Federation of Northern NJ Men’s Leadership Mission to Israel – April 2015

April 28, 2015 at 2:14 pm | Posted in Daily blogs and thoughts | 1 Comment

Last week I had the privilege of joining a “Men’s Mission” to Israel, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.  It was an amazing trip, and the staff people and volunteers who put it together deserve all the praise they receive.  It was an honor to meet the other participants on the trip and share the experience with them.

All the attendees were asked to provide a paragraph or two about the mission to share on the Federation website and Facebook page, but I find it impossible to write just a few short words about the trip.  It was awesome, so much more engaging then my previous two trips to Israel, which I also enjoyed immensely.  We were afforded celebrity status, and invited to visit locations and with people that no regular tourist would ever get to see.  However, there are three experiences we shared that sum up my feelings and thoughts about the mission:

Being part of a minyan at Yad Vashem, participating in the Yom Hazikaron memorial services in Jerusalem, and praying at the Kotel were memories I will always cherish, as bittersweet as they were.

A visit to Yad Vashem


The main corridor at Yad Vashem. From Wikimedia

For the third time, I visited Yad Vashem, the holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem.  Yad Vashem is eye opening, it is horrifying, it is captivating and it is emotional.

Yad Vashem is about remembering.  We hope that by presenting the story of the 6 million victims that we can keep the remembrance alive.  If we keep the remembrance alive, hopefully we can prevent it from ever happening again.

One of the men in our group wanted to say Kaddish, and since there is a synagogue at Yad Vashem, it was only natural that he ask the tour guide if we could use it.  Then he asked the men in our group to help make a minyan.

Everybody in the mission was more than glad to participate, and he led us in a very short service.  During the silent portion of the service, I thought how appropriate it was to be saying Kaddish at Yad Vashem, an institute built upon the concept of remembrance.  Not only was it appropriate, but what could be a greater honor than helping a friend in Jerusalem?

Not everyone who visits Yad Vashem is Jewish.  In fact, I would guess more than half of the visitors have no idea what Kaddish is.  But it was a wonderfully memorable moment for me, not just because I was able to help a friend satisfy his need for a minyan, but because I was able to do it in a place that was a testimonial to six million people who had no one to say Kaddish for them.

Yom Hazikaron

To be in Jerusalem for Yom Hazikaron was very difficult.  The older I get, the more emotional I am, and the sadness of the day hit me hard.

VIP seating on Yom Hazikaron

VIP seating on Yom Hazikaron

For some unbeknownst reason, the participants of our mission were afforded “VIP Status.”  We were invited to sit in the roped off area at the Kotel to be part of the ceremony.  At first, I was very impressed.  We were given headsets where a translator provided the speech in English so we could understand what was being said.  We were surrounded by Soldiers, Ambassadors and dignitaries.  The President of Israel spoke at the podium only a hundred feet from us.  The President!  In 56 years of living in the United States, I had never been anywhere near as close as that to my President.  It was a great honor.

The ceremony started as the wife of a soldier who had been killed in Gaza last summer, their young child by her side, walked across the front of the podium to light the flame.  She held her head up proudly, but who couldn’t be impressed by her resilience as the young widow with the little child who would never know their father carried the torch to the gigantic memorial candle?

Memorial Candle for Yom Hazikranot

Memorial Candle for Yom Hazikaron

As the President began to speak, I was overcome with emotion.  The words were so sorrowful.  He talked of the soldiers who had been killed defending the new country back in 1948, and the many military attacks suffered by Israel in the 67 years since then.  After a while, I had to take the headsets off because I was beginning to sob.

As I listened to the words in Hebrew, I found I didn’t need the translation.  I looked around the crowd and saw the long faces of parents who were at the Kotel ceremony to remember their children.  I saw soldiers standing at attention, tears rolling down their cheeks.  I knew by the emotion of the crowd exactly what the President was saying.

Israel is a small country surrounded by enemies.  Regardless of politics, regardless of who started it or who will end it, I can relate to the loss of a loved one.  I can relate, but relating is not the same as participating.  You see, I might care and I might be saddened, but I have no “skin in the game.”

Everyone in Israel knows someone who has lost a parent in battle.  Or a spouse.  Or a child.

For Israelis, Memorial Day is not empathy for an idealistic patriotic motto, or a flag, or an inscription on a memorial statue in a park.  When your neighbor or your family has been killed in war, the memorial is real and the memorial is personal.

I looked behind me and saw a sea of people, pushed back from my comfortable seating position, standing behind barricades to participate in the service, and I was overcome with shame as well as grief.  Here were people who had a much greater cause to be there than I did.

I was a visitor who had paid for his ticket with dollars.   The Israeli’s who stood behind me had paid in blood.   Their children’s blood.  I was ashamed to take the seat of someone who had paid so dearly.  They were the VIPs, not me.

I don’t feel like I did anything wrong by taking that seat.  But I certainly wasn’t worthy of it.  For me, it was an act of ignorance.  I was a stranger in a strange land with no idea what I was doing.   I certainly will never sit in any chair again while a grieving parent has to stand behind me.  And I am now compelled to change myself to be a better person, so that I can at least feel that I have deserved the honor that was given to me, even if others were so much more deserving than myself.

