Monday, August 1, 2005

Letters From Israel

 Letters from Israel

The following letters were written by Rabbi Hammerman during the August, 2005 "Israel Family Adventure" trip.

Shalom from the Renaissance hotel on the beach in Tel Aviv. It's 11:30 PM Monday 4:30 in Stamford), and we are at the close of an exhausting but amazing arrival day. Yes, we have indeed arrived after an uneventful flight from JFK. We were sent off from Stamford by the Frederick-Gold family, alums of last year's trip.

About a third of our group met us here when we arrived, having come to Israel a few days (or in one case, several weeks) earlier. Israel is always a mixture of the old and the new, and in this case, the new that greeted us was Terminal 3, the beautiful new terminal at Ben Gurion airport. With a mix of stone and tall glass windows it has an airy, open, modern-but-natural feel, much the like the sanctuary of TBE, come to think of it. Getting through baggage claim has never been so easy, and before we knew it we were outside the terminal embracing old friends and meeting new ones from Keshet.

Our first stop was fittingly, Independence Hall in Tel Aviv. After a picnic lunch, we saw a film about the history of the city and the key role played by this building where Israel's Declaration of Independence was signed. We then sat in the very room where Israel was born, a room of stunning simplicity and humility, below ground level with slits of windows peeking out from the top so ensure safety. Israel was born in a bunker, yet its Declaration calls out for universal rights in the kind of audacious vision of hope for humankind that enabled the founders to overcome the dire fate that seemingly awaited them.

And Israel is here today, as strong as ever. We are in the heart of Tel Aviv, but thus far we've gotten very little hint of the great struggle for the future of the state's soul now taking place over Gaza- its soul and its security. There are some blue banners around (very little orange here -- that being the color of those opposing next Monday's disengagement). But things are quiet for the moment. I'm sure we'll be hearing more over the coming days as we approach zero hour for Disengagement, immediately preceded by Tisha B'Av.

But nothing can dampen the excitement felt by our group of 40. Although we've only spent a few hours together, our group has already come together amazingly well. After Independence Hall, we came to the hotel for a couple of hours of swimming in the warm and wonderful Mediterranean. Our arrival coincided with the arrival of cooler, refreshing breezes after a long hot spell (we brought cool weather last year too!). We then met at 7 for a bus ride to Jaffa for dinner. I must say, EVERYONE made it to the bus on time! No bad for such a large group. We took in the gorgeous view of the city from Old Jaffa, then sat down to a great dinner at Shirat Hayam (Song of the Sea) restaurant, with middle eastern salads, fish and various meats. It was one of those wonderful bonding experiences. The evening then concluded with a quick stop at Rabin Square to see where the Prime Minister was gunned down.

We are all doing wonderfully and wish you all were here with us. Meanwhile, we'll send pics along at some point and I'll try to keep everyone posted as often as I can.

Signing off from Tel Aviv. Tomorrow, we end up in Jerusalem.

Pass the word along to all the friends of our fabulous group members. We're here and we LOVE it!



Its just before midnight on Tuesday and on our first full day of touring we've covered about 2100 years, leaving Tel Aviv behind us and finishing our day by arriving in Jerusalem. Many in our group are now spending their first night in our sacred, eternal city. And all of them are having an incredible time. I just came up from the Inbal’s spacious lobby, where a number of us sat around for late night refreshments while the kids entertained themselves up in the rooms. We were reflecting on how much we've covered in so short a time.

It has remained cool in the country all day, with refreshing breezes even in the areas that are typically among the hottest. We are beginning to understand the full impact of our being here, hearing Israelis saying to us time and time again how much they appreciate our presence. Tourism is now back our hotel is fully booked but with the return of the tourists I've seen no return to the stereotypical arrogance with which American tourists used to be greeted, a haughtiness that just as often was returned to our hosts.

