I have such magical memories of Tsfat that I was a little nervous when we set out. I remember wandering the streets and truly feeling connected to the great rabbinic sages. It is just as beautiful and magical. It certainly has been built up and is now an artists colony but you can still feel the raging debates that went on among our great scholars. Rav Joseph Caro was one such scholar and his synagogue still stands. You can just imagine what it must have been like to study here the technicalities of different points of law.
We wandered the streets and met with Vared Olney, an artist who was helped to open her gallery in Tsfat through her connection to Tucson. And of course ended up purchasing a piece of art at a nearby gallery.
Next, it was on to explore more of the Northern Galilee. Old friend, Natan Golan, who was the Israeli rep for the San Francisco Jewish Federation when I was the planning director, was our speaker. He brought us to Ma'alot Tarshiha, a joint Jewish-Arab development town. This is an incredible place where Arab and Jewish children attend school together, play sports and have joint activities. The relationship between the communities works incredibly well.
I had been worried that when we came to Israel it would be all modern and that the pioneer spirit that founded the country would be lost. That just couldn't be further from the truth. Over the past numerous days we have visited a number of border towns and communities. You would think that living so near danger would have people moving away from the border, and yet that is just not the case. It is their contribution to the security of the Jewish state.. it is their way of saying we are here and not going anywhere. They have decorated the bomb shelters and developed strategies for the quickest route to the shelters. They sing and play games. The pioneer spirit is alive and well.
Afterward we headed to Hadera to meet with Ethiopian kids in a program that has been developed to help them catch up. It is a terrific program and the kids who participate in the program end up doing well on their exams, going far in the army and getting into college.
I admit our presenters have all been drinking from the same cup of wine. To hear them you would think that Israel is heaven on earth. They admit that there are problems but minimize them in their passion for the country. The problems here are many. The conflicts with Palestinians and Arab neighbors are very real with extremists on both sides being unwilling to bend. Poverty is a problem. The socio-economic gap between generational Israelis and new immigrants is wide. Beside new high rises are crumbling buildings that were thrown up in the 50's to house refugees from the Holocaust. Arguments between the ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews goes around and around.
And yet, I feel totally at home and love this country more than ever. Seeing a secular Israeli soldier walking into a store and automatically kissing the mezuzah; watching as a bored street vendor drops everything to help an elderly religious man into a cab; you just can't help but feeling part of the fabric of the country. I caught a cab at one point and the cab driver and I had an entire conversation in Hebrew, with him helping me every step of the way. I thanked him profusely and he said, "Ah, we are Jewish, we're family. When are you moving here?"
There is just something so consistently magical about Israel. I love it here.
Tracy Salkowitz is a Consultant,activist and the former CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona.