JWRP Spring Mission – Trip 1 2014
Blog from Cape Town delegate Cindy Moritz
Tuesday 20 May, Ben Gurion Arrivals was abuzz with the energy of women from the Southern Hemisphere. We'd come together after months of planning to begin our much anticipated JWRP spring Israel tour, the first of 12 trips for 2014 that will see 2400 women experience this Holy Land in a way like never before.
We made our way up to Tiberius by bus, with Canadian Moroccan Israeli Patrick, American Israeli Kayla and Israeli Swedish Ester each telling some of their own story, which puts each of us in our own picture book. Or as Patrick says, gives us the potential to "go to ourself". "Lech lecha". Our journey has begun.
We reach Tiberius, and after the necessaries settle in to our first dose of inspiration from Lori Palatnik. It's the wisest advice to set the tone among this throng of babbling women – no lashon harah! "You want to be the type of person that people respect enough that when you approach, gossip or bad language stops," says Lori. We all get orange wrist bands printed with "don't blame. don't complain." and are challenged to become aware of how often we blame or complain, choosing instead to have an "ayin tov", or positive outlook. Every time we blame or complain we have to change the bracelet to the opposite wrist and the challenge is to keep it on one wrist for three weeks.
Next up we walked the short distance to the magnificent Decks where we ate, drank, danced and laughed till the madrichim called it a night and it was time for bed.
Kayla, in her welcome earlier in the evening, said we wouldn't be getting much sleep on this tour. But she also said we shouldn't have a care on the world. We should forget about the schedules we left the husbands and children. "We want you to be present. The more present you are, the more you will get out of this trip. We want you to be you." Kayla rediscovered a part of herself when she came on this trip three years ago that she'd forgotten, that she didn't realise was there. Clearly, as soon after she made Aliyah! Her advice to us was that by being present we'll go home better wives, mothers, friends. A better you. I'll take that.
We woke on day two to the magnificence of daybreak over the Galilee, and after a breakfast that had many at the table reminiscing of high school ulpanim (pudding for breakfast anyone?) we listened to the session from Lori Palatnik that many of us South Africans heard at our first Sinai Indaba and which made such a profound impact – "The Kabbalah of Love".
Lori reminded us that the Jewish definition of marriage is "oneness" and in Kabbalah, before you are born, you are one neshamah that splits and spends some time seeking it's other half, or "Beshert". That's why, she says, you're going to realize your potential through this union, through being opposite; it's the relationship you're going to grow the most from. She had most people smiling when she mentioned that the same qualities that complete us in the other person also make us crazy, and suggested we embrace them rather than resent them… They're the qualities that create oneness.
After going through the three questions she wants married couples and singles to answer yes to, we left Tiberius with a stronger understanding of what it means to be in a marriage, a good foundation for our visit to the mikva at Tzfat later in the day. But JWRP had some physical activity for the chicas in mind before we wafted around the mystical city of Tzfat, and this bunch of moms who would normally be doing the school run, spent the morning kayaking on the Jordan River.
After a quick lunch we drove to Tzfat, with tired bodies but happy hearts, and gathered in a majestic mikva where women from all over Israel come before their wedding day to perform the spiritual cleanse and experience the beauty of the ancient ritual. Surrounded by serene, beautifully dressed women and luxurious surroundings,, this mikva felt more like an upscale spa. We all took notes for the Cape Town mikva renovation (wink).
Our fabulous guide Patrick (the French Canadian Israeli) showed us around the old city, two shuls with significant history, and the candle factory. After time to shop we headed to the Art Cafe for another dinner en masse, this time mixed up with women from other countries at each table which made for interesting conversation.
The bus ride to Jerusalem was long and we were all desperate to shower and crawl into bed. But it gave us time to process all that the day had brought, the ideas, places, people and new experiences that were now part of us. Just before midnight the buses drew in to the King Solomon Jerusalem and the day that was all about love and relationships had drawn to a close.
