When I lived in Israel from 1976-77, I realized that the country was less than 30 years old, but I didn't realize just how young and new the state was. Coming in to Jerusalem is something just not to be believed. Jerusalem is a top notch, model, metropolitan city. It is just extraordinary.
Our group arrived in Jerusalem in time for the General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America's Annual Conference. This Conference takes place in Israel every five years and is hosted in the U.S. in between. The point is to bring issues and trends forward for the leadership and staff of Jewish Federations. There were 3,500 people in attendance which is the largest Israeli GA ever.
The Conference was fun, in that I ran into people who I have known for years. I went to sessions on the economic disparity in Israel which affirmed the fragile situation of Arab Israelis and Haredim (the religious). The focus of this was on education and that the most critical path to decreasing the poverty in the country was through education.
The second session I went to was on Shared Society. What used to be known as co-existence has been reshaped into a discourse on a Shared Society understanding that just co-existing is not really enough, that to really have a strong society there needs to be respectful interaction and joint efforts. I was able to connect with several people on programs that might be of interest to our Grants committee so it was particularly helpful.
By far, the most meaningful experience at the GA for me was the session with Israeli President Shimon Peres. I was so honored to be in his presence. At 90 he is spry and as sharp as a tack. He expressed his hopes and dreams for the country while reflecting on his personal experiences. His story mirrors that of the founding of the state. He is truly extraordinary. I was particularly moved by his statement, "Judaism is not a business, it is a moral vision.."
On Tuesday, we were taken on an incredible tour of Jerusalem. Starting at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial, we proceeded then to the Western Wall in the Old City. The religious fervor of the women (and the men) was something to behold. It was very special to be there and to literally feel how the stones had been loved smooth over the years. Since I had been in Israel more archeological digging around the wall had been completed and we were able to walk under the wall to see the walls of the 2nd Temple. It was truly an archeological feat.
From the old tunnel it was on to the footsteps of the Via Dolorosa, or the Stations of the Cross, following the last steps of Jesus to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I was so very proud of our group as each and every one of the Jewish members wanted to make sure that this experience was as meaningful as possible for the non-Jewish members of the group. It was really special for the group as a whole to experience both the Wall and this Church on the same day. As we left the church, the Muslims were being called to prayer. It brought home in a very special way how this amazing city is home to the three major religions.
The church is owned by a Muslim family who has owned it since the 1100's and who has passed it down from generation to generation. The Church has three parts to it, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian. They each pay the family to maintain their presence in the church.
The next day it was on the share the Israel Museum, the most spectacular exhibit being that of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Dating back some 2,000 years, these scrolls were found by Bedoin inside caves in the West Bank around 1947. Seeing ancient scrolls that are identical to our torah scrolls just gives one chills.
While most of the group spent the afternoon packing and shopping, Rick and I joined our buddies Susan and Jordan for a trek to Bethlehem. It was a little hairy going through the checkpoints but once we were through, we felt totally safe and enjoyed viewing the city and environs.
After a morning visit to Yad L'Yad (Hand to Hand), an incredible Arab and Israeli public school, Rick and I did our best to invest in the local economy. We went from Mahane Yehuda, an open air market, down Ben Yehuda street and then back to the Old City. There were many highlights of the day- 1) Visiting places I remembered; 2) chatting with people in Hebrew; 3) seeing the variety of people and art and buildings; 4) Enjoying the humor of life; and 5) Rick being offered not just once, but twice, to buy me for 500 camels - as "She is in very good condition."
Tracy Salkowitz is a Consultant,activist and the former CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona.