Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Israel in four days

Helen and I have been traveling for a few days already. We started at the Dead Sea, swimming there for all of 10 minutes until it burned too much to stay in any longer. We stayed at the youth hostel and there was only one other woman in our room but she spoke zero English and zero Hebrew. I think she spoke Korean but I couldn't be sure. The next morning, we took the cable car up to the top of Masada and spent about an hour there. Then we said good bye to the Dead Sea and drove to Jerusalem. After spending too much on parking (and driving in circles) and then finding the hostel parking, we made our way to the Old City and walked along the Via Dolorosa, which is the route Jesus is said to have taken when he was arrested and eventually crucified. We ended up at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and had to read through the guidebook a few times to understand the significance of everything. I still don't understand everything but that is ok. We spent the night at the Abraham Hostel, which is much more like the hostels I remember staying at while traveling in Australia and New Zealand. They had activities, a hang out area with a bar and a pool table, laundry (I love clean laundry so much!), and bigger rooms. We stayed in a 10 bed coed dorm and met one guy from Belgium who was not enthused with Egypt and one guy from California who is considering going to the Aish yeshiva but hadn't made up his mind. At the end of our "what are you doing in Israel?" script, he asked if he could ask a political question. Sure, why not? What do you think of the settlements? ... Um really? I said I didn't know enough too have an informed answer. Which is true. I don't know what he was expecting to hear. He was just out of college from UCLA so I don't know what he was going for. We left the hostel and drove around the Old City (no easy feat when street signs are not visible) and parked close to the Mount of Olives. I was terrified that the car was going to get broken into, but thankfully it did not. We went into the Church of the All Nations and then walked up the hill to see Jerusalem from above the cemetery there. It was breezy but warm and the view was nice. We drove quickly by the Garden Tomb and then headed out of Jerusalem to make our way north to Nazareth. Let me say that our GPS hasn't been the greatest help, but has gotten us at least to the somewhat right direction where I can find the correct signs to point us on our way.
We made it to Nazareth and of course the hostel we are staying at is not located on a street with a name so we drove in circles until we found some signs and parked. Then we checked in and had to move to car. I was completely stressed about damaging the car and having to pay for it but luckily we are okay. Found parking and saw a few churches here that were very cool. Even though we didn't do as much walking today as yesterday, we are both beat. Hopefully it won't be too hot and too noisy to sleep tonight.
Tomorrow we are going to explore Capernum and the Sea of Galilee before heading back to Tel Aviv. I am so excited about going to Greece on Thursday!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

End of program and beginning of vacation

I haven't written in a while. Sorry about that! My first program has officially ended. I'm so glad I went on it. I've learned so much more than I had anticipated. What it has really taught me is that I want to keep learning. There is so much I realized I don't know about Judaism and what I want. One of the big points that we discussed was living a life with gratitude. Everything we have and every experience we have, good and bad, happen to us for a reason, whether it is to make us stronger emotionally or recognize that we aren't being grateful for what we do have - health, love, and sustenance. While I still have so many questions and I'm still learning about myself and what I believe, this program has really shown me a part of Judaism that had never been discussed with me before. We spoke about many philosophical questions that were not talked about in Hebrew school, and we spoke about relationships in a way that I had never thought about before. Of course we would not have talked about that in Hebrew school, but I think that the topics we covered are really helpful to me now in identifying what I want out of life and how I want to lead my life. I still don't know yet, and I'm still learning and growing, as I will throughout my life, but this program has made me begin to consider things I have not before or has given me the opportunity to begin to understand how to begin thinking about Judaism's role in my life.

The next two weeks will be spent vacationing with my friend Helen! We are in Israel now and then we will head to Greece for a cruise and to Budapest for a day and a half before I return to Israel to travel some more and she returns to the States to go back to work.

Monday, August 13, 2012


This past Shabbos, we had a free weekend, meaning we could leave Jerusalem and do what we want from Thursday evening through Sunday at 1:30 when we were expected to be back for lunch. One of the other participants and I went to Tzfat. The entire ordeal was so typically Israeli and bizarre.