Thursday morning meant group photos! A very generous group leader from the USA has donated pashminas to every country group in a different colour in the memory of her late mother-in-law. Not only does this help when we go into holy places and need to cover up, or sit in air conditioned rooms, or outside in cool evenings, but it makes for spectacular group photographs. They're already posted on the page so you can see what I'm saying. Cape Town is white, and we're loving our pashminas. Thank you to Michelle Leader for this thoughtful gesture in memory of Sonia M. Leader.
We walked down to the impressive Aish Hatorah building where we learned a bit about its history and its founders. Particularly impressive was the Chihuly glass sculpture that hangs as a centerpiece in the building's foyer.
It's a representation of the story of Rabbi Akiva and the water that drips on the rock, slowly chipping it away to create a hole. He compares this to how words of Torah can make an impression, or fire, on his heart. So the sculpture has the red for fire and blue for water, and its message is that every single little act we do makes a difference. And if we do it over and over again it has more impact. Aish, we're told, is giving every person the opportunity to grow in the space and speed that's right for them. One drop at a time.
Our next session with Lori had everyone doing major introspection: "Discovering the Real You". She revealed the three major drives a person has, each connected to the avot, Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov, and that we all have a soul drive and body drive that is characterized by one of the three. The combination of drives will help you understand first yourself and then your family. "Greater than loving someone is understanding them", Lori tells us, and if your spouse or child knows you "get" them, when you say you love them it goes into their soul.
The tea break was then a frenzy of "What are you?"s, and serious discussions around Chaim, Bracha and Tov husbands and children. (You'll have to hear the whole talk to get this. It's worth it!)
After a movie and talk from Rabbi Weinberg, son of Aish founder the late Rabbi Noah Weinberg, and a fun meeting with rebbetzins from around Jerusalem, we were given an emotional surprise siddur ceremony, each receiving a personalized siddur which we took down to the Kotel along with our handwritten notes and prayers. Emotions ran high and many of the women, from all country groups, had tears streaming down their cheeks as they stood at the wall. For some it was the first time ever standing at the holy site.
And then back to reality – lunch at leisure, before a tour with a guide of the Old City before heading underground to the tunnels under the Western Wall and all the unearthed mysteries that lie beneath.
The evening was, thankfully, free, and we all found something special to do and see, people to catch up with and places that aren't on our schedule to go. Many of us gravitated towards Ben Yehuda street later in the evening and a kosher (mehadrin nogal) burger hit the spot for one bunch of women. Others heard the soldiers singing Hatikvah at the Kotel as part of their swearing in ceremony, while some just caught up with old friends and family who live here.
What we've noticed is the serendipitous energy of this place – though we're told nothing is a coincidence. We bump into people we have been meaning to call. We are standing in line with an old friend's son from back in the day who is now all grown up. We are on this tour with family we never knew. It's part of the magic of this tour of discovery.
As this full day closes, we look forward to bringing in Shabbat tomorrow, in Yerushalayim.
Shabbat was in the air Friday morning. We were chatting among us from early in the day, how we would prepare to keep it, what we would wear, if we would take a little bag, who would buy the wine and what would be the last time our phones would be used and then turned off for the next 26 hours.
We headed down on our now familiar route through Mamilla mall and the winding paths of the old city to the Aish centre for our Shabbat 'briefing' from Lori. She shared the most important sentence of the entire trip: "On Shabbat we stop creating to recognize there is a creator". Don't think we're doing the mitzvot for G-d, we're doing them for us! This is our opportunity to disconnect and unplug in order to connect to G-d, each other and ourselves, our families, our communities. With that in mind we moved on to a session with rebbetzin Chana Kalsmith on "The Inner Beauty of Jewish Women", or "tzniut", modesty. What's the connection? We learned that the value of privacy versus the over sharing to which we've become accustomed through social media is what Jewish female modesty is about. It's not as simple as that but the essence of the modest dress, hair covering and behavior is rooted in the desire to reflect our dignity rather than to seek validation from other people.