We had the typically lavish Israeli breakfast, then traveled about 40 minutes southeast of Tel Aviv to Bet Guvrin, a site in the hilly Shefela area, surrounded by history, just south of where the Maccabees were born, near where Samson roamed and Joshua made the sun stand still and a stones throw from where David defeated Goliath (sorry for that painful reminder, Goliath fans). This archaeological site is dotted with thousands of limestone caves that were used as homes by Idumeans during the Hasmonean period, when the descendents of the Maccabees ruled. Bet Guvrin is now a popular site where tourists get to dig for a day in these caves, away from the sun. The key to understanding the significance of these caves is that the Idumeans (Edomites) were resident aliens during this, the last period of Jewish independence before 1948, and the king at that time gave them the choice to convert to Judaism, leave or die. Most chose to leave, and since they didn't want their enemy to enjoy the fruits of their affluence, they dumped their household pottery and other possessions into big piles in their basements these caves -- before leaving.

In less than a week, Jewish settlers in Gaza will be doing the same thing, leaving their homes on short notice before the Israeli government likely knocks down whatever is left behind. The Arabs in Gaza will not be able to make use of these abandoned homes, but in 2,000 years, some lucky archaeologists will learn much about our times from what they leave behind to be buried by history.

I've been to the Archeological Seminars several times before, but never have I seen a group hit the proverbial jackpot like this one. We found several impressive pieces of large pottery, but amazingly we also found, in complete and perfect condition, a drinking bowl and oil juglet and an oil lamp, all untouched in 2,000 years. For this group at least, Hanukkah will never be the same. We quite literally, touched the age of the Maccabees.

After the dig, we went forward in time to the creation of modern Israel with a visit to the Ayalon Institute, where Kibbutzniks risked everything to produce bullets in secret factory built underneath a laundry and bakery. We then carried this story of heroism and sacrifice to our next stop, the new Palmach Museum. When looking at the bravery of Israel's Greatest Generation, where against all odds a state was born, whatever bravery we are showing simply in coming here as tourists pales in comparison.

What links all the historical eras is how hard choices are confronted. When is it time to move on and when is it time to stand ones ground and fight to the last person. The Idumeans had better things to do and they left. The Israelis of 1948 knew that their only choice was to stay and fight but they also were more than willing to live with a partitioned land and to evacuate areas that were indefensible. And what of the Gazan settlers of August 2005 living in a place that is neither especially holy nor easily defensible? Our guide Peters son is now in Gush Katif, having succeeded in finding his way past the Israeli checkpoints (his father would prefer that he not be there) just today. He bemoans the double standard where Jews must evacuate areas where Arabs live, while Arabs live freely in Israel. No choice is easy in this part of the world.

But what is very easy, once you are here, is the choice to come here, and for those who are here now that has become clearer by the moment. We've not been greeted by a country facing anarchy, but a modern, sophisticated, vibrant society doing what it does best agonizing over tough choices and then making them.

And all the while, the cafes are full, the beaches are packed, the flowers are in bloom and life goes on. Life, to its fullest.

Until the next time.

Shalom from Jerusalem!



Shabbat Shalom from Safed, nestled in the hills of northern Israel. As I write this, we have just settled into the Rimonim hotel here late Thursday night, following another exhausting, exhilarating day.


To catch everyone up, on Wednesday we had an orientation to Jerusalem, beginning with a stop at the Tayelet (Haas Promenade) with its breathtaking views of the city from the south, the vantage point from where Abraham first saw the spot where he was to sacrifice Isaac. The weather has continued to be unseasonably cool and pleasant here. Our next stop was the old city of Jerusalem, where we had a thorough tour of the Herodian-era mansions of the Jewish quarter, including the Burnt House. The visit was timely, coming just days before the ninth of Av, with its reminder that horrible things happen to us when we are succumb to causeless hatred of our neighbor. The day concluded with a moving visit to the Western Wall (which only a few hours later was packed with tens of thousands praying for a miraculous reversal of next weeks disengagement from Gaza) and a visit to the City of David, also in the news recently because of discoveries supposedly proving that the place contains the remains of King David's royal palace. We descended to and slogged our way through Hezekiah’s water tunnel, always a highlight for our Beth El trips.

