Blundering Through Israel - Part IX - July 4, 2006

Continued from Part VIII

I had hoped to write about something else today. I had hoped to write about the experience that Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, has had on me. I had hoped to write about how, for the first time in my life, I seriously weighed the prospect of making aliah. I had hoped to write about the unique experience of being here on U.S. Independence Day. I had hoped to write about how this experience, and I can only call it an experience, was not just a break from the ultimately unimportant bullshit I deal with on a daily basis, but refreshment of my soul, a reminder that my dedication to Israel genuinely helps people, people I had never met, but who couldn't have been happier to see me.

And above all, I had hoped to write about how, despite my efforts to experience this solely for myself, the people I spent this experience with crept under my initially defensive exterior and genuinely touched my heart.

I had hoped to write about all those things.

But, even here, life intervenes.

I have a number of friends who were hurt by a woman in the past and have allowed it to dictate how they treat women. While I've certainly had my heart ripped out and stomped on until it's a bloody pulp on the floor, I've made a concerted effort never to fall into that trap. While one friend has indicated that the respect with which I treat women is because of my close relationship with the women in my family, I believe that's only one of the reasons. Another one of those reasons is because of an experience I had in college.

One night, I was out with a number of friends at one of those random parties at someone's house that are all too common in college. Among the friends I was with was M____. M____ had been having a hard time with a guy she was seeing and was looking to drown her problems for the night, not surprisingly in alcohol. Copious amounts of alcohol.

M____ spent a considerable amount of time that night hanging on this guy, J____. I had known J____ previously and had had a few discussions with him, often about the random bullshit that guys usually talk about. So, while M____ was clearly inebriated, she seemed happy, having what seemed to be a drunken college night.

I, however, was pretty tired. I had spent most of that day working on a presentation and had only wanted to make an appearance. So, when I was offered the opportunity to leave, I quickly checked on M____, who drunkenly told me she was fine, and left for the evening, hoping to catch up on some much needed rest.

The next day, I called M____ to make sure she got home alright and see if there was any funny story from the night I may have missed.

"Hey M____, how are you? Have you recovered?"

"Um, no."

"Okaaayyy. What exactly does that mean?"

And then the words I'll never forget hearing. Ever.

"J____ raped me last night."

The words tore my heart out of my chest. Once I got over the initial shock and what must have been a good five to ten seconds of silence, I started questioning her about her well-being. While I don't remember much else of the conversation, as I was pulling my jaw up from the floor, I do remember that we spent the next G-d-knows-how-long with me repeatedly asking what I could do for her and her saying "nothing."

Simply stated, I felt incredibly guilty. Incredibly guilty.

I felt like if I hadn't made the decision to leave, if I had properly recognized that M____ had had way too much to drink, if I had been there a little longer, things might have been different.

And I've carried that guilt since that day.

And it's one of the other reasons I treat women the way I do.

Because I remember what it's like to see the scattered shards of a woman who was treated so horribly.

Earlier, I mentioned that I wanted to write about the people I have met on this trip who touched my heart, but am saving it for another day.

That's not entirely true. Today, I'm writing about K____.

K___ and I met on the first day of this trip and it was like we had known each other forever. On every activity, K____ and I were together, cracking jokes, learning from one another, discovering Israel together. To borrow an analogy from Forrest Gump, K___ and I were like peas and carrots. Strangely, even though I was on a trip where I knew no one, thanks to K___, I spent the entire time with one of my closest friends.

Yet, our relationship was plainly platonic. While K___ is absolutely adorable and sweet as sugar, for some reason, we just struck the friend vibe from day one. But it was one of the very rare times that I struck such a strong "friend vibe" with someone that I knew I could let down those defense mechanisms I have spent so many years developing and immediately give her my complete trust.

And, time after time, K___ proved me right.

After our last full night in Israel, I went out with my family friends, realizing that I probably wouldn't see them for years. However, K___ went out with the rest of my group, hitting the Tel Aviv bar scene.

Evidently, it was a crazy night, because at 2 a.m., I was sitting with my Israeli family friends when the parade of taxis began pulling up to the hotel. And with each taxi, the drunken passengers stumbled their way onto the sidewalk and into the hotel.

Each one had a slurred story to share from their evening out, some of which were entirely incomprehensible. But one of my friends said to me, "Dude, K___ is really hammered."

I knew I had to see this.

About fifteen minutes later, I had said my goodbyes to my family friends and walked back to the hotel. Soon thereafter, K___ arrived, with B____, pretty much pulling her out of the taxi.

Yeah, "really hammered" didn't begin to describe that scene.

I ran up to K____ and immediately grabbed her other arm, trying to ensure that she didn't fall onto the ground. She turned her head, brushed her hair from her face and said, "Hey honey!"

As the perennial designated driver, I've seen a lot of drunk people in my days. A lot of drunk people. But something was different. Very different.

When I looked into K___'s eyes before, I could always see her. The real her. The person I knew and trusted and adored. But, when I looked into K___'s eyes at that moment, she wasn't there. Sure, it was her face and her voice, but her eyes were no longer the deep pools to her soul. They were glazed mirrors, reflecting my bewilderment back to me.

And I couldn't figure out why.

