Thursday, June 1, 2017

Israel 2017 Blog

Hi everyone! The first few installations of the Israel 2017 trip are stand alone posts but the rest (and majority) of the blog is here. The Davis Academy 2017 Israel Trip was an absolutely amazing journey. Hopefully this blog will help trip participants remember some of the highlights and also provide a lens into "what it all meant."

At Mt. Bental


       Greetings from Zichron Ya’akov, a sleepy town in the Carmel Mountains. Zichron may not have the nightlife of Tel Aviv or the spiritual intensity of Jerusalem, but it’s a significant destination for our kids. That’s because tomorrow they will meet their pen pals from the Nili School. Y’all may or may not have sensed it before we left but there is serious anticipation ahead of tomorrow’s mifgash (encounter). Mifgash means meeting. But, like many Hebrew words, it has ancient resonances. Our ancestor Jacob had a mifgash with a rock that led to his dreaming of a ladder reaching up to Heaven. When Joseph reconciled with his brothers in the book of Genesis they vayyigash, which means they “drew near to one another.” Mifgash isn’t just a chance to get together and do some fun activities. It is the type of authentic encounter that carries with it the weight of possibility and the inevitability of authentic engagement. There will be a lot of mifgash on this Israel trip.  

    You may wonder what all there is to report after only 6 hours in Israel (most spent at the airport or on the bus). But for those of us who like to read the tea leaves, these early moments give lots of indications about how things may unfold over the next couple of weeks. Do the kids seem healthy? Yes. Excited? Yes. Appreciative? Yes. Do they seem interested in Israel food? Yes. Are they listening to the tour guides? Yes. Are they being kind and embracing of one another? Yes. These are good signs. They’re signs that the work of the chaperones will be that of helping them mifgash here in Israel rather than simply making sure that they don’t get dehydrated and sunburned (God forbid).

      In order to get to Israel you have to start by going backwards. The plane that travels from JFK to Tel Aviv begins its iconic journey by literally backing out of the gate. So too, our kids seem to have reverted back to first principles. Good manners. A sense of humor. Sharing. Flexibility. Curiosity. They’ve already shown all of these qualities. Knowing that they act on these and other principles naturally and consistently means that all of us are going to sleep tonight looking forward to a great adventure and mifgash in the days to come.

     When y’all think about mifgash in your lives, maybe even in the context of an Israel trip or other adventure you’ve taken, what comes to mind? If you feel so moved, post a comment.

Our first dinner in Zichron Ya'akov.


Our first full day of touring began with the smoothest collection of hotel keys in recent Israel trip history. While more than a few kids had trouble operating the old school hotel room keys, all of them did a great job of keeping track of them. These are the little things that chaperones and parents can and should celebrate!

When we arrived at the Nili School we found a very special visitor waiting for us: Rami’s big brother, Dani. For those that don’t know, Dani is what’s called a “lone soldier.” He’s a recent immigrant, serving in the IDF, without any immediate family in Israel. When he and Rami tearfully embraced they were immediately encircled by the entire group. More than a few of us were teary eyed with them.  With pride and reverence, Rami introduced us to his brother, and we had a chance to thank Dani and his fellow soldiers for making it possible for all of us to travel safely in Israel.  It was a true mifgash. And so were the next few hours with the Nili kids.

After a few hours of Israeli dancing and other activities, the Nili kids joined us for our first pizur lunch on the pedestrian central avenue of Zichron. It was a joy to watch the kids encounter and be present with one another. Our time with Nili is a good reminder of the value of building relationships and bringing people together. One of our guides mentioned that whenever he tours Zichron, he always encourages his group to eat lunch in some other town. Zichron is kind of boring and a bit pricey, so why not dine by the seaside in Caesarea? But for our kids, Zichron is and always will be a special place. They could’ve wandered those 15 stores  with their Nili peers for an entire day.  As for the food? The best ice cream. The best falafel. The best schnitzel. Funny how food tastes different based on who you’re eating with.

Caesarea is one of the places where the depth, breadth, beauty, and complexity of the history of the land of Israel really comes to the fore.  Within minutes of one another we found ourselves in the 2nd Temple era (roughly 400 BCE- 70 CE), the Crusader period (roughly 1000 CE), the Mamluk Period (roughly 1400 CE) and The British Mandate Period (ending in 1948). We took a moment to appreciate all this while watching a wedding party process and cooling our feet in the Mediterranean for the first time. Sounds good, right?

We arrived to Kibbutz Gonen with just enough time to check in and get cleaned up for Shabbat. Our dress code instructions to the kids were pretty simple—let your inner and outer beauty shine. That didn’t stop a bunch of kids from asking clarifying questions, but if the end result is seeing them shine, then clarifying questions are a small price to pay!

While they’re still warming up to the spiritual dimensions of the trip, we did have a warm, familiar, and participatory Shabbat service. It was great to have Nick and Max on guitar for most of the service and nice to see so many kids coming up and leading prayers. We started the service by doing a modified version of our “rock counting” ritual that we’ve been doing all year at school. While at Caesarea we collected 14 beautiful seashells. Tonight Will, Gracie, and Jordan each spoke about the trip thus far. After speaking, each took one of those shells, in recognition of the passage of the days.

Tonight’s dinner was an absolute feast. Before we headed into the dining hall we gave the kids a pretty simple formula: the longer you sit and enjoy this meal, the longer you get to stay up tonight and hang out under the stars. We also pointed out that this was likely the first Shabbat dinner they’d ever all shared together. Kind of amazing if you think about all the shared experiences over the years… Lo and behold, our formula worked! While we were singing Kiddush a group of elderly tourists came and took our picture. Then the kids waited patiently in a long line literally overflowing with delicacies (there were 3 different types of soup!). After dinner we let them hang out under the stars and eventually shipped them all off to bed. 