Another annual highlight occurred today (Thursday), when we ventured north to the Galilee region, where, just outside our sister city of Afula, we visited the absorption center at Kibbutz Merhavia. By now, many of you have heard me rave about this place, and hundreds from our community have seen the miracle of the Ethiopian aliyah written on the beautiful, glowing faces of the children who come through here for their 18 month crash-course in all things Israeli, Jewish and modern. But today's visit was extra special. We had a chance to spend a good amount of time there, and our kids split off with the children to do various activities. The interaction was priceless a pickup soccer game, light conversation, lots of photography (they are endlessly curious about our cameras), lots of hugging, they even climbed trees together. We left some tzedakkah money to provide for new school bags for the children and appreciated all the more our federation’s long-term involvement with Partnership 2000. (Beth Boyer, a UJF Board member on our trip, made sure to remind of us of that!)

The day then turned from the smiling faces of the future, to the mysterious gaze of yesteryear, with a visit to Tzipori and its mysterious "Mona Lisa" mosaic. The day concluded with a quick climb to a Golan overlook, dinner at Kibbutz Ein Gev, where the fish jump right from the sea into your plate, a refreshing sunset boat ride across the Kineret and some free time in Tiberias. And yes, our group let its hair down to the point where some actually danced the Macarena on board. I won't name names.

Weaving through the trip have been several consistent themes. As we witness another turning point in Israel's history coming next week, we realize how often Jews have had to decide whether to accommodate with those around them or go it alone. The rescue of Ethiopian Jewry was a bold, almost unthinkable move, against all odds. So was the capture of the Golan. So was our return the Old City of Jerusalem and the Kotel. And so is the disengagement from Gaza, which can only be understood as a package deal along with the building of the Security Fence (which we have seen close-up) and the reinforcement of settlements in places that even the US Administration agrees will likely ultimately be part of Israel. We've come to expect such unilateral acts from the Jewish state. We can only pray that Gaza succeeds, as the Sinai withdrawal did, as even the Lebanon withdrawal has (I don’t believe that it emboldened anyone to try more terror as if they weren't already doing it!) and as the decision not to abandon the Golan has as well. The jury will long be out on the Gaza withdrawal. But the pain for those leaving will be immediate and real.

That fact alone -- that so many will be in pain these next, difficult days -- is reason enough that I am glad we are here. Whether or not I agree with their politics and messianic visions, my place is here, with them and with this country.

Alongside that Jewish audacity, we also know that the ultimate goal is to choose the path that leads to peace. Real peace. As Shabbat this week turns to Tisha BAv on Saturday night, well ponder those questions, well call upon God to Return us to You and we shall return, renew our days as of old. And well pray for peace of Israel.

For us its been more than peaceful. It’s been blissful, as we've reconnected, or connected for the first time, to this special place. Of course we've had lots of encounters with old friends and loved ones I bumped into old friend (and former Agudath interim) Rabbi Josh Lookstein at the Inbal, and yes, there has been a Rabbi Kalev sighting (she is here with her husbands congregation), on the steps leading down to the Western Wall, no less. We were thrilled to see her.

To everyone I extend my best wishes for a Sabbath of peace and a Tisha BAv of comfort.



The fast of Tisha B’Av began a couple of hours ago, for our group and for Jews everywhere, but nowhere is it being felt more than here in Israel and at no time in recent memory more than now. This Tisha B’Av is also the eve of the Gaza disengagement, and although here in Safed we are about as far from the focal point of this tension as we can be and still be in Israel, this turning point in Israel's history is on everyone's mind.

During our drive back up to Safed on Friday afternoon, our group leader was able to connect us, via cell phone hook-up, to an Israeli who had managed to sneak past the guards and is now in Gaza. He spoke passionately about the perceived injustice being perpetrated on the settlers by the Sharon government and conveyed an almost nave optimism that the expulsion, has he calls it, would not succeed. We questioned him repeatedly as to whether the resistance had any centralized leadership, what the limits of the settlers’ civil disobedience would be and whether there was a Plan B ready to implement when it becomes clear that no miraculous salvation would be in the offing. Some of the questioners expressed passionate opposition to the "selfishness" being demonstrated by the settlers in forcing Israel's armed forces to extract them and draining police resources from other areas of the country, exposing fellow Israelis to possible danger. There appears to be little centralized plan at work here, and I got the impression that neither outright violence nor a Masada scenario are being contemplated, but neither will everyone just give up quietly. But we will see how it all plays out.

