Bahai News - Another Approach

Another Approach

Sunday, April 23, 2000

By JILL SCHENSUL
Leisure Editor

"Look at this, look where they're taking us," groused a man on our bus as we trundled along the two-lane road along the Dead Sea. "What are we doing here?"

Perhaps there was no shopping along this road, no Dome of the Rock, no new cuisine dining. Yes, we were away from the typical tourist attractions one would come to Israel to see.

Exactly.

We were not on a typical tour. This was not the Top 10 of Israel. It wasn't about visiting religious sites in Jerusalem or diving in the fabulous waters off Eilat.

It was about another side of Israel. Our tour, Mission 2000, organized by the United Jewish Communities (formerly the United Jewish Appeal) and its various agencies and gathering 700 people from New Jersey, was designed to show us the reality behind the curtain, behind the headlines; it was a backstage tour of the inner workings of this 50-year-young, millenniums-old country.

You scratch the surface in Israel, you come up with another layer -- literally, of course. But Israel is also, today, one of the most complex places on the planet, sociologically, economically -- you name it. And so while there are certainly Top 10 tours of Israel, a great many of them are designed with special-interest groups in mind. At the very least, they are divided into Jewish, Christian, and Muslim interest tours. But the divisions go further, to archaeology, women's issues, health and medicine, agricultural tours, language tours, youth camps, and lots more. If your group can think up a theme, there is probably a tour operator in Israel that can make it happen.

The UJC (the word "Communities" reflects the national group's new status as an umbrella organization for Jewish philanthropy) is unquestionably one of the masters of the mission trip, able to open doors sometimes closed to the public, sometimes overlooked entirely.

The first time I went to Israel, I of course took note of the complexities, the influences. The girls carrying rifles; the fields of fruit in the desert; the Arab and Druze and Israeli villages all strung in a line, the barbed wire with flowers growing on either side.

But I was dazzled by the obvious. The Western Wall, with its great outpouring of emotions, and the golden Dome of the Rock just beyond it; the Via Dolorosa, trod smooth by millenniums of footsteps, including those of Jesus; the scope and drama of Masada; the still blue-green of the Dead Sea, the thriving kibbutzim.

But after four trips, having done everything from the resort idea at Eilat to the adventure of Bedouin tenting in the desert, the shine was off the dazzle. There were some things in Israel I still hadn't done or seen -- the waterfront city of Haifa, some of the museums in Tel Aviv -- but I pretty much felt I had gotten a grasp on the compact Middle Eastern country.

I was a little skeptical of going on a "mission." I am not a mission sort of person. I do not like en masse activities or mind-sets; I don't like holding hands with strangers and bursting into prayer with strangers.

But the itinerary for the "mission" sponsored by UJA Federation, the local arm, certainly seemed to offer a different look at the country. It wasn't about getting religion. It was about getting down to the people level in Israel, to see what made the country tick. The ties between Israel and the United States are, naturally, strong, and UJA has contributed greatly to programs for Israel and its people. Seeing those programs in action was the focus of this trip.

Which was, then, the answer to this slightly disgruntled man's question: Where are they taking us, and why?

I had been, on several occasions, to Kibbutz Ein Gedi, one of Israel's oldest kibbutzim and an extremely prosperous one, with interests in tourism, agriculture, and industry. This time, we were going to visit communities that were some of the poorest and least successful in the country.

The city of Ofakim and its surrounding communities were the beneficiaries of UJA funding for education and cultural programs. Ofakim has been in the news for several years for having the highest unemployment and crime rates in the country. When it was founded by David Ben Gurion half a century ago, the vision of Israel was one of agricultural oasis, but today agriculture is becoming a less viable means of support. And an enormous influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Africa has further strained the economy and housing. Language and cultural differences are further complicating the mixture. Young people who can find work elsewhere leave the community.

We toured Moshav Sdeh Tsvi, one of the 14 moshavim (similar to a kibbutz, but less communal) outside of Ofakim. In a simple, bare room with plastic chairs and metal tables and a hand-printed WELCOME sign, we came together with members of the community to see how they got by, close up. Yes, we knew that Israel has come far, coaxing an oasis from the desert, but here, we saw how. On a gray, drizzly afternoon we tottered through fields of rough-tilled dirt to admire flowers and oranges and looked on with appropriate admiration as a farmer showed us tomatoes in various stages of growth inside huge plastic tents piled with boxes stamped in Israeli letters and with occasional broken-down radios poised to make the time go by. Arline Seidman of Hackensack, on her third mission with UJA, observed: "This is the best way to see Israel. Who else but the UJA would be crazy enough to take us here?"

