When Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg of Congregation Beth El of Bucks County was planning a congregational trip to Israel over winter break, he had several goals: giving his congregants a unique Israel experience that delved into history and present-day realities, creating a sense of community within the group, and helping them to “either continue or begin working on their own relationship to Israel.”
“I don’t think my role is to dictate what that relationship looks like; my role is to give them a forum in which to create a relationship,” he said.
On Dec. 26, Gruenberg arrived in Israel with 16 members of his Yardley, Pa., community for a 10-day visit. The trip offered a range of experiences meant to kickstart that process, from a visit to a wildlife sanctuary in the Galilee, to services at three very different synagogues in Jerusalem, to meals sampling the wide variety of Israeli cuisines.
“Every possible sense was activated by what we did,” said Beth Godett of Langhorne, Pa., who took part with her husband, Fred.
Trip participants Phil Weinstein and his wife, Eileen, of Richboro, Pa., had been to Israel in 1996 and 2005. Phil said he noticed many changes since their last trip. One was the increased integration of the Russian and Ethiopian immigrant communities. “Last time we felt that the Russians kept away from everyone else and their behaviors were a lot different, not typical Israeli,” he said. “Now most are speaking Hebrew and they just seem to be more a part of the Israeli population.” Similarly, “It was refreshing to see Ethiopians working in every line of business and fully integrated into the armed forces.”
Phil said he was also heartened by the number of kids he saw who had come to Israel on Birthright trips. “They were all super-enthusiastic about their experience in Israel,” he said. “I think they are the generation that will carry on; if they are not attached, there won’t be a generation to carry on support of Israel.”
He was especially taken with Jerusalem, particularly his experience at the Kotel. To go to the Western Wall “and see the different levels of observance, from ultra-Orthodox to secular Jews, who still come to the Wall and pray together in peace is something wonderful,” Phil said. “I am looking forward to the day when women are allowed to fully participate along with the men.”
One aspect of Israel — areas of poverty — was disturbing to him. “In Tel Aviv especially there were some parts of the city that aren’t very nice — more typical of seedier areas in a European city than in an American city,” he said. “You realize: Look, everything isn’t wonderful in Israel. They have a hard life, don’t earn much, and they hustle and work hard. They don’t have a lot of natural resources. It’s amazing what they’ve done with that country considering the amount of money they have to put in defense.”
Fred Godett was on his first trip to Israel. “I knew what I was going to see but wasn’t sure how it would affect me emotionally,” he said. “I was just very taken — enthralled by everything we saw and experienced.”
Both Fred and Beth were especially moved by their experience Friday evening at the Kotel. “You had people from all over the world coming to one place at one time, sharing that feeling and belief,” he said. “We had Israelis, kids, people from other parts of the world, all doing the same thing.”
The trip also had many personal touches. A Havdala ceremony at the Jerusalem home of one of Gruenberg’s friends, said the Godetts, gave them a sense of family and belonging. During a visit to Har Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery in Jerusalem, the group visited the grave of Michael Levin, an oleh from suburban Philadelphia who was killed at the age of 22 while serving in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, and whose twin sister teaches at the Beth El religious school. Fred had brought along a ticket from Ryan Sandberg’s first game as manager of Levin’s beloved Philadelphia Phillies to add to the artifacts covering his grave.
Travelers from the Conservative Beth El also got to witness a wide spectrum of Israeli worship. They visited: a traditional Orthodox synagogue where men and women were “separated literally by a wall,” said Fred; a Masorti synagogue, where, the visitors noted, many nonobservant bar mitzva guests left the sanctuary after the chanting of the haftara, often with cell phones at their ears; and a liberal Orthodox synagogue, Shira Hadasha, where women wore tallitot, led p’sukei d’zimre at the beginning of the service, read Torah and haftara, had aliyot, and marched through the sanctuary with the Torah scroll — and where during the sermon, the mehitza was pulled aside.
Reflecting on why it is important for Jews to have a relationship to Israel, Gruenberg said, “As much as we have a wonderful Jewish culture and reality outside of Israel, we are a much stronger people when we have that inside the land of Israel as well. The way Israel is strongest is through a strong Jewish Diaspora. We are strongest when Jews of the world and Israel are supporting one another.”