Sunday, December 27, 2009

New pics from Vaca

Just posted some new pics from the beginning of my vacation in Tel Aviv...check em out!

Friday, December 25, 2009

I finally had the chance to post most of my pictures from Livnot, my two weeks in Tzfat and our hikes around the Galil and Golan...I'll hopefully add some more descriptions and tags after Shabbat...enjoy! (click on this link to get to the pics)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Touring Israel's borders along Lebanon and Syria

I’ve been fortunate to have experienced a few thoroughly educational and captivating days in the three and a half months I’ve been here. I can honestly say that Tuesday’s trip along Israel’s northern borders ranks among the most informative and influential days. In addition to learning about the security concerns along those specific borders, we also spent time discussing the greater existential problems Israel faces vis a vis not only Hamas and Hezbollah, but also Iran, a truly frightening situation.

Our tour guide for the day was a man named Elliot Chodoff, who in addition to teaching at the University of Haifa, also holds several advisory positions with the IDF. He is a fascinating speaker and man does he know his stuff.  He has several cardinal rules about military strategy, and the one that intrigued me the most says: “a successful preventive policy will always be condemned”. A perfect example was the Israeli government passing out gas masks during the Gulf War in 1991. After the war, the Israeli public was in an uproar about having to wear these masks. But the likelihood is that because Israel publicized having the gas masks for its entire population so that even Saddam Hussein knew that Israelis had them, it might have convinced him not to fire the chemical weapons into Tel Aviv, and instead send scud missiles, because the gas masks blunted the effects of the chemical attack. So in essence, this policy of using gas masks as a deterrent was condemned by the public as being too severe, despite the fact that it prevented a chemical attack.

Our first stop was a lookout point over Metulla, the Israeli town that has Lebanon as its border.

You can see how close the most southern Lebanese towns are to the border.  The problem isn’t that the towns are close – that’s the definition of a border between two countries; the problem is that Hezbollah continues to import rockets that it can fire from these towns into Israel. In media reports about the region, you often read “Hezbollah is smuggling weapons from Syria into Iran” which is pretty ridiculous if you think about it, because since Hezbollah, and by extension Syria, controls the Lebanese government, these weapons are not being smuggled but blatantly and openly imported with the aid and help of the government itself.

So you can imagine how unnerving it was to learn that the Israeli government turned a blind eye to the Lebanese border during the Second Intifada and pretty much ignored the continued rocket-fire reigning down on Israeli towns there, while allowing Hezbollah to stockpile weapons in southern Lebanon.

Then we went up to the Golan Heights to a place called Tel Fahkr, which was one of the key positions Israel took during the Six Day War in 1967 that helped it gain the entire Golan. It’s truly a case of needing to see the actual terrain and the land and the topography to be able to understand the situation. We learned how Israel identified a road to get up to Tel Fahkr as being the only un-mined road because an oil pipeline goes underneath it. Yet despite the intelligence, the commander of the brigade made a terrible miscalculation about their position relative to the Syrian base and cost nearly his entire unit their lives before Israel took the position.

Our third and final stop was Mount Bental, which is in the northern part of the Golan and is right next to the border with Syria. I had actually been there twice before, but hadn’t realized it was this same spot until we got there.  We had the fortune of being there on a pretty clear day, so we had a good view of the snow-capped Mount Hermon, the northern-most spot in Israel, as well as into Syria to our east (below is a pic of me and my buddy Brett with Syria behind us.)

When Israel captured the Golan from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967, the only objective the Israeli government gave the IDF was to defeat the enemy; it did not give a geographical or territorial objective.  The line of mountains from the Hermon to Bental was the first defensible position the army came to, and so that’s where it stopped.

Since gaining the Golan, Israel has been able to set up defensive military positions all across the eastern border, including on the Hermon. Its position on the Hermon makes it such that with a good pair of military binoculars, soldiers stationed there can read license plates off cars in Damascus 35 miles away. This piece of information fascinated me because it explains why Syria has been Israel’s quietest border since 1974. Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, knows that Israel has this military position and can hit anything inside the capital city of Damascus, so it acts as a deterrent for anytime Assad wakes up and thinks “is this the day I should fire some rockets into Israel?”