How empowering to learn to separate from the need for validation – the idea of privacy requires an amazing level of self confidence, an ability to build yourself knowing that G-d knows what you do… You don't need the 'likes' on Facebook for validation. It's between you and Hashem.
Tzniut, or modesty, is key to develop yourself in a world that is tearing people apart. Buoyed on these rich ideas, and after a quick coffee, we gathered in our city groups around prepared tables to bake challah with the legendary Rebbetzin Raizy Guttman who shared with is the three miracles Sarah Imeinu merited in her tent, one being a special blessing in her dough. It is something that we can emulate in modern times to attempt to bring holiness into our homes. We take the physical dough, break off a small piece of it (separate) and make it so holy through a bracha that it must be burned – that is the power of the Jewish woman! But it all depends on our intention, what we are thinking. So as the rebbetzin kneads the dough she asks us all to make a bracha for anyone who we feel needs it, aloud, and we all go around the table putting positive energy out there and asking for refuah, babies, and for friends and family to find their beshert. Of course, again, many tears.
The rebbetzin brings it back to reality with a demonstration of challah shapes, and we all make our own little attempt and version to be baked for later. Then off we go to have lunch on our own, shop, and prepare for our first Shabbat as a group in Yerushalyim shel zahav.
Back at the Aish centre, Kabbalat Shabbat involves singing and dancing both inside and then down at the Kotel, before gathering at our beautifully laid tables with the chief rabbi of Argentina as our special guest, since he's accompanying the Pope on his first visit to Israel (and also happens to be the husband of the City Leader of Argentina Esther Sacca).
A late walk back to our hotel, we use old fashioned manual keys to open our hotel room doors into darkened rooms (clever girls left the bathroom light on) and fell into bed high on the spirit of Shabbat in Jerusalem.
For some Shabbat morning meant a few treasured extra minutes of sleep, while others visited the Great Synagogue in rehov David Hamelech nearby for part of the morning service.
Lori spoke to us after breakfast about the value of tzedeka and how to teach that value to our children. Just like with any other value, the best way to teach is to practice what you preach, and make sure your children know what you do.
After Lori we were in for a treat, entertained by the inimitable rabbi Gavriel Friedman who could give any stand up comedian a run for their money. He had us all in hysterics with his Spanish interspersed with English and a word of Afrikaans here and there for the benefit of the South African group. He spoke to us of Shabbat being heaven on earth, a taste of the world to come. His example was, if you'd never ever tasted ice cream, and someone described it to you, the best way to really experience the flavour would be to have a taste. So that is Shabbat – our taste of what Hashem has promised us as His end of the deal for keeping the mitzvot in His Torah (since the Jewish people were the only ones who agreed to accept it).
The mental image of Rav Gav making like he was going down a roller coaster with payot flying ('cos his hair won't) will remain with us all forever. Who said it all had to be sombre and serious?
Shabbat afternoon, everyone did their own thing. Most rested, and I took a book and sat on a park bench at Yemin Moshe across the way with a view towards the old city – the same area where we had our group photos. There were families picnicking around me, couples strolling and certainly one very strange character who tried to get a shekel, but it was such a peaceful way to pass the afternoon.
Soon it was time to get ready for our walk to the Aish centre and Lori's talk on the four things you never knew about Judaism, then on to a highlight: seudah shlishit and havdalah at the Clamans home right near the Kotel with IDF soldiers and a tribute to thank them for the work they do to protect and serve Israel. Eating, singing and dancing, we separated the Shabbat from the week with a memorable occasion: one soldier asked his partner to marry him right there on the rooftop of the Claman's home. Jubilation!
Many of us finished the evening with the excellent sound and light show tracking the history of Jerusalem at Migdal David, the perfect way to end an unforgettable Shabbat.