Sdeh Tsvi was mainly of Moroccan heritage, established in 1953. The religious leaders of the community opened the ark in their synagogue and showed off the gorgeously detailed Torahs that had come from their homeland.

The tomato farmer, Haem, seeing my interest in the outside of his house, invited our little group inside. Seven of us, with muddy feet and probing eyes, appeared, unannounced, inside the doorway. Instead of reacting with horror, Haem's wife seemed thrilled to see us.

She invited us in with a wave of her hand, to sit on the couches in her small, tidy living room.

We explained, as best we could (she knew no English), that we had no time. "You can stay 15 minutes," Marcelle decreed in French, which at least some of us understood. "What do you want to drink?"

"Really, we can't," I said, as my fellow tour participants shuffled about awkwardly.

"Yes, you can," she said flatly. "What do you want to drink?"

As we backed out of the house toward the door, she pointed to the photographs of children all over her wall. Five children, she said, and 10 grandchildren. She repeated these numbers. Even the pictures seemed to convey the love.

At lunch that day, the leader of our group offered a book on New Jersey to the leader of their group. And they gave us a plaque with a rendition of the beautiful Western Wall. They nearly killed us with feeding and topped off a perfect visit with a perfect gift: little address books, so we could keep in touch.

We sang "Dayenu," Hebrew for "Enough." I hadn't thought I would remember the words. I hadn't thought I would want to sing with a bunch of strangers. Then again, I wasn't with a bunch of strangers.

The words of "Shalom," another familiar song, resonated later, as we watched the debut of a play, "Ofakim," in the theater of the city of that same name. A 10-year-old boy, eyes closed, hands outstretched, sang the words of the song, putting meaning into every one. The song was the only non-original in the play, about life in this rough and strife-ridden town. The song was embedded in a long series of monologues by various young people talking about their individual heritages, reminiscences of their grandparents or parents, and how they came from the far corners of the earth to settle in Ofakim. They wore the traditional dress of their heritage: India, Ethiopia, Yemen, and beyond, and spoke with a mixture of irony and pride of how they came to this place, Ofakim, now one of the poorest places in this Promised Land. It wasn't just the passionate conviction of the little boy singing, but what he was singing about, that caught my heart in my throat: "Shalom," said Israel, to all the children of the Diaspora. Come here, you are welcome, in this place.

The ramifications of that policy were also obvious at our stop in Haifa, at the Neve Josef recreation center, in a part of town experiencing a great influx of immigrants. The center, funded with money from the Bergen County and North Hudson chapter of UJA, has a library and several volunteers who help children with their homework after school; the center has recently installed a computer center.

For some children, this is the only support they will get in their schoolwork. The parents are sometimes unemployed, or working two jobs and not home, and in many cases cannot read Hebrew. The children here are thrust into a new environment, a new school system, made to deal with an entirely new life. "For some of these kids, they'd never written with a pencil three months ago," said one of the volunteers. Today, they are on the Internet and speaking and writing Hebrew fluently. In fact, the children often surpass their parents in assimilating to their new homeland. A situation that might become a problem in the future.

In Haifa, we also visited a program for bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah training for educationally challenged children. A core of staff -- including a cantor and a rabbi, among them Rabbi Helaine Ettinger, formerly of Kinnelon -- travels to different schools around the country, offering training to children who otherwise would have no opportunity to be bar or bat mitzvahed.

For me, one of the fallen, it was moving to see the children learning, learning hard and concentrating with all their might, to learn the Torah, to perform the ancient rite of passage into adulthood. Throughout the trip, in fact, we were confronted again and again with the comparisons of the situation of Jews in America vs. those in Israel. In Israel's early years, the sabras (native-born Israelis) wanted Americans to make "aliyah" and join the struggle to create the homeland. Today, the thrill of the new baby is gone, and life is moving on to maturity. Many Israelis are now moving to the more comfortable lifestyle of the United States.

Not that we were entirely comfortable, actually. While the lodging and the transportation were first class, the pace was breakneck. Being at lectures at 8 a.m., going all day to see sites that constantly challenged our hearts and minds, and going to dinners and discussions at night.

"Eight days, no nights," was how someone characterized the trip, and it was true. It was work. We spent two days at the Dead Sea, staying at the Hyatt, which has one of the most extensive spas in Israel. But many of us never set toe in the Dead Sea or got to partake of the spa facilities at all.

In Haifa, we got a passing glance, from the gardens at the stunning Bahai Temple, of the shiny white cityscape hugging the blue coastline. But all it was was temptation; the focus was day care and health care, not restaurants and harbor cruises and shopping.

