There is a certain unique quality about Israel that has an affect on everyone who visits, whether they are first-time visitors or seasoned travellers to this land. That quality is hard to describe but was demonstrated in our group on Friday night when we all went down to the Kotel (Western Wall) for Shabbat services.
One of the participants in our group, who had never been to Israel before, only found out that he was Jewish a few years ago. Whilst it didn’t mean much to him before he got here, he certainly felt a connection to the country once he arrived and decided that he wanted to have at least a makeshift Bar Mitzvah whilst in the country. Though it could have been anywhere, as a group we suggested that it be at the Kotel, and he readily agreed. An hour or so before the start of Shabbat therefore, we all gathered at the Kotel, and though the women were on the other side of the barrier, they peered over and felt as included as they could be.
The rabbi within our group brought his Tefillin and after a few speeches which introduced the Bar Mitzvah, our honouree donned them, the rabbi intoned a few blessings and then everyone screamed out ‘Mazel Tov’ and danced together. But the unique element – which could probably have never happened anywhere else in the world – is that from the moment the speeches began, other people who were within earshot joined us, and by the end of the ceremony more than 30 onlookers had not only joined in with wishing our honouree well, but more than a few of them came up, hugged him and wished him Mazel Tov too.
Later at dinner, when we relayed the story of what happened to one or two non-Jews at the table, their overriding sense was that the Jewish people have an unrivalled sense of community, and it is this sense that is so unique and so much more evident in Israel. We saw it on display for the entire fortnight, but especially during our week in Israel and particularly on the last evening.
After a rainy Shabbat walk and inspiring afternoon talks, we began our last day together with a visit to the Save Our Child’s Heart house in Holon near Tel Aviv. The organisation trains cardiologists from a number of countries, and brings young heart patients to Israel for critical heart surgeries from countries that don’t yet have specialist surgeons. Their care for their patients, irrespective of religion, country or status was truly inspiring and showed how connected we all are at a human level.
We then visited the Aiel Sharon Park, an environmental reserve four times the size of Central Park in New York, and built literally on what was once Israel’s largest rubbish dump. It now looks pristine and immaculate, and shows what can be achieved with vision and care for the community at large. From what was once a dangerous eyesore to this beautiful oasis, the transformation has been amazing.
Then after a visit to the Rabin Museum, which traced not only the life of Prime Minister Yithak Rabin but also the life of the State of Israel from its founding to the late 90s, we ended the program with a farewell dinner, where the community spirit was as strong as ever. Each participant in their own way praised the program, but more importantly, praised the people that they shared the adventure with. We participated in a program together, but left the experience with a community of like-minded adventurers who have now experienced Poland and Israel in one of the most unique ways that anyone will ever do. Even for the majority of us who had been to Israel before, this was not the average Israel trip. It was one filled with difficult conversations, visits to unique sites, meetings with diverse groups and leaders, and a deep self-reflection that has only just begun.
The Bar Mitzvah at the Kotel was just one highlight in a trip that was no doubt filled with many, though each of us will surely have different highlights. But what I know for sure, and what will certainly be true for all, is that we built a unique community together and one that is sure to stick around long after we come back home to our normal lives and this experience becomes just another memory, but hopefully not a faded one.
Written by Alex Kats - Participant, MOTL 2023