After a long day of traveling and delays in JFK, our group was welcomed into Israel by our great tour educator, Eric. After some brief introductions and currency exchange, we headed north.
Arriving in Hadera around 9:30 am, we had our first Israeli breakfast buffet- complete with hummus, tahini, cucumbers, tomatoes, a spectrum of vegetable salads, and shakshuka. We weren’t sure if we were hungry or not- our bodies were confused, some thinking it was 2:30 am (EST) instead- but nonetheless relished in the savory breakfast and cool melon dessert (sliced watermelon and honeydew).
Back to the bus, we caught glimpses of the Mediterranean Sea as we passed Zichron Yaakov’s fish farms and vineyards on our way to the holy city of Tzfat. The countryside continued to change from olive orchards to citrus, small Mediterranean towns to industrial villages, quarries to the verdant farmland of the Jezreel Valley… there was so much to take in. (Israel may be a small country, but the different ecological zones and terrain were a whole new world.)
Around noon we pulled into Tzfat (Safed). Hiking to the peak of the town, we surveyed the landscape from the Safed Citadel Memorial. Overlooking the Sea of Galilee, the upper Galilee region, and the foothills of the Golan, we recognized that through all of our own unique backgrounds and identities, we shared a unifying core, our shared Jewish background/identity/history. Our families may come from different religious affiliations and cultural practices, but we are nonetheless bound by the same cord that unites (many of) our Israeli brothers and sisters. Sanctifying this special moment, we all took a glass of grape juice and said the shehechiyanu prayer, the traditional blessing for allowing us to reach this special moment together.
We continued our walking tour of this ancient town (two thousand+ years old), letting our feet carry us to Ascent, where we had a conversation about the complexities of Israeli society as it juggles religious tradition, Jewish law, modern ethics, and family obligations through a reading of various Jewish texts applied to the case of Gilad Shalit’s prisoner exchange. This was a riveting conversation and opened the door for many in the group to challenge their conceptions around traditional Judaism, religious Israelis, the IDF/Israeli government, and their own responsibility to their community. (All of this in under 40 minutes!)
Breaking for coffee and lunch, the group dispersed into traditional Israeli eateries (offering pillowy falafel and shawarma) and a Yemeni shop selling lachuch, a vegetarian pancake-like sandwich filled with spices, vegetables, Safed cheese, and a pungent harissa, like hot sauce, called schug. A special treat made even more warming by Ronen, the warm mystic who has been nourishing the locals and visitors for years.
After lunch, we visited the Ari Synagogue and the Safed Candle Shop. The Ari Synagogue, so named in honor of Rabbi Isaac Luria, a 16th century teacher of kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, and a progenitor of the Kabbalat Shabbat service. This small synagogue has a grand central lectern and vividly decorated ark, columns, and stained glass. The candle shop makes gorgeous Shabbat, Hanukkah, Havdalah, and other candles. We were planning on visiting the Abuhov Synagogue, a more traditional Sephardi prayer space adorned with beautiful painted walls, but were prevented by a Bar Mitzvah celebration. In lieu of this, we had more time to spend in the Artist Colony before traveling to our hotel on the shores of the Kinneret, or Sea of Galilee.
We showered and cleaned up for a solid dinner before doing our first formal group icebreaker (icebreaker speed-dating). It was fun. There are a lot of different, compatible people in our group. Things are looking great.
Off to sleep before a day of hiking, rafting, overlooking, and Israeli dancing.