After the peace and rest of Shabbat we had an early start Sunday as we headed down to Masada to learn more about Jewish history and the story of the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans, a true act of defiance in the face of greater force. We were led by the lovely tour guide Ayala who showed us a fabulous timeline – everyone should have one to put Jewish history in good perspective – and she described Herod's character and the way he built his palaces, including atop Masada, beautifully.
We went back down by cable car and had a short stop at the Dead Sea where we got covered in mud and had a good soak and float. Some of us felt really drained and tired after, but at least our skin was soft! The area was short a few salt crystals once we left, but this is what we were encouraged to do, even fill up a tub with mud from under the water. A great idea if you missed the Ahava gift shop at the bottom of Masada.
Then it was on to camel rides and a generous and delicious dinner in Abraham and Sara's tent at Eretz Bereishit which was in the true spirit of hospitality for which Abraham and Sara are known – the chicken baked in date honey was a hit and some even bought date honey to take home.
Back again to our hotel, some couldn't wait to shower and flop into bed while others discovered reaidual energy to hit the streets to take in Jerusalem nightlife. One minute we were getting a camel license, the next it was city lights. Truly a case of when past and present collide. So Yerushalayim.
This day should have come with a warning: your heart will break… But it will be okay in the end.
It started off with two powerful speakers. Rabbi Ken Spiro expertly outlined why the Jews are and always will be targeted as a group to be hated, for no good or valid reason. His rushed wrap up (as we had an unexpected celebrity guest to follow) was this: if the Jews felt after the Holocaust that if only they had their own country there would be no more antisemitism, how disappointing that now we have Israel, antisemitism is greater than ever.
Surprise guest speaker and Israeli Member of Knesset Naftali Bennett addressed us next and had this message for us: "We need to close the gap between what we are doing and trying to achieve and the way we are portrayed. We are over asking diaspora Jews for money. Just speak up! Whenever Israel is being debated speak up, even if it's unpopular. This is the true Israel."
We were soon to see the true Israel. As Naftali Bennett left us to meet the Pope, we went to our chessed project, One Family Fund. This is an organization that was started with the Bat mitzvah money of a young girl who was due to have her party at the time of the Sbarro bombing terrorist attack in Jerusalem in 2001. Instead, she went from victim to victim asking what they needed. Now this fund helps 12000 people who are unable to live without the help of an outside organization because of terrorism. The fund gives financial, emotional and legal assistance to victims of terror and their families and relies on fundraising to survive.
We met some of the women, mostly mothers whose children died in terror attacks, who bravely shared their stories and demonstrated their children's favourite recipes as we watched and then tried ourselves. These mothers would give anything to have their children back. One woman had her husband and them her son three months later die in terrorist attacks. They are deeply scarred and the tears still flow years on, but they do survive with the help of this incredible One Family Fund.
There are truly angels among us.
With puffy eyes we went on to Yad Vashem where Rabbi Ken Spiro waited for us as tour guide for a comprehensive walk through this outstanding Holocaust Memorial where our emotions were stretched even further to contemplate our shared history and the scourge of antisemitism.
Yad Vashem has been redesigned in the past few years to end on an incline with a magnificent outlook to Jerusalem – a statement of what is the Jewish future: they tried to destroy us, but we have risen and look to Israel.
It was no surprise that all the South African women in the group felt the need to be out on the streets of Jerusalem this night, if not only to lighten the mood and remind ourselves of the life, spirit and energy that Israelis choose over depression and anxiety, even though they live with the reality of the threat of terrorism and antisemitism every day. They don't let it get them down. They hold their heads high and seize the day (or night)! And from them we can learn.
Too soon it is the countdown to the end of this dream trip. But it's not over yet as we listen to the riveting Nitsan Darshan-Leitner of Shurat Hadin who is "bankrupting terrorism one lawsuit at a time". We were told by the women who came on last year's trip that she was a highlight, and indeed the audience hung onto every word as she described how she and her colleagues used the legal route to stop the financing of terror. By proving to the banks and other organizations that dealing with recognized terror groups is unlawful, it will disable the terror organizations from operating — carrying out the murders requires hard currency for planning, equipment and whatever else it takes to get people to do these heinous things.