Tomorrow we will celebrate Shabbat by visiting one of the oldest and most significant archaeological sites in Israel, rafting on one of the most storied rivers in human history, and praying for the peace of the innocent people in Syria and elsewhere in the world as we visit Mt. Bental. We’ll also end up on a sunset cruise and then have a private Lag Ba’omer bonfire. But there’s no point in writing about that which has not yet come to pass. Especially with the quiet of Shabbat in the Galilee beckoning.

Shabbat Shalom.

Lag Ba'Omer

Matanot K’tanot—Little Gifts

Today was a day full of matanot k’tanot—little gifts. Bare with me, because there were a lot of them and it’ll take some time to tell.

Our first stop of the day was Tel Dan. Tel Dan is one of the most significant archaeological sites in Israel because Tel Dan was the capital of Israel approximately 3,000 years ago. While visiting Tel Dan we had a chance to see the market place as well as the main gate to the city. At that gate the king or his emissaries would sit, collect taxes, receive audiences, and supervise the activities in the nearby market place. Tel Dan shows us that certain institutions and their accompanying challenges are simply built into the fabric of the human experience: government, economics, law. These things aren’t new and they aren’t going anywhere. What defines each society is how these and other institutions are formed and how they operate. After taking a picture in front of an ancient Canaanite archway that was even older than the rest of Tel Dan, we headed to the Jordan River.

There are many different ways to journey down the Jordan river. For thousands of years Christian pilgrims have come to immerse themselves in the river as part of their baptismal rites. More pertinent to our experience, you can tube, kayak, raft, or otherwise float down the river. You can go with or against the current. You can row, or not (effectively or not). You can travel the river in silence or in song, or in some combination of the two. You can splash your neighbors or let them be. You can end up caught in the thick and thorny brush along the riverbanks or get stuck on a rock in the shallower areas. You can spin around in circle, go sideways, or float backwards most of the way. You can stay in the raft, or fall/ get knocked out of it. You can think or you can feel. Or you can simply do whatever is right at the moment. 

Today each of us had a chance to journey down the Jordan River in whatever way we wished, alongside our classmates. Sure we were 6 to a raft, but each raft and each person on each raft had a different and personal experience of the river. One thing that united us was the fresh baked pizza lunch that greeted us when we finished. I don’t think anyone would want that pizza every day, but it is a deliciously memorable meal to say the least.

The drive up to Mt. Bental took us through the Golan Heights. Even the least strategically minded person can’t help but understand the importance of this region to the safety and security of Israel once they’ve driven through it. Our time at Mt. Bental often feels rushed, but today we had plenty of time to share. We were glad to see Menashe, the local fruit and honey vendor, waiting for us with a newly picked bushel of Golan Heights cherries.

Standing on Mt. Bental and looking into Syria we listened closely as our guides framed the conflict there. One of our guides, Eran, pointed out that what’s happening in Syria may be the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II and Yishay, our other guide,  reminded us that, while unable to make major contributions, many wounded Syrian civilians have received free life saving treatment in Israel only to then have to be returned to Syria. Mt. Bental has a massive military bunker built  in and around it. It is currently non-operational but could become operational overnight, if God forbid, it needed to be. That is simply part of the reality of Israel. So is the fact that we were able to consider all this while enjoying some of the most delicious cherries most of us have ever had. Our extra time at Mt. Bental was spent taking group pictures and getting additional treats from the coffee shop there. Apologies in advance if your child comes home a coffee drinker.

Our cruise on the Kinneret departed from Kibbutz Ginosar. As we set out to sea one of the ship attendants hoisted an American and Israeli flag. After singing the respective anthems there followed a series of songs that could only follow one another at The Davis Academy. From traditional Jewish songs to modern Israeli hip hop, many of our kids sang and danced away the entire voyage. Watching them sing and dance with such carefree joy was really touching. And the fact that they knew so many Israeli songs with so many lyrics and dance moves sheds a light on exactly what was taking place in Hebrew for part of the 8th grade year! On the bus ride following the cruise, Eran was asked why he keeps agreeing to guide The Davis Academy 8th Grade Israel trip. It’s simple, he said. Watching you all sing and dance just now, seeing the joy and knowledge and pride you bring with you from the US, knowing that many Israelis don’t even know some of those songs. It’s something that inspires me and that I simply can’t let go of.  One of the songs that our kids know and love is called Matanot K’tanot—Little Gifts. It’s an absolutely beautiful song that every Jew should know.

Tonight is Lag Ba’Omer, a holiday that is traditionally celebrated with a bonfire. And ours was a traditional celebration. We pulled off the main road to find a bonfire and beautiful catered dinner waiting just for us. After devouring the meal, we lit the bonfire, and had a Havdallah service. Havdallah is the short service that officially concludes Shabbat. Rachel and Talia had the honor of speaking as we counted the 4th shell of our Israel trip. Then Mr. Barry, Ms. Hegarty, Morah Sigal, and Senora Evelyn took turns sharing during the Havdallah service. After some beautiful singing, including a rousing Kol Yisrael, we made smores while our guitar playing students jammed out by the fireplace. Scanning the scene it was wonderful to see kids intermingling with one another and their chaperones in such an easy, comfortable and communal way.

On the way back to the Kibbutz we praised the kids and gave them a pep talk to keep the positive momentum as we head into the upcoming week. This Shabbat we experienced many matanot k’tanot but the greatest gifts are twofold. First, the gift of being together at such a special time and in such a special place. Second, the more subtle and not yet finished gift, which is the journey that we are taking individually and collectively, whether we are 8th graders on the Jordan River, their parents reading this blog, or anyone else that finds themselves identifying with that which is taking place here in Israel in the hearts and souls of our kids.

