This blog was co-written by Heather Lorgree and Nanci Pompan. They each share their unique experiences on the Women's Journey to Israel in their pieces below.
"What do you mean you have never been to Israel?," my friends would exclaim when I told them I hadn't yet visited. Birthright wasn't very big when I was in college and the congregational trips never felt like the right opportunity for me. When this trip was announced, an all women's trip appropriate for first-timers, I knew that I needed to sign up. After almost a year of waiting and counting down it was finally time, the trip was here!
Everyone arrived in time for our opening dinner on Sunday night. We ate and ate and ate some more while introducing ourselves and getting to know the women on the trip. The next morning, our first full day together, we visited the Jaffa overlook and said the shehechiyanu together. We spent the day in Tel Aviv visiting Mishkenot Ruth Daniel, meeting with female rabbis, and then visiting Independence Hall to learn about the day that David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. After a full day, some of us took a leisurely walk back to the hotel with Shari, our guide, as she pointed out different sights.
On Tuesday, we visited Caesarea and were moved by the singing of Eli, Eli from our mini WRJ Choir. It was amazing to see the excavations and walk along the water with the waves crashing against the shore. After lunch and some shopping we visited with Ambassador Reda Mansour to learn about the Druze people. It was so interesting to hear about how the Druze community supports their brothers and sisters in other countries, but still remains fiercely loyal to Israel. Our next stop was a visit with the women and girls involved in the IMPJ Mother-Daughter Bat Mitzvah project. We were moved to tears as the rabbi described the upcoming B'nai Mitzvah plans for the girls in the current cohort.
On Wednesday we drove to the Golan Heights to speak to Major Sarit Zehavi, a former Senior Intellegence officer at the IDF Northern border. She passed out binoculars for us to view the borders and see how close we truly were to Syria and Lebanon. It was quite amazing to look at the view and really think about where we were. The group split up after lunch, some of us went to Tzfat to visit the synagogues and meet with a local glass blowing artist while others went to a winery. However, we all had time for shopping in Tzfat before returning to the hotel for dinner and celebrating a special birthday for one of our group attendees.
On Thursday we visited Kinneret to learn about the women's agricultural training, Hanah Meisel-founder of the Israeli Women's Labor Movement and Rachel- a famous poet. We also visited the cemetery where Rachel is buried, several of the women in our group sat by her grave and read her poetry. After lunch we started to head up to Jerusalem. As we approached the tunnel, our tour guide Shari played a song for us and welcomed us home as we emerged from the tunnel into Jerusalem. Many of us were in tears as we entered the city whether it was out first time or twentieth time. We stopped at Mount Scopus to say Shehechiyanu, have a grape juice toast, and take a group picture. After taking lots of pictures overlooking the city, we headed back to our hotel to meet Anat Hoffman and Leslie Sachs from Women of the Wall in preparation for Rosh Chodesh in the morning.
Friday, we woke up very early to meet with with WOW for a 7am Rosh Chodesh service at the Kotel. Anat approached the security gate with the Torah and was told that she was not allowed to bring it inside. We sang and danced with the Torah outside of security before handing it off to someone for safe keeping and heading into the women's section of the Kotel for our service. We read from siddurs which were donated by WRJ. It was a beautiful service in which 12 women celebrated their Banot Mitzvah- many of them from our group. It was especially meaningful to see 3 generations of women, grandmother Gloria, mother Cheryl, and daughter Lindsey come forward for an aliyah. After the service, we toured the Western Wall tunnels and the Jewish Quarter before spending time shopping in the Cardo. That evening we spent Shabbat with a local community and were split up to go to different homes for dinner.
