I’m still in awe… When I began my position at my congregation in the summer of 2009, one of the very first questions from my new congregants was, “Will you be planning a trip to Israel?”
It was a certainly a dream of mine, in my first “solo” pulpit (at my previous congregation, I was one of three rabbis), to plan a trip to Ha-aretz, but I assumed that it would take a few years to drum up interest and organize the whole thing. Yet, as I got to know more and more of the adults, the question was asked repeatedly, so I decided to take a leap and give a congregational trip to Israel a try.
A group of lay leaders helped me envision the trip, and they developed their “dream” itinerary, including all the sites that they had always wanted to visit. I learned that most of my congregation had never been to Israel, and that a congregational trip had not been taken in many years. In my earliest discussions with the travel agency, I figured that I would aim for 15-20 participants. Never, in my wildest dreams, did I imagine that I would eventually wind up with 30 travelers, most on their first trip to the holiest land.
We held orientation meetings, passed around travel advice via email, and the dates for the trip swiftly approached. I knew that, once the High Holy Days of 5771 passed, our trip would soon arrive. Thus, on October 17, 2010, a group of 30 Reform Jews, most from Long Island, embarked on the trip of a lifetime. We shared a Traveler’s Prayer once we boarded the plane, and we recited prayers of joy upon our arrival on Israel’s holy soil.
Personally, I felt especially privileged that my parents were able to join us on the trip. My mother had been to Israel to visit me years ago, but my father, perhaps the most passionate Zionist in our family, had still never been. He could barely contain his wonderment and joy as we whispered the words, “Shehehcheyanu, v’kiyimanu, v’higiyanu lazman hazeh….”
Though I had lived in Israel for one year (as all Reform rabbinical students do during our first year of seminary), and I had been back a handful of times since, I still marvel at the feeling in the air in Israel. There’s an energy unlike anywhere else on the planet. I knew that my fellow travelers felt it as well; I could see that tell-tale sparkle of holiness, a touch of the divine in their eyes.
There were many “Wow” and “A-ha” moments on our 12-day trip. One of the most unexpected was one quiet evening at Kibbutz HaGoshrim up north. We had finished dinner, and we decided to pull chairs together outside the main building. We formed a circle, passed around make-shift siddurim that I had brought along, and started to pray. We sang, we worshipped, and we knew with absolute certainty that God was near. Our voices rose to the sky, so near to Jerusalem, the direction in which we prayed all year, but now mere miles away.
Other guests at the Kibbutz, presumably never having had an opportunity to witness Reform prayer before, slowly gathered around us. They were your typical secular Israelis, on vacation in the beautiful Galilee. Many pulled up chairs and just observed us. They saw men and women of all ages sitting together and singing as one. I could see smiles on the faces of our observers, and some even started to sing along. Our group realized that, just as much as our surroundings enhanced our own spirituality, we could also enhance the spirituality of our surroundings. Without meaning to, we were bringing prayerful moments to those who gathered around.
Since returning to New York, our group has remained close. We shared something in those twelve days that transcends other mundane experiences of daily life, and it will always bind us.
We recently held a “reunion dinner,” the first time that the majority of the group had been able to convene since the trip. It was important to us to find a restaurant that helped us reminisce about Israel, so we gathered at Chatanooga Restaurant in Great Neck.
Sure, it was not quite Jerusalem, but the Persian cuisine definitely tasted perfect. Sadly, one member of our group had lost his battle with cancer in the short time since the trip, so we honored his memory with a toast of sweet wine. We also missed those who were unable to join us that evening due to distance or conflict.
Yet, despite these bittersweet moments, it felt good to know that a love for Israel was alive and well within us, a vibrant group of Reform Zionists, and it would never fade.
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Rabbi Marci N. Bellows serves as rabbi of Temple B’nai Torah in Wantagh, NY. A graduate of Brandeis University, she was ordained by Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 2004