As I stood in Jerusalem’s tiny Kol Rina synagogue on the first Friday evening of my recent trip to Israel, I was surrounded by the joyful dancing, singing and whooping of the largely-Hasidic congregation. I felt full of such ecstasy and gratitude that I thought I might burst. Longstanding readers probably know of my interest in Judaism, and particularly the Hasidic tradition, but never did I expect to be so in the centre of it. The trip was my fourth time in Israel, but thanks to experiences such as this it felt like a first-time visit.
The trip, called Once In A Lifetime, brought four bloggers from round the world to Israel on an all-expenses-paid visit. A key factor in making it so special was that we spent eight of the 10 nights sleeping not in a hotel, but in an apartment in Jerusalem. This made us feel like we were living, rather than staying, in Israel. The Jerusalem students who organised and ran the trip went to great efforts to enhance this feeling. It worked. As early as the second day of the trip I rang my lovely friend Elan Miller to arrange to meet for coffee. “Meet me round at my place,” I said, without thinking what I was saying.
It was a joyous visit, full of laughter and fun. The four bloggers and the wonderful tour organisers quickly became close and fond of one another. Lasting friendships were built during the magical days and exciting evenings. One can never escape the harsh realities of life in Israel, though. As we sat in the beautiful Hebrew University campus we were shown a tree which had been planted at a 45 degree angle outside a coffee shop. This was in the memory of the students blown apart there by a suicide bomber.
Likewise, when we partied at the Resto Bar in Jerusalem it was sobering to reflect that this bar had – in its previous incarnation of Cafe Momento – been blown up by suicide bombers on two occasions. Then, as we left the bar at the end of the evening, we saw Gilad Shalit’s parents sitting in their protest tent outside the neighbouring Prime Ministerial residence. A matter of yards from them was a small counter-protest by campaigners who oppose the prospective deal which would see terrorists released in return for Gilad’s freedom. I had met with Gilad’s father Noam on the first day of the trip, I will write more about that experience in a future post.
What traumas Israelis have had to face. We also visited the security fence and were given an insightful talk about the fence and related issues by Elliot Chodoff. Given that more than 90 percent of the construction is fence and not wall, those in the West who insist on describing it as a wall reveal themselves to be either hopelessly naive or wilfully dishonest. It’s disgusting to lie about such a thing. These are real issues, with people’s lives on both sides of the conflict at stake.
As we stood in the Israeli district of Gilo, we saw first-hand the immediacy of the threat. Without the fence to prevent it, a terrorist could have walked from Bethlehem and blown up Gilo in a matter of minutes. The fence has been wonderfully effective in preventing suicide attacks. We all hope and pray for the day when the fence is no longer needed. In the meantime, those who call for its immediate dismantlement should consider the enormous bloodshed which would inevitably follow on both sides. They might then reflect on why they are so hell-bent to make that happen.
Having left Gilo we returned to Jerusalem to meet with Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, a senior spokesperson for the IDF. I found our meeting with her fascinating and inspiring. It was so uplifting to realise such a wonderful, formidable operator is at the heart of the IDF’s public image. I asked her two questions about the flotilla operation. One was about the media response and the other was about why the IDF dropped those poor commandos to such a nasty fate at the hands of the flotilla thugs. I will write in more detail about the answers and the meeting in general in a future post.
I will always remember how she told me that the commandos told her that as they landed on the boat and were attacked, they “saw murder in the eyes of the attackers”. I still find the attack on those commandos almost unbearably painful to recall. The same applies when I remember the hideous response of so many in the world to the incident. I see that this coming Monday’s Panorama show on BBC1 will be about the flotilla story. The report will be by Jane Corbin who has a track record of distortion and bias against Israel. I do my best to remain optimistic that her report will be fair. Certainly Lt. Col. Leibovich’s wider stories of wilful dishonesty from the Western journalists she has dealt with painted a gloomy picture. The bias and wilful dishonesty Israel faces is disgusting. Those who perpetuate it should be ashamed of themselves.