Shavua Tov! Here are the words to Matanot K'tanot:

Matanot K'tanot
Another Friday, breathing the air,
Zeh od yom shishi noshem et ha'avir

Light and shadow are playing "tag" again.
Ahor ve'atzel mesachakim shoov tofeset

The table is set, childhood photos on the wall,
Ashulchan aruch tmunot yaldut al akir

White processions are returning from shul,
Shayarot levenot chozrot mibet kneset

And that smell which scratches my heart -
Ve'are'ach azeh shesoret li et alev

Sneaking in and opening doors
Mitganev mitganev vepote'ach dlatot

To a small joy, to the same old song
El osher ktan, el oto shir yashan

which is being passed along for generations.
She'over etzlenu bemeshech dorot

Small gifts
Matanot ktanot
Someone has sent me small gifts
Mishehu shalach li matanot ktanot

Shrapnels of intent, circles of belief
Resisim shel kavana higulim shel emuna

Small gifts -
Matanot ktanot

Such as the strength to accept what I lack and what I possess
Kmo hako'ach lekabel et ma she'en et ma sheyesh

What more can one ask for?
Ma od efshar kvar levakesh?

Another Friday- balcony and newspaper,
Zeh od yom shishi mirpeset ve'iton

The sun, like worries, is slowly being erased,
Ashemesh kmo ade'agot le'at nimcheket

Simple melodies crawl through the window
Manginot pshutot zochalot me'achalon

and there is no longer any storm which can hide the silence.
Ve'shum sehara kvar lo tastir po et asheket

Small gifts
Matanot ktanot
Someone has sent me small gifts
Mishehu shalach li matanot ktanot

For thou hast chosen us and sanctified us...
Ki banu bacharta , ve'otanu kidashta

Blessed art thou, G-d, sanctifier of the Sabbath.
Baruch ata adon_i mekadesh ashabat

And that smell which scratches my heart-
Ve'are'ach azeh shesoret li et alev

Sneaking in and opening doors
Mitganev mitganev vepote'ach dlatot

To a small joy, to the same old song
El osher ktan, el oto shir yashan

which is being passed along for generations.
She'over etzlenu bemeshech dorot
Music and Lyrics by Rami Kleinshtein


Native Languages

On Wednesday, August 31st, 2016, the 8th graders on this Israel trip joined a few of their teachers for a retreat at URJ Camp Coleman. The opening activity of that retreat was an activity created by the teachers called, “What kind of animal are you?” After getting their instructions the 8th graders sat quietly on that warm August morning and filled out a two-sided piece of paper. It asked them to reflect upon and list some of their most dominant character traits, strengths, and weaknesses as well as a few other open-ended questions. Eventually each 8th grader was asked to identify an animal that they thought best represented their personality. Birds, lions, dragons, centaurs, and more were identified.

From September 1st, 2016 until May 9th, 2017y those two-sided pieces of paper sat on my Middle School office desk. Tonight we gave them back to the kids and asked them to take a look. What endured? What had changed? Could they still identify with the person who had filled out that sheet of paper? Some could. Some couldn’t. From there we launched into a series of different conversations. Broken into small groups based on gender, we had a chance to listen deeply, share intentionally, and honor one another. Advice for the rest of the trip, fears and anticipations of high school, regrets and accomplishments, expressions of disbelief and gratitude, and so much more ensued.  While self-reflection isn’t a native language for all of our kids, they hung in there tonight and it was clear from their presence and their energy that they were appreciative of the mindfulness that allowed this sharing to take place.

Due to various Lag Ba’Omer celebrations, our day began in Tzfat instead of Akko. Tzfat is one of the four holy cities of the land of Israel most notably because it is the birthplace of Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism. While in Tzfat we learned about Kabbalah, TIkkun Olam, Gematria (Jewish numerology), the origins of the Kabbalat Shabbat service, Jewish Messianic ideas and much more. It’s my personal belief that spirituality and mysticism, as broadly defined as possible, are native languages for all human beings. The challenge being that many of us don’t realize that we own these languages and therefore sometimes neglect or fail to develop our vocabulary or speak them. Most who visit Tzfat are reminded of the quiet voice inside of us that sometimes (or always) whispers that there’s something more to life than meets the eye. Tzfat has evoked not only the spiritual and mystical imagination of countless generations, but also the artistic imagination. As a result, there’s fabulous shopping to be done. And shopping is definitely a native language for our kids. It should be noted that virtually every child shopped for others on their list before shopping for themselves. Tallitot were bought for siblings B’nai Mitzvahs, special gifts for mom in honor of mother’s day, and more. And the good news is, now that they’ve got their shopping for all of you out of the way, they can focus on themselves!

Another one time capital of Israel/Palestine, Akko is home to a United Nations World Heritage Site. That site is an Ottoman fortress built on top of a Crusader fortress from the 11th century.  One of our guides, Eran, made the Crusaders the focus of his graduate studies. He painted a vivid picture of Crusader life including how they ate their meals, wiped their hands (on passing dogs and livestock), and used the restroom… all in the same large dining hall. It seems that hygiene has only become a native language during the last 1000 or so years.

We had pizur lunch in the finest (and only) shopping mall in Akko. Definitely a native language.

Our day of touring ended at Rosh HaNikra. After spotting a large sea turtle swimming in the shallow waters of the Mediterranean we took the cable car down the side of the cliff and explored the grottos of Rosh HaNikra. Geological time is lost on most of us, especially the young, but it’s hard not to get a sense of the relentless patience and inevitability of waves crashing into limestone. What, if anything, in human existence is comparable? While “time” is perhaps the ultimate human construct and most native of languages, geological time is something that the mind doesn’t need to grasp, merely acknowledge.