We left Friday morning to catch the bus that should have departed at around 9am. On the website for the bus service, there's a note that says all departure times are approximate. We assumed that meant 5 or 10 minutes or so. Actually that meant that 3 full buses passed by the stop, late, and then they sent for another bus. Before the fourth bus came, at one point, we were pushing to get on a bus and Elle grabbed my hand and said we are either both getting on this bus or neither! Luckily, we got on the fourth bus (leaving about an hour after the original time) and had seats. The driver was incredibly angry and yelled at some British travelers, though we didn't understand what was going on because it was all in Hebrew. When we finally made it to Tzfat, one passenger got off and dropped her sunglasses so she requested that the driver open the door again. They were not on the bus and he yelled at her. We were just sitting there laughing awkwardly.

We figured that would be the extent of the weirdness, but it just continued. We arrived at the hostel and all the receptionist did was give us the key. We had given our credit card number over the phone but she didn't ask to see them or anything. We dropped our stuff in the room and went for a walk down to the artist's colony. After eating some great falafel and Elle buying gifts, we went back to the hostel. There were a lot of people around. There was a short lecture that I didn't understand and then there was an "orientation" during which the few English speakers including Elle, two girls from our dorm, me, and then two Hebrew speakers introduced ourselves and were prompted to say when we felt G-d's presence. We English speakers were like uhh. The other two girls were cool. One was from San Francisco living in Israel for the summer to get inspiration for her art degree. The other was on an 8.5 month round the world trip with her boyfriend who was in Portugal and was going to meet her soon. She was from Melbourne, Australia and is starting a job in law in March. We received our directions for the family we were going to for the Shabbos meal, and we followed a group who were supposed to take us to where we were going. Elle and I were together. Actually, though, the guy directed us down the wrong street and we had to ask 4 or 5 people for directions. We finally made it to the apartment. However, when we got there, we found that the family did not speak English, except for the mother and the 17 year old son who knew English from rap songs. It was a bizarre meal, though we were able to talk about American music and movies a bit. At one point, the son turns to his 15 year old sister and says, "fuck you bitch!" Elle and I were like, we understand that! It didn't appear the sister understood the meaning and we were shocked and didn't know what else to say. What was so interesting about this family was not that they were religious and had 8 kids, but that oldest son did not wear a kippah and was typical Israeli through and through. He was ecstatic to be joining the army next year. He wanted to be a fighter and said so. I wondered what his family thought about him not wearing tzitzit or a kippah. His mother was not religious until after her army service, so that might make a difference. The fact that I am vegetarian also was not passed on to the family, but I had rice and a potato and lots of the salad from the first course. It was nearly 10pm so I wasn't that hungry anyway.

After dinner, we walked back to the hostel and sat on the porch. It was beautifully breezy and cool. A huge group of Israelis showed up and we started talking with a few in English. That was great and we ended up chatting with them until 1am by which point we decided it was time to go to bed.

The next morning, there was another class, a big second meal, and then we promptly went back to the room and took a glorious Shabbos nap. Afterwards there was more food, and a women's circle, which we thought would be a good discussion but we ended up just singing and talking about ways to overcome adversity and rough times. It was pretty intimate for having a discussion with people I don't know. I watched the sunset instead which was so beautiful but by the time the circle was over, I had decided I was ready to go back to Jerusalem. We had the Havdalah service, which was actually fun with music and dancing (gender segregated).

After 36 strange and uncomfortable hours, we assumed it would be easy to get back to Jerusalem but we were wrong! We woke up early Sunday morning to catch the first bus back to Jerusalem. It was full and by the third stop there were people standing. There was a commotion with one guy trying to get on the bus and again, the aggravated speech was in Hebrew so we weren't sure what was going on. Apparently, there was another bus that might come. The driver turned the bus off for a few minutes and another passenger went up to try to get this guy off the bus. We weren't sure if there wasn't enough space or what. Finally after 5 minutes, the driver started the bus again and people clapped and we were on our way.