We also learned about Iran, and about all the consequences of trying to deal with a regime that doesn’t act logically. It’s very scary to think that Iran is just months, if not weeks, away from attaining nuclear power, and would not hesitate to use a nuclear bomb to hit Tel Aviv.  Not only that, but that one nuclear attack that lands near Tel Aviv would be the end of Israel as we know it. And equally scary is there’s a chance Israel might have to take out Iran’s nuclear arsenal on its own – I’d like to think that if Israel decided to strike Iran, the Obama Administration would not only back the decision, but would supply the aircraft and take care of the brunt of the work because America’s air force is so much larger. However, all indications are that Obama is not so much interested in helping out, and that Israel would have to go it alone.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Shabbat and Beyond in Tzfat

The schedule here at Livnot in Tzfat has kept me plenty busy, so I figured I’d write an update while I had some free time. Shabbat was a very cool experience. As I mentioned last week, the first night of Chanukah coincided with Shabbat to make it an extra festive atmosphere.

There’s a giant Chanukiah on the first floor of the Livnot building, and it uses the traditional oil candles as light (it’s pretty big, as are the shot glass-size cups of oil as candles). We lit the Chanukiah and sang a few songs together to get in the Chanukah mood before switching over to Shabbat. The second floor of the Livnot building has a balcony with a fantastic view of Tzfat, especially during sunset, so we went out to the balcony after lighting Shabbat candles to take in the sunset view as the workweek turned into Shabbat and as light turned to darkness. After a short Kabbalat Shabbat service on the balcony, we had free time to check out different shuls in the area.

I was most interested in going to a congregation that uses melodies from Shlomo Carlebach, who was known as “The Singing Rabbi” because of all the different melodies he wrote to prayers during the 20th century. These shuls are known for their energy and their dancing, and this one was no exception. During the Kabbalat Shabbat service alone, pretty much every song erupted into joyous singing and dancing in a manner I hadn’t ever really enjoyed, even at the Kotel in Jerusalem. There’s something very spiritual about putting every ounce of your voice and soul into singing the prayer and knowing that the person sitting (or standing) next to you is doing the same thing.

We had a festive dinner all together at the Livnot campus. As part of the Shabbat festivities, people are encouraged to share some “Words of Wisdom”, whether it be sharing something they learned during the week, something related to the week’s Torah portion, or anything else Judaism-related that’s on their mind. I spoke for a couple of minutes about something that maybe we take for granted but for me is truly meaningful this time of year: during Channukah, we remember the several miracles that took place: the small band of Maccabbes that defeated the Syrian Greek army, the small amount of oil that was found in the Temple, and the fact that this small amount of oil which should have only lasted for one day burned for 8. I re-read the story of Channukah and was struck by the fact that while we talk about these miracles, we might not consider all the miracles that are still taking place in today’s world: a perfect example being the existence of the State of Israel. How else are we to explain the creation of a state for the Jewish people after being in exile for 2,000 years. And after the establishment of the state, a small Jewish defense corps being vastly outnumbered, yet holding off 5 Arab armies. Or Israel’s astounding military victory in 1967 against those same Arab armies. Or 1973, when Israel should have had its territory reduced to pre-67 lines, only to have the war turn around and re-gain all the lost territory. And if we’re tempted to say, “that was 40 years ago”, there’s the miracles of “lost” Jews from all over the world – Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union, China – making Aliyah and coming to Israel. These are all miracles we have all witnessed and continue to witness, if only we open our eyes to them.

