Home is where is the heart is. My wife and I have invested a lot of time and effort in making our home a place that we want to spend as much time as possible. Because I have the opportunity to work at the JCC, I already have a home away from home. But the trip to Israel made me realize how much the OFJCC embodies that third space, a home away from home for people from near and far, of all faiths and backgrounds.
I was invited to be part of a two-week tour of Israel with the San Francisco JCC cohort of 11 staff, plus two staff from Foster City JCC (PJCC) and two staff from Palo Alto JCC (OFJCC). This is an annual trip that’s happened for the last 12 years. This was my first visit to Israel.
After landing at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, we quickly boarded a bus and were headed south to the Negev Desert. We stayed in Mitzpe Ramon and had a wonderful time hiking, star gazing and 4-wheeling in the Ramon crater. The day before we landed it had rained heavily which caused flash floods due to the dry desert land. This was a rare sight in the desert and made for a very muddy and slippery, although comical, hike.
After a couple of days in Mitzpe Ramon we headed north to Jerusalem. We visited the old city, Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall, Yad Vashem (World Holocaust Remembrance Center) and the newly renovated YMCA, to name a few. One of the highlights in Jerusalem was the Shuk (outdoor market) we visited on Friday around noon, just before Shabbat. The market was packed with people and tasty smells. We wandered from booth to booth tasting different treats and taking in the scene.
It’s interesting how quiet Jerusalem gets on Shabbat. Essentially everything is closed from Friday afternoon until 5:30pm on Saturday evening. On Friday evening, we went to a service then we were welcomed into the home of Chaya and Rabbi Hillel Lester for Shabbat dinner. I don’t have any previous experience with Shabbat dinners, but I have to believe this one was unusual due to the fact that it was five hours long and included a freestyle rap by an orthodox Jewish woman while the rest of the table “beatboxed.”
The next day we received a tour of the security fence on the Israeli-Palestinian border by a retired IDF Colonel. He gave an Israeli perspective on the fence that suggested it was a success in terms of reduction in the number of deaths at the border. I recall the residential buildings in this area have thick bulletproof glass on all windows, identifiable by its greenish tint.
Immediately following this educational experience, we met Rami, a journalist for the New York Times and our guide in the West Bank. Rami gave us a tour into Bethlehem where we had a home-cooked lunch at a Palestinian family’s home. After lunch we went to the Church of the Nativity then were headed back to the hotel for some much-needed rest.
After visiting the Dead Sea and hiking Ein Gedi, we were headed north to the Sea of Galilee and checked into our hotel in Tiberius. In the north, we visited Golan Heights and wine tasted at Pelter Winery. From an overlook we could see the Syrian and Lebanese borders and were presented with a discussion about these borders and some of the historical conflict in this area.
After a few more days in the North, we headed back to Tel Aviv for a couple final days in Israel before departure. By this time, our group of 15 people had seriously bonded during our adventures. We started to realize this trip wasn’t going to last forever, so we had to make the most of our final few days together. We visited Caesarea, played Ultimate Frisbee with an organization called Ultimate Peace, saw the Bahai gardens, visited Jaffa and had a little time on our own to enjoy the Mediterranean coastline.
I found Tel Aviv to be a really fun city, and unlike Jerusalem, most everything remained open during Shabbat. The restaurants were incredible and the nightlife only seemed to be getting started when I was going to sleep around midnight. I was able to FaceTime with my daughter on her birthday and, although not exactly the same as being there in person, I felt a part of this important milestone enough to continue enjoying myself in Israel.
On the long flight home, we finally had some time to reflect and process some of the information and experiences we’d seen over the last two weeks. I had some personal revelations: I knew I would miss home, but I didn’t know how much. The most significant professional revelation was that Israel exists so Jewish people around the world have a place to call home. The OFJCC exists, in part, to provide that same feeling of togetherness, home and belonging in our own area of California.