Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Israel 2016-- Welcome to Jerusalem


This morning The Davis Academy Graduating Class of 2016 made Israel Trip history. How so? By being the first group ever to experience three change-ups in bus seating! It may not seem like such a big deal to you, but if you dig back deep enough you may recall a time when getting to spend time with people on long(ish) bus rides felt like the most important thing in the world. Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to know that we’re doing everything in our power, great and small, to help these kids have the trip of a lifetime. The chaperone team and I don’t want their appreciation for our own validation. Your enthusiastic retweeting of every picture we send is validation enough!!!! We want to help them cultivate their sense of appreciation because those who live in a state of constant and authentic appreciation know the true sweetness and grace of life.  Fortunately, there are countless signs that the kids are appreciative. When they show kavod to us and one another, when they take care of themselves and one another, when they get excited about a gift they’ve bought for a family member back home… There are signs of appreciation all around us.
Today was a really cool day. It was literally cool (at least 10 degrees cooler than any other day) and it was cool in terms of where we went and what we did there.
Subtly yet dramatically we left the Negev and entered the Shepelah region of Israel. Shephelah means “low hills”. It’s the region that eventually descends into the coastal plain and the Mediterranean. It’s the bread basket of Israel and the place where many of our JNF trees are planted.
Our first destination was Tel Moresha. There we spent a few hours participating in the iconic “We Dig Israel” archeological project. While a bit contrived, the work that’s taking place at Tel Moresha is real archaeology. Artifacts found there reside in the Israel Museum and other equally prestigious places. This year’s dig, in a cave from the Hasmonean Era (roughly 160 BCE) was without a doubt the most successful we’ve had in years. Simon B., Isaac G., and Eric R., unearthed the spout of a medium-sized jug, Jack K. and Adam W. also uncovered some unique pieces, Jordyn R. and Mallory T. found a shard of a cooking pot (burnt black), Justin E. found a heart-shaped rock of no historical significance whatsoever but completely endearing, Adam P, Alex R., Phillip W., and Arie V. found a piece of imported Athenian pottery that was likely owned by a wealthy person, Austin M. helped uncover the beginning of a stairwell, and Jonah M., after 45 minutes of digging, found a small piece of charcoal the size of a pinky fingernail, but was smiling nonetheless. The kids really dug it.
What’s cool about archaeology is the fact that it’s such a different discipline from history. History typically teaches us about the past by telling us stories of great leaders, world shaping events (often battles), scientific discoveries, and so on. Archaeology tells us what people at for dinner, how they carried their water and stored their food, and how far their bathroom was from their kitchen. There’s something wistful and thrilling about archaeology, especially when contrasted with the grandiose narratives that come down to us through the history books.
The drive from Tel Moresha to Tel Azeka only took about 15 minutes. But it took us deeper into the Shephelah and deeper into our Jewish story. From Tel Azeka it’s possible to see both Tel Aviv and (in the far off distance) Hebron. It’s a high place. And it’s the place where Goliath taunted the Israelites only to be taken out by a young shepherd named David. It’s also a nice spot for a picnic lunch.
To my dying day I’ll never get tired of making the ascent to Jerusalem. Today’s journey into the City of Gold was absolutely perfect. The Haas Promenade, where we have our annual “Shehiyanu Ceremony” was completely empty. Ironic, considering it was the most beautiful Jerusalem day I can remember. We took our time pouring the grape juice as the kids happily embraced Ms. Loiben, their 6th grade Judaics teacher, and she them. Then we gathered in a semi-circle overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. I didn’t know what I was going to say to the group, preferring to keep it brief. But here’s what I told them:
You’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time. And you may not know it, but I’ve been waiting for this moment too. Your chaperones and all your teachers, and more importantly your parents and grandparents. We’ve all been waiting for you to have this moment of coming home to Jerusalem. Not only us, but great grandparents and generations before them. People whose names you may never know, whose lives you may never know. People who may have looked very much like you, or maybe not. This moment has been passed down to you L’dor V’dor. It has been cherished and protected and passed down from hand to hand, from heart to heart. And now it is yours.
Standing there, we also wanted to make sure that they know that there’s no pressure on them. There’s no expectation that they’ll cry at the Kotel or dance at the Kotel or pray at the Kotel. The only expectation is that they try to appreciate their time in Jerusalem and try to listen to their hearts and minds, their thoughts and feelings. Don’t worry if your neighbor seems to be more or less moved by some experience than you. Each of us is unique. Each of our hearts has its own way of expressing emotions and processing feelings. Experience and reflect. Then repeat. Be open to the possibility of what meanings might begin to emerge for you.