In Jerusalem, we had a half a day -- Saturday -- for free time; several tours were also offered. I chose to go to Bethlehem, a city I'd never visited, and we had only enough time to visit the Church of the Nativity and the newly spruced-up area for the pope's imminent visit, and buy a couple of stuffed camels from a kid in the street.

We had a night in Tel Aviv, where we ran like crazy through the tony shops of Old Jaffa, and a night in Jerusalem, where we power-shopped on Ben Yehuda Street. But unless you were extending your stay (many had, signing up for extensions to Jordan or Egypt or simply to visit friends), you would get only a slight glimpse of magical Jerusalem.

But, in keeping with the trip, my experience in the city this time was different and unique, thanks to the nature of the group. As sundown drew near on Friday evening, all 700 of us gathered together at the Southern Wall. I had never even been to this part of the wall of the Second Temple, much less partaken of a Sabbath service with 700 others.

As the sun set, guest speaker Rabbi Avram Infeld talked to us about Israel, and how the Sabbath was a perfect time to reflect on the meaning of Israel, and ourselves. On six days you work, on the seventh you rest. A simple instruction. To leave work behind, "to stop taking advantage of nature and just admire it and your place in it," the rabbi said.

"I travel 3,000 years every morning to get to work," Infeld said, and I knew exactly what he meant. "Israel forces you to question your own identity."

Mission accomplished.

* * *

Jill Schensul wrote a daily diary from Israel; go to www.njcommunities.com/sites/jill to read it.

For information on upcoming UJA trips, contact the organization at (201) 488-6800 or on the Web at www.jewishbergen.org.

* * *

If you go

While Pope John Paul II visited many important and traditional sites in Israel, his historic visit itself has created new and significant sites.

One of them will undoubtedly an exhibit of the letter expressing the Vatican's apology for centuries of antisemitism, tucked by John Paul II into a crevice in the Western Wall. The letter is to be on permanent display at the Yad Vashem Museum and Memorial of the Holocaust.

Also new is the 17.5-acre Pope John Paul II Forest planted at Amnun, on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee on March 24. Here visitors will find the olive-tree sapling that the Pope blessed at his sermon on the mount; it is among a new forest of carob, oak, and eucalyptus trees.

Following John Paul II

Some 3 million visitors will come to Israel in 2000 -- more than ever before. An itinerary in the pope's footsteps would include:

In Jerusalem:

THE CENACLE, or Upper Room, atop Mount Zion, traditional site of Jesus' Last Supper;

BET HaNASSI, the official residence of the president of the State of Israel;

The YAD VASHEM Memorial of the Holocaust;

HECHAL SHLOMO: site of Israel's Chief Rabbinate and the Great Synagogue;

The GARDEN OF GETHSEMANE, where Jesus spent the night before the crucifixion, with its ancient olive trees and the Church of Nations;

The TEMPLE MOUNT, site of the Second Temple standing at the time of Jesus, with its Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque;

THE WESTERN WALL, Judaism's holiest site, a section of the retaining wall of the Temple compound that remained after the Roman destruction;

THE CHURCH OF THE HOLY SEPULCHER, traditional site of Jesus' crucifixion and entombment, where this year, on March 26, for the first time in history, clergy of the six denominations that share the church prayed as one with John Paul II.

Near Jerusalem:

QASR AL YAHUD on the River Jordan, traditional site of Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist;

BETHLEHEM, with its Grotto of the Nativity within the Greek Orthodox Basilica of the Nativity, and the adjacent Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine.

Galilee:

KORAZIM (the New Testament's Chorazin), cursed by Jesus, site of the giant Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II on March 24;

The MOUNT OF BEATITUDES, traditional site of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount;

TABGHA, traditional site of Jesus' multiplication of the loaves and fishes;

CAPERNAUM, the Galilee fishing village that was home of Peter;

NAZARETH, Jesus' home until the age of 30. The pope celebrated Annunciation Day Mass in the modern Basilica of the Annunciation (consecrated in 1964 by Pope Paul VI) and visited the ancient Grotto of the Annunciation, traditional site of the visit to Mary by the Angel Gabriel with the news that she would bear a son.

INFORMATION:

Options for special-interest tours run the gamut, from YMCAs and churches to the United Jewish Appeal, Catholic Ministries, etc.

For information on travel to Israel and lists of tour operators as well as how to set up your own tour, call the Israel Ministry of Tourism InfoCenter at (888) 77-ISRAEL or visit www.goisrael.com.

-- JILL SCHENSUL


©Copyright 2000, Bergen Record Corp.

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