I recently returned from eight days in Israel. After months of reaching for the newspaper first thing each morning and follow with online searches for even more recent events, I felt a strong need to go to Israel and see firsthand how things were going. I was nervous before I left due to the constant photos of destruction and despair. It is the first time that I blessed each of my children before departing on a trip.
As I rode in the cab from Ben-Gurion airport to Jerusalem, I marveled at how life seemed unchanged physically. The highway was full of cars. It was hard to imagine that less than 10 miles from the airport and its modern freeway were Palestinian villages in squalor. My travel partner was going to the Sheraton in Jerusalem, a 24-story building in the heart of the city. The cabbie said that he was not sure as to its location, because he had not traveled with a tourist to Jerusalem in six months. Not everything was the same.
I met with three former Orange County residents during my visit.
Richard Jaffe moved to Israel nearly 18 years ago. He traded in his Laguna Beach home and Porsche for an apartment in the Old City. He says that he and his wife made the move to enhance their children's lives. Richard was the first podiatrist in Israel and has developed a reputation for skillful surgeries. Richard's office is decorated with what appears to be the world's largest collection of ancient feet in the form of pottery, stone and bronze. Richard's synagogue is in the Muslim Quarter of the City, providing a challenging walk on Saturday mornings. He and his wife have succeeded in crafting close bonds with their four children, each married, and their four grandchildren.
Robbie Hurwitz is a UCLA student from my congregation who has spent the academic year on the Junior Year Abroad program at Hebrew University. The UC system withdrew their support after Passover due to legal concerns, asking UC students to return home. He is now registered under the auspices of Hebrew University. Although Junior Year Abroad usually draws close to 500 students from the United States, this current semester there are 60 students. Despite the problems, he stayed and had the time of his life. The morning I rendezvoused with Robbie he was taking a noncredit class on Hasidut at the Conservative Yeshiva. He says that he has operated with caution, but has not felt afraid during his two-semester stay.
Debbie Sklar, who grew up in my congregation, has lived in Israel for the past five years and is a government-employed archaeologist and graduate student. During a visit to Israel she fell in love with an Israeli. Debbie and her partner, Masada, made a formal commitment to each other several years ago and she is now expecting twins, a medical procedure paid for by National Health Insurance. Debbie provides me a window into the life of the gay community in Israel, a collective that participates in an annual gay pride parade. Israel is a country that knowingly accepts gays into the armed service and provides medical benefits to life partners. Debbie and Masada live in Pisgat Ze'ev, a suburb of Jerusalem on the other side of the Green Line. Debbie says that Israel is home and she has no intention of leaving. It is the place where she wants to raise her children. I adore Debbie, knowing her generosity of spirit and her inner strength.
Life in Israel is a roller coaster, with great highs and lows and always a sense of leaning forward on your chair. On my last day in Israel the homicide bombing resumed after a two-week lull. I was on a tour bus to the Palmach museum, an engaging, audiovisual immersion in the birth of Israel, when I heard the news. As the radio on the bus told the story, the tension and sadness was palpable. Life in Israel is hard because there is uncertainty over how the situation will progress. Nonetheless, people maintain their sanity by looking to each other for friendship and investing time in their families.
I returned with holy envy for the sense of place and purpose I observed among family and friends. I was also much more relaxed in Israel than I had anticipated, because the tragic events have a larger context of ongoing daily life. I am glad that I went and would take my family the next time, because it is a joy to be in Israel and far safer than it appears from reading the newspapers' headlines.
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