I know I’m stating the obvious here but it’s not every day that you wake up in Tel Aviv and go to sleep in Jerusalem. Could there be a more iconic journey for a group of Jewish kids from Atlanta?
We started our day at Independence Hall in Tel Aviv. It was in that modest building 67 years ago today that David Ben Gurion and the provisional government of Israel declared the State of Israel. Every time I visit Independence Hall I’m struck by the fact that, before becoming the venue for this historic declaration, it was an art museum. What can we infer from the fact that the State of Israel was proclaimed in the gallery of an art museum?
At the end of our visit we stood and sang Hatikvah along with the recording of the Israel Philharmonic that played on that day 67 years ago. In that moment all of us recognized that the rebirth of the State of Israel is nothing short of a modern miracle. All of us recognized how blessed we are to live in this remarkable moment in time when we can board a plane in Atlanta [spend 9 hours in Philly] and land in our Jewish homeland. Because of the vision, audacity, courage, and sacrifice of others we’re able to wake up in Tel Aviv and go to sleep in Jerusalem.
At the halfway point between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem lies Latrun. Latrun was a former British and Jordanian military post that now serves as a memorial site for the IDF’s Tank Division. Today we had the most remarkable guide at Latrun. What made our guide remarkable was her ability to breathe humanity into the hulking machinery of the tank. For example, she pointed out to us that there are 36 steps that lead up to the courtyard of Latrun. One for each month of compulsory military service.
After climbing the steps she took us to a tank that had been sliced in half. There she explained how each of the four members of the tank unit must function as a family in order to survive. The thought of young men and women operating under such unimaginable stress and pressure is really humbling. At Latrun there is a quote from Aristotle that says something along the lines of, “True courage means being willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the common good.” Those words capture the essence of what it means to serve in Israel’s tank unit.
While at Latrun we had a chance to climb on top of a Merkava Tank. The Merkava, designed and produced in Israel, is considered one of the finest tanks in the world and also one of the most unique. It is unique because most tanks are designed to cause maximum damage to the enemy, but the Merkava is designed to protect the soldiers that operate it. Most tanks have their engine in the back and their driver in the front in order to protect the expensive engine. The Merkava has its engine in the front in order to provide an extra layer of armor for the driver. It is details like this that set the Merkava and the IDF more generally apart from most, if not all, other military forces. The concern for human life and respect for the moral imperative are central to the IDF. It’s also pretty cool that newer models of the Merkava have a built in “Iron Dome” system that detects incoming rockets and blows them up before they can hit the tank.
One final word about Latrun. Inscribed in black against a backdrop of silver are all the names of soldiers that have died while serving the in the tank division. Names are listed by era and in alphabetical order. All names are listed individually with the exception of 13 pairs representing either father and son or two brothers. The wall contains names only. No ranks or designations. In their sacrifice and their courage all are equal. The many tanks on display at Latrun are either facing toward the wall of names as an eternal salute or away from the wall of names in a posture of protection and defense. We paid special attention to the name of Moshe Karsanti, Morah Lahav’s cousin who was killed in 1973. In a moment of eerie coincidence we learned that only a few weeks prior our guide had been with a group of Israeli students that had actually laid a wreath in Karsanti’s honor because they were from his hometown.
After Latrun we had a Pizur lunch in a mall just outside of Jerusalem. We wanted to make sure that our bellies were full before we made our way to the holiest and most storied city in all of human history.
Our time in Jerusalem started with a “Shehiyanu Ceremony” on the Haas Promenade overlooking the Old City. There we sang, enjoyed juice and challah, danced the hora, and took lots of pictures. The significance of our pilgrimage isn’t lost on any of the kids. They know where we are and why we’re here. And they are ready for Jerusalem.
We quickly checked into our hotel in the city center and then set out on foot to the Old City and the Kotel. We got to the Kotel around 6pm. The boys went straight off to visit the Kotel tunnels while the girls got to visit the Kotel itself. The 20 or so minutes that the girls spent at the Kotel will be minutes that they’ll never forget. As they gathered for their turn to enter the Kotel tunnels many were crying on one another’s shoulders. One girl that I spoke to told me that she was crying because she was thinking about her grandfather who is battling cancer and has always wanted to visit Israel. She said the Mishebeirach for him and we agreed that we couldn’t imagine what joy he would derive from knowing that she had made the journey and prayed for him there.
Many of the boys had an equally powerful experience at the Kotel. I enjoyed observing them wrapping tefillin, standing at the Wall, and offering their thoughts and prayers. On the way back from the Kotel Jeffrey R., Elliott G. and I got into a pretty deep discussion about Hasidic Jews, Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, and how different Jews relate to the Torah. Jerusalem doesn’t demand blind obedience, but rather deep reflection, thoughtful questioning, and sustained curiosity.
The conversation with Jeffrey and Elliott is still lingering for me. Thinking back on the day I’m struck by the fact that there are many different types of Jews in Israel and many different types of holy sites. Today I connected most strongly with Independence Hall and Latrun, places that haven’t always struck me in past years. At Independence Hall I was most moved to learn that the dais in the room was constructed by two wood workers specifically for the ceremony. Recently those two woodworkers and their families were invited to a special celebration in their honor. I’d never thought about it before, but how remarkable is it that two wood workers built the stage from which Ben Gurion changed the course of history. Their names will surely be lost to history, but they made their contribution. At Latrun we saw the men and women, both past and present, that operate the machinery of war in order to build a world of peace. While I connected at these sites, our girls seem to have connected most strongly at the Kotel. The beauty of Judaism is that there are so many different ways of connecting, so many different ways of being Jewish, and so many different ways of expressing what being Jewish means to us.
We experienced one moment of ugliness tonight as one of the Hasidic Jews that was wrapping our boys in tefillin refused to wrap some of them when he learned that both their parents weren’t Jewish. That was a hard thing to see and my blood is still boiling. What I told those boys is that no one has the right to tell them what they are and what they are not. I told them that, at least in my opinion, they are more Jewish than the man whose heart is so small that he feels like he can judge them without even knowing them. I told them that the Talmud clearly teaches that common decency is more important than Torah learning and that the man who so thoughtlessly attacked their identity lacks both. I told them that if they want to wrap tefillin at the Kotel that it is their right and their responsibility and that we will make it happen. Sometimes the diversity of the Jewish people isn’t viewed as a threat rather than an opportunity. And sometimes we are able to clarify what we really think and feel only when we encounter someone who challenges our beliefs. If you've got any thoughts about this, or if this evokes anything for you, please share them in a comment below.
Waking up in Tel Aviv and going to sleep in Jerusalem isn’t easy but it is a blessing. It is a blessing of spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and cultural discovery and revelation. It is to be confronted with all of the promise, potential, conflict, and chaos of the Jewish story in the very moment that it is being written. We are here because we are a part of this story, not only as readers, but as writers. We are here because it is our privilege, our obligation, and our birthright.