By Lauren Rabin
Special to HAKOL
When I heard about joining the 2017 summer trip to Israel led by the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Program (JWRP), in partnership with the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley, my first response was “absolutely not!” How would I do it, even if I wanted to go? The thought of leaving my family for nine days while I travel through Israel was out of the question.
But after gathering more information from friends and discussing it further with my husband and family, my mindset changed. I became excited! I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to travel the Jewish homeland with 17 other women of similar backgrounds who were soon to become my new best friends.
The months leading up to the June trip were all about Israel. Everything I bought had to do with our trip: hats, sandals, dresses … everything. I was counting down the minutes and I couldn’t wait. I was surprised at how excited I was. My initial reaction of not going was now replaced by the knowledge that this was going to be the trip of a lifetime.
Our Allentown group was fortunate enough to share the tour bus with 22 other amazing women from Philadelphia who we first met departing Newark Airport for Ben Gurion. There was an instant bond and we all got along very well, helping and supporting each other throughout the entire journey.
The first day in Israel was spent in Tiberius where we explored the town of Zickhron Ya’acov and enjoyed cooling off in the Sea of Galilee. That evening, hundreds of us listened to Lori Palatnick (founding director of JWRP) speak about marriage and relationships in Jewish families and then enjoyed our first of many fabulous Israeli meals at a restaurant called Decks. Here we were, Jewish mothers from all over the world, dancing the night away and welcoming the week to come.
The following day we traveled to Tzfat. There we visited a mikvah, the old synagogue of Abuhav, “shmai’d” around the beautiful artisan shops and enjoyed some authentic Israeli falafel, my favorite falafel of the trip! There I bought my son, Aron, a necklace with the Sh’ma inscribed on it (we sing it every night) and he has been wearing it every day since.
The next day in Jerusalem proved to be extremely emotional. We walked through Mamilla Mall (the Fifth Avenue of Jerusalem) to get to the Kotel. Whether you’re visiting the Kotel for the first time or you’ve been before, the feeling that rushes through your body as you place your note in the wall and your hand on its ancient and holy stones is unexplainable. It was magical. Next, with our emotions running on high, we visited Yad Vashem. As a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, their experiences were always impossible to grasp. How did this happen? Why did this happen to my family? Yad Vashem serves to preserve for all time the memories and stories of so many victims and survivors. We all walked over a creaky bridge to enter the center, bleak and grey, but immediately were drawn to a bright shining light from the other end; the exit. This exit is the portal to hope and determination which literally foreshadowed the rest of our adventure into modern Israel.
The trip continued with many highlights including seminars hosted by Adrienne Gold (education leader) and the extraordinary Lori Palatnick about self-acceptance and defining Jewish personality traits respectively. Our return to the Kotel that Friday night was unforgettable. It was followed by a Shabbat dinner at the Leonardo Hotel led by the very knowledgeable and animated Rabbi Gabriel Friedman. “Rab Gab,” as he called himself, was extremely engaging, funny and learned. Saturday was spent learning even more with Rabbi Friedman and Lori. What followed was an authentic Shabbat lunch provided by the Shabbat Experience and hosted by the Glickstein family from Nachlaot. Spending the day with a family who has firm roots in Jerusalem made us feel right at home. The day ended with spiritual learning and song at the Lone Soldier Center in Old Jerusalem, a center created by philanthropists Pamela and Abba Claman that offers support to those soldiers from abroad without family in Israel before, during and after their army service.
On day six, all of our physical and emotional strength was tested. The day started with a hike on Masada during an Israeli heat wave. The extreme heat didn‘t seem to bother us as we mustered all of our strength to continue learning. We then continued with a visit to Kfar Hanokdim, a Bedouin oasis. We sat in the shade of their large tent and were served sweet tea made from desert herbs and freshly brewed coffee during a traditional welcoming ceremony. Next came the camel rides; something I swore I would not do but could not pass up and I’m glad I did it! During lunch, at the desert oasis, our very own group member Nina, became Frieda in a beautiful and touching Hebrew naming ceremony. After lunch we continued to the extraordinary Dead Sea where we slathered ourselves in mud and floated with our limbs high out of the water, bodies buoyant. The most emotional part of that day ended at Ein Prat Mechina, an academy where many high school graduates attend before they enter the IDF. At this incredible institution, students strengthen their leadership skills and physicality. These brave young boys and girls served us a delicious and impressive dinner and we were given the opportunity to ask them questions about their experiences and goals. They put their life on the line for the State of Israel and for the Jewish Diaspora. And for that we thanked them. We sang together at a bonfire that evening as if they were our own children.
As an art lover, I was only too happy to end our trip with a visit to Yad Lakashish, a nonprofit organization that empowers and supports elderly Jewish citizens of Israel. The work they produce was impressive and professional and it was inspiring and heartwarming to see an organization that supports its most vulnerable seniors, giving them purpose and autonomy. We bought out the gift shop! Put Yad Lakashish on your “to do” list when visiting Jerusalem.
Our final stop was Independence Hall in Tel Aviv. Listening to the late Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion proudly proclaim Israel’s independence highlighted our week’s journey by clearly bringing Israel, its remarkable people and unforgettable places forever into our hearts and minds. We went from despair at visiting Yad Vashem to exhilaration at hearing the declaration of Israel’s independence. His speech was prophetic with respect to Israel’s essence and what it means to be a part of the world’s Jewish people.
This Israel experience has further strengthened my Jewish values to empower my community. I am forever grateful that I agreed to participate in this adventure of a lifetime, for the special bonds that were created among our group, and for the people I met along the way