No matter when you are in Israel, you feel like you are on the center stage of historical events unfolding, which is how we feel now but it hasn't distracted us one bit from our heavy schedule of touring. On Friday we began the day by offering the group three choices shopping in the artist colony here in Safed, a visit to an army base on the Lebanese border for the teens, and a visit to the Manara Cliffs near Kiryat Shmonah, offering a spectacular view of northern Galilee, the Golan and Lebanon, plus Israel's longest cable car and an alpine slide and bungee trampoline. No matter what people chose, they had a great time. The teens at the army base were particularly touched by the bravery of the soldiers. We all got back together at what was for some the most anticipated stop of the trip: the Naot-Teva shoe and sandal factory outlet at Kibbutz Neot Mordechai. An hour later and somewhat poorer we headed for lunch, followed by a rafting adventure on the Jordan River. All you need to know about that is: we got very wet!

Back in Safed, our group led its own Kabbalat Shabbat service in the very place where that service originated. We stood on a large balcony of our hotel, watching the sun set over the trees of the rolling mountains to our west. The children in our group took active roles in the service, and we sensed the sanctity of the moment all around us, in the breeze, in the fiery sky, in the mountains, and in the sounds of voices at prayer. Shabbat peace, all around. Lecha Dodi will never be the same. Dinner was held on the rooftop of a nearby home. We were joined by the Mahopac group, and there was lots of enjoyable singing, as well as, needless to say, great food.

Today (Saturday) was a day for all to relax we needed it! but there were several organized, optional activities, including a visit to the local Conservative synagogue for services and a walking tour of the city. The Conservative shul is struggling, an indicator of the struggles of Masorti movement nationwide. Our group sponsored the Kiddush and our visit was greatly appreciated. Otherwise, this day was spent strolling around the quaint alleyways of Safed, in the pool, in the spa or in bed. In any of these locations, a good time was had by all.

Which brings us to tonight, Tisha BAv. Peter our guide found a perfect place for us to read Lamentations and discuss our first week in Israel in light of this depressing day the site of a ruined, 3rd century synagogue hidden away in a forest nearby. All that remains are a few upright columns and the outer shell of what was a place where Jews prayed 1,700 years ago. We talked about our first week here the archeological finds, the moving visit to the Western Wall (which especially impacted the kids of this group), our family reunion with the Ethiopian children at the absorption center at Merhavia, the Jordan rafting and walk through the 2,600 year old water tunnel in Jerusalem, the Palmach Museum and secret bullet factory, the sunsets and the Safed moon hanging lower in the sky than the place where we stood. And on top of all the shared experiences, there have been dozens of personal experiences that have left indelible impressions. Some encounters and family reunifications have been downright miraculous.

It has been a very, very full first week.

And were only halfway through.

Tomorrow, it’s off to the Western Galilee, including stops in Akko and Haifa.

Keep checking our website of for more photos.

An easy Tisha B’Av to all. And a week of peace for the Jewish people.



Its late Sunday night as I sit in the lobby of the Holiday Inn Bayview overlooking Haifa and the Mediterranean. Before I continue, here's a message from Jeannie Kasindorf, who is right next to me.

"Hi everyone. Wish you were here. Israel is great more interesting than ever. Matt, Alana and I are experiencing Israel for the first time as a family and are loving every minute of it."

And Barbara Schindler, who is also sitting next to me, says, "Thanks, Beth El, for making the Schindlers of Westport feel so much a part of the Beth El family."

And from the Piskin family, (who just came into the lobby with their Zahal Shalom soldier from 1999, Erez Ingber), Julie says, "Sababa!" (Which means "super!") and Todd says, "It’s been metzuyan (excellent)!"

Rob Kempner just chimed in, "Everyone should come!" And Peter adds, "The experience is beyond belief and by being here you can’t help but feel connected."

And from our photographer (check our website - Leon Shapiro, "Even after living here for six years, returning with Temple Beth El and my family is a new and unique way of experiencing Israel."

