Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Israel 2016-- The Journey Ends (but continues)


            Checking out from our hotel in Tel Aviv went smoothly in spite of the fact that many of us were woken up in the middle of the night by a raucous Birthright Group. That allowed us to arrive at Latrun, Israel’s Armored Corps Memorial and Museum, right on time.
            Latrun is both a tragic and inspiring place that teaches us a lot about Israeli values. The tragic part, aside from the simple fact that such a place exists, is the wall of names. Memorialized at Latrun are the nearly 5,000 men (and 5 women) that have died while on active duty in the Armored Corps. Many of these men fell during the Yom Kippur War, but the Armored Corps remains active to this day. While standing at the wall our local guide had to take a moment to compose herself, explaining that sometimes it hard to guide at this particular site.
            What makes Latrun inspiring are the thousands and thousands of stories of bravery and courage that are embodied in each hulking tank that sits quietly on the site. There are two rows of tanks. The inner row, including the Merkava 4, Israel’s newest self-designed tank, face toward the Memorial Wall in an eternal salute to the fallen. The outer row of tanks faces outward as a symbol of protection.
There are many symbols, sites, and stories that convey the essence of Israeli society. But for me, the Merkava Tank continues to be one of the clearest symbols. That’s because, like the State of Israel and the Jewish People, the Merkava Tank is unique among tanks. How so? While most other tanks are designed to maximize their offensive potential, the Merkava is designed to maximize the safety and security of the men who operate it. Each new model of the Merkava is characterized by significant safety advances. The Merkava’s engine is in the front of the tank, protecting the driver. There are special mirrors and scopes so that the commander doesn’t need to be unnecessarily exposed. The angle of the front of the tank is designed to deflect incoming shells and is covered with rocks to help the soldiers quickly enter and exit as well as collect desert sand to enhance camouflage. The back of the tank has special hanging chains to keep enemies from breaching the core of the tank, and the whole tank is equipped with special lasers and sensors to divert enemy fire as well as its own mini iron dome system. And yes, it can fire a shell from 5 kilometers away if necessary. Israel is not a war hungry state. If it becomes necessary to engage enemies, the safety of Israeli soldiers and citizens is paramount. The Merkava Tank, one of which was commanded by Yishay, our tour guide, is meant to protect Yishay, Eran, Naveh, Igor, Shaul, Avi, their families, their children, the children and teachers of the Nili School and Yad L'Kashish and all of the people of Israel. Perhaps the most important takeaway is that the weapons of war, like the soldiers of Israel, are reluctant warriors. For the most part they are men and women who simply want to live in peace alongside their neighbors. 
After Latrun we made our annual pilgrimage to Neot Kedumim. There we took a moment to reflect on what it means to plant a tree in Israel. We thought about what it takes for a tree to grow. We thought about how much we’ve grown and what has help us to grow. In other words we thought of you. As we did the actual planting each person had a different thought in mind. I thought of my daughter since she was graduating preschool. I also thought about the many Davis Academy 8th graders that had stood on hills like this and both literally and symbolically connected themselves to the land.
In the process of confirming our lunch option we learned that there had been some recent health regulation concerns at the intended location. Fortunately, in consultation with our tour provider and guides we were able to call a wonderful audible. The kids had their final Pizur on Allenby St. and Nahalot Benyamin Street. This area, near (but not in) the Carmel Market, had lots of delicious food choices and also a special artist’s market. The weather was perfect, the vibe was relaxed, and it was a lovely way to bond with Tel Aviv before heading, on foot, to Independence Hall.           
Regarding Independence Hall, the question for Davis groups is whether they’ll be able to connect to the miraculous story of what happened there given the fact that the site itself is so incredibly modest. One way of assessing this is whether the kids sing Hatikvah along with the audio recording of the historical moment when the state of was declared. This year they sang beautifully. Hopefully as they sang, they took to heart the fact that the State of Israel was established in what was, at the time, an Art Museum. Hopefully, after having toured Israel for two weeks, the can see without question, that the existence of the State of Israel is a blessing not only to Israelis and Jews, but to the entire world. 
We had our farewell dinner at Maganda, one of the most famous restaurants of Tel Aviv’s Yemenite Quarter. With the entire 2nd floor to ourselves we took a moment to appreciate a few people. Yishay and Eran received a long and heartfelt standing ovation, and the kids agreed that they would try and seek out their chaperones individually to thank them for all that they did these last two weeks on behalf of The Davis Academy faculty. During dinner we had a special visitor, Lisa Cohen, the founder and director of BRACHA. She came so that we could donate Tzedakah raised by The Davis Academy Middle School last October as well as the Mezuzot that the kids made in 6th grade. Once again, she found the generosity of The Davis Academy as well as the extent to which our community is touched by breast and ovarian cancer to be profoundly moving. It’s customary to give tzedakah when leaving for and returning from a Jewish Journey. We were able to fulfill this mitzvah in a truly meaningful way.
            The bus rides to the airport included enthusiastic singing of various Isaraeli and/or nostalgia evoking songs. The kids did great getting through security and even had time to shop a bit. I’m writing to you from the plane, which has been quiet. The kids don’t know it but they’re gradually transitioning back to life in the States. Transitioning and reverting are two very different things. We’re coming home, but I can assure you, there’s no going back. If you haven’t been to Israel, be prepared to hear about experiences that you will surely envy and maybe even struggle to fully appreciate. If you have, be prepared to see how your child’s experience was both similar and different than your own. Try to create opportunities for the kids to talk about the trip not just with you, but with one another and with other family and friends. That will help stories and experiences emerge that might not be at the forefront of their minds. As I’ve said before, the trip is coming to an end, but the impact of the trip has only just begun to be felt. When they see news from Israel they’ll see it differently. When they meet Israelis in the future they’ll meet them differently. The trip will yield new meanings the next time they go to the beach, to synagogue, to a mall, to a market, go rafting or go on a hike. It will yield new meanings when they head off to high school and when they encounter anti-Zionism and Boycott/Divest/Sanction movements on college campuses. It will yield new meanings when they think about Gap Years and Semesters Abroad and so much more. I challenge each of you to find a better investment for your child than The Davis Academy and the Israel Trip that completes these years of study. Having spent somewhere between 8-10 years,  two weeks, or an entire lifetime with them, I can assure you that there are no better guarantors or future guardians of all that we cherish than the kids we’ll be delivering back into your hands later today.