Today is Mother’s Day. How fitting then, is it, that the Hebrew phrase for “Native Language” is “Sfat Em.” Translated literally, Sfat Em, means “Mother Tongue.” To the extent that each of us is on a journey to find our own unique voice in the world and use that voice to bring about our own happiness and better the lives of others and the world more generally, we have our mothers to thank. The love of mothers, fathers, and family is the native language from which all other languages spring. As we all experiment with different ways of expressing ourselves, communicating our innermost thoughts, feelings, hopes, and dreams, and bringing our voices into service of our communities and those around us, let’s take a moment to honor the Sfat Em that guides us all.

Postcards from Israel

When most people think of Israel, they think of the day we had today. They think of driving through the Judean Desert to Masada. They think of floating in the Dead Sea, caked in mud. They think of camel riding. They think of sleeping in the desert under the starry sky. Today was a postcard Israel day.

But the most interesting thing about postcards isn’t the cliché image on the front. It’s the short message written on the back. Who is it from? Who is it addressed to? What’s the salutation? What tales are recorded on those few precious inches of blank space? You and I may never know the answers to these questions when it comes to the hundreds of postcards that were metaphorically written today.

The back of the postcard can’t be written without the front of the postcard. But the front of the postcard is indistinguishable from one postcard to the next. The writing on the back is the key to deciphering the picture on the front.

Your children have dreamed about this day for somewhere between 5 and 9 years, and for good reason. When they dreamed of it, were they able to feel the sun beating down on them atop Masada? Were they able to delight in the buoyancy of the Dead Sea? Could they smell the special smell of their camel or imagine who they would share their camel ride with?  Maybe, but probably not. Today the postcard and the dream both became reality. Not every day can or should be a postcard day. The fact that today was is something that should put a smile on all of our faces and inscribe a message on the blank spaces of our hearts.


Sunrise Sunset

Last night we went to sleep on the edge of Machtesh Ramon, the Grand Canyon of Israel. This morning we woke up in time to watch the sun rise above the Machtesh and the Jordanian Mountains in the far distance. 5:30am finds #Davis8 in differing states of consciousness. Some popped right out of bed and flocked to the edge of the crater. Others were a bit slower moving. But eventually everyone gathered to watch the sunrise in whatever place made sense for them. Wrapped in blankets, still wearing pajamas, bleary eyed, or wide awake and fully packed—the sun doesn’t wait for us. If we’re lucky enough to be in such a special place as Machtesh Ramon it is we who wait for the sun.  And then, much more quickly than most of us ever imagine, the sun rises and a new day begins.

From Machtesh Ramon we took a short bus ride to Sde Boker where we paid our respects to David and Paula Ben Gurion and hiked Ein Avdat. I can’t remember the last time that I saw a Davis group show such kavod to the visionary founder and first prime minister of the State of Israel. It was really moving to watch so many kids place a rock on the tombstone. I think part of it is the fact that the kids have learned about Ben Gurion prior. But I think a deeper part of it has to do with the fact that they feel personally grateful to him for having the courageous audacity to make the dream of 2,000 years a reality. Sometimes we wonder what kinds of heroes our kids look to for inspiration. Today I am sure they looked to Ben Gurion.

Ein Avdat is as much a rite of passage as any Davis Academy ritual. It starts out as a serene desert walk to an oasis and waterfall. From there it gently transitions into the yearly explanation of how the endangered Ibex mate (as understood by Mr. Barry). From there we begin the quick and steep ascent up the side of the cliff. Never having been on a hike quite like this, many wonder if they’ll be able to make it. Yishay and Eran remain surprised by how quickly and proudly our group makes the climb. There’s a visible sense of accomplishment at the end, followed by a request for ice cream which we annually deny.

The Salad Trail, our next stop, is an inspiring example of Ben Gurion’s dream of making the Negev blossom.  The Negev accounts for 60% of Israel. And it is, in fact, a desert. It’s not desert-esque. It’s a desert. The fact that we were able to visit endless fields of agricultural greenhouses that featured the most advanced agricultural techniques in the world is pretty cool. Today we learned that many of the different varieties of tomatoes were created in Israel (and that Israel holds patents for many of them). Those who might espouse an ideology of boycotting Israel would have to add the cherry tomato to their list of prohibited items because it was, in fact, created in Israel. Our time visiting the Salad Trail ended with an unexpected event—releasing “peace pigeons” into the wild. The Salad Trail is located in a part of Israel that is fairly close to the Gaza Strip. All who live in that region yearn for peace and believe that the desert will never truly blossom until human dignity is allowed to blossom across the region. Hence the release of peace pigeons. Which was actually hysterically funny.

There’s no greater contrast in Israel than the contrast between the desert and Tel Aviv. We experienced that contrast in full force by driving straight to Shuk HaCarmel and Nahalat Binyamin. And speaking of contrasts, there’s a wonderful contrast between Shuk HaCarmel and Nahalat Binyamin. The Shuk is a bustling marketplace with everything from buckets of fresh herbs and spices to 2nd, 3rd, and 4th hand t-shirts and tchotchkes. Nahalat Binyamin is an elegant artists’ market featuring all different types of creations at virtually every price point. The kids were only too happy to explore both of this vibrant marketplaces for a few hours to help them transition from the desert to the big city.