Lowell Eitelberg just walked in with his family from a delicious Argentinean-style steak dinner with the Bailers and our bus driver David. Lowell says, "The food is great." Susan adds, "The Israeli people are extremely friendly and helpful and a pleasure to be around." Darice says, "Laura and I were walking up some stairs in Haifa, and an elderly couple saw us and offered us some water, just like Rebecca at the well! They invited us to sit with them and we made some friends. This happens all the time in Israel."

Adam adds, "If everyone at home were with us now, they would understand why none of us wants to go home. It took our leaving Stamford to find out just how much of a Beth El family we really are." Judy adds, "I've especially enjoyed the educational aspects of this trip."

This morning we left Safed and headed west for our next leg. Our first stop was Rosh Hanikra, the spectacular coastal grottos and white cliffs on the Lebanese border. We not only got to enjoy the spectacular scenery, but were entertained by a curious critter indigenous to Israel, a Hyrax, which looks like a chipmunk but is more closely related to the elephant. Our guide mentioned that it is a terrific Scrabble word as well.

Our next stop was the children’s Holocaust exhibit at Kibbutz Lochamei Ha-Getaot. Our tour guide there, Leah, sprinkled her commentary with very personal, moving anecdotes as we moved through the excellent exhibit. She focused on the writings and life of Janusz Korszak (1876-1942), an assimilated Jew who became one of the greatest defenders of children, maintaining the innocence of childhood right up until the end. He ran an orphanage in the Warsaw ghetto and, when given the option to leave the children and survive, he chose to stay with them to the end. Our children were taken by her powerful presentation (Leah later commented that she had rarely seen a group so attentive).

We made a quick stop to experience an Israeli supermarket on the Kibbutz, then brought our food to the center of Akko (Acre) where those not fasting enjoyed lunch. The rest of the afternoon was spent in Akko, a port city of the ages, home to ancient rabbis, medieval Crusaders and Turks, and site of a fabled prison break during Israel's War of Independence. We saw the gallows where the British hanged Jewish prisoners and we sang Hatikva there, as the prisoners themselves did. Our next stop was the city's famous Turkish bath and a new multi-media experience.

The entire country felt like a Turkish bath today, hot and hotter. We ended up the day on the cool peak of Mount Carmel, however. Tomorrow, after a few stops around here, we are scheduled to head southward to the Negev. We hear that the southern part of the country will be cut off by the military as the Gaza Disengagement begins. But we have connections in high places, so well see what happens.

Stay tuned. If you don't hear from me tomorrow, its because were star gazing and the Ramon Crater doesn't have wireless.

Shalom from Israel!



Shalom from Jerusalem!

Its late Thursday night and we are back at the Inbal hotel here in Jerusalem, following an exhausting but thrilling week of touring that brought us from Haifa to the Negev, from the Dead Sea and Masada back to Jerusalem. We've had the chance to meet with Druze villagers and Conservative educators, people all over, as we've visited places exotic and stark, lush oases and dry, rocky moonscapes. We've seen it all. Our trip continues to roll right along, unaffected by the events taking place in Gaza.

That is NOT to say that Gaza hasn't colored our experience, for we have come to learn first hand how history comes alive here and repeats itself endlessly. The excruciating choices that Jews have faced so often before have grown no less painful. And the real-time impact of history melding with current events is downright dizzying. On Wednesday, for example, we left our deluxe Dead Sea spa (wow, was that fun) for Masada and there relived the most controversial part of the story. It is still not clear whether the Zealot defenders of that stately desert plateau actually took their own lives (or more precisely, the lives of one another, not their own: it was a mass murder, not a mass suicide), rather than giving up their freedom. But what is clear is that on the bus ride back to Jerusalem, after a refreshing dip at Ein Gedi, we listened to the news heard of an Israeli supporter of the Gazan settlers who set herself on fire, in essence reenacting Masada even as we were still en route from that very place.