I'm not sure this post really conveys the feeling of the bizarre weekend, but I definitely experienced some culture shock and was incredibly glad to get back to Jerusalem.

Things I learned about Israel this weekend:
1. The bus system is not standardized. It can take much longer than you expect to go places if you take the buses.
2. My limited Hebrew really makes it difficult. Not everyone speaks English. Even so, I had a great conversation with an Israeli Friday night in English.
3. I think Israelis are New Yorkers on steroids. Think about how they drive (like they own the road and you are obviously in their way), talk (passionately and with chutzpah), and act (no real manners). On the other hand, Israelis can be so incredibly welcoming even when they know nothing about you or your story.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


I apologize for not writing in a few days. A lot has happened since I last wrote, though. I had my first Shabbos in Israel for the year, and we have taken a number of really great thought-provoking classes.

For Shabbos, we went to the Aish building and lit candles then sang Lecha Dodi before heading down to the Kotel to pray or dance or sing or simply experience Shabbat. I have gone to the Kotel for Shabbos before and it is really amazing. There are Jews from all over who are observant, non-observant, just passing through, or Israeli and they all come to the Kotel to celebrate Shabbos. It is really do amazing and I think everyone should have the experience of celebrating Shabbos at the Kotel at least once. It is loud and you can hear the singing and praying and feel the fullness of the energy even when you aren't at the Kotel yet. We ate Shabbos dinner at Aish and then walked home.

On Shabbos, we slept in late and then had meals, a few classes, free time, and eventually Havdalah down the street.

Sunday is like the beginning of the week again. We had to get up early and we had some amazing classes. Starting with an ongoing class on women's role in Judaism, we spoke about the feminist movement. I didn't agree with the interpretation of the feminist movement, but it helps to identify how the Orthodox movement in general views the feminist movement. We will be touching upon all the questions of Jewish womanhood in the next few classes on that topic. Next wad a bit of ulpan, or Hebrew class. I thought it was so helpful and I have a few phrases I can say. Clearly I can't speak in long conversations but I can ask simple questions and know some of the responses. This week our themes of the classes have encompassed G-d, the physical world, the spiritual world, and the divine origins of the Torah. These are ideas and arguments I have never heard before and it has been so incredibly interesting and made me really think. I have so many questions, but I am starting to understand the idea of G-d and Torah from the Jewish perspective, and what I find most intriguing is that these are topics and discussions that we have never had in Hebrew school or other Jewish discussions I've had. This is the core of what Judaism believes yet my Conservative Jewish synagogue did not even touch on the idea of G-d or why we believe what we believe. Yesterday, we participated in the Aish Discovery program, a one-day seminar that seeks to prove that the Torah was divinely given. The three afternoon sessions really were intriguing. The first was given by the professor Dr. Gerald Schroeder who wrote the book, The Science of G-d, a New York Times best seller. In it he essentially argues how the Bible is correct on creation looking at science and using science. One session was on Torah codes and that section really threw me. This is different from Bible codes in general, and the speaker spoke about peer-reviewed articles in nationally published science journals that discuss the validity of the Torah codes that have predicted everything, from the diabetes solution to terrorist events and natural disasters, along with the names of prominent rabbis and the dates of their deaths. I am so interested in getting my hands on these articles. Finally the last session discussed history and the land and nation of Israel. I bought the book that discusses all these points again so I can reread and process everything we discussed that day.

Today we discussed the purpose and meaning of life. What I liked most about it was that the rabbi spoke that he is not there/here to convince us that G-d exists but rather to be open with our emotions to what we believe. Are we looking and hoping that G-d doesn't exist? If so, then nothing else is going to matter. We spoke about purpose and justice. He essentially said that even though he doesn't feel that there is justice in the world and we get what we may deserve, he is saying that there must be justice elsewhere if a G-d exists. He compared life with games. In all games there is a game designer. Soccer, basketball, monopoly, etc. it is because of the rules of the game that you know when and how and who has won. There can't be purpose in randomness and there must be a game designer who also knows the purpose. If life is random, why are we here? What is the reason? The only way life has purpose, the rabbi argued, was if there is a game designer. We may not understand the goal, but we can strive for it.

