You may not believe it but Shabbat in Israel is very similar to Shabbat in Atlanta. Obviously the milieus are completely different but whether you’re in Atlanta or in the Golan Heights, Shabbat is what you make of it. Jewish tradition teaches that Shabbat is a gift. In order for the gift of Shabbat to have any meaning or value to us, the intended recipients, we must actively and intentionally receive it. That’s what we tried to do today.
Our Shabbat morning started with a visit to Tel Dan. Located in the northern Galilee, Tel Dan is both a nature sanctuary and the location of one of the most important archeological sites of Ancient Israel. Instead of visiting a traditional synagogue this morning we visited a magnificent nature sanctuary and then a 2,700 year -old Israelite temple. We sat on the same steps that our ancestors did as they watched their animal sacrifices burning on the altar. We also stood before the oldest known architectural arch in the world. An arch that, if he did in fact walk this earth, Abraham would have passed through on his way to Damascus to rescue his nephew, Lot. We concluded our visit by dipping our feet in the icy water of the Dan River—our first of multiple water excursions of the day.
From Tel Dan we drove to K’far Bloom so that we could raft down the Jordan River. After receiving our instructions from The Zohan himself we boarded our rafts and let the current carry us away. There are a couple of remarkable things about this particular rafting experience. First, we actually raft on two different rivers. We start on a tributary of the Jordan and then end up on the Jordan itself. Though the two rivers flow into one another they are completely different. The tributary is shallow, narrow, quick moving, and winding while the Jordan is deep, wide, and slow. While rafting down the tributary we all got pretty rowdy splashing one another, racing, and screaming a fair amount. When we got to the Jordan everyone intuitively mellowed out. Some folks stretched out on their rafts and didn’t seem particularly concerned with whether we would ever reach the end of the course. In other words, we took our cues from the river.
During lunch we celebrated Andrew F.’s birthday and ate some delicious fresh- cooked pizza. We turned the kids on to the unique blend of spices (they'll likely be bringing some packets home to share with you) that transform Israeli pizza from being so-so to being out of this world amazing. The spices themselves are what Shabbat is supposed to be to the rest of the week. Later we would smell the spices of Havdallah, bringing our day full circle.
While our Shabbat morning was spent enjoying the Shalom of the outdoors and the simple pleasures of spiced-up pizza, our afternoon was a bit more complicated. That’s because we visited two sites in the Golan Heights, each of whose natural beauty has been stained with the blood of war. Now a sacred Israeli war memorial, Tel Fakr was once a Syrian army base in the Golan Heights. The Galilee, with its many kibbutzim, made for an endless variety of easy targets for the Syrian soldiers that were stationed there until 1967. We made our way into a long unoccupied Syrian bunker and saw what they would have seen through the scopes of their rifles. That Israel conquered the Golan Heights is evidence of the discrepancy between what the Israelis and the Syrians were fighting for in 1967. The Israelis were fighting to be able to live their lives without fear of being randomly shot on their way to work. They were fighting for a country that they loved and believed in. Even in 1967 Syria’s status as a nation-state was questionable, it’s leaders uncaring and harsh. More than likely, the Syrian soldiers that crowded that and other bunkers in the Golan had zero interest in being there.
Tel Fakr and later Mt. Bental forced us to think about what it means to try and celebrate the Shalom of Shabbat in a world where Shalom is perpetually elusive. From Mt. Bental we were able to look into modern Syria and actually hear the sound of explosions in the distance. Two miles away from us one of the bloodiest and most senseless civil wars in the world rages on. More than 200,000 lives claimed. 1 in 6 people a refugee. Factions beyond number, violence with no meaning. Additionally, we had a chance to walk not through a former Syrian bunker, but through an Israeli one. It’s not hard to imagine that both the Syrian and the Israeli soldier would’ve gladly abandoned their posts to celebrate Shabbat or taste Shalom with their family and friends. Sadly, many never left those bunkers. On our way down from Mt. Bental we saw two United Nations soldiers sipping their cups of coffee. They didn't look like they wanted to be there either.
Unable and not wanting to linger in the heaviness of the Golan Heights we made our way back to our kibbutz so that we could enjoy the lovely pool. All the kids dove in and Mr. Barry persuaded them to race against one another for ice cream bars. After a leisurely swim we got ready for our evening out.
Rosh Pina, about 30 minutes drive from Kibbutz Gonen, is one of the first Zionist settlements. Its origins date back to the 1870s. Perhaps because of its significant history, Rosh Pina is a sleepy town. We wandered through the quiet streets and came to a majestic park. There we created a pop-up Yeshiva and did some Jewish learning courtesy of our tour guides and had a musical havdallah. Rachel Y., Shayna F., and Sarah L. (not the one whose last name is a Eurpean capital) carried the sacred ritual objects while Jake B., David C., Matthew W., and Jeffrey R. shared readings. We sang and wished one another a “shavua tov” or “good week.” Then we made our way to the “city center” just as the merchants were opening their shops. We watched the city come to life, ate dinner, and then made our way back to the hotel.
The days to come will be very intense. Between now and Monday evening we will cover a lot of ground (and sleep on the ground). The Dead Sea, camels, Masada and more await so please be on the lookout for updates and accept our apologies if the wonders of technology don’t extend deep into the heart of the Judean desert.