She explained that they can do what governments can't; they can't file lawsuits against other governments and must be politically correct. "Private people built Israel, and we have to keep it safe," she said. "We're sick and tired of watching parents say Kaddish for their children."
Our next speaker was Sergeant Benjamin Anthony who told us what motivated him, a British citizen, to join the IDF. He had stood watching helplessly as his older brother was beat up by thugs in Manchester when he was 14, and learned that it was wrong to assume that your enemy will know when it's enough. "If you are a friend of Israel, if you ever wait to defend the country, you will be awaiting defeat," he said. "Know that Israeli enemies are coming to kill, because that's how you terrorize a society."
He is also resolute in his belief that this tiny strip of land is the homeland the Jewish people as it is written in the Torah, despite his personal struggle with religion right now.
He urged us not to be fearful and especially not to apologize in the names of the Israeli soldiers. "We are a great people! Stop apologizing for yourselves." He believes that only through conviction, prayer and action will we know peace over Israel.
In the afternoon we tied it all together with a visit to an army base near a checkpoint where we met Israeli soldiers and handed over gift bags arranged through "Thank Israeli Soldiers", complete with personal gifts from each women brought over from our respective countries.
A free evening again, and Jerusalem was packed with locals and visitors, it being the eve of Yom Yerushalayim. Where else would we want to be?
It's our last day together on the "Transform and Grow" tour – how can it be? It seems like we've only just arrived, like yesterday we were heading out to Decks in Tiberius for our festive welcome dinner. But it is nine days later and we have started to transform, perhaps grown somewhat (well, we've certainly eaten enough bread). As Lori put it,this is not the end, but the beginning of our journey together. We have mixed feelings. Most of us are ready to go home, but we also don't want this experience ever to end.
Lori hits the nail on the head when she suggests that the only negative about this trip is that you really can't explain it to anyone else (though we try). Family and friends will have to get on the right program, either this one or another one appropriate for their age, stage, and needs; and we were taken through a whole lot of options. One of the Johannesburg JWRP women has a daughter on the Thrive program at Hebrew University, and we were treated to a first hand account of her experience. She's extended what was to be a year's stay to become five — clearly she's loving it!
We received survival kits for back home, a guide for how to take what we've learnt and experienced and translate it into our family lives.
Our very own Cape Town city leader Rebbetzin Nechama Brett gave us a valuable explanation of the significance of our later visit to Rachel's Tomb, and explained why Rachel is not buried along with our other forefathers and mothers.
Then the feisty Pamela Claman addressed us, telling us a bit about herself and sharing her thoughts on how to make our relationships with our husbands holy and meaningful.
She is also the self appointed ambassador to the Happiness club, and reminded us that rather than waiting for someone else to make us happy, we have to choose to be happy.
Many of the women would be leaving tonight, so back at the King Solomon hotel there was much activity, bags being re-packed to fit last minute gifts, final showers taken and getting ready for our last night out as a group.
We boarded our buses for Rachel's Tomb, and drove past the well-know concrete wall that secures the city from rockets and other acts of aggression. We had twenty minutes at this holy site, and had the privilege to recite the most meaningful prayer that one can only say here — something each of us will always treasure.
Then it was on to Gush Etzion winery for a very festive and delicious banquet dinner to wrap up our tour. After wine tasting we ate at our tables in our city groups for the last time, identifiable by our pashmina colours, and entertained each other with songs we'd prepared as final farewells.
There were tears and smiles, hugs and promises to keep in touch. No-one wanted this to be goodbye. But as our Mikvah lady said all those days ago, we are "Sisters from Sinai" so will never really be far apart. On that note, our buses took off in different directions and it became time to take it all home and start the real transformation and growth leg of the journey we've all just begun.