By Elaine Rosenberg Miller
We traveled on El Al flying from Ben Gurion to JFK, several hundred of us, assisted by stewards, male and female, distracted by small screen televisions and head phones.
Behind me, sat a religious couple with two small children, aged about three months and two and a half years.
I had seen the husband walk down the aisle, struggling with his younger child and a suitcase. I secretly wished that the man would keep on walking but he took the seat directly behind me.
I was struck by his dress. He seemed to be wearing a striped, silk bathrobe. It was a kittel, of course, but unusual. I recalled asking our Rav, during one of our group's five days in Jerusalem, "Who are those people?" when I had seen like-garbed men hurrying to the Kotel.
He said that he didn't know, that there were many different groups. It was one of the few times that I had stumped the Rav.
The man was as slender as a reed. Shortly, his wife came down the aisle, holding the hand of the older child. It was immediately apparent that something was wrong with the child. His face was abnormally round, as if he were taking steroids or immunosuppressant medications. The mother was as sylphlike as the husband.
The night was long.
My own daughters slept on pillows, blankets, each other and me.
I dozed fitfully.
Reveries of the past ten days filled my mind.
Fifty-one strong, members of our congregation arrived in Israel. After years of harrowing images of the Intifada, we decided it was time to visit.
First stop after landing, the Galil. Weaving in and out of the parched hills, we viewed the Kinneret, the aqua vita of Israel. Where there was water there was life, greenery, vibrant flowers.
Day two, jeep riding in the Golan Heights. Across the hills, their former occupier, Syria. Katzrin. Golan Winery. Mount Bental. Then Gamla. Called the Mazada of the north. Symbol of resistance to the Romans. We stopped at a nature preserve as we left and watched the eagles fly on the thermal drafts. Dinner at a dockside restaurant where we were greeted by a welcoming chorus. Boat ride on the Kinneret. We looked at the opposing sloping hills, sparkling with electric lights illuminated against the black sky. Israel on one side. Everyone else on the other.
Gradually, after months of planning, we began to relax and appreciate the beauty and spiritual significance of being in Israel.
Safed. Up, up, we climbed in our expertly driven and well appointed bus and instructed by our erudite tour guide, mother of five who had made aliya twenty something years ago.
We began to accept the fact that wherever we went, we would run into people we knew, or who knew people we knew. It became a form of amusement. We shared stories of "coincidences".
We visited the Old City of Safed and its historic synagogues. Some of the men entered the mikva of an esteemed rabbi.
Jordan River rafting.
Visit to Rosh Pina. Caught up with our visiting local Federation and the day school group. Nearly one hundred Palm Beachers gathered for the celebration of the donatation of a park by the Federation. Lots of embraces, awe-filled gazes. Dinner at the magnificent Rothschild gardens. We knew we had arrived!
Day four, Jewish National Fund Tree Planting. We did it.
Arrival at the Haifa army base with our Torah, lovingly carried from our hometown, donated by synagogue members.
A band played. Banners hung. The whole base had turned out.
We looked around. Were they expecting someone else?
Dancing under a chupa with the torah. Our Rav on the shoulders of the soldiers. A giant shofar being blown by a man with a biblical length beard. Our hearts were beating wildly, there at the base, at the foot of the Carmel mountains, facing the Mediterranean. The Chief Rabbi of the Israeli army spoke in Hebrew welcoming us, thanking us for bringing the Law. It was as festive as can be imagined. They carried the Torah to their newly constructed synagogue and immediately began to read from it. Afterwards they treated us to a lavish lunch but many of us could not eat as we were overcome by the moment, the warmth of their welcome, its metaphor. Armies dancing with the Torah.
They honored the bar/bat mitzvah young people traveling with us. Again, reminding us of why we have survived as a Jewish people. Educating and embracing our young, making them part of the covenant.
Jerusalem. Mea Sharim. Yad Vashem. City of David. Gihon Spring. Hezekiah's tunnel. Kabbalat Shabbat at the Kotel. A heaving mass of ecstatic dancers. Men and women separate, all joined in a joyous greeting of Shabbat.
Each day, with increasing knowledge we became aware of the conflict over Gaza. We saw divisions between Israelis. It seemed that the line was drawn between observant and non-observant Israelis. Ironically in continuing to visit the historical sites we were reminded that the leaders of those times showed great courage and self-sacrifice in proclaiming their identity as Jews and preserving the land, which contributed to the continuation of the Jews as a people, wherever they were disbursed.
Day six. Jerusalem. Shabbat. Services at the Great Synagogue The names of some of our Palm Beach members engraved on their walls. Klezmer music after Shabbat.
Day seven. Jerusalem tour. The Cardo. Davidson Center. The Wall. The underground tunnels. Ammunition Hill. Late afternoon visit to a congregant's Jersusalem home overlooking panaromic Jerusalem. Night at Ben Yehdua Street.
Day eight. Options of Kever Rachel and Hebron, Israel Museum or Biblical Zoo.
Day nine. Jerusalem. Knesset. Chagall Windows. Kuvin Center. National
Cemetery, Eretz Breshit, camel rides. Qumran.Gilgal. The Dead Sea.
Day ten. Dead Sea. Masada. Ma'arat Hakemach. Ein Gedi.
Palmach Museum. Rehovot. Jaffa. Ben Gurion.
I woke up and looked behind me.
The young mother had moved forward in her seat, leaving the sick child to rest undisturbed. She had perched like that for hours.
I heard her speak Yiddish to her husband. It was a pure form of Yiddish, melodious, using words that I, a Yiddish speaker was unfamiliar with, though I understood the context.
Suddenly, the costumed young man and his wife did not seem so foreign.
Their children had hardly made a sound for eleven hours.
As dawn broke, the elder child stood in the aisle.
I smiled at him.
He put his finger in his mouth and smiled back.
I looked up at the mother.
Worlds apart, she looked back at me.
I think she knew that I admired her and wished her well.
When we began to disembark, I rose to assist the man, attempting to retrieve something from the overhead bin, while cradling his infant.
"Let me help you," I said
from the September, 2005 Edition of the Jewish Magazine