On Sunday, we had the chance to walk in the footsteps of some of the Jewish fighters of days of yore. We hiked Tel Yodfat, which is in the lower Galil, and was one of the main battle areas during the Jewish revolt against Roman rule in the years 67-70, CE, and there are still pieces of pottery to be found in the area that date back to that period. Then we drove to an area called A-Roma, which is a Druze village about 25 minutes away. The Talmud tells of underground caves in the area where Jewish families lived for as many as three years during this revolt. About 25 years ago, our tour guide, Michael, went out looking for one of these caves near the village with a friend of his, and they came across this huge cave. After doing some exploring and calling in professional archaelogists, they confirmed this was indeed one of the caves used nearly 2,000 years ago. And now that the cave has been excavated, people can go inside and see what it was like to live inside them. Michael took us all in to one of the main living quarters and told us this story. He then invited us to crawl along the tunnels going from room to room to get the feeling of what it was like to navigate the tunnels, with the sharp curves. It was truly amazing to be in the same spot where these families were living, and fighting off the Romans. Every now and then, the Romans would find an entrance to a cave and would enter hoping to kill as many people as they could find. But because the Jews knew all the intricate twists and turns, the Romans were at a severe disadvantage and effectively walked into a trap. Eventually, however, after losing too many soldiers who were killed going in this way, the Romans sent smoke down the tunnels and the smoke suffocated the Jews to death.

Michael made a great comparison between these caves and the places Jews hid themselves during the Holocaust, in the tiniest of closets and floorboards and underground tunnels. It’s incredibly powerful to think about the length to which Jews went to preserve their peoplehood and religion throughout our history.

I'm excited for the next day plus here in Tzfat. In about an hour we're having a Purim party. Doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me either, given we're about halfway through Chanukah, but Livnot wanted to show us the connection between the two holidays. We had an educational session on Purim this afternoon, and now a party tonight. It should be interesting to see what kinds of costumes people come up with such limited time and resources.

Then tomorrow, we're going back up north for a security tour along the Lebanese and Syrian borders, so I'm sure I'll have lots to write about that. And then tomorrow night, we're having a Chanukah party, with latkes and sufganiot and a movie - and yes, I've already nominated Home Alone as movie option, so we'll see where that goes!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Happy Chanukah!

Happy Chanukah to all back home!

This year I am spending Chanukah in Tzfat, and I think it will be a memorable way to celebrate the holiday. In just a couple of hours, I will be lighting the candles with 14 other people from my Otzma Program, as well as the staff and participants of the Livnot U’Lehibanot program. More about Livnot in a second, but I’m very excited to be here for Chanukah.

While it’s always nice to light candles and sing Mah Oz Tzur, it feels special in a different way to be able to celebrate the holiday in the land in which the miracles took place – we always sing “A Great Miracle Happened There”, and now we get to sing “A Great Miracle Happened Here”. Dwelling on the miracle of Chanukah (or miracles, because there were multiple miracles), makes me think about the miracles that go on in today’s world, and how important it is to open our eyes to what’s around us (especially living in the State of Israel, whose existence is a miracle in it of itself)

But of course there’s a trade-off to being here at this time of the year. I won’t be able to take part in one of my favorite yearly traditions: multiple viewings of “Home Alone” prior to Christmas with Alex and Nicole – so I’ll have to watch the movie here next week and yell out all the lines and know they’re doing the same thing back home (From a treehouse!)

So back to Livnot. The past few days have been long but fun. Breakfast at Livnot starts at 7am, so that means getting up at 6:45. I regularly woke up at 7:15 or 7:20 to eat breakfast and read the news online before Ulpan class, but something about that “Waking up before 7” really makes it seem much earlier than just a half hour. But when the days are as short as they are this time of the year, it’s important to make the most of the daylight hours.

Anyway, we’ve had the good fortune to have weather largely cooperate with us this week. We spent the last 3 days doing three very different kinds of hikes. On Tuesday, we did a half-day hike from Tzfat to this park called the Wadi Amud, which is a pretty, foliage-covered nature reserve. Apparently in the warmer months, it’s a popular hiking spot because there are pools to go swimming and it’s generally an easy hike. But in the winter months, when it’s just rained and the terrain is very muddy and rocks are slippery…well you get the picture. There was definitely a lot of slip-sliding around and I definitely crashed my knee into at least one huge boulder.

