Today’s Shabbat activities had an unexpected common theme: water. Together we spent an absolutely splendid and sublime day in northern Israel both in and surrounded by water.
Our day started with a beautiful bus ride along the eastern banks of the Kinneret. After driving through the entire Galilee region, we arrived at a place called Sha’ar Yishuv. Our reason for visiting Sha’ar Yishuv—to meet a mother whose son was killed in a helicopter accident along with 72 other IDF soldiers while en route to a mission in Lebanon in 1997. Nir Schribman, the deceased solider, was a student of Morah Orna’s back when she taught at a Jewish school in Dallas. Morah Orna shared Nir’s story with us on Yom HaZikaron this year thereby making today’s visit an incredibly powerful and meaningful follow up.
Nir’s mother, Ruth, along with several other bereaved families, has spent the last 20 years transforming the site of the helicopter crash into a beautiful memorial to the 73 soldiers who died there. Those soldiers come from all different parts of the country, different religious backgrounds, and so on. In this way, they tell the story of Israel. A story of people coming together to make profound sacrifices out of their love and belief in a sacred cause—upholding and defending the State of Israel.
The centerpiece of the memorial, which itself is located along a natural spring that flows to the Jordan river, is a circular reflecting pool surrounded by 73 massive memorial stones. Water from the pool swirls above the plaques bearing the names of the soldiers then runs from the pool down a long concrete passageway, and drains into a large hole, only to be recycled. An endless flow of water. We stood around the circle reading the Hebrew letters of the names of those men and women, and then recited the Mourner’s Kaddish.
In true Jewish and Israeli fashion, we honored the dead by celebrating the gift of life. We did so with our annual float down the Jordan River. Often an overcrowded and sometimes overwhelming experience (think loud music, lots of people splashing about), today the river was virtually empty, likely due to the rain clouds overhead. While some of us viewed the river as a chance to float peacefully, making small talk and singing songs, others viewed it as a chance for catharsis. Catharsis= much splashing. Everyone got what they needed from the river, and we only lost a few items to the Jordan’s gentle current.
We ate two of our meals outdoors today. The first was freshly baked pizza at the landing deck of the Jordan River. Next time you have pizza at home, remind your kids to tell you about the special spice blend that we tried today. On our way to the bus we got caught in a small rain shower. Rain at this time of year is literally considered a miracle in Israel.
From the banks of the Jordan we drove down to the banks of the Kinneret. After a short break we boarded one of the large wooden boats that carries groups out onto the storied waters of the Sea of Galilee. We passed many groups of Christian pilgrims following in the footsteps of Jesus. Our time on the Sea of Galilee felt less like a spiritual reenactment and more like a Boat Mitzvah. There’s something so inspiring about watching our kids sing and dance to the most current hits of Israeli Hip Hop along with some of the classics of both Jewish and Israeli culture. Particularly sweet this year was watching kids get lifted up on chairs during the hora. That was a first. And a testament to the outpouring of love and energy that your kids are consistently displaying at every step of our journey.
We returned to shore and made one final stop before returning to the Kibbutz for a bonfire, picnic, and Havdallah. That stop was at a place called Yardenit. Since the days of John the Baptist, when Jesus himself was, according to Christian Scripture, immersed in the Jordan river, Christians have come to the banks of the Jordan for Baptism. Yardenit is one of the most popular sites for this religious experience that is sacred to countless millions of people. We gathered there as observers of a faith not our own to watch some of these pilgrims undergo Baptism. We saw many groups, but closest to us was a group from, of all places, Tennessee. Wearing white smocks, we listened as their pastor spoke to them, with tears in his eyes. We watched them walk down into the water and begin, one by one, their baptism. Young and old, male and female. When they emerged from the water many were weeping or raising their hands in the air, shouting "halleluyah", embracing one another and so on. Our kids watched so respectfully, many clearly moved by the experience. And we applauded, appropriately, this beautiful ritual. At one point a man from Ghana wandered over and asked the pastor from Tennessee to baptize him. Honored to do so, the pastor baptized this complete stranger and the men fell into one another’s arms. While not part of our Jewish faith, it was profoundly touching to see a ritual that crosses so many perceived boundaries and divisions. There was a true feeling of Christian faith, love, and fellowship, there along the banks of the Jordan river.
We got back to the hotel and showered. This also involved water. And many of us surely said, “Halleluyah.”
We arrived to dinner to find a campsite set up with large blankets, pillows, a bonfire, and delicious spread of food. The kids new exactly what to do. So too the chaperones. And so we did. In thinking about dinner, it’s nice to know that there are some things that don’t require a lot of explanation. Blankets, pillows, a bonfire, and a spread of food. We’ve got that one covered. But I've got to add that when it came time for Israeli s'mores we saw a unprecedented level of ingenuity demonstrated by the kids as they tried to reconcile the very short skewers with the massive flames of the fire. The engineers among us would be proud.
Like Shabbat last night, Havdallah was communal, spirited, and participatory. Mrs. Lefkovits spoke about the symbolism of the Kiddush cup, Mr. Frank about the spice box (which tonight was an etrog that we dried out and saved from 7th grade Sukkot), and Ms. Kendrick about the light of the candle. We sang a few favorite songs before, during, and after, with Mr. Michek jumping in on guitar. The formal part of our day ended, just like it began, in a circle. We started our day with water and ended it with fire. And then we let the kids hang out some more.
When the kids look back on today, they’ll see the constant presence of water quite clearly. If they didn’t understand the power of water before, they understand it now. Water heals, water nourishes, water sanctifies, water cleanses, water renews, water saves, water unites, and water washes away.
At some point today, your child looked down into the water and saw their own reflection. Maybe they saw their reflection at the helicopter memorial. Maybe while rafting. Maybe while sailing on the Kinneret, or maybe while watching the Christian pilgrims. Part of being in Israel is having a chance to see your reflection a little more clearly than you might be able to back home in Atlanta. When they come home you can ask them who and what they saw reflected back to them in the water.