And today was a very difficult and wonderful day. Difficult, because we paid a long visit to Yad Vashem. The recently-opened new museum there is remarkable, truly state-of-the-art and a significant improvement on what used to be there. But one needn't visit Yad Vashem to see references to the Holocaust around Jerusalem these days. Everywhere there are posters depicting the orange-clad settlers of Gush Katif as victims, yellow star and all. The problem with this imagery, as well as the worldview espoused by the self-immolator, is that if this is the Holocaust or Masada, than the Israeli army and government are the Nazis and Romans. Its one thing to say that they are corrupt and even to say that Prime Minister Sharon did not have a mandate to leave Gaza now. We've heard enough opinions over the past several days to see a little truth in all sides (although personally I agree with author Michael Oren, who spoke of this move as by far the lesser of the evils in a conference call hook up to our bus as we traveled south). But I've seen far more dangerous demonization of the Israeli government and army than I ever imagined I would see in this country. Meanwhile, those settlers holding out have generally been given sympathetic treatment in the press here. Well see if that changes now that the tactics have become even more dangerous, such as the flinging of acid onto the soldiers and police. Still, once this painful episode is over, I do believe that this country will be able to reunite. A popular ad on TV and on buses shows the two triangles of the Star of David dwelling apart on different sides of the Israeli flag, only to be reunited in the end. That will happen here too.

I said it was also a wonderful day, and it was. Today was the long-awaited Bar/Bat Mitzvah affirmation service at the Western Wall, in the beautiful archaeological gardens near Robinsons Arch. The service was very special, as all the families present participated, including and especially the children. The entire Old City was teeming with nachas today with other bar mitzvah groups clogging the streets, along with the occasional protester. This city really comes to life after Tisha B’Av, with a big crafts fair, numerous private celebrations (we had a wedding in the courtyard of our hotel tonight) and the celebration of the Jewish Valentines Day, Tu B’Av.

This morning during the service, a voice came over a loudspeaker indicating that there would be a controlled explosion of an unidentified item found nearby. These things happen all the time, but most in our group didn't hear the warning, so the big bang was a startling reminder of what it really means to be a Jew choosing to take part in the greatest drama Jewish history has ever known: the State of Israel. Last night, just as I was settling into my room to relax, I heard another explosion. I quickly looked out my window and it was one of the most spectacular fireworks shows I've ever seen, right over the Tower of David. And I thought, Why not! Why should Israelis be denied the simple pleasure of having an explosion be just a few fireworks from time to time! I can recall being here a few years ago, at the height of the terror war, and hearing real fighting going on in Gilo, just a few miles away. That war is over, thankfully, and I am confident that Israel has learned how to defeat terrorism in a manner that other afflicted nations could learn much from.

So we are having an indescribably great time. By the way, an update: our youth counselor’s brother just missed out on making it to the finals of the Israeli version of American Idol. And I didn't even begin to tell you all the fun little details that you'll soon hear from your friends on the trip.

On Friday well be doing a very special mitzvah project to help the poor in Jerusalem, just the thing to complete this multi-dimensional experience of meeting the people of Israel. Well also visit Mount Herzl and Ammunition Hill, before settling in for our second and final Shabbat. The trip will wind down on Sunday.

Do check our website at for the latest photos!

To all our friends back in America, Shabbat Shalom!



It is now late Saturday night and a glorious Shabbat in Jerusalem has ended. It was relatively cool today (and downright chilly tonight), perfect walking weather, and members of our group took advantage of that, exploring the many fascinating alleyways and vistas of both the New City and the Old. Its been a number of years since I've been here at a time when people felt free to go anywhere, but that is exactly the feeling now. Yesterday several of us even spent an hour in Mahane Yeduda, the Jewish farmers market, before taking an energizing walk back to the hotel. It's not that terrorism is no longer a threat (Hello, Eilat!), but that the dangers of suicide bombing have been reduced to almost nil here, for a variety of reasons, ranging from the security fence to superb Israeli intelligence to the Arabs not wanting to short circuit the disengagement process. So we've been walking -- a LOT. I've personally led a half dozen walking tours of areas around this city, and that is OUTSIDE of the regular touring time.

Our feet are sore right now, but our spirits soar.

