The bimah of Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue in Tzfat (Safed) was part of the Land and the Spirit tour, which is organized by the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. (photo by Roy Lindman)
My husband and I excitedly counted down the days until the Land and the Spirit Israel experience in March. Having met with Chabad Richmond’s Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman and his wife Chanie, who accompanied our group on this trip, we learned that the touring days would be long, but that the sights we’d see and the people we’d meet would more than offset the intensity factor. The Land and the Spirit tour is organized by the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, the adult educational arm of Chabad.
The tour took place March 4-13 and drew approximately 800 Jews (and a handful of non-Jews) from across North America. Knowing that we’d hit the ground running, my husband and I decided to arrive in Israel a few days ahead of the tour, to get acclimated. We also spent an additional two weeks after the tour exploring Israel on our own. This was my sixth trip to Israel and my husband Harvey’s third.
The tour was, in some ways, like an Israel 101 course, supplemented by in-person meet-and-greets with high-level people from all walks of life – we had special access to soldiers, politicians, religious leaders and other VIPs. On some levels, it was geared to people who’ve never been to Israel before, and they got an overview of the highlights Israel has to offer. Yet, even for those of us who had been to Israel, it was a chance to discover places we’d never seen.
Participants had the freedom to choose from a variety of “tracks,” including: “In the Footsteps of the Bible,” “Classic,” “Borders and Security,” “Israel Encounters,” “Israel in Depth” and “Food and Wine.” Presumably, participants would get a glimpse of Israel that sparked their desire to return again. The flip side of this is that there was not a lot of in-depth learning, and we didn’t get a chance to spend a great deal of time in any one place. It was primarily surface introductions and more of a visit-the-sights kind of trip, rather than an intense learning experience, like the National Jewish Retreat.
There were way more things to see and do than each of us had time for, hence the need to choose “tracks” each day. Highlights for my husband and me included Caesarea, with its fascinating historical ruins and stunning location, overlooking the Mediterranean. We also found Silicon Wadi fascinating. It’s the area in Israel where scientists, techies and businesspeople work in shared spaces to develop groundbreaking technologies. When we were there, we toured a WeWork site, where young technology whizzes were producing 3D and other objects inspired by their sky’s-the-limit imagination.
Kfar Chabad was another high point of our trip. This Chabad-Lubavitch village is not far from Lod, and has a life-size replica of 770 Eastern Parkway, Chabad’s Brooklyn headquarters. More than 6,000 Chabad live in the village, and the site is home to an etrog orchard. Our tour included a shmurah matzah bakery, where they make Passover matzah by hand.
The highlight by far, though, was the Ohr Simcha Children’s Home, where 300 high-risk boys from troubled environments live with their adoptive Chabad families. Ohr Simcha was established in partnership with the Israeli government, to help some of the most socially challenged children gain a sense of security. Seeing the kind of patient, loving care it takes to sustain these kids, to give them a real home of their own, was inspiring and emotional. True chesed in action.
The ancient mystical city of Tzfat (Safed), “the City of Kabbalah,” with its narrow streets and beautiful tiny synagogues, was magnificent. We went to Ari Sephardic Synagogue, where the famous Jewish mystic Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (known as the Ari) prayed. We also went to the Ari Ashkenazic Synagogue. Guest speakers explained the detailed history and designs of the synagogues. Unfortunately, we didn’t squeeze as much spirituality out of Tzfat as we would have liked, because time was limited. But it left a lasting impression.
It bears mentioning that all the tour guides on our buses were incredibly knowledgeable and made the places we visited come to life.
The Latrun Tank Museum was yet another highlight on the tour. There, we got to meet Israel Defence Forces soldiers and hear firsthand their inspiring personal stories. Live music, dancing and delicious food topped off the evening.
We spent a moving Kabbalat Shabbat at the Kotel (Western Wall). Having never visited the Kotel at night, much less experienced Shabbat at that holy site, we felt like Israel had wrapped its arms around us. Shabbat day was quiet and gave us the opportunity to walk the empty streets of Jerusalem in peace.
The second to last day of the tour was super-charged, and saw us traveling from Jerusalem to Masada, to the Dead Sea, where we schmeared mud on ourselves and bobbed around like human corks in the salt-laden water. After a long day, we showered off the Dead Sea water, got dressed in our finest and went to a gala banquet, where music, speakers and other entertainment were on the menu.
The final day was spectacular. First, we boarded a bulletproof bus that took us to our Matriarch Rachel’s Tomb, in Bethlehem. This was a particularly emotional experience, to see so many people praying so fervently. But it only got better, as we got on the bus and traveled to historic Hebron, where we visited the Cave of the Patriarchs (the Cave of Machpelah), one of the holiest places for the Jewish people. There, all 800 of us walked through Hebron carrying a Torah scroll that had been saved from the Nazis. This was followed by a spectacular light show, fireworks and a lively dinner.
On the whole, the tour was phenomenal, albeit arduous, especially for those of us in our 60s and older. Early morning starts, long stretches on the bus, shlepping and climbing, eating and touring. Repeat. For eight days. Was it worth it? You bet! The entire trip was spiritually nourishing, and fed our desire to start planning when we would next return to our home away from home.
Shelley Civkin is a happily retired librarian and communications officer. For 17 years, she wrote a weekly book review column for the Richmond Review, and currently writes a bi-weekly column about retirement for the Richmond News.