55 congregation members visit homeland June 15-25
By Ben Tinsley
ISRAEL — Lunch by the Dead Sea. Shabbat in Jerusalem. Jeep riding in the North. Kayaking on the Jordan River. A camel ride. A Tower of David sound and light show.
These were quite the set of adventures for members of Fort Worth’s Congregation Ahavath Sholom, which journeyed to Israel June 15 through June 25.
“We really went that extra mile,” said Rabbi Andrew Bloom. “We started in the early morning and kept going until late at night. We must have walked between 7 and 9 miles each day to see what Israel had to offer.”
The group was able to carve out a well-rounded schedule of activities and tours because competing Israel tourism traffic was incredibly light. Members of Fort Worth’s Congregation Ahavath Sholom were able to take advantage of the fact they were one of the few Jewish groups in attendance that time of year, Bloom said. (This was the third organized tour for Rabbi Bloom, who previously had lived in Israel about 13 years.)
The reservations for the trip are generally made a year ahead of time and many of the other tour groups canceled last year because of the Gaza War, Rabbi Bloom explained.
“Our group didn’t cancel because we weren’t worried about it and because we were going there in support of Israel,” Bloom said.
The rabbi said the 55 members of Congregation Ahavath Sholom who traveled with him from Tel Aviv to the Galilee to Jerusalem are the largest such group ever to do so from Fort Worth’s Jewish community.
Ebrahim Lavi, president of Congregation Ahavath Sholom’s board of directors, agreed the group abided by a fairly vigorous traveling schedule.
“This wasn’t a TV tour,” he said with a chuckle. “There was no time to sit down and kick up your heels. … The first day we had to get up about 6:30 a.m. to get on the road. The entire trip, we were going and going from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. at night.”
The oldest of the offspring on the trip was Dorie Kaye, 20, currently a junior at the University of Texas. She said she didn’t mind the sunup to sundown schedule — but it was physically taxing.
“It was definitely, definitely tiring,” she said. “They told us to hydrate, which meant bathroom breaks every hour.”
During their first full day in Israel, the group witnessed the Bahai Temple in Haifa and the grottos in Rosh Hanikra and spent the evening on the shores of the Kineret (Lake Tiberias) from Kibbutz Ha’on, Rabbi Bloom said.
Also during the journey, they traveled to several orchards to pick apples for needy Israeli families, working with Leket Israel, The National Food Bank, an Israeli charity that distributes surplus food to those in need. They were retrieving juicy green Anna apples — technically “leftover food” that farmers hadn’t already picked for one reason or another.
Nan Udell — a member of Congregation Ahavath Sholom’s board of directors — describes the Anna apple as “a delightful cross between a sweet and tart apple.’
Together, the group gathered as much as 2,500 pounds of Anna apples for the cause.
“Yes, these were juicy and sweet — very good apples,” the rabbi agreed. “It was great knowing that in addition to helping provide sustenance to those in need, we were also providing them with delicious food, as well.”
The group also visited the Eshkol School in Akko, Congregation Ahavath Sholom’s Hebrew School’s sister school in Israel. Rabbi Bloom wrote about this visit in great detail in correspondence he posted on Facebook.
“While we know the children from postcards, meeting them in person was so much more than putting a name to a face,” Bloom wrote. “For here we saw their hospitality and the musical concert that they put on for us was very moving. It wasn’t like visiting a foreign school; rather it was like meeting a long lost relative. The feeling of connection that overcame time, location, socioeconomic conditions and language was immediate and heartfelt. The warm welcome and eagerness to show us what the elementary school children are learning musically was inspiring.”
Additionally, the group made its way to the Western Galilee Hospital for a visit and saw its entire underground facility — including its emergency room, operating rooms, and baby nursery mobilized during times of war and bombings in the surrounding areas.
“We here in Fort Worth and around the United States can only imagine what this might be like — while the staff and patients in the Western Galilee Hospital have to actually live with this reality,” Rabbi Bloom said in a separate Facebook message. “Thank God for the dedication and loyalty of donors, volunteers and the staff to help keep all its patients safe. These patients include Syrian casualties who are brought and dropped off at the Israeli border. Israel does not turn any wounded away and treats them as any other patient would be. This treatment is completely at the expense of the hospital and Israeli government.”
Fort Worth recently rejoined the Partnership2Gether program of the Jewish Federations of North America. The Western Galilee, which includes Akko, is in their partnership area, but Rabbi Bloom said Ahavath Sholom was already working with them at the time, Bloom said.
“We’ve been working with Akko for three years,” he said.
Members of Congregation Ahavath Sholom held their Shabbat services at the “egalitarian” part of the Western Wall, which is separated from the main plaza of the Kotel where all groups can hold services.
“The 55 of us and our guide gathered around and climbed a platform just several feet from the Western Wall and I led all of us in services and prayer,” Rabbi Bloom said. “In Jewish synagogues around the world we face Jerusalem in prayer and while in Jerusalem we face the Western Wall in prayer, and here we were facing the Wall with our prayers no longer needing to travel the ‘metaphoric’ distance of space to reach Jerusalem and the Western Wall. For we could now reach her with hearts and touch her with our hands.”
The spirituality of praying at the Wall touched everyone in the group, the rabbi said.
“When I saw some of the group crying with tears of joy, the service for me transformed into one of the most spiritual I had ever experienced as well as bringing a tear to my own face,” Rabbi Bloom said. “The highlight of the service was when all the children of the group stood in the center of a circle and all of the adults raised our hands together and recited the priestly blessing over them. At that moment we were joined as one, and our blessings were heard as one. What a moment and what a feeling. We were no longer praying for the Shabbat Queen to enter our sanctuary for she was within each and every one of us at that moment. It was this feeling of unity that made the wall ‘ours’ no matter on what side of the plaza we were standing.”
In the north, on the Syrian border, the group was able to travel to the operation center of an army base — a development the tour guide assured the group was very rare to be allowed to do.
Digging through time
They also participated in an archeological dig sifting through artifacts from over 2,000 years ago.
“Our tour guide was able to tell us the histories of the places where we were and relate to all the different ages,” Rabbi Bloom said.
Lavi was in Israel with his wife Linda. The rabbi traveled with his wife, Michal, and their children Daniel, 18, Maya, 15, and Lia, 10.
“We had a total of 14 children ages 8 to 20 with us so it was a fabulous trip for family and grandparents,” Rabbi Bloom said. “It was a multigenerational trip where each of the kids had other kids their age.”
Dorie Kaye and her brother Brian, 16, are really good friends with Rabbi Bloom’s children. They said all the synagogue children are very chummy and had a great time.
“We had a fabulous trip,” she said. “I don’t think there is anything we missed. We got to see a little bit of everything.”
This was Nan Udell’s first trip to Israel. However, she added, it definitely was not her last. Udell said she returned home with a deeper and more abiding love of Jerusalem.
“It just feels different there,” Udell said. “It is a holy place — not only for us, but for two other major religions. You can feel that holiness.”
Rabbi Bloom agreed.
“People now feel they have an eternal link and are part of the history and people of Israel,” he said. “They became one with Israel by having experienced it.”
Lavi said he knows of only one word that can summarize the experience.
“That word is ‘fantastic,’’’ Lavi said. “I was here before but this experience was so different. We went to some normal places — the ones everyone goes to — but we went to other places you normally don’t — or can’t. We went to the border of Lebanon and Israel and Syria and spoke with people. It was really off the beaten path.”