We began our day on Friday with a special mitzvah project (actually, I began my day with a few others a little earlier, with a quick footloose in the quaint neighborhood of Yemin Moshe, right near our hotel). We went to Yad Eliezer, a grassroots organization that collects and distributes food for the poor all over Israel. Our mission was to fill 63 boxes with a variety of foodstuffs. The boxes were lined up and we filled them assembly line style, with boys standing behind one line of boxes and girls behind the other. In the end, the girls won (of course), but this was a true win-win situation: everyone had a fantastic time performing an act of kindness (g'milut hasadim) and hundreds of Israelis will from the boxes we prepared for them.

Our next stop was Ammunition Hill and a chance to learn about the Battle for Jerusalem in the 6-Day War. The introductory film was particularly stirring, as we heard of the great sacrifices made during the historic drive to take the Old City. Later, on Saturday evening, just as the Shabbat sun was setting, we stood on the hill near our hotel, just opposite the Old City walls, an area that was No Mans Land between 1948 and 1967. It was possible to visualize what it must have been like for the first paratroops to enter the Old City and for the people of Israel to hear the historic news, The Temple Mount is in Our Hands.

Its been a historic week in Israel. Fridays Maariv screamed out the banner headline, The Day Well Never Forget. Gush Katif is now silent. Many of its former residents have been brought up here, in fact, to Jerusalem, where some are being put up in nearby hotels as temporary housing (Bi-Cultural alums will be interested to note that one of those is apparently the Reich Hotel). Late Thursday night, well past midnight, crowds at the Kotel swelled as word got around that busloads of the former Gaza residents were arriving. There has been no shortage of tears this week and that scene was also very emotional.

But for virtually all Israelis, the army is the country's pride, and many are calling last weeks operation Tzahals finest hour. To have done what it did, as difficult as it was (some facing taunts of Nazi and Judenrat and others being doused with acid), with minimal casualties, to have handled it all as sensitively as they did, with the world watching every move, was nothing less than miraculous.

Today was Israel's Valentines Day (Tu BAv) and they really do it up here now, just like the American one, complete with lingerie ads, flowers and pink hearts everywhere, and a real sense of celebration in the streets tonight. But love has been the theme this entire week. What the soldiers did was a labor of love: love of country, love of their Jewish neighbor, love of duty. This morning several of us went to the progressive synagogue Kol Haneshama, where we were warmly welcomed. In fact, there was an ufruf and the father of the bride was an old friend of mine, so it was extra special. The portion Va-etchanan sounds much like the word to marry, l’hitchaten, and the major theme of the portion is love and comfort. The Shma appears here, with the commandment to Love the Lord which, commentators are quick to point out, can only be expressed through the love of our neighbor and the stranger in our midst. And this was Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of comfort. The Haftarah began, so appropriately, given this past week’s traumas, Nachamu, Nachamu Ami, Be Comforted, My People. Chucking Hershey's Kisses at the bride and groom and then singing and dancing with them did much to comfort us all. Nice Kiddush, too.

BTW, others in the group enjoyed the stirring singing at Shira Hadasha, located nearby in the German Colony.

So our trip now comes to an end, as we spend tomorrow primarily in the Old City, including the Western Wall Tunnels, before heading to our concluding banquet and the airport. Well also visit Yad LKashish, aka Lifeline for the Old, a workshop where seniors create marvelous crafts, a place filled with dignity and beauty a microcosm of the entire country. Each of us will take back many special memories and only in Israel moments, like saying Shabbat Shalom to the guy at the gas station (in Stamford, I don't usually even SEE the guy at the gas station) or the best burgers in the world at Burgers Bar.

I know that it will be difficult to leave. It always is. My niece Luz, who is 20, joined our group for dinner on Friday night and, in an impromptu q and a session, explained that many Gush Katif (former) residents who believe that Gaza is part of the Land of Israel (which itself is a subject of vigorous debate), felt compelled by halacha not to leave voluntarily. In other words, many were dragged out because Jewish Law would not allow them to leave any part of our holy land on foot. I get the feeling that the same goes for us as well. We may have to be dragged onto that plane. The only thing that will make it slightly easier is the knowledge that each of us will return sooner rather than later and that well each be bringing a little of Israel back to the states with us.

Shalom for one final time, from Jerusalem!