY -it was wonderful to have her join us for the evening (and I had an opportunity for a catch-up over an early dinner before the program).
All this... just one day! And as I finish typing this update, the downtown streets below my window are still buzzing with people who come out to eat, drink and socialize once Shabbat ends - and it is now 1 am! Time to get some shut-eye before we launch into the next full day that lies ahead.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz