‘Energy, excitement’ for many first-time Temple Shalom travelers
By Aaron Greenberg
Special to the TJP
A trip to Israel is often cited as the most meaningful physical journey in a Jewish person’s life.
“Once you see it and touch it, your relationship is never the same,” said Rabbi Andrew Paley of Temple Shalom, who led a group of nearly 40 congregants and their families in December.
The participants gathered in Tel Aviv on Dec. 19 and departed on Dec. 28, giving them a week and a half to explore the Holy Land together.
“It’s fun going with a group because there’s energy and excitement. The Israel they imagine and read about is so often different from what they see,” Paley said.
“I was trying to minimize some of the things I have heard all these years,” attendee Debra Levy-Fritts said. “What was obvious to me, I felt a sense of family as soon as I got off the plane.
“I see Israeli flags all the time, but when I saw it at the airport, ‘Wow. This is really happening.’”
Although Paley has led about 10 congregational trips over the years, this one had an especially high number of first-timers and those who hadn’t been to Israel in decades. They also met with relatives and friends, and had some unexpected heartfelt moments.
“It’s interesting to see what myths are debunked and what becomes clear to them about what Israel is and how it works,” Paley said.
“I knew I would see certain things, taste certain foods, see people who are industrious, creative, prosperous, things of great religious significance, a country of people with a lot of determination to exist as a country,” James Liston said.
“None of that was a surprise. What was so nice was how it all fit together. The whole, total experience, whether it be the reason why kibbutzes started to come into being or the transition to amazing industry there now, or the historical significance from biblical times to the present-day determination of democracy and defense.”
A family affair
Jerry Silverman knew he had a cousin living on a kibbutz, but didn’t realize it would be the same one the group would be visiting. From there, the opportunities to meet with family multiplied. Another cousin visited the kibbutz, plus they met one in Tel Aviv, and yet another one came down to their hotel.
Jerry’s wife, Lonna Rae Silverman, also had a chance to meet with a long-lost friend after 43 years.
“I attended college in Moorhead, Minnesota and would go to Fargo, North Dakota for Friday night services,” she said. “One evening a couple approached me and told me that they were bringing a young woman over from Israel to teach their son for his bar mitzvah and asked if I would like to be a friend to this woman. We became friends and I brought her to my home in Duluth, Minnesota to meet my family.”
Her friend, Aviva, returned to Israel and they eventually lost touch, but Silverman was able to get her information with the help of Ariela Shargal at Temple Shalom. They reunited in Tel Aviv and had dinner together.
Temple Shalom President Josh Goldman had been to Israel 30 years ago as part of a Dallas Federation trip. He was 16. This time, he went with his family, including his two 16-year-old children.
“I got to watch my kids experience Israel at the same stage of life,” Goldman said. “I have some memory of what it’s like traveling through Israel as a Jewish teen. My kids had an incredible time and found it fun, exciting and meaningful as well.”
The Goldmans also got to spend time with Josh’s in-laws, who live in Florida.
“It was meaningful to get the six of us to meet together in Israel as family and with the congregation,” Josh Goldman said. “It was a chance for my in-laws to spend time with their grandkids and daughter uninterrupted for several days.”
Adam and Trayce Kaplan went with their children Ben and Hannah.
“My best experience was being at the Western Wall with our kids on Shabbat,” Trayce said. “Just watching them experience the holiness in that place and seeing them feel it. They were very emotional. I think that was even more of an experience for me, to watch them and be part of that with them.
“For them to join us as a family to go together and have other kids their same age and activities in the outings geared toward kids that age was one of the reasons we chose to go at this time.”
The Gothard family also traveled together. Julie and Sander Gothard had a chance to catch up with Israeli relatives and friends. Children Jeremy and Mikayla both cited the Dead Sea and Western Wall as among their favorite parts of the trip, with Mikayla also mentioning Masada. Their daughter Lindsay went as well.