We had a communal dinner at Dr. Shakshuka in Jaffa. There we encountered endless salad courses, chicken and beef on skewers, and, of course, Shakshuka. Anyone who left hungry simply didn’t apply themselves. We hung out by the famous clocktower in Jaffa for a bit and enjoyed some dessert (not desert) before heading back to the hotel.

Back at the hotel we were met by various friends and family of our kids. I love the hotel visit nights because of the way our kids so naturally embrace their friends and family from Israel. Some they know well, others hardly at all, but with a little chaperone guidance eventually the conversations flow. I’m going to end this post now so that I can help wrap up said visits and get the kids into their rooms for the night.

Quite a day and I don’t think the kids are ready to look at a calendar and see that our trip is entering the home stretch. The good news is that it will be a homestretch that will transform them forever.


The Writing on the Wall

Our day today consisted of a few disparate activities that ended up being mutually informative simply because we experienced them all on the same day. Today we went on a graffiti tour of Tel Aviv’s Florentine neighborhood, visited the Palmach Museum, paid our respects at Rabin Square, hung out at the beach, and ate dinner at the Tel Aviv Port. On one level, today was about exploring Tel Aviv. On another level, today was about exploring ourselves.

Led by one of Tel Aviv’s most respected graffiti/street artists, our tour of the Florentine neighborhood was fascinating and thought provoking. The streets of Florentine and Tel Aviv more generally are literally covered in various forms of graffiti and street art, ranging from the hideous to the sublime, from the absurd to the political, from the aggressive to the subtle. Our guide, Niro, helped us understand that there are many walls in Israel, not just the Western Wall. More importantly, he helped us understand that many walls tell stories if we know how to look, listen, and investigate. With our kids completely hooked, Niro explained some of the different styles of street art by focusing on a few choice examples in the neighborhood. He helped us understand that street art is a vehicle for self-expression, social criticism, and so much more. While acknowledging that most street art is produced in violation of the law, he explained that many street artists consider their work very important. There are many rules that guide the community of street artists. For that reason we were able to see a piece of street art that has remained untouched since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. There is an unspoken rule in Florentine that this particular mural is not to be defaced.

The point of the street art tour was to engage the kids in a conversation and to activate their learning and participation in a new way. Most of them really enjoyed the experience and more than a few may have taken pictures of some less than 8th grade appropriate street art. Please accept our apologies and know that it was worth it.  That’s because the street art movement is a wonderful example of the type of social engagement and discourse that takes place in Israel, a free and open democracy.

The Palmach Museum tells the story of the pre-State armies and 1948 War of Independence. Touring the interactive museum helps the kids understand that the State of Israel didn’t make a smooth entrance onto the world stage. It’s important for them to know that many thousands of lives were lost helping to secure our Jewish Homeland. The story of the Palmach helps them access and name the feeling of appreciation that so many of them have had during our entire visit.

That feeling of tremendous cost is most acute when visiting Rabin Square, the site where Prime Minister, Yitzchak Rabin, was assassinated by an ultra-Orthodox right wing Jew. To this day, Rabin’s assassin is not called by his name. He is referred to only as “the murderer.” That’s because the Rabin assassination remains an open wound in the hearts of all Israelis who lived through the experience. We all know the corollaries here in America.  Rabin’s assassination is especially painful because of the fact that his murderer was a fellow Jew. The cohesiveness of Israeli society and the Jewish People worldwide remains a topic of great concern and uncertainty. Yitzchak Rabin represented the possibility of profound peace. Peace with our neighbors and peace with ourselves. The moment he died, so too died that vision. Rabin Square is one of the few sites in Israel that offers little consolation. Like the street art of Florentine, it provokes and unsettles.

For many of us, the beach is a happy place. Given the intellectual and emotional weight of the day, it’s no surprise that the kids were eager to get to the beach. And we were only too happy to indulge them. With our bags being watched by one of our security guards, we took a good couple of hours to enjoy the Mediterranean. The kids stayed together as a group for most of their time out at sea. We let them swim until the lifeguard had to leave, and then pulled them out of the water to carry on with our evening. Every year the Mediterranean reminds me of what a special time it is in these kids’ lives. They’re done with exams, they’re virtually done with Davis, a place that they call home. Summer hasn’t started yet, but before they know it they’ll be off to high school. From my viewpoint, that hour or so in the Mediterranean is the greatest gift we give these kids. It’s an hour of pure carefree time. All they need to do is enjoy the water, enjoy the sun, enjoy the sand, and enjoy one another. It’s the ultimate example of disconnecting in order to reconnect. For that hour there’s no doubt in my mind that they are fully in the present, in the moment, and full of joy. The best part of it all is that they have no idea how special the moment is. They’re just a bunch of kids who know and love each other swimming in the Mediterranean and having a good time. Which is exactly how it should be.

The Tel Aviv Port is the perfect place for a bunch of 8th graders to pretend like they’re adults. It’s basically the equivalent of Phipps plaza turned into an outdoor mall on the Mediterranean. Fancy restaurants and shops, a beautiful sunset, and so on. So what did the kids do with their newly achieved independence once we showed them the boundaries and set them loose? They ate a leisurely dinner and then discovered the gigantic playground tucked behind a few of the shops and proceeded to play for the next hour stopping only to get some ice cream. How charming that their desire for autonomy and independence led them back to the simple joys of childhood. The chaperone team enjoyed watching them play and actually ended up being on “recess duty” to make sure that they didn’t get too out of control on some of the swings and other playground elements. We were only too happy to give them the gift of play and let them regress a bit before taking the huge leap forward into their post-Davis lives.

Today we treated them like adults. Today they reminded us that they are adolescents. Together we honored the part of all us that longs for the simplicity of childhood while simultaneously engaging the part of us that is ready for the complexity that comes with emerging maturity in a world that challenges us daily. The name “Tel Aviv” means “Old/New.” How fitting then, that our day vacillated between all that has been and all that can and soon will be.   