Wednesday’s hike was my favorite of the week. It was a full-day hike but not as intense as the day before. We drove to the top of a mountain just south of Lake Kinneret and hiked all the way down.  From certain vantage points along the way, we could see the Kinneret to our left, the Jordan Valley straight ahead, and further back, the mountains of Jordan. This was one of those hikes where pictures don’t do the place justice. Along the way, our tour-guide extraordinaire, Michael, taught us about the different kinds of farming the Jewish pioneers did during the first waves of Aliyah and we discussed the sacrifices these chalutzim did when the founded the first kibbutz in Israel.  We ended our hike at sunset, and then had a cookout on the shores of the Kinneret, and it’s pretty cool to be able to do that in December anywhere in the northern hemisphere.

Thursday we took a ride up to the Golan Heights and got off near the eastern-most village in all of Israel. The town is called Alonei Habashan, which translates to mean the oak trees of the Golan, and it’s right near the border with Syria. As we gathered to begin our hike, we could see an IDF base manning the border. Then in the not-to-far-off-distance, we heard some gunfire and explosions, which we all assumed to be the IDF conducting some sort of war games and training. Turns out we were exactly right – as you can read here in this article from Ha’Aretz, the IDF was simulating missile attacks and war against Hizbollah. Because it had rained the day before, the grass in the area was green, which made the views along the hike very pretty.

I’d write more but the internet here is not working well and I need to get ready for the chag…so Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom, and I’ll try to upload some pictures next week!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Leaving Ashkelon

Our time in Ashkelon is drawing to a close, but of course, there's plenty of fanfare to keep us busy these last few days. Here's a link to my most recent batch of pictures.

First was a trip to the most bizarre shuk in Israel.  There are 3 shopping malls in Ashkelon - the Huzot Mall, which is the up-scale mall with a movie theater, the Giron Mall, which is the most practical of the three...and then there's the Lev Ashkelon mall, which I have dubbed the Dirt Mall (a name I may or may not have stole from Mallrats). It's less than a 5 minute walk away from our absorption center, and its two saving graces are a small grocery store that's adequate and has the staples; and a bakery. Aside from that, it's dirty and just plain weird. And on Tuesdays, the mall transforms into the weirdest shuk you've ever seen...people set up little stands all over the place, including the basement and sell all sorts of stuff that looks like the cheapest flea market you've ever seen. To my friends who had never been to it until recently, I would say it's exactly what you would expect a shuk at the dirt mall to look like. So naturally I went with some people to walk around and take some pictures.

And then there was Brunch at Nana's. A few of you commented on the picture of her in my Thanksgiving album (her full name is Chana, and Nana is a nickname that also means "mint"). She's our Ulpan teacher and she's simply the best - she made class fun and enjoyable and was always willing to teach us whatever we wanted to learn. Tuesday was our last official day of class, and she invited us all to her house for brunch yesterday morning (and like Israelis do, offered us a place to stay whenever we come back to Ashkelon). As you can see from the pictures, there was so much food, and yes...she made an ice cream cake because of my obsession! 

So what's next? A very good question. While the Otzma program is divided into three main parts, we have a mini track of two weeks this month, and we could choose from 3 options: studying Jewish texts at Pardes, a non-denominational institute in Jerusalem; volunteering with the army; and a program called Livnot U'Lehibanot, which is the one I'm doing. Initially I had planned to be with the army, but after talking to some people and then learning more about Livnot, it seems much more my speed. The words in Hebrew mean "To Build and to be built" and the concept is to physically build the land through community service and to be built by learning about different aspects of Judaism in perhaps a different way than we'd learned in years past. The program is based in Tzfat, which has always been a spiritual and mystical place, and it's where kaballah was started. So our two-week program combines some community service with lots of hiking and also Jewish learning. A huge part of learning about Israel is learning about the land and exploring all the different topography, so I'm very excited for our hikes. We'll also be with the Livnot program for all of Chanukah, so it will be fun to celebrate in a big group and be able to say "Nes Gadol Haya Po - A Great Miracle Happened Here" - and if you haven't seen this video to get in the Chanukah's definitely a fun time

Following Livnot, we have two weeks of vacation, and I'm so excited that Becca will be coming midway through my break! We'll be traveling through Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for a week and then she's going to stay with me in Haifa for more than two weeks...very excited for all of this. I'll have my computer with me during Livnot and vacation, but I don't know quite how frequently I'll be able to get online and send emails and update my blog...I'll do the best I can, though!