Defining Grandpa’s Tefillin

As Jews, we are defined in many ways.  The Nazi’s defined us as “sub-humans” to be exterminated.  It’s been said we control Hollywood, Washington, the banks – you name it we’ve been defined as running it.  We are also often defined as the people who have all the money, although I’m still waiting for someone to share that with me.

Within our own communities we sometimes define ourselves by our differences.  You are either Reformed, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox, Modern Orthodox or Ultra Orthodox.  The temple in the neighborhood where I raised my son defined itself as “Conservative Egalitarian.”  I guess we were a co-ed equal opportunity synagogue.

I prefer to define us by our similarities.  We are the people who all come together, regardless of the strength of our beliefs or convictions, with no consideration of our clothing, our dietary practices or our wealth, at a central focus point in a little corner of Jerusalem that was once called the Wailing Wall before we were allowed to go there.  Since then, it has become known as “The Kotel.”

I can sit in a synagogue for five hours on Rosh Hashana and feel almost nothing.   I can sit through a 3 hour Seder on Passover, and although I enjoy being with my family and friends and I enjoy savoring the festival, it doesn’t make me feel connected to anything more than the people in the room.  But when I am at the Kotel, I become connected in a way that is hard to describe in words.

I’m not religious, but I am awed to be at this amazing place that so many of my ancestors have craved for, and which many of my family have never had the chance to see.  I don’t think that G-d is living at the Kotel, waiting to listen to my prayers.  Nor do I think that a prayer given in earnest at another location would be any less a prayer than one given at the Kotel.

I don’t understand what it means to be a “holy” site.  To look at the archeological history, the Kotel isn’t even part of a temple, it is a retaining wall built around a small hill to make it stronger so the Temple could be built on top of it.  To say that the Kotel is holy because it is the closest to the site of the old Temple is to insinuate that the further you get from the site of the old temple, the less holy you are.  That doesn’t say too much about us six thousand miles away in New Jersey.

Sunrise at The Kotel, 6AM April 20, 2015

Sunrise at The Kotel, 6AM April 20, 2015

I think that more than anything else, the Kotel is a focus point.  After all, we don’t pray “To” the Kotel, we pray “At” it.   All Judaism shares it as the focus of our desires, our dreams and our faith.  The Kotel is not G-d’s address, it is the address of his people.

My grandfather died when I was 11.  My father would go to daily Minyan to say Kaddish for his father, and I would wake up at 5:30 in the mornings to go with him.  Many of the men at the Minyan service would put on tefillin, and I was taught the same.  My father gave me his father’s tefillin, and it always felt so good wearing them, as if in some strange way that an 11 year old boy couldn’t quite understand, my grandfather was still with me when I wrapped them around my arm.  I have cherished those tefillin for 45 years now, even sending them out to a scribe to inspect the scrolls inside.

These days I don’t wear tefillin much, but on my trip to Israel, I wanted to bring them along for an important reason. My grandfather, who died in 1969 and had been too sick to travel the last few years of his life, had never been able to go to the Kotel.  This would be his tefillin’s first visit.  If grandpa couldn’t be there, at least a part of him would be able to go.

A flight to Israel is not the most pleasant way to spend your time.  There is the discomfort of being in an airplane for twelve hours followed by the time change which plays games with your sleep patterns.  Many people who arrive in Israel just want to go to their hotel room and rest for a few hours.

That was the last thing I was going to do.  I only had one week to be in Israel and I wasn’t going to waste it resting.  I could sleep when I got home.

I had schlepped Grandpa’s tefillin six thousand miles from New Jersey to Jerusalem, and the first thing I had to do once I stepped foot out of the taxi in Jerusalem was to go to the Kotel and wear them.

Walking through the Arab Bazzar at 5:30 AM

Walking through the Arab Bazaar at 5:30 AM

Several of the men from the mission were willing to go with me, so we walked from our hotel, up King David Street to the Mamilla Mall, through the mall to the Jaffa Gate of the old city, and through the Arab Bazaar until we got to the Western Wall Plaza.

I put on my grandfather’s tefillin and approached the wall.  I said the Shehekeyanu blessing because I was so happy to be there.  I said a Kaddish for my father and my wife.  I said a Shema.  Then, fighting down the tears of joy, I tilted my head back, and looked up the wall, past the two thousand year old stones to the blue sky above and whispered in English “Thank you for everything in this world that I have, and thank you for letting me be here today.   Please let me be worthy to be here.”

I like to think my father – and his father – would have been pleased to see their descendent at the Kotel, free to pray as I wished, free to come and go when I chose to, and certainly pleased that I had retained some of the Jewish values they had given me.  By being there, I was honoring them by keeping their legacy alive.  And I was defining myself, not as the world would define me, but as a proud, happy Jewish guy from New Jersey enjoying one of the greatest gifts anyone could ask for, and looking for a way to be a better person.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

If you’ve found yourself moved by my words, remember that the Jewish Federation of Northern NJ, which ran the trip that I had the opportunity to experience, works to build a strong and vibrant Jewish community, fights anti-Semitism and takes care of those in need in northern New Jersey, Israel and around the world.  Please consider making a donation to Federation to support their programs.  Follow this link for more information.

Thank you for reading this post, and please feel free to share it with your friends, family or anyone else who would be interested.


1 Comment »

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  1. Beautifully written. You have a gift as a writer. Your story was eloquent, emotional and heartfelt. Thank you for sharing your experiences and personal memories with us.

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