LETTERS LASTING FROM ISRAEL — December, 2012/January, 2013

11/01/2013 at 10:10 Leave a comment



Letter #1 (22 December 2012)

Shabbat Shalom – From the Holy City of Safed

We greet you from the hills of the Upper Galilee of Israel. There are thirty of us, participating in our Agudas Achim congregational trip and we are preparing for the arrival of Shabbat, in the very place where the mystics anticipated sunset, innovated the Psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat, and welcomed the appearance of the Shabbat Queen.


Until today we have been based in Haifa, meeting various Israelis and learning about their lives.  We have visited Beit Sh’arim, a home of the ancient Sanhedrin, where our rabbinic Judaism developed and grew. We came to the edge of the Sea of Galilee, seeing the graves of two great 20th century poets, Rachel, and Naomi Shemer, and  we had exceptional falafel in the town of Afula.


We visited the Yemin Orde Youth Village, where 500 at risk children learn and live, gaining confidence as they find a home, a hope for the future.  We ate dinner in the Druse village Osafiya, learning about practices and the culture of the Druse people.  We also came to the artist colony Ein Hod, seeing sculpture, paintings, ceramic, and metalwork of contemporary Israeli artists.


We are in Israel for another week, after Shabbat making our way to the Negev desert and then, finally to Jerusalem, where we will experience Shabbat next week and the conclusion of our tour.


We have been enjoying a refreshing rain as our diverse group gets to know each other and shares this precious time together.  We are grateful and look forward to sharing more in person upon our return to Austin.


May each of our families be nourished in this time together and may our entire community continue to cultivate Ahavat Yisrael, a love for Israel, as we experience this rich, beguiling, modern, and timeless place.


As well, may this Shabbat in Austin be nourishing and filled with happiness and good health as we connect together, each of us,  across time and space.


Looking forward.  

Shabbat Shalom.


Letter #2 (26 December 2012)

Greetings From the Negev Desert

Dear Community,

Our intrepid group of 30 has been traveling the length and breadth of the land of Israel, visiting less traveled places and enjoying each other’s company in the enriching blessings of nature.

After Shabbat, we left the holy city of Safed and traveled southward to the ancient city of Jaffa and the bustling city of Tel Aviv.  However, before  we took our leave from the Upper Galilee, two in our group, Betty and Ron Vargo, stood under a huppah to celebrate their marriage – a sweet moment shared by all of us.

From Tel Aviv after seeing Rabin Square, we traveled past the town of Sederot (which has suffered many missile attacks), and near to the border of the Gaza strip, and then we journeyed a bit west from there to the desert town of Mitzpeh Ramon, which sits just atop the stunning Ramon crater.   We took a jeep tour of this geological marvel and then hiked a bit – after which we enjoyed a camel ride and a traditional Bedouin lunch at Khan Hasherot. We finished the day participating in some modern dance with a member of the experimental dance company, Adama.

From here, we traveled further south to the Arava region (just north of Eliat), hiking in the famed Timnah mines and learning about two innovative kibbutzim – Kibbutz Keturah, which specializes in harnessing solar power and Ne’ot S’madar, which promotes artistic expression within a conversation of renewable energy and social responsibility.

Israel is more than 60% desert – and a dream of David Ben Gurion, the founder of the modern state of Israel, was to cultivate and populate the Negev. Im Tirtsu – we have seen the contrasting barrenness of the desert and incredible ways that Israelis are able to fulfill their dreams, making the desert bloom.

Our days have been long and filled with sunshine, and as we travel each of us is experiencing  unexpected yet powerful connections that we hold and will take with us as we return  to Austin.

From the Negev, we will be heading north into the Judean Hills and the region of Samaria, and then we will conclude our tour, celebrating Shabbat in the holy city of Jerusalem.  One more letter will follow this one, arriving before Shabbat. We are looking forward to sharing our moments and our love of Israel directly with our cherished community.

Wishing each of you very well.

Letter #3 (29 December 2012)

Shabbat Shalom – Greetings From the Holy City of Jerusalem

Dear Community,

I write this note now at the Kotel, the site of the Western Wall, in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem.  It seems like it was only yesterday when we sent our previous note, with our wonderful group of travelers representing Agudas Achim overlooking the Negev desert at S’de Boker, the home (and the final resting place) of the visionary of the Modern State of Israel, David Ben Gurion.