“We met relatives who are reserves in the IDF or still work for the IDF,” Sander Gothard said. “It means more than words can express that they are defending the Jewish homeland.”
Irene Sibaja and her children also traveled together. The family recently moved to Arkansas, but went with their former congregation. Shortly after the return to Dallas, Tova and Samuel had their bar and bat mitzvahs at Temple Shalom.
Another former congregant also spent time with the group. Patricia Robinson Washington, who converted during her time at Temple Shalom, made aliyah over the summer. She met with the travelers in Tel Aviv, and later in Jerusalem.
“The highlight was not just seeing the rabbi and my community, but seeing Jeremy (Gothard), one of my students,” she said. “I said one day I would see him in Jerusalem.”
More than just rocks
Paley wanted to make sure the trip didn’t just hit common tourism spots or museums.
“One thing we try to do is tell a story of Israel, not just about rocks and stone walls and an artifact here, but what makes it so beautiful and vibrant are the people — brothers and sisters in our family,” he said.
Playing a big part in that was guide Doron Wilfand, a 21st-generation Israeli, whose family came over from Spain in 1492.
“He interwove Masada with the perspective of Yad Vashem and ‘this shall not happen again’ and inspiration for the Zionists,” Jeff Fritts said.
The congregants said Wilfand provided a detailed perspective from various viewpoints and times in history.
Among the adventures the group had during their trip were a Shabbat dinner with three soldiers who have no family in Israel, packing food for the less fortunate, a trip to the Roman ruins of Caesarea, a chance to see a chocolate factory, a waterfall, and an archaeological dig of a town conquered by the son of Simon Maccabee.
“We were able to dig for a while,” said Tracye Kaplan. “Somebody found a bone and a tooth from thousands of years ago. Everybody enjoyed that very much, even adults.”
And, of course, there was the food.
“I lost three pounds and ate like a pig because they eat real food,” Fritts said.
“It’s not just food on a plate. It’s a sensory experience. It’s a lot of the same stuff, but everyone makes it a little differently,” Levy-Fritts said.
Liston said the Machane Yehuda market was one of his favorite places. He also noted that probably everything in the hotel breakfast buffet was made in Israel.
A unique, yet familiar, identity
Traveling through Israel meant seeing not only the different cities and towns, but the way they make up Jewish history and the young nation’s identity.
“There’s something about Jerusalem as a holy city that in many ways connects us with the ancient past,” Paley said. “That it still thrives and has that religious fervor and passion and still works. Tel Aviv is the antithesis of that, and yet is part and parcel of what Israel is about.”
And in some ways, visiting Israel sheds light on what the Diaspora’s role has been.
“Everything we have done for 2,000 years, our synagogues and schools, allowed this to happen,” said Levy-Fritts.
For many of the travelers, their first experience was the coastal cities on Shabbat.
“There is something about living in Jewish time, around Jews just living, as opposed to making it happen,” Paley said.
“Everybody was out, doing stuff, people playing music on the shore,” said Levy-Fritts.
“What you really see, it’s a day off for everybody. Even if you aren’t Jewish, the weekend is set up for it,” Fritts said.
“You are visiting a place where people look like you, in many ways act like you,” Liston said.
Standing at the Wall
Because of the timing, the Temple Shalom group spent most of Hanukkah in Israel.
“We wove the story of Hanukkah, especially in Jerusalem, into our daily narrative, the things we were seeing,” Paley said.
They were able to be near the Temple Mount while celebrating the liberation and rededication of the Second Temple under the Maccabees. The Western Wall is usually a busy place on Shabbat. During Hanukkah, it was especially energetic.
“We went as a group and were out on the plaza on Friday night and did Kabbalat Shabbat knowing our congregation was celebrating Shabbat in Dallas, and we were a temple family on the plaza,” Goldman said.
One of Jeff Fritts’ favorite moments took place there.