On Shabbat morning, the first timers headed to Masada. A small group left early to make the climb to the top, the majority of us chose to ascend by cable car. We toured the top of Masada and learned about Herod's mountain palace before concluding with a Shabbat morning service. It was a meaningful service with beautiful views of the Dead Sea just to the right of us. Next we visited Qumran to learn about the Dead Sea Scrolls and view the caves were they were found. Finally it was time to head to the beach and float in the Dead Sea. Many of us had been told by past visitors that we needed to rub the mud on our skin. We discussed what this meant and wondered where to find this famous mud. We quickly learned upon entering the water that you don't find the mud, it finds you! As we walked into the sea, our feet and legs were soon covered with mud as we stepped into a sinkhole or lost our balance. After spending some time in the water and taking lots of pictures, we headed back to the hotel to shower and rest. Shabbat concluded with an outdoor Havdallah service and for many of us the sound and light show at the King David Museum.
Sunday was a very intense day as we first visited Mt Herzl before heading to Yad Vashem - The World Holocaust Remembrance Center. At Mt Herzl, we visited the graves of many of the Jewish leaders including Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres. We stopped at the grave of Hannah Senesh to remember her and once again sing Eli, Eli to honor her memory. We continued to Yad Vashem where the first timers toured the main exhibit and the returnees visited the archives, the Valley of the Communities, and the children's memorial. We all came together at the end for a short memorial service and to reflect upon an emotional morning.
Later that day, we switched gears and headed over to Machane Yehudah to taste rugulach, coffee, ice cream, halva, and more in the famous marketplace. Many of us continued on to Ben Yehuda street for more shopping and then a walk through the Mamilla Mall before heading out to dinner.
Our final day started with a talk from Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Executive Director of the IMPJ, to discuss the work they are doing and how WRJ's support is making a difference. Our next stop was to the Israel Museum to see the amazing stone replica of the city of Jerusalem before heading into the exhibit with the Dead Sea Scrolls. We continued with a stop at the Haas Overlook to discuss some of the geopolitics of the city and learn more about the security barrier and its effect on the local communities and the city as a whole.
We concluded our trip with a dinner at Darna, a Moroccan-style restaurant. We shared stories of our "wow" moments, what amazed us, what surprised us, and what moved us. We took lots of pictures and ate a delicious dinner before thanking our tour guide, thanking our Israel trip planning committee, and giving lots of hugs goodbye. It was the trip of a lifetime and I am so thankful that I waited for my journey to Israel to happen with this group of WRJ women.
This past week has been amazing. I was in Israel ten years ago.
While much is the same, other places, like the Israel Museum, have renovated and expanded. The first time all the women got to meet each other was at a restaurant in Tel Aviv where the delicious courses kept coming and coming. For some it was their first time to Israel, while others had been once, twice, or multiple times. Some were new to WRJ, while others were experienced WRJ leaders. Over the week, we've gotten to know each other's favorite books and sports teams as we traveled around this beautiful country. We watched the landscape change outside the windows of the bus and occasionally broke into song. Along the way, we were introduced to some programs in Israel that WRJ supports through the YES Fund, such as the IMPJ Mother-Daughter Bat Mitzvah Project. We visited a site along the Kinneret where women learned to be farmers. We met with Anat Hoffman and Lesley Sachs from Women of the Wall and then joined them on Rosh Chodesh at the Kotel -- some of our group read Torah, while Haredi women tried to disrupt the service. Following Shabbat services, we were welcomed into the homes of community members for dinner. It was interesting to to be in a real "neighborhood" and see how "normal" Israelis live -- pretty much the same as us , but with fresher vegetables.
Our fabulous guide, Shari Robins, spoke to us about the dichotomy of mourning the dead from wars and the holocaust, then celebrating the joys of life, and we witnessed that when we visited Mt. Herzl cemetery and Yad Vashem and then tasted our way through the market at Machane Yehuda.
Soon our trip will be over and most of the group will fly home, but about 15 of us are continuing to Kibbutz Logan for Shavuot. Once home, our sunburns will fade, the swelling in our ankles will subside, and we'll catch up on our sleep, but the memories of this awesome experience will be with us forever.