From S’de Boker, we traveled north into the hills of Judea, and we explored the Holy City of Hebron, including having time in the cave of Makhpelah, the place that our ancestor Abraham purchased from Ephron the Hittite in order for him to bury his wife, Sarah.

We spoke about the vexing contemporary issues of this time and place as we toured the captivating region of Samaria, and as we met residents of Itamar, a place now thriving, where the parents and three of the children of the Fogel family were murdered in 2011.

From there, we returned to Jerusalem and have walked high and low – learning about the Kotel tunnels and exploring the ancient city of David and the tunnel of King Hezekiah – the pages of our tradition have certainly come to life – in timelessness and relevance.  We have also walked the bustling market of Makhne Yehuda, where we have acquired treats for our Oneg Shabbat later this evening.

In addition, we have explored the home of the the Nobel Prize winning Hebrew writer SY Agnon, in the neighborhood of Talpiyot, and we have visited the Israel Museum, located in the heart of energetic West Jerusalem, across the street from the Knesset – a museum that is filled with beautiful art exhibitions as well as the special home of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
In Jerusalem, we met a representative of Women of the Wall, (an organization that I support) who determinedly spoke about the challenges and the potential dangers of women praying in the Women’s Section at the Western Wall Plaza while wearing a tallit – an issue of egalitarianism that is a flashpoint and topic of lively argument and current debate in the Conservative Jewish movement.   

Now, I have just returned from placing notes in the Kotel, asking our God to have mercy on the souls that many members in our Agudas Achim Family remember in this tender time, just before Shabbat.  In an hour, as a group, we will gather and pray together at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall, known as Robinson’s Arch, for the joyful welcoming of the Shabbat Bride (Kabbalat Shabbat).

We will be in Jerusalem until the sun sets on Saturday night, slowly making our way back to Austin and speaking well of and spiritually moved by our adventures.

It has been a privilege to help lead this group and I am grateful to many who have helped to organize our time in Eretz Yisrael – notably Jane Weiss, Jaclyn Owusu,  Joe Steinberg, and Ahuva Scharff. I very much appreciate also Rabbi Rachel Kobrin and Dr. Harvey Raben, who are my partners in supporting and leading our beloved Austin community.

May each of us be enriched in our work, as we continue to learn our stories and our traditions that can bring us awe, satisfaction, and purpose in our lives.

With love – this Shabbat in Jerusalem.

D’VAR TORAH (5 January 2013)

“In Place of Egypt”


Parashat Shemot

Neil F. Blumofe

5 January 2013


During the last week of December if possible, I like to go hiking in West Texas.  I appreciate the landscape and the change of pace and the opportunity to hear the wind in a different sky for a few days.  Removing myself from the wider world holiday bustle for just a moment is restorative and gives me renewed appreciation regarding the importance of simplicity in relationships.  When one is concentrating wholly on just taking the next step on a challenging trail, other tangential or subsidiary concerns swirling about in the head recede in importance.


In planning our recent Agudas Achim trip to Israel, it was an unforeseen personal benefit that in the last week of December, thirty of us and a devoted and enthusiastic guide found ourselves hiking for a bit in the Negev desert.  In my previous eleven trips to Israel, I have not experienced any time in the desert – largely centering my locations in the centers of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Safed.  One of the goals of this community trip was to get off of the beaten path for a few chosen moments and to encounter an Israel that was not produced principally for the visitor or for one just passing through.  It was my hope that by participating in more ordinary experiences and everyday life in Israel would hopefully give a deeper complexion to both the land and to the inhabitants of the land.  Sharing time in the country would hopefully relieve some of the media fatigue and resultant anxiety about safety suffered on this side of the world, as well.


One of the challenges of a group tour is that there are so many moving parts in insuring a successful trip – and success means something different for each of the participants as well.  It is my hope that those who were on this trip will also widely share their impressions and ideas, giving voice to their encounters and building a network of momentum for expanded, upcoming first-hand experience by many others in our community.  I also hope that in the years to come, we expand our journeys to Israel – making it a priority to travel with various partners in our community, or in assorted groups, or with other families, as we renew bonds with our own birthright, or discover long lost family, or create new connections as we inform our own opinions about aspects of the Jewish state, directly.