“I decided to stay in that partitioned area to walk around and hear all the different people chanting to themselves,” he said. “There was a group of 20 to 30 Orthodox young men, and I was standing next to their group as they danced in a circle, and they pulled me in.”
“What struck me was the energy,” Liston added. “All these people, all these Jews just singing, dancing, rushing to the wall.”
Many other notable experiences were in the Old City, and several travelers cited their excursions underground and the Temple-era ground level, which is lower than the plaza. Liston was one of those to explore the area.
“At one point, Ellen (Liston’s wife) says, ‘That’s the Wall.’ We’re underground and your other arm reaches another wall. I say, ‘No, it’s not. Look how straight these cuts are.’”
He wasn’t the only one stunned by the craftsmanship. Fritts was also taken aback.
“Going through the wet tunnels and seeing the ingenuity of people 2,500 years ago and to see what they built, it’s very impressive,” he said.
The Wall and Temple Mount were perhaps the most memorable places for the travelers.
“It was the most strange combination of solemnness and joy in one place simultaneously,” Fritts said.
“The intersection of three world religions in one place, how awesome that is and how divisive that is,” Levy-Fritts said. “I feel it is more a reason for rejoicing than so much hatred.”
The birthplace of independence
“For some, being at the site of the declaration of independence in Tel Aviv was real profound,” Paley said.
The group went to Independence Hall on their second day together. Levy-Fritts was familiar with the story, but still struck by the importance of visiting the site.
“The whole attitude and faith they had over decades to do what they did was tremendous,” she said.
Another place where that story was told was the Ayalon Institute, a secret factory where bullets were made during British rule.
Liston said he was impressed by “the intelligence, ingenuity and will.”
“They built it within a few hundred feet of a British base,” Liston said. “They thought of everything.”
The factory was built under the kibbutz washing machines to hide the noise. A bakery was created to mask the smells.
“It’s a great story, and it wasn’t on our itinerary,” Goldman said. “My wife and Julie Gothard went last year and said we had to see this. We got up early and everybody said that was worth getting up for.”
“Going to Yad Vashem meant a lot to me,” said 15-year-old Mikayla Gothard. “I knew about the Holocaust, but seeing the museum taught me a lot about what led up to the terrible events.”
There are few places that bring home the horrors and lessons of the Holocaust the way Yad Vashem does. For some of the Temple Shalom visitors, the journey was personal.
“Yad Vashem absolutely made more of an impression on me than anything else we did,” Liston said.
His mother left Berlin in 1936, when she was 16.
“I knew my mother didn’t like to talk about it that much,” he said. “I knew there were difficult things that happened in school. I learned from the exhibits about what was going on in Germany in the 1930s. It filled it in for me. Ellen and I were very moved. It got us to the core.”
For Josh Goldman, the museum started out feeling like other top Holocaust museums. Then he saw a familiar name, that of his great-uncle.
“There’s an entire room devoted to the displaced persons camps,” he said. “The opening had a huge quote on it from Abraham Klausner, a Reform rabbi who served as a chaplain in the liberation of Dachau. To see his name being honored there was personal for me.”
Goldman noted how the museum has changed since he last saw it 30 years ago. For Fritts, that change was very important. The old story, he said, was “Why did this happen?”
“The new museum makes the assumption it happened because of the hate. It dismisses any old legacy of ‘What did we do wrong?’” he said.
He noted that the persecution was based on ethnicity, not religion.
“We don’t think of it as an ethnicity. To think these people were persecuted whether they were religious Jews or not, I know that was part of it, but did not realize that was it.”
“Rabbi Paley held a little service after Yad Vashem. He said you cannot walk through something like this and be the same,” said Levy-Fritts.
Masada and the border
“Yad Vashem, one of the things that struck me, I kept thinking of the Syrian refugees,” Jeff Fritts said.
Part of the trip included the Golan Heights, territory that belonged to Syria before 1967. From those hills, amid the ruins of old Syrian bunkers, they were able to see a portion of the countryside, including a U.N. base.