Living the Dream

While we woke up this morning in Tel Aviv, today was all about Jerusalem. To make the most of our day we headed straight to Har Tzion (Mt. Zion). There we visited a site that embodies the promise and the challenge of Jerusalem. That site is home to King David’s Tomb, the room of the Last Supper, and a Mosque. It demonstrates, beyond doubt, that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have both commonalities and differences. It also demonstrates that mutual respect and coexistence are possible. On the roof of this sacred site we formed a circle and had a short ceremony welcoming us to Jerusalem. During that ceremony we asked the kids to think back to their first day at Davis. We asked them to think about the moment when they received their siddur. The moment they chanted Torah for the first time. Their B’nai Mitzvah. Then we asked them to take a moment to center themselves before adding a new chapter to their Jewish and life journey. Then we watched them devour a 2 ½ foot long challah.

We entered the Old City through the Zion Gate. After stopping to acquire some freshly baked Jerusalem bagels (to wash down the challah), we walked along the central avenue of Jerusalem during the 2nd Temple period known as the Cardo. During our Pizur lunch the kids got to wander around the Rovah (Jewish Quarter) and enjoy the unique atmosphere of the Old City. All of this built up a tremendous amount of excitement and anticipation for the Kotel.

You never know what you’re going to find when you visit the Kotel. When we arrived there today the plaza was pretty relaxed. A group of soldiers was setting up the dais for an IDF swearing in ceremony but other than that, the Kotel was so chill that one of the custodians decided it was the perfect time to hose down the area immediately in front of the Wall. That was a first for me.

In an earlier post I mentioned that the kids are still warming up to the spiritual dimension of this trip. Today they collectively walked through this metaphorical gate. We have the Kotel to thank for that. While there, we could feel your presence, and the presence of all the generations surrounding us. There was a visible and tangible sense of intense connection on both sides of the Wall. Boys wrapped in Israeli flags and Tefilin, embracing one another and resting their heads against the Kotel-- all with sincere focus and devotion. It’s hard to explain the feeling that the chaperones experienced in our role as official photographers of this intimate encounter. We wanted to capture these sacred moments without altering them in any way. Snapping pictures for all of you was a way of bearing witness to the transformative power of the moment. And it was an honor. I get goose bumps thinking about it now. The Kotel helped the kids step out of their comfort zones. It helped them encounter themselves in new ways. It opened their hearts and moved many of them to tears. Some of those tears were tears of sadness, some were tears of joy. Some were tears of discovery and some were tears of loss. Some were tears of hope and all were tears of the open heart.

From the Kotel we headed to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Considered one of (or the) holiest churches in the world, it is the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. There we saw many pilgrims touching those sacred places and worshipping their God. Many of our kids expressed a desire to better understand Christian beliefs and traditions. We reminded them of some of the interfaith encounters we’ve had with other schools over the years and also reminded them that they will continue to learn and grow even after they leave Davis. The learning is never over.

After checking in to the hotel we headed to Ben Yehuda Street. To make sure that there weren’t any regrets or unfinished shopping lists we gave the kids more than two hours to roam from shop to shop. The kids appreciated it but the merchants appreciated it even more. Our presence counts for a lot. Literally.

Upon return most of the kids went up to their rooms while a few enjoyed our 2nd night of family visitations. Once again it was a joy to supervise these visits and see the love that surrounds our kids and their easy way of engaging with their guests.

When I think back on this day in the years to come, here’s what I know will stay with me…

After the boys had their personal time at the Kotel we gathered as a group to sing a few prayers and share a few words. Arm and arm in an unbroken circle, we sang the Shema. Then we sang Hinei Mah Tov because it was truly so good to be together. From there we expanded our circle of consciousness by singing Am Yisrael Chai. All around us and through us the Jewish people live. Not content to stop there, we sang Oseh Shalom, lifting up our prayer of peace for all people and all creation. After singing Oseh Shalom we asked a simple question: By being here, each of us is fulfilling a personal dream. But who else, living or deceased, might have dreamed that one day you would be standing at the Kotel, joined arm and arm in prayer? Boys started sharing the names. Parents, grandparents, great grandparents. On and on. Once the sharing had stopped we took a moment to consider the fact that somehow, call it God, call it spirit, call it the chain of generations, the dreams of those people, living and dead, had been fulfilled. From the middle of our circle came an overwhelming wave of connection and understanding. It swept over each of us and enveloped us. Then, from the other side of the Kotel, we heard the girls lifting up their voices in song, and knew that we were not alone.


It’s Shabbat in Jerusalem. And while the city isn’t completely quiet, there’s a noticeable difference. After two days here, it’s clear that this city, and every city, needs Shabbat. And so do we. At least all of us here with #Davis8. 

At 2pm today we found ourselves in Jerusalem’s busiest shukMachaneh Yehudah. During the hour we spent in the shuk it’s no exaggeration to say that we were probably in the single busiest place in the entire country. Though the shuk wasn’t in the day’s itinerary, we decided to go there because we thought it was the single best illustration of Israel as a living, breathing, vibrant, and multicultural country that we could show our kids. Having just toured Yad Vashem and Mt. Hertzl, we felt like our kids would appreciate seeing that which was either denied to our ancestors or the direct result of their ultimate sacrifice.

The kids came downstairs this morning knowing a couple of things. They knew that we were going to Yad Vashem and Har Hertzl and they knew that two of their beloved classmates were celebrating their birthday today. That knowledge alone was sufficient to impress upon them that today was a day of tensions, contradictions, and polarities. Our birthday celebration provided us the perfect excuse to start the day with one of Israel’s finest treats—rugulach from the Marzupan Bakery. We sang happy birthday and enjoyed our pastries knowing that Yad Vashem would require a lot of energy and focus.

