Highlights from the Holy Land

3 March 2019, IMMERSION
By Lisë Stern
We start the day on a somber note, at Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center. This is a late addition to our itinerary, so our time here is brief, but extremely powerful. Dudu leads some of us on a tour of outdoor tributes like the Children's Memorial. Others walk on our own through the Holocaust History Museum. The museum concludes with a panoramic view of Jerusalem, hope for the future.
That hope is affirmed on a visit to a school run by the urban religious Kibbutz Reishit. A teacher explains the music program to us, with translation help from two 12-year-old girls, daughters of American olim (immigrants to Israel). We visit three classrooms of children singing. The kids come not from only the kibbutz but also from nearby areas, and it is uplifting to hear their voices raised in confident song.
We then head back a few thousand years to the archaeological site Qumran in the Judean desert near the Dead Sea, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. A unique Jewish sect lived here, called Yachad (meaning "union"), with their own set of strict laws governing behavior with each other and within the group. We walk among the ruins, which include several mikvot, ritual baths.
The mineral-rich waters of the Dead Sea offer a not quite religious but much appreciated immersion, after a day of history and reflections and learning. We let loose with several hundred people from around the world, surrounded by many languages, as we step into barely balmy water, which gives a new definition of salty. You really can lean back in the water like it's an easy chair, and we do so, surrounded by the desert hills of Jordan on one side, Israel on the other.

By Lisë Stern
Thus far, our trip has primarily covered religious and historical sites. But elections are coming up, and politics are a reality of modern Israeli living. We come back from our Dead Sea trip to a political discussion led by Yitzhak Sokoloff, the founder of Keshet, the organization that has partnered with the Synagogue Council and arranged for many of our site visits. The first time Yitzhak came to Israel he was a 19-year-old college student, and the Yom Kippur War began. He later made Aliyah, and fought in other wars.
The situation in Israel and the occupied territories and Gaza has become a much debated topic in recent years, and Yitzhak covers ground that is informative and also uncomfortable and challenging. We are hearing opinions from one dealing with the reality of hostile neighbors. "How do we create a country we're proud of?" Yitzhak asks. "The further you are away from here, the easier it is to criticize. There is this sense, if we get it wrong, we could get killed."

The next day, politics continue with a conversation led by Nimrod Palmach, until recently the CEO of Ein Prat, a leadership Mechina program with four campuses, including the one we are visiting in the desert outside of Jerusalem. Mechinot are gap year programs for Israelis between high school and the army. Nimrod addresses some of the issues he has faced as an Israeli when traveling abroad. After he was wounded during active duty as a soldier, he went to the U.S. to speak about Israel at Johns Hopkins University. "People protested my talk," he tells us. "Five girls came up to me and asked me how many women I raped in Gaza."
A few other such negative experiences abroad made Nimrod want to do something to change perceptions. He joined the Ein Prat program to train future Israeli leaders. "Leadership is the ability to look far away," he says.
Another Ein Prat campus is in the so-called Gaza envelope, the area immediately surrounding the Gaza strip. Nimrod describes a second project he's involved with, living on a kibbutz in this area. "In 2014, I just got married. I was about to go on my honeymoon when my army reserve commander called and told me, 'You have one hour to get here, but it's not urgent.' So, I took nothing with me. The next time I saw my wife was two months later."
The "not urgent" matter turned out to be the kidnapping and subsequent murder of three Israeli boys by Hamas. "We spent 18 days looking for them. Something in me thought they were alive. It was a like a punch to the stomach when we found them." That same year, a four-year-old boy was killed by shrapnel fired at Kibbutz Nahal Oz on the Gaza border. These events inspired Nimrod to move to the kibbutz. "Our real mission was to change the face of this community," he says. "When I came, there were seven kids on the kibbutz. Now there are 140."
We ask, Do you interact with the people from Gaza? Are there still attacks?
"Gaza today is an amazing city," Nimrod says. "Now, we are in a war with Gaza. We are dying to have peace. I wish all the organizers in Gaza would repair the infrastructure. But Hamas will never allow them to. Our ability to influence what goes on there is limited against the fundamentalist hate against Israel. The corruption is amazing."
We ask, What about more subtle human rights violations?
"I tell people, don't be a bystander," Nimrod continues. "When you have road blocks, your soul is corrupted. Humans are more afraid of uncertainty than death. What brings calm? Fundamentalism. I teach my students, be a good person. Resiliency is in so many aspects of their lives. The extremists play ping pong above our heads. And the rest of us will have coffee together."
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