It was familiar territory to their guide, who grew up in a town bordered by Lebanon on three sides.
“One of our guides shared his experiences as a young boy when he and his family had to hide for a month because of all the shelling that was taking place near their home, and how this has affected his life,” Lonna Rae Silverman said. “This made me realize how important it is for us to support Israel and ensure that others can live a life of peace and freedom.”
Liston said it was notable how, despite the danger, they thrived. But looking over the Syrian border was sobering, he said, thinking of how they were just 30 miles from Damascus as Aleppo was falling to the Syrian regime.
Masada was more uplifting.
“Being on top of Masada and the story of fierce Hebrew revolutionaries who put up a last stand and kept the great Roman army at bay, that was pretty cool,” Goldman said.
The travelers were especially impressed by the cisterns. And it was a special day for Tracye Kaplan, who took her Hebrew name in a ceremony at the synagogue there.
“I approached the rabbi about taking a Hebrew name,” she said. “We are an interfaith family, but I thought being in Israel, being on Masada with my family, moved me to want to be a little bit closer, so I chose a Hebrew name with my initials.
“I chose Tova Leah. One of the girls on the trip was Tova (Sibaja), and I love that name. Rabbi was kind enough to help me experience that. Then everybody shouted my name off the top of Masada, echoing.”
Each visitor offered a different set of reasons why they came away with a new understanding of Israel and its people.
Jeff Fritts talked about how the kibbutz movement was started with socialist ideals and driven by persecution more than faith. He said he also understands better how relevant the history of Israel is to current issues.
Levy-Fritts noted the way Israel adjusted from the kibbutz system when so many socialist-based economies of that era fell apart.
“You look how Israel took this idea and put people on the land, an organizing force, and then when it started to fail, looked to fix it, is amazing to me,” she said. “Look how many countries have failed. Israel doesn’t have just one way to work things out.”
Jim Liston spoke about the way the land’s geology, along the Syrian-African Rift, has been in conflict as much as the peoples. He also was struck by how Israeli soldiers are protecting their homeland, as opposed to how American ones often are sent to faraway lands.
Goldman was also struck by the youth of the soldiers, just a few years apart from his own children.
But he said his son and daughter also got to see how for Hanukkah in Jerusalem “on every corner there is a giant menorah, Jewish teens and people of all ages singing and dancing and celebrating Hanukkah with such joy.”
Goldman also noted that the growth of the nation has been so impressive.
“To drive through Tel Aviv and see every major technology company having a laboratory or mega facility,” he said. “One of our drivers made a joke that the national bird of Israel is the crane because the crane is everywhere.”
Kaplan also noted the changing nature of the country.
“I was surprised at how modern the city of Tel Aviv was. I didn’t have an image of what it would be, not the hustling, bustling city it is. The change of terrain is amazing. In parts green and lush, and then dry and arid. That contrast was remarkable.”
The Silvermans were taken aback by the fast pace of everything. Jerry Silverman said that one part of that hustle and bustle really stuck with him.
“I personally enjoyed seeing and being in the different marketplaces with their narrow passageways and small shops. You see pictures and even events like those in movies, but living it for real was quite an experience.”
For all the individual takes, it was agreed that the communal trip was a great choice.
“One of the wonderful things about going with members of our congregation, we’re going to keep our conversation going about it,” Levy-Fritts said.
Goldman advises that anybody going on a first trip to Israel go with a group.
“Sharing with the congregation, family, Federation, a Jewish organization, makes it more meaningful,” he said. “You need nine or 10 days to get a real feel for the place.
“You have to experience Israel with your feet, and we did,” Goldman said. “You walk everywhere and climb things. You walk in the midst of these cities and experience the culture.”
Temple Shalom will be featuring the reminisces and views of the tour group on Feb. 12 from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. in the Radnitz Social Hall. Breakfast will be included.