Our kids receive many compliments when they travel on school trips. Perhaps the most meaning come from museum docents in various places that praise our kids’ behavior and knowledge. What tour guide doesn’t want a group of kids that knows what they’re talking about, asks questions, and engages in deep discussions? Compliments from the most seasoned educational guides of Yad Vashem rank pretty high on the compliment hierarchy.

The main message at Yad Vashem was simply this: remember those who perished and those who survived not on the basis of what was done to them, but on the basis of how they lived, even under the worst conditions. It was a message of empowerment and self-efficacy. The type of message that 8th graders can hear and understand.

After lunch at Yad Vashem we hiked up to Mt. Hertzl. The geography of these two sites, linked by a single path, allows your feet to walk the most significant narrative of modern Jewish history as you travel between the two. Sad but true, every year there are new graves atop Mt. Hertzl. Today we saw the grave of Shimon Peres, long time president of Israel and peace activist. When we saw the familiar words of Lo Yisa Goy on his grave we spontaneously burst into song. Fortunately, for most of us the pain of Mt. Hertzl is not a personal pain. So instead of feeling sad for the more than 10,000 soldiers and state leaders buried there, we rejoice in the fact that we have a Jewish homeland because of them. That’s why we went to Machaneh Yehudah after Mt. Hertzl.

For Shabbat we went to the Old Train Station in central Jerusalem. There we joined about 1,000 Jews from all around the world for a musical Kabbalat Shabbat service. Our kids found the experience a bit overwhelming, mostly due to the crowds. But by the end of the service many had sung and danced with complete strangers and welcomed Shabbat in a very special and memorable way. We returned to the hotel for dinner and then let the kids hang out together before going to bed.

Today was an important day and our kids rose to the task. Tomorrow they get to sleep until 8am as a reward!

I’ll conclude with something that occurred to me while at the Old Train Station. Upon entering the museum portion of Yad Vashem there is a film playing on the wall. That film contains edited footage of Jewish communities from across Europe. It shows the diversity of the Jews of Europe and reminds us that Yad Vashem exists in large part to keep their memory alive. One part of the film that struck me today is when it shows a large group of school children singing Hatikvah.

Tonight at the Old Train Station they had a videographer. He was capturing footage of the band and of the happy people who had come together to welcome Shabbat with one another in the holy city of Jerusalem. During one of the prayers I found myself watching the videographer. In that moment I felt a strong certainty that the footage he was shooting would never end up in an anthology like the one we saw at Yad Vashem. While the Jewish people and the State of Israel face our internal and external challenges, I am convinced that we are drawing nearer to a time when the vision of Shimon Peres will come true and we will stop the teaching and learning of war and violence. I believe that Israel’s best days are ahead of her and I believe the same for #Davis8. Being here in Israel and seeing Israel with them it’s both obvious and there is no other choice.      


Shavua tov from Jerusalem! This post will be brief so that everyone can rest up for another big day tomorrow…

After letting the kids sleep in a bit we took a Shabbat morning walk to The Israel Museum.  There we took our annual picture in front of the Ahava sculpture as well as toured the beautiful galleries. For the most part the kids enjoyed the art, Judaica, archaeology and other exhibits. And all enjoyed the fresh air, relaxed pace, and iconic Jerusalem landscape.

Lunch led into a bit of rest time at the hotel followed by a trip to Hebrew Union College. The Jerusalem campus of HUC is where all Reform rabbis and cantors spend their first year of study. Designed by a famous architect and located in the heart of the city, the campus is a very special place. During our visit we had a chance to study with an HUC professor, Rabbi Chayim Shalom. He engaged the kids in a very successful discussion of a Talmudic story. Eventually we left HUC and wandered Yemin Moshe, one of the first neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Full of fragrant gardens bursting with color we gathered spices for Havdallah.

After a pizza dinner in a quiet part of Yemin Moshe we celebrated Havdallah overlooking the Old City. During Havdallah we emphasized the dual themes of “holding on” and “letting go.” Havdallah invites us to hold on to experiences, memories, hopes, dreams, relationships, and other things that we cherish. But it also invites us to accept the “letting go” that allows us to enter another week with all of our body, heart, and mind.

Our evening concluded at the David Citadel Sound and Light Show. There the kids had a chance to test their knowledge of the history of Jerusalem while watching a masterfully produced show in the ancient fortress. When you kids remember today they will remember the fact that we walked to all of our destinations, that it was unusually cold, and that it was, for most, their first Shabbat in Jerusalem. During Hadallah we took a moment to envision the possibility of celebrating Shabbat in Jerusalem at some future, as yet undetermined, date. I’m pretty sure that everyone could very easily envision doing so and looks forward to building many memories as they continue to connect with Israel in future years.

Shavua tov!


The kids are all in their rooms here at the Jerusalem Tower packing their bags for the last time. If they decided to open their windows to let the cool Jerusalem air diffuse the smell of dirty laundry they might hear a voice echoing in the distance. That voice is none other than Benjamin Netanyahu. Right now he’s giving a speech in honor of the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem during the Six Day War. Because of that speech and the ensuing road closures we had to modify our evening plans. Instead of returning to the Old City to tour the Kotel tunnels, we instead returned to Ben Yehuda Street to acquire souvenirs and gifts of all types. The kids didn’t seem to mind at all!