As we drew closer and closer to the Kotel you could sense the excitement and anticipation among the kids. That didn’t stop them from being totally psyched to stop for a Jerusalem Bagel/Zatar snack courtesy of Yishay and Eran, but it meant that we moved through the Old City like a group with a mission. And as we stood at an overlook of the Kotel there were tears. It’s not my place to share who cried, or what those tears represented. It’s not my place to speculate about who was or wasn’t moved by that moment and everything that followed. But I can tell you that I didn’t need to touch the Wall today. For obvious reasons I can’t give you a play by play of the girls’ side, but on the boys’ side I saw our young men, most wrapped in Tefillin, pressed up close against the wall. Sometimes together, sometimes alone. Sometimes deep in prayer or reflection or whatever it is that they were there to do, sometimes smiling and snapping pictures, sometimes chasing the paper-thin kippot that some of them had to borrow because we were travelling light today.
My own personal belief, which I didn’t share with the kids, is that the Kotel is kind of like a tree in the forest. If no one is there, it doesn’t make a sound (or maybe it does). The hopes and dreams and prayers and promises that our girls and boys brought with them to the Kotel—those are what imbue the Kotel with holiness. Looking around the men’s side I saw the typical hodgepodge of diversity. Ultra-Orthodox swaying intensely, secular Israelis awkwardly finding their place there, Christian tourists wrapped in Tallitot, and even a group of Muslims from India. But I think the most powerful group at the Kotel today was ours. 56 young men and women from Atlanta, Ga. They represent the future not only of the Jewish people, but of all humanity. They represent the dreams of Hertzl and Ben-Gurion. They represent the incredibly unlikely reality of a bunch of hormonal Jewish teenagers from the Southeastern United States being profoundly bonded to an ancient and demanding faith, to a provocative and engaging wisdom tradition, to a commanding and demanding God, to a miraculous and ingenious people, to an ever-evolving civilization and so much more. 
By most metrics our kids shouldn’t have the roots, the knowledge, the desire, or the ability to do what they were able to do at the Kotel today or on this trip more generally. Sadly (from the perspective of the Jewish people writ large), they're the exception, not the rule. I honestly believe that a huge part of what accounts for this is the fact that each of you, for your own reasons and likely without knowing all that would unfold, invited The Davis Academy to be your partner in instilling Jewish values and a love for Judaism in your children. Together we have given your children a foundation of self, of community, of continuity, of ethics, of faith, and of spirit. If you would’ve been the one taking pictures today instead of me I think it would quite literally have changed each and every one of your lives. I could actually cry just thinking of how profound the experience would've been for the majority of you (even if you're reading this without any direct connection to a participant on this trip).  I think, actually I know, that transformation is happening here. It’s been happening all along, but Jerusalem puts it front and center.
When people come to visit the Kotel they expect to see the Orthodox men swaying as they pray. But if they’re paying attention when The Davis Academy is there then they are witness to something far more surprising and inspiring. One of the Lubavitch Rabbis that wraps the kids in Tefillin each year stopped me as I was leaving the Kotel. Usually he pays me a backhanded compliment of some sort. You know, the type that makes you feel like you should really be thanking him. This year his words of thanks and appreciation were so profoundly heartfelt I actually couldn't believe my ears. Tourism is down, he said. Seeing your kids here. It gives us the strength we need to carry on. You have no idea what it meant to me to hear that, especially from him. Yet again, the “mere” existence of our children is nothing less than a sacred miracle.
And we had a fun Pizur dinner at the restaurants surrounding our hotel, along with some lovely and heartwarming visits from Israeli family and friends!
Regarding the “sacred miracle” stuff above. Am I overstating things? What do you think? I think I’ve got a defensible position, but would love your thoughts…


  1. All of your insight and thoughts have allowed me to join your journey. I very much appreciate the chance to learn as our kids are doing the same. Thanks for the words and the pictures, please keep them coming.

  2. Thank you for sharing your love and wisdom of all things Israel with our kids. I hope Noa Grace will be my mentor and guide when I travel to Israel for the first time.

  3. What is Yishai's last name? Avital by chance?? If so, he's the best guide in Israel!

  4. The words "thank you" don't feel like enough, but they are all I have right now. Thank you for bringing my child on this remarkable journey to this amazing place. And thank you for taking us all there with your words. Seeing Justin praying at the Wall Is a picture I will treasure forever. Thank you

  5. This post is beautiful and took me back 30 years when I was in Israel. Our kids are so lucky to have you and the other Chaperones on this journey with them. I feel the excitement of the kids through your blog. Amazing!

  6. I didn't think I would be so emotional seeing pictures of Alec at the kotel. We are loving the blog and all of the pictures. What an incredible trip. Thank you!