Today we also spent about an hour packing boxes of food for the needy in Israel and we had a short discussion on chesed or kindness.

It has been a few very eventful days in class but I'm exhausted, since living in a dorm makes it difficult to sleep. Also sickness has been making the rounds and I'm trying to stay well. Of to sleep! Hope everyone is doing well in the States!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Aish classes

We had our first classes today. In the first, we discussed Shabbat. I know a lot about Shabbat, but as a liberal Jew, I don't feel obligated to keep all the rules and regulations surrounding it. Instead, I celebrate it by staying off Facebook to remind me about making and keeping real relationships rather than technology-driven relationships. Sure that is harder since I don't live in a city with my family and I have friends all over the world, but to me, it is more about face to face, intimate interactions between people. We can hang out together and not necessarily discuss important things, but having a conversation and understanding the nuances of human interactions are very important.

Then, we had a class using the Cain and Abel story to discuss jealousy on a basic level. This will be an ongoing class during which we will explore themes of jealousy in the Torah and how that relates to our lives.

After lunch, we boarded a bus for the Old City where we took a tour of the Aish HaTorah building. The roof has a great view of the Kotel and Temple Mount. We took pictures. One thing that came up was when we heard the call to prayer. I think it is so amazing to hear the call, but I get the feeling that other women in the group have clear biases against Muslims and/or feel that the call to prayer is offensive in some way to their own experience here, unnecessary or illegitimate in the state of Israel. I don't have the language (yet) to explain why I disagree with the views of the other women in the group, but hopefully by the end of my year here, I will be able to say something to this.

The first class at Aish discussed Abraham as the first monotheist. The same idea of questioning everything arose in this class. The second class was the most interesting to me, and it followed the ideas of the Five Levels of Pleasure as written by Rabbi Noah Weinberg that I found on Aish's website at <a href="http://www.aish.com/sp/f/Five_Levels_of_Pleasure.html?tab=y">this link</a>. The ideas follow Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs somewhat closely, in that physical pleasure is the least advanced form and it goes up to love, doing good for others (or having passion about a cause), creativity, and  then having spirituality, specifically with having a relationship with a higher being. Pretty similar to the Hierarchy of Needs in my opinion. Finally, the third class was taught by a professor from New York, who spoke about the upcoming election and what it means for Jews. I liked the class, but he spoke like a political science professor and it was hard to keep up. It was really his opinion on how Israel and the Jews figure into the upcoming election, in politics generally, and the meaning of that. It wasn't necessarily new information, but good to consider nonetheless.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

First day of Jewel

We had a late start this morning at 10am, which was good because people stayed up late. Everyone is on weird schedules, and I'm hoping that changes soon. People were up until 4 or 5 am when it finally got quiet.

We had an orientation and discussed our schedule for the next three weeks. The education director gave this talk today about the attitude and perspective we should have during the course of the program, and how only we control our mind. She encourages us to question how everything works within our own ideology, but to be open to what is being discussed. What I found interesting is that she said she is so cynical and critical. The point of education is growth and not necessarily just to take blindly what the teacher is saying. Being open to new ideas is important, though. If we know where we are going to be at the end, what kind of journey is it?

It seems that many of the classes are about Jewish concepts, prayer and texts, women in Judaism, and Israeli politics. I'm looking forward to learning more about the conflict which I feel I know almost nothing about.

The women are from all over and from different backgrounds,which should make for interesting discussions.

It is so hot here, but it is a dry heat. So I'm constantly drinking water. I'm amazed at how much I can drink but still need more.

We went on a short tour of Jerusalem today and went to the Kotel for the first of many times. We saw the city from Mount Scopus and then ended at the educational director's house for dinner. Tomorrow we start with our classes.