One of the most poignant moments of the trip came at Yad Vashem. I had visited the Holocaust Memorial before, but never the Children’s Memorial section. There, a series of candles are reflected via multiple mirrors to represent the many children killed in the Holocaust, and also to represent the children who were never born as a result of the slaughter. One of my best friends is the son of a Holocaust survivor, and he therefore was almost one of those latter group of children.
During the tour of the Old City our wonderful guide Liron moved me hugely with one of her statements. She spoke about how at the end of the British Mandate in Israel some of the British troops went home, while some stayed to fight alongside the Arabs in their quest to destroy the Jewish state. “But one,” she said, “stayed to fight alongside the Jews. He was like you, Chas.” When I got to the privacy of my bedroom that evening I cried.
I could go on and on (and on and on) about how wonderful the trip was. We saw Israeli musical royalty Gidi Gov singing and fist-pumping at Sultan’s Pool. We sipped wine at a festival in the grounds of the Israel Museum. We visited the religious sites of Jerusalem, where I quietly slipped out of the official schedule to spend a poignant hour alone at the Kotel. We had perfect seats at a spectacular Sound And Light show at the Tower of David. We also did a volunteer shift at the lovely Mahane Yehuda Market, helping the elderly carry their shopping to the bus. (And hello, Michal, if you’re reading this. Lovely to meet you!)
And we ate food. So much food. So much wonderful food, including a Moroccan/Jewish dinner in a family home in Ein Karem. We needed to eat lots as it was a demanding program including dancing the night away in a Tel Aviv nightclub, and hiking around the Judean Hills. We floated in the Dead Sea, met MKs at the Knesset and feasted on hummus in the Arab village of Abu Gosh. We rode segways along a visually-stunning Jerusalem hill and I didn’t once fall off or crash. But then Israel is the home of the miracle. We did numerous interviews with television channels and newspapers, becoming temporary mini-celebs in Israel. People approached us in the street to ask if we were ‘the bloggers’. Amusingly, one man got a bit confused in translation and believed we were ‘Bulgarians’, not ‘bloggers’.
As the trip neared its end, my thoughts turned to when I might next visit Israel. For a while I have thought of doing a visit through Sar-El, which arranges volunteer shifts at IDF bases and nursing homes. I was thinking afresh about this option as I popped into the Steimatzky bookshop on Ben Yehuda Street. On the shelf was a book written by a longstanding Sar-El volunteer about his experiences on the programme. But that’s not the real coincidence. I bought the book and took it outside to have a flick through it as I waited to meet a friend for shawarma. As I did so, a lady leant over from the neighbouring bench and said, “Excuse me, when you read about a lady called Marion in that book – that’s me.” We then chatted about Sar-El and her experiences on the program. I believe we are given signs in life, and this was definitely one. So watch this space, for news of a possible Sar-El stint.
Shortly after meeting Marion, there was another spontaneous moment of joy. A gang of Breslov Hasids appeared out of nowhere and set up a stall pumping out joyful house music. They danced, smiled and embraced anyone who wanted a hug. I have love the stories of Rabbi Nachman, who founded the Breslov branch of Judaism. Seeing these joyful people first-hand, and then speaking with them, were experiences I will never forget. I’d like to thank Stand With Us and indeed everyone involved with arranging the Once In A Lifetime trip.
On the final day I planted a tree in the Aminadav Forest in Jerusalem. I was asked to deliver a speech before the planting. I expressed my wish that just as the tree will flourish and prosper, so too will the state of Israel. “You haven’t really visited Israel until you’ve got some of the earth under your fingernails,” the man from the JNF told us. He also asked us to take two pebbles home with us. One will be for us to return with on our next visit, the other will be to give to a friend to return upon their next visit. God willing, my pebble will be back in Israel soon.