I meant to say this weeks ago, but... DISCLAIMER: every post for this trip is a fairly hastily written first draft. Please pardon typos, questionable grammar, and the like (which I think you generally do). Thank you for understanding!
Shavua tov from Jerusalem! It’s going to be a great week. This week you’ll be reunited with your 8th graders and they’ll be reunited with you and their community back in Atlanta. There’s not a single one of them that wants the trip to end, but by the time we meet one another at the top of the escalator at Hartsfield-Jackson they’ll be ready to see you. They’ll look the same as when you kissed them goodbye at Temple Emanu-El, but not a single one of them will be the same. It’s a good idea now to start preparing for reentry.
We’ve just come from the David Citadel Light and Sound Spectacular. It’s an annual tradition and one that requires extensive knowledge of the history of Jerusalem in order to appreciate. Even I get confused at times. But the entire experience is a lovely one that makes a strong impression. Like so much of Jerusalem, the old and the new collide in ways that make each more special.
After many years of trying to figure out how to make the most of a Shabbat Day in Jerusalem I think this year we got as close as we’ve ever come. Here’s the thought process…. Every time we chant the Torah at synagogue we say the words, Ki m’Tzion tetze Torah (“Torah comes forth from Zion/Jerusalem”). If Torah comes forth from Jerusalem, then, in a very real sense, the entire city is a kind of synagogue or “house of prayer.” If that’s the case, it’s possible to have a meaningful and spiritual Shabbat worship experience anywhere in the city, synagogue or otherwise. The “problem” with many Jerusalem synagogues is that they aren’t a good fit for our group. Most are Orthodox or Ultra Orthodox. Many are small and can’t accommodate us. And others simply don’t want 56 adolescents and their chaperones crashing their Shabbat morning. Those synagogues that can accommodate us aren’t always that engaging. The best part has historically been the fact that we sponsor the oneg and get to mingle with everyday Israelis. This year we tried something different: we made Jerusalem our synagogue and offered two different walking meditations. One walking meditation journeyed through the beautiful neighborhood of Na’achlaot and the other through the historical neighborhood of Rechavia. Mr. O’Dell explained the premise of the walking meditation and off we went.
Both groups walked, then paused to learn about different sites, walked some more, and heard readings from their peers similar to those I’ve posted here. When appropriate, we sang prayers from the morning service. Though the kids were dragging a bit, if they really look back and reflect on the experience, it was quite remarkable. Every time we’ve crossed a street in Israel, however small, we’ve been on high alert. For most of our walking meditation the streets were empty. We were able to walk right in the middle of several streets. Looking around, it’s virtually impossible to find a parking spot on Shabbat in Jerusalem because no one is driving. The tour through Rechavia passed the original site of the Knesset, the house where Golda Meir and other early Prime Ministers lived, beautiful gardens and alleyways, the famous Bezalel Academy of Art, the Great Synagogue, and much more. We learned that every building has a story, some sacred, some absurd, some tragic, all multifaceted. To truly know Jerusalem requires at least one lifetime. Anyone who tells you, “Jerusalem is…” and tries to define it for you simply doesn’t know Jerusalem. For starters, imagine if every street in Manhattan was named after a famous or seim-famous artist, painter, politician (oy!), philosopher, military figure, or cultural icon. Then imagine a historical landmark at virtually every building. There’s no city more infused with layers of meaning than Jerusalem. And today we made Jerusalem our synagogue.
After lunch we took the kids to the Hebrew Union College. Our decision to go there was actually strategic rather than spiritual. Having begun my rabbinic studies (and met my wife!) there, I knew the campus was a beautiful and serene place to spend a few hours on Shabbat afternoon. Unlike our hotel, the kids could chill and really just embrace the spirit of the day. What I didn’t plan for, but was so happy to experience, was that Ms. Loiben would meet us there and lead a 20 minute Torah study. I also didn’t know that we’d be able to take the kids to the part of HUC that has the most magnificent view of the Old City or that we’d be able to cool our feet in the beautiful fountain on campus. I can’t tell you what HUC means to me personally and to Modern Judaism more generally. I am so glad that the kids got to enjoy it in a way that made sense to them. When I was at HUC I had a Hebrew teacher named Sima. She was Turkish and Israeli. And a chain smoker. She would hold and smoke an imaginary cigarette in class and the minute it was time for a break she’d tell us, “I’m going outside to get some ‘fresh air.’” She was a beautiful human being who, like too many Israelis, has a nasty and unhealthy habit.
Though tired, the kids were good sports and let us take them to the historical neighborhood of Yemin Moshe for a bit more Shabbat walking. There we participated in a scavenger hunt that led us to the family grave of King Herod, the historic windmill built by Moses Montefiore, a beautiful fountain, and more. By 5pm we decided the kids’ had enough of being on the move and headed back to pack and get freshened up for our pizza dinner, havdallah, and night at The David Citadel.
Havdallah was beautiful. The kids sang in a way that made it clear that they know that this is the last Havdallah they’ll be sharing for a while, possibly forever. That’s not meant to be a downer, it’s just the truth. And, when push comes to shove, truth is always a good thing. It’s good to know that the moment you’re sharing is a singular one. After all, that’s case whether it’s a peak moment like a wedding or birth of a child or a totally mundane moment like waiting in line at the post office. The truth of the matter is that, after studying and dreaming as a Kehillah for 9-10 years, your one Havdallah in Jerusalem is a big deal. We don’t want them to feel sad or overly emotive in any way for contrived reasons. Instead, we want them to appreciate that what’s happening to them is happening in this moment, in this place, and with these people. We want them to summon the courage and the presence of mind to capture the moment so that it can exist in their hearts for the rest of their lives. And I think we did it. And then Isabelle got up, made a wonderful impromptu speech, and led everyone in “Seasons of Love” from Rent.
Havdallah had two main messages. First, that the moments we are given, the moments we create—in the end they are what we make of them. Second, that in spite of all that they’ve experienced in their lives to this point, without a doubt, the best is yet to come. As I write this and as you read it, I know that we’re in agreement about this second point. It’s humbling for me, the chaperones, the teachers, and the entire Davis Academy to know that we are fully present and in partnership only for the first couple of chapters of your child’s life. While they’re in our care we do everything in our power to help mold them into people who will grow and flourish and thrive. If we’ve done our job right, then it is, by necessity, true that the best is yet to come. Hopefully when the next best thing does come around, your child’s ability to appreciate it will be informed by the experiences they’ve had at Davis. I believe that these experiences, of which the Israel trip is an outstanding but not exclusive example, provide the foundation for so much of the greatness, joy, and beauty that is to follow as well as provide various keys for unlocking and accessing the true beauty of these moments. If the Torah of Jerusalem can be found on every street and in every building, I believe the Torah of Davis can be found in so much of what we do at school. The interesting question that emerges for us now is where, when, and in what ways will we experience the Torah that is being written in the hearts of each of your children. It is a Torah that only they can write, read, and share with the world. If the next week draws us closer to encountering this Torah, then it will truly be a Shavua Tov.