Two of our children are learning in Israel at the moment, a daughter at Mesores Rochel seminary and a son at Rav Zvi Kaplan’s Yeshiva. Instead of bringing them home for Pesach, we decided to take our other two boys, who are learning in Telz Chicago, to celebrate Pesach in Israel. It was an unforgettable experience. Here are some of my random musings:
LIVING THE LIFE
I’ve had the merit to work in the field of kiruv since we arrived in Chicago 20 years ago and I’ve been blessed to have visited Israel 19 times in those 20 years, most of those with students on trips. Every trip has a story to tell. This trip was different.
The boys got a whole month off yeshiva and we took advantage, spending almost the entire month in Israel. That’s the longest time I’ve been in Israel on a single trip. We rented an apartment in Romema, which is in the heart of what some refer to as the Black Belt of Yerushalayim. Not in a tourist area. In fact, many of the non-Israelis had left to spend Pesach with their families. We were close to shuls, yeshivas, and makolets. People were going about their regular day to day life, getting ready for Pesach, just like we were. So it felt like we were living like regular Israelis in Israel. I even took off my tie! It felt good. I don’t think Romema would be where we would live if and when we move back to Israel. But for this month, it felt like home.
Pesach is the quintessential family holiday. It also felt good to bond as a family and to spend so much quality time together, especially in Israel. We had family on my side and my wife’s side come visit us over Chol Hamo’ed. Living in a smaller space also contributed to that sense of closeness. We didn’t have a big kitchen. The oven was small. We realized we could manage with less. That’s one of the messages of the matzah – living humbly. It’s one of the big differences between living in the US and Israel. A trip like this cured me of the feeling that we need so much space.
For me personally, the most uplifting part of the trip was the amount of time I spent learning. I loved my learning at Ohr Somayach and one of my regrets is that I haven’t learned as much as I would liked to have here in Chicago. This trip was the time to turn that around. We were a five minute walk away from a big beis medrash, Chanichei Yeshivos. My boys spent every morning there learning until Mincha. I too put in a couple of hours each day. I loved it and bli neder, I’m going to learn more now that I’m back in Chicago.
Pesach is the time to pass on the mesorah (tradition) from one generation to another. I was able to prepare for Pesach much more than in previous years. I spent many hours going over the Haggadah and learning other material about Pesach. I was able to focus on the main themes of the night, what I wanted to pass on to our children. As a result, I enjoyed the seders more and I think everyone else did too. In fact, I’m sort of happy that we had two seders. It seems like there is so much to say that one seder is not enough.
It was just family the first seder. We invited guests for the second seder and for other Yom Tov and Shabbos meals. It was so nice to have JET students who are learning in Yerushalayim, join us. It was especially nice to see one of the newest JET babies, Yosef London, son of Josh and Rachel London, who was born in Yerushalayim!
Our apartment had a stunning view looking over the hills of Yerushalayim. We could see Ramot, the kever of Shmuel Hanavi and all that was happening below. Everywhere you go in Yerushalayim there is some sort of building going on. Even if you were here just 6 months ago, the place looks different. At the Kotel, there is construction going on over one of the archaeological sites. They are even building an elevator from the Arova down to the plaza! Also new (for me) were all the roundabouts at intersections, which are much safer for driving.
One thing I noticed this visit were all the beautiful new playgrounds for children. There are so many children in Yerushalayim. Since our building was part of a new development of 8 buildings, there were 3 playgrounds and there were always kids playing there. One of my enduring memories will be watching a young child on the swings – at 12:30 in the morning. I also noticed that the streets were much cleaner. Garbage trucks were more regular and it seemed that people were more careful. And this was even with the enormous amount of garbage generated with cleaning before Pesach and the Yom Tov itself.
There were some beautiful shuls we davened in. Davening is generally slower in Israel than here in the US and I found myself davening slower and with more kavanah. The first Friday night, we davened at Belz. I think it holds about 5,000 people! Later that night, I went back for the Rebbe’s tisch. I’m not a chasid but there is something magical about going to a tisch late at night. Standing on the benches, singing along with everyone, getting a piece of the Rebbe’s challah, and then again on Pesach, a piece of his matzah. One highlight was walking into Belz during Hallel and hearing everyone crying out “Ana Hashem…” in unison. Most of the Shabbos and Yom Tov davening, I went to a shul, Beis Yehoshua, on Minchas Yitzchak, which had an ornate wooden aron modeled after the gold aron at Ponevez Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. There were a number of English and Belgians in the minyan, which made a nice change and the davening was very inspiring. Fortunately, there was a minyan for those of us who were keeping two days. This year it was not so difficult because the last day of Pesach fell on Shabbos so it felt like everyone was keeping two days.
Another highlight was going to Birkas Kohanim at the Kotel. A good friend, Rabbi Matan Weisberg, who runs Heritage House for Women, recently rented an apartment overlooking the Kotel and he invited me to come watch from the balcony. After the first one at Shacharis I walked down to the Kotel for the Mussaf one to feel the power of so many Jews together. However, what I really love about davening in Yerushalayim is that there is Birkas Kohanim every day!
Walking around Yerushalayim is always fun and for the first three weeks we were in Yerushalayim except for one afternoon. After Pesach, we rented a car and did some touring. It was our first time driving in Israel which was a real adventure. Our longest drive was up north to Tsfat. We stopped on the way to go on a hike. Since it was after Pesach most people were back at school or work and we were almost the only ones in the area. During our visit, there were protests in Gaza. I have to admit that during the hike and while we were driving outside of Yerushalayim, I felt a little nervous. The Nesivos Shalom writes about the added level of emunah that Bnei Yisrael reached at Krias Yam Suf, the splitting of the sea. He talks about a level of emunah beyond emunah of the mind and heart, that of emunah of every limb in your body, where you are not afraid of anything in the physical world. My children were not nervous at all. I guess I’ve still got a way to go.
In Tsfat, we had a delicious dinner, walked around the Old City, and visited the kever of the Arizal. We ended off at Meron before driving home. The next day we went on another hike, this time a water hike at Nachal Prat, just outside Yerushalayim. We also went to Kever Rachel in Beit Lechem. Finally, we spent one day in Bnei Brak and me and the boys were fortunate to get to Rav Chaim Kanievsky to receive a bracha. On the day we left, we went into Geulah and Meah Shearim and bumped into a bunch of bachurim, including a few from Chicago, who had just arrived for their year in Yeshiva. Yes, it’s a small Jewish world.
I love Israel. This was the first time we had gone back as a family since a family bar mitzvah 12 years ago. The last time we were in Israel for Pesach was exactly 20 years, shortly before we left for Chicago. It was hard to leave then and it was hard to leave now. Please G-d, we’ll all be back there next year, all of us and all of you, eating roast lamb for Pesach. L’shana haba, b’Yerushalayim habenuya!