Today each member of #Davis8 received two certificates. One for planting a tree at Neot Kedumim and the other for participating in an archaeological dig at Tel Moresha, a United Nations World Heritage Site. Both certificates reflect the roots that Jews have to the land of Israel. The roots of the tree and the roots of our ancestors who lived here more than 2,000 years ago. I don’t recall ever planting a tree and digging archaeology in the same day. Talk about symbolism!

Between our two certificates we visited Latrun, a museum and memorial dedicated to the IDF’s Armored Corps Division. After posing for a picture on the Mercava IV, Israel’s signature tank, we learned a bit about the impressive machine. The Mercava is a perfect symbol for Israel. First, it is 100% designed and manufactured in Israel. Next, the design is unique among all tanks because it prioritizes the safety of the crew over the safety of the expensive machinery. While clearly a weapon of war intended for powerful offensives, the Mercava is fundamentally about defending Israel and especially the brave Israelis that operate it.

There are two rows of tanks on display at Latrun. The inner row, which includes the Mercava, faces inward, toward the memorial wall that contains the names of every fallen member of the Armored Corps. These tanks face inward in silent and ongoing salute of their fallen comrades. The outer row of tanks faces outward, toward the west. These tanks protect the sanctity of the memorial and all of Israel. While standing in front of the memorial wall, one of our Medic/ Security guards, David, shared some remarks he wrote especially for our group about a close friend of his who had fallen in the line of duty. It’s personal.

Between planting roots, helping uncover keys to our ancient past, standing at the wall at Latrun, and shopping on Ben Yehuda we had a very full day. Days like these help the kids feel at peace with our imminent departure back to the States. For those of you that are wondering, we are aware that President Trump and his entourage are headed to Israel. Don’t worry, we won’t be bumping into each other! Our tour guides (and all of Jerusalem) are making careful plans for the president’s visit and our day tomorrow will be a wonderful and memorable end to our time in Israel. We look forward to telling you all about it and also giving some thought to how to welcome the kids back home soon.


Look Deeper

On the way to our farewell dinner at Maganda Restaurant in Tel Aviv we passed a sign that said, “Look Deeper.” To me, “Look Deeper”, means that there are multiple layers of meaning in everything. Every action, every decision, every choice, every experience, every thought, every emotion. Every moment of our precious existence expands in depth and meaning when we take the time to look deeper. So let’s look deeper together.

Today we woke up in Jerusalem. As you know, we had to leave town mid-morning to avoid running into President Trump and his entourage. But we couldn’t leave town without wishing one of our precious kids a very happy birthday and visiting Yad L’Kashish, Lifeline for the Elderly. Lifeline for the eldery is a Tikkun Olam organization that serves Israel’s senior citizen population in a unique way—by employing them as artists and craftsmen in their workshop. These men and women, often vulnerable and forgotten, find renewed purpose and meaning in life through Yad L’Kashish. While some of us enjoyed shopping in their beautiful gift shop, many of us looked deeper. Many kids commented that they would rather have spent all their money at Yad L’Kashish than at Ben Yehuda Street because of the story that is being told there. One student really got it when she said, “Here there are no two pieces of art that are identical. Each has the unique brushstroke or imprint of the artist who made it.” Look deeper.

The Ayalon Institute, which we added to our itinerary, tells the story of a secret underground bullet factory that was created to provide the pre-State army with munitions during the war of independence. According to the guides at the site, the bullet factory was kept a complete secret for many years even though there was a fully functioning kibbutz right above it, a kibbutz that employed some of the spouses and friends of those who worked in the secret factory. At the end of our tour, the local guide pointed out that most Israelis still don’t know the story of the Ayalon Institute. He pointed out that we are much more likely to focus on the men and women who are on the front lines of whatever war or battle is taking place. The men and women of the Ayalon Institute were both incredibly courageous and incredibly humble, working behind the scenes in ways that absolutely helped secure the establishment of Israel. It was as if our guide was reminding us to look deeper.

Before heading to Independence Hall we took some time for group reflection in the shade of a Tel Aviv skyscraper. There we asked the kids to reflect on why they came to Israel, what happened to them while here, and anything else that was on their minds. Many shared and it was one of the strongest and most meaningful group reflections in memory. Gradually, they’re understanding that an experience like the Israel Trip requires them to look deeper.

Independence Hall is an amazing place to visit at the end of two weeks in Israel. If it weren’t for the signs and the guides directing you, you could easily walk right past the modest and unassuming building on Rothschild Street in downtown Tel Aviv. Our time at Independence Hall was very special. Our excellent site guide explained that the building served as Tel Aviv’s art museum at the time of the Declaration of the State of Israel and that it was selected because of it’s secure location and design. Prior to the start of the ceremony a designer replaced the art that had been on display with intentionally chosen pieces of art made by Jewish artists or depicting Jewish life. While only 350 guests were in the Hall for the Declaration itself, the presence of this art symbolically included all the generations of Jews that had come before, including the six million who were murdered in the Holocaust. The fact that the State of Israel declared its independence in an art museum says a lot about our Jewish homeland if we are able to look deeper.

In addition to our local guide, we had a very special visitor with us at Independence Hall, a Davis alum who is now serving in the IDF. A self-proclaimed “goofball” during his middle school years at Davis, those of us who knew him found ourselves staring at the same charming smile, but wearing an IDF uniform, carrying a grenade launcher, and so confident and poised. We never know where life will lead any of us and it was such an honor to look deeper at this alum as he addressed our kids who then rushed him to shake his hand and get to know him better.

I’m typing quickly because we’re on the way to the airport. Soon we’ll be coming up the escalator so that we can come back to you. Maybe your child will look different, maybe he or she won’t. But if you look deeper and help them do the same you will undoubtedly uncover many layers of meaning and beauty as they share their time in Israel with you.

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