Over the last few weeks, I sent back three letters which we will post on our website, that speak of the locations and substance of our visit.  This morning, as we open a new scroll of the Torah, and as we experience again our dislodging from the once comfortable spaces of Egypt and our propulsion as strangers and as a mixed multitude into wandering in the wilderness, our relationship with Israel, hopefully involved and complex, will continue to thicken and develop.


Beyond the talents of our individual travelers, our guide Raz was a perfect complement to our group.  After having lead countless collegiate trips and other private tours for both Jewish and Christian groups, he told me that at the age of 39, he is retiring and he had decided even before meeting us that after our trip, he would be handpicking his tour leading to only 2-3 times a year as he concentrates on his growing family and on expanding his date farm, located near the Dead Sea. 


Raz shared his love of the land and his realistic outlook about the crisis of leadership currently in Israeli politics.  At the same time, he was undeterred in proudly showing us his country, his leadership blooming in the Negev as he led our hike.  In a moment, I will share my personal impressions of the Negev – however, Raz told me that his favorite parts of the tour where both Shabbat related – the first Shabbat, when we were in Safed, we were singing songs at our table on Friday evening, before the Birkat haMazon (Grace after Meals), and we were joined and encouraged by another rowdy table of Israelis – who were as exuberant as we and appreciative of sharing that moment among strangers.  Really, only in Israel – could we share and without embarrassment or constriction of self-awareness learn songs from each other in that precious time. 


Another impressive moment that Raz shared was our Friday night service last week, at the Robinson’s Arch at the Western Wall – this is the section where egalitarian prayer is allowed, and we sang loudly, as two other small groups that came a bit later did the same – a beautiful complement to what we were doing – almost a canon of liturgical melodies – and during the individual prayers of the Amidah, our people were able to hold fast to the fallen blocks of stones, that were pushed off of the top of the wall by the Roman soldiers 1900 years ago – perhaps merging past, present, and even, future.


Raz told me that his daughter and his family would love to sing with us – and that to his surprise, he was personally uplifted by our expression and inspired by our prayer – that he was affected by it. To me, this was one of the top highlights of the entire trip – an earnest and resilient Israeli appreciating joyful egalitarian prayer that seemed so American, or at least so different, in presentation – that there is hope for different Judaisms to meet and to converse if not to flourish in each other’s light. 


So, there I was on 25 December, hiking in the Negev – like I have been in Big Bend National Park in West Texas a few times before – these writings will not solve some international predicament nor will they bring peace to the Middle East – it’s just my own thirsty desire for connection and my determination to hear our world a bit differently – to move out of my own slavery in Egypt into a wilderness that will lushly bear different and unexpected fruit.


In the Negev – at the Ramon Crater, near the town of Mitzpe Ramon


As the tectonic plates shift, the F16’s fly noisily overhead dropping artillery, causing craters, and the shifting ancient sands from Saudi Arabia part to reveal a naked single germ of an idea, shimmering in the desert’s setting sun.  Approaching the wilderness of Zin on foot, we can see the dream of Ben Gurion built from the ladders of crushed fossils presiding over the place.  We too will melt into the sand, fodder for the covenant, star stuff on earth, retelling a recurring story of wandering – flares of effort, and then replaced.  The Nabateans were able to grow grapes from an eyelash of water, and they too disappeared into the earth, as nutrients to feed the next residents.


And it is the grocery store in Mitzpe Ramon which is the most interesting of all, mingling ideas and cultures – the Haredi man with the external fringes and the twin flowing locks of hair bagging groceries for the fully clad Bedouin women, whose opening are only slits for eyes – and the Russian, and North African, and Ethiopian immigrants mingle in the exhaust of the touring buses – and the soldiers from the nearby base (Bad Echad) gather to smoke while the sudden quiet after the blasting shells is absorbed by the wadis. 


The rock shale comes off in cakes, crumbling in your hand, and the cliff points straight down, with the lights of the hills of Jordan, straight across.  There is no escape as the earth sinks, taking us with it, we tilt towards the east, with the flood rushing in, and then out again, to create the machtesh – the crater.  We are in this one-way canyon, in the heart of what regales us, laying our ear to the ground to hear the faint pulse of the land that quickens us.


Shabbat Shalom.


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