Pilgrimages have been traveling to Israel for years and years and each for a different purpose.
The birthplace for three of the world's major religions have scores of Muslims, Christians and Jews arriving to follow in the footsteps of our histories. Being able to pray on the Temple Mount, at the Western Wall or at the Church of the Holy Selplechre brings a spiritual experience that is like no other.
Others come not from a religious impetus but from a cultural or historical curiosity and still others come because they love to travel and want to find the best falafel.
Whatever the reason visiting Israel leaves no one untouched.
This is my 5th trip to Israel and the 40th anniversary of my year spent living on Kibbutz. I can't believe that 40 years have gone by and the dramatic changes that have occurred in the interval.
I wholeheartedly admit that my favorite way of visiting Israel is with a mixed group-mixed in religion, background and interests. Everywhere you turn it is with a different lens, experience and enthusiasm. So it is true with this amazing group of some 44 people living in or related to Tucson.
We started our group trip in Tel Aviv with a Shechianu, the blessing for new things and experiences. Together we have been experiencing the history and religious sites of Israel.
The highlight for me in Tell Aviv was visiting Independence Hall where Ben Gurion announced the creation of the state of Israel. Let's just say it was good I came supplied with tissues.
This country never ceases to amaze me. When I spent my year here I was 20 and celebrated turning 21 on Kibbutz.
In 1976 Israel was only 28 years old. .still an infant. I didn't appreciate how far the country had come in such a short time then, but certainly do now.
Remember the old fashioned ping pong machines? With the ball popping backwards and forwards? That's how my brain is here.
As I have been writing this a housekeeper came to clean our room and as is my wantout came a combo of Hebrew and Spanish (Rick calls it Hebranish). Turns out the housekeeper is an Arab woman who lived in Spain for many years who could much more easily converse in Spanish than in Hebrew. She also speaks English. The fact that this lovely woman who speaks a minimum of three languages is cleaning hotel rooms does nothing to lessen the ping pong.
Another highlight of the trip was visiting an friend of Oshrat's who had turned her home into an Ethiopian community center. Hearing her incredible story of her year and a half struggle to get to Israel reminded us of how blessed we are.
It was then on to visit with our Shaliach's mom at her home. After meeting her I now know where Oshrat gets her inner glow!
We spent a night on a Kibbutz arriving after dark. Awakening to Yam Kinneret was breathtaking.
Next. .onto Jerusalem!
I have many goals for this trip to Israel, not the least of which is to visit with grantees, potential grantees and programs that might be of interest to our donors. It is also to identify potential strategic allies with whom we might be able to advance our work.
To do this we have set up a series of visits to learn and observe with organizational representatives who want us to hear not only about programs relating to our priorities but about the evolving environment within which this work is being done.
Of course it is hoped that the visit will result in financial support, but it isn't just that. It is hoped that we will walk away more educated and with greater undertaking of the issues and complexity surrounding the work and that we will be emissaries on their behalf helping to further educate American Jews and the need for our support and influence.
On Thursday Rick and I were picked up by Peleg Reshef and Udi Spiegel from the Jerusalem Foundation for a half day tour of a few of their projects.
The Jerusalem Foundation was founded by long time former mayor Teddy Kollek to help with the development of the city.
Our first stop was at the YMCA right across the street from the King David hotel. I had never been to the Y but it is world famous and has been serving the diverse communities of Jerusalem since 1933. The building is stunning and while certainly showing its age one can't but be impressed walking through its doors.
As impressive as the building is and the view from the rooftop, even more impressive is the peace pre-school and the multi-ethnic theatre arts program.
Both programs have a balance of Jewish, Christian, and Arab participants and teachers coming from all over the city.
I was not surprised to hear that it was the parents of the peace pre-school program who founded the Hand to Hand school. Known as Yad l' Yad in Hebrew, this school is being expanded to other parts of the country as more and more Jewish, Arab and Palestinian parents are focusing on that which unifies rather than that which divides.
Next it was on to the Kerem Institute for teacher training where we met with the innovators of a new program aimed at increasing the number of Ethiopian teachers in public schools in Jerusalem.
Throughout the Jerusalem school district there are currently only eight Ethiopian teachers. This is terrible on so many fronts, the lack of Ethiopian role models, the lack of teachers who look like many of the students, and the resulting perpetuated racism.
We also heard from representatives from the Yeru-shalem coalition, a coalition of non-profits and community councils founded to promote a pluralistic and inclusive society.
When one thinks of Jerusalem one immediately thinks about the tensions between the Israelis and Arabs. Not so readily apparent to those of us living outside of Israel is the tension between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews and the political and economic overtones effecting every day life.
Finally it was on to Hachmey Lev, the first Haredi (ultra orthodox) mainstream Yeshiva to offer core curriculum classes including English, math, science and computers. JCF is the first Jewish Community Foundation to support this two year old school.
Rabbi Betzalel Cohen, the Rosh Yeshiva, (head of school) is a truly courageous visionary).
My brain is expanding and feeling a bit overwhelmed, but that is as it should be. Each day will bring new opportunities that will expand and deepen our understanding of the realities of living in Israel.