Posted by Masa Israel Journey
by Matthew Eisenberg, participant in Masa Israel’s Oranim Internship Experience
How do I explain in words who my grandfather was and what he meant to me? I guess if you took all that is right in the world and mixed it with the biggest heart, you would have my grandfather. I didn’t know it back then but he is everything I now hope to be.
My story begins nine years ago when I was in Israel. I was on a kibbutz when my grandfather got sick. At the time, my parents were on a trip in Europe and started making the necessary arrangements to return. But my grandfather told my father no, he had to continue on his trip. You see, my father’s trip was supposed to end with a visit to Israel to spend time with me, and that was more important to my grandfather.
My family believes that Israel is a very special place. Growing up I learned that if you fall off the path that you need to be on, a trip to Israel will set you right. I was in Israel trying to find meaning and purpose, and my grandfather believed that my father’s visit to Israel was more important than his return to the US to be with him. So, my dad came, we had a spectacular time and then he went home to his father.
When my grandfather took a turn for the worst, I got on the next available flight and went straight to the hospital. He was in bad shape. He had a breathing tube and was not aware of anything. Now, I don’t know if when he realized I was home it triggered something, or if it was just a coincidence, but he got better for a little while. We were able to talk to him and I remember my uncle counting how many breaths he was making on his own per minute. It was great to have our grandfather back, even for just a brief moment.
Eventually, he became sicker and passed away. At that point in my life, nobody that close to me had died. So I didn’t know how to deal with the emotions I was confronting. But I knew I had to do something to honor him.
I decided to take the book he wrote about how he and his family survived the Holocaust, and turn it into a screenplay. At the time, I didn’t know how to write a screenplay but I knew that it was what I had to do. It took almost four months but I finished it and decided to pursue a career in Hollywood. My goal was to one day make my grandfather’s movie. So I went to film school and after graduating took every job I could find until my odyssey brought me back to Israel in the winter of 2010.
I enrolled in the Masa Israel-funded program called Oranim Internship Experience, which found me an internship at the Israel Film Fund. While I was in the program, my brother came to Israel to study in Jerusalem right across from the Kotel. We met up and went to some classes—one which my brother actually taught, and had a great day. When it was time for mincha, we went to the Kotel tunnel for the most amazing moment of my life. I can be called many things, but spiritual is not one of them. Yet, while standing there at that moment, something happened.
All of a sudden I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand as an arm rested on it. When I looked to my left to see who it belonged to, I found my grandfather beside me. With his signature warm smile he said, “I’m proud of you and I love you.”
I looked at him with tears falling and closed my eyes for a second, and then, he was gone. I rushed out of the tunnel to the main part of the wall to get some air when I realized my note came true. You see, when I was ten years old, I put a note in the Wall that said, “I wish my whole family would live forever in this wall.”
Here I was in front of the wall, seeing and feeling my grandfather who had been dead for eight years. All I could do was sit down and cry. I just wanted to tell him that I missed him and loved him. I had a second chance to say these things to him, but I blew it. Then again, I’m sure he knows.
This took place this past January and since then, I have become a little more spiritual. Also, because this country was so important to him and his faith, I have kept Shabbat to a certain extent since the encounter with my grandfather. I am planning on staying in Israel because I feel my grandfather everywhere. And even though I may never see him again or have a situation remotely similar, just being here allows me to believe, like a child would, that it just might happen.
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March 11, 2011 | 8:34 am
Posted by Masa Israel Journey
by Gabriella Davidson, alumna of Masa Israel’s Bar Ilan Israel Experience
It was a Friday night and I was sitting in a home in Jerusalem surrounded by over two hundred different kinds of people. There were seminary girls, Asian men, hippies, black hatters, Christians, Israelis, non-practicing Jews, poor and wealthy, yet I have never before felt more united with a group of strangers.
At the time, I was studying abroad at Bar Ilan University. During the week, I engaged in studies right outside Tel Aviv and over the weekend, I liked to spend Shabbat traveling to different communities throughout country. Other international students shared the names of excellent host families, and people consistently mentioned Rabbi Mordechai and Henny Machlis, who opened up their home to complete strangers for Shabbat meals at no cost. Apparently, there was nothing like the “Machlis Experience.” So one Friday night, I finally decided to experience it for myself and my friend and I made our way to 137/26 Maalot Dafna, Jerusalem.
It was the Friday night before Pesach, one of the busiest Shabbats of the year in Israel when we arrived at a modest apartment jam packed with guests. Not only were the guests seated against the sefarim (Jewish books)-lined walls, but they were even spilling out onto the doorstep. We were debating whether or not to leave, when suddenly a woman greeted us excitedly. “Shabbat shalom!” she said, kindly leading us through an obstacle course to their tiny kitchen where chairs and a table were set for us.
It took me a few moments to process the beautiful sight taking place before our eyes. As the diverse group of guests patiently engaged in conversations, while waiting for the meal to start, the Machlis children joyously set dishes on each table. Not only did they serve a delicious three-course meal, but they also made sure to welcome and talk to each of their guests, showing a genuine interest in their lives.
At one point during dinner, while the hot soup was being served, all of the lights went out. Sitting in a pitch-black room with complete strangers, I expected people to experience a state of panic. Instead, numerous non-Jews exclaimed that they were gentiles and would be happy to turn the lights back on. Mrs. Machlis smiled at her girls and told her guests that they were G-d sent.
Seated in the kitchen was like having a backstage pass to the “Machlis Experience” and my friend and I decided to take advantage of our VIP seating. We learned that Rabbi and Mrs. Machlis began hosting people for Shabbat when they first got married and gradually it turned into what it has become today. For 30 years, they have hosted these meals every Shabbat, with the exception of two Shabbats out of the year. I was astonished, considering the fact that they have been blessed with 14 children.
“Did you take a couple of months off after each child was born?” I asked.
Mrs. Machlis looked at me in surprise. “Why would we need to take a break? I would be with my baby for the first two Shabbats in my room…and then I’d come back out!” I felt so inspired by her continued devotion to these acts of altruism.
Not only was Mrs. Machlis an excellent cook, but she was an inspiring speaker as well. In the middle of the meal, she announced that because her husband was out of town, she would share words of Torah with everyone. She delivered a beautiful speech filled with words to which all of her guests could relate.
At the end of the night, my friend and I thanked the Machlis family and started walking back to my friend’s dorm, completely speechless for the first ten minutes. As cheesy as it may sound, I truly believe that G-d sent the Machlis family into this world to engage in tikkun olam, repairing the world and touching the lives of complete strangers. EVERYONE is welcomed into their home, regardless of their race, religion, or social status. In our society, it is typical that when you invite a family over for a Shabbat meal, they will likely reciprocate. However, the Machlis family is the exception: they endlessly give and expect nothing in return.
All my life I have learned about the great mitzvot of hachnassat orachim (hospitality) and tikkun olam, as seen through Avraham. I was lucky enough to witness them firsthand in the Machlis’s home.
March 3, 2011 | 2:42 pm
Posted by Bracha Stettin, participant in Masa Israel’s Kivunim
Thirty hours ago, I left a country whose Jewish population went from 300,000 to 3,000 in the past 60 years. I walked the narrow paths between the houses where these Jews used to live, I breathed in the air of the synagogues where they prayed every day, three times a day. Over and over again I found myself asking, why have they gone?
This story may sound familiar, but this is not Poland. I left a country where snow falls only in the high Atlas Mountains and where there never was a Holocaust. In this country, the dominant religious power is neither the Pope nor constituents of the church. Rather, King Mohammed VI is the “leader of the faithful” and imams travel from mosque to mosque, teaching the words of the Koran. Arabic and French are the main languages spoken here. The landscape of this breathtaking country reflects the colors of the national flag; red and green repeat themselves in stunning variety across the entire country. I have just left Morocco.
What was a nice Jewish girl on a Masa Israel program doing in Morocco? I am a participant in Kivunim, a gap-year program based in Jerusalem that travels to 12 different countries throughout the year. In Jerusalem, we learn Arabic, improve our Hebrew, examine the Middle East from different perspectives, and learn intensively about each country to which we will be traveling.
The journeys we take fundamentally reshape my perception of Jewish history and identity. I have found that each country’s unique Jewish history develops intertwined with the history of its particular country. In Greece, I discovered the influence of Hellenism on the Jews and then visited the Parthenon.
In Bulgaria, I met amazing peers who have taken on leadership roles in a Jewish community that is still reinventing itself since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under Communism, Bulgaria banned religion, leading to intermarriage and the loss of Jewish identity and after its fall, Judaism came out of the woodwork, shook off the dust, and looked around. Today the Bulgarian Jewish community thrives. More teens participate in Sofian Jewish life than in all the communities of Greece combined. The community celebrates chagim, hosts weekly get-togethers, participates in Jewish youth organizations, and most members would not be considered halachically Jewish. This may be a problem for some, yet they take part in keeping Judaism alive in a place where there would otherwise be no Jewish presence.
Exposure to these environments has made me realize that there is no such thing as simple. By first accepting that there are infinite layers and discussions to be had, I gain the necessary tools to deal with a whole range of situations. In understanding that things will be messy, I prepare myself to better engage with new experiences and narratives. This, I am learning, is the first step towards resolution.
I am now aware of truths that urgently need to be spread. I know now that Jews and Muslims prospered side by side for thousands of years. I know now that at Al Ahfawaken University’s Memuna Club, there are students, just like me, working to enlighten others about this Jewish-Muslim history. I know now that each year, thousands of Muslim students visit the only Jewish Museum in the Arab world, located in Casablanca. I know now that several Jewish schools in Casablanca have a 25% Muslim student body. The past two weeks in Morocco defied my notions of what an Arab Muslim country would look like. Instead, I have found complexity, nuance, and layers. I’ve learned that when anyone tells me a simple answer, I need to look closer. When I hear that things won’t change and this is how they are, I must push farther. The surface is just the beginning. It’s time to scratch deeper.
July 19, 2010 | 12:29 pm
As we approach the 9th of Av, we have been considering what the message of the 9th of Av is for us, as people working with individuals and communities that have suffered great disasters.
At first we thought that the message was one of commiseration: The survivors of hurricanes, floods, and other disasters, have suffered a great loss; we, too, have suffered a great loss, one that we commemorate even today, 2,000 years later.
But the more we thought about it, the more we realized that the message we needed to learn from Thisha B’Av was not about the 9th of Av at all. We needed to learn the message of the Tenth of Av (Yud B’Av).
Yud B’Av is a day of hope. It is the day when someone comes out into the rubble and lifts the first stone. It is a day still tinged with sadness, when we remember the destruction that has befallen us—but at the same time, it is the day we begin to look forward, knowing that there will be a tomorrow that will be better than today.
Communities that have been hit by disasters need many things on their Yud B’Av. They need the basics (food, water, shelter), they need manpower (contractors, plumbers, roofers, volunteers), and they need materials. But one thing that is often over looked after a disaster is the need for hope.
We at the JDRC try to bring the message of Yud B’Av to communities affected by disasters. We come in the day after devastation, to pick up the first stone. We don’t just tell the community that there will be a brighter tomorrow—we show them, by rolling up our sleeves and working with them to help them get there.
June 2, 2010 | 6:27 pm
After a disaster, I have met many different groups who have come to aid the community in need. All of these groups find ways to work together.
We, the Jewish Disaster Response Corps, have been working very closely with the United Methodists Committee On Relief (UMCOR). UMCOR found housing for us at the General Board Of Discipleship center in downtown Nashville; they helped us find work out of the Antioch Methodist Church; and we have shared meals with them at the church. In addition, we have also been working with two Americorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps) teams and one TCCC (Tribal Civilian Community Corps) team. The TCCC team is comprised of youth from the Hoopa Tribe in Northern California. Total: 1 Jewish group, 1 Methodist group, 2 government groups, and 1 Native American group.
Last night we added one more group to the mix: Islamic Circles of North America Relief. They are an Islamic group. We had space in our housing, so we offered them lodging. We now have a Jewish group, and a Muslim group staying in a Christian building, it almost sounds like the beginning of a joke.
There are few places where different religious groups work together as well as we are. How is this possible? As we discussed it, the answer became clear. The issues that divide us as separate groups or individuals are our issues, but we are not here for ourselves; we are here for the flood victims and the city of Nashville. Because we are here for the sake of others, we do not let our issues get in the way of helping the people who we came here to help. We overcome our differences and work together because it is not about us.
May 26, 2010 | 7:23 pm
For the past two weeks the JDRC has been working in Nashville, Tennessee helping individuals clean out there flooded homes. There are thousands of homes that have been affected by the flood and during or time here we have been able top clean up over 20 homes. There are many incredible individuals with moving stories of their life and the flood but there is one story in particular that I would like to share.
Last week the JDRC worked with an Americorps NCCC team at the home of Mr. Henderson’s house. We spent the day pulling out his walls, ceilings and floors. At the end of the day Mr. Henderson was left with a shell of the house he used to call a home, and he couldn’t have been more thankful. Mr. Henderson gathered all the workers together at the end of the day to thank us. Mr. Henderson told us that served in the US military for 15 years. During that time he served in Panama, Somalia, and Iraq during Gulf War One, where he was injured a forced to retire. During his service he received two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Start, by any measure this man is a war hero. He said, as his eyes teard up, “I want to thank y’all so much for the work you did for me, and I want you to know that to me you are all heroes. I will never forget you, and I will keep you in my prayers for the rest of my life.” Mr. Henderson’s words reminded us all that the work we are doing is not just about cleaning up homes it is about changing lives.
Mr. Henderson talking to a group of Americorps NCCC members after they cleaned out his home.