Despite this, K____ began having a conversation with some other people from the trip in the hotel lobby, often joking about her inability to stand up straight. Yet, as she wobbled from side-to-side, she continued to hold what appeared to be a drunken, but cogent conversation.

While I was distracted by another one of my friends, B____ and K____ started walking to the elevator. I immediately excused myself and got into the elevator with them.

As B____ pressed the tenth floor, I was searching for a coothful way to try to determine whether or not K____ knew what she was doing, whether she was consenting to what I knew was going to happen. Also at the forefront of my mind was that, although I felt like I knew K____ forever, the fact was that I didn't. I had only known her for this week and, she was a grown woman who I only knew for that amount of time, I couldn't help but think, what right do I have to stop her from doing anything?

When we got to the tenth floor, K____ and B____ walked off the elevator and K___ said, with a giggle, "I don't live here!" Before I could muster the courage to interject, K____ waved back at me and giggled, "Okay! Bye!!!"

As the elevator doors closed, my stomach twisted into a knot I hadn't felt since college.

Disturbed and concerned, I went back to my room, where I learned my presence wasn't welcome due to my roommate's plans that evening.

Ultimately, I ended up at the empty hotel bar until 5 a.m., sipping water like it were vodka, literally worried sick about K_____.

The next day, K____ wasn't at breakfast or at any of the morning activities.

While I tried to tell myself that she was probably fine, when I hadn't heard from her by noon, I called her cellphone.

We had a short, pleasant conversation, but one of those conversations where you each know the other person is holding back. She asked me about my evening and I told her, "Why don't you meet me downstairs and I'll tell you all about it," knowing that I was going to discuss nothing of the sort. Rather, I had decided that I needed to talk to her about the events of the night before and, in order for her to truly understand the concern that led me to raise the issue, we needed to talk face to face.

"Great!," she said, "I'll meet you down there in ten minutes."

I sat down on the hotel patio overlooking the Tel Aviv beach, staring into the beautiful blue water, thinking of how I was going to discuss what happened with K____.

Eventually, she came onto the patio. And before I could utter a word, she looked around and seeing no one, stated, "Someone slipped me a mickey last night!"

My jaw dropped.

When I could muster words, I said, "Then you need to sit down, because we need to talk."

I told her the story about what happened to M___ and college, how it made me feel, and how I always regretted those events. Then I told her that I didn't mean or want to infringe on her decisions or her life, but that I was deeply, deeply concerned about the events of the night before.

Then I asked, "Do you remember talking to me last night?"

"I saw you last night?"

Oh shit.


"What happened? I don't remember anything."

Then I told her everything. I told her how she came into the hotel, how she had a glassy look in her eyes, how she could barely stand. How I went with her in the elevator. How I wanted to take her, but didn't know if I could or should.

"Then why didn't you take me to my room?!?!"

I heard each word in slow motion. And each syllable struck the center of my chest and pried my heart out of my body.

K___ had just vocalized what I had been agonizingly saying to myself for the past ten hours.

I told K___ that I wanted to, but that I had never seen her drunk and didn't know the difference. I told her that I didn't know if she was making a conscious decisions, but I didn't know that she wasn't either. I told her that I didn't even know what floor her room was on. I told her that, even if she hated me, I wish I had intervened now, but that I couldn't change what happened.

And, in many ways, I wasn't explaining it to her. I was justifying my inaction to myself.

K____ looked out to the same sea I looked at before, her thoughts deep as the water, her blonde locks brushing her face and floating in the ocean breeze.

Accompanied by the sound of crashing waves and never looking away from the water, she told me how she was, for all practical purposes, unconscious that evening. She told me that her only memory after being at the bar was waking up in B____'s room, naked, but not bruised or hurt. She told me that she understood why I didn't take her that night and I had no reason to feel badly. And, most importantly, she told me she was fine, a little embarrassed, but fine.

I told her she had no reason to feel embarrassed. I've come to hate when wrongful actors blame the victim, so much so that it's one of things crawls under my skin like few other things. And I repeated it over and over, hoping that she would truly listen to that point.

And as we sat and stared at the Mediterranean together, watching the foam tops and listening to the sounds of waves crashing, all I wanted her to know was how sorry I was that I wasn't strong enough when she needed me.

And how I promise to be there from now on.


Sorry, no pictures this time. Sometimes words say enough...


An important interlude...flush the Lady in the Water...

I've been working on Part IX of Blundering Through Israel when I've been able, but sometimes intervening events require an immediate response. Sometimes people need to be warned of dangers that are lurking.

And so, to sound such an alarm (and distract you from noticing my blogging failures), I offer you this review of the new M. Night Shyamalan movie:

Let me start by stating that I am a fan of Shyamalan's work. I've seen every one of his movies and, even when I've found them predictable, I've enjoyed them.

That streak ended with Lady in Crapper.*

To say that this movie was terrible would be to give it too much credit. The story was muddled, self-involved, and, ultimately, downright dull. Shyamalan gives us a fairy tale/bedtime story, but reveals the parts of that story as he needs more to establish something resembling a plot. Indeed, the "understory," which is presumably supposed to captivate the audience, is less interesting than the actual story of the movie (which is saying a lot). The end result is a confused and resoundingly boring mess.

I also think it's incredibly trite to have the writer/director cast himself as an author whose work will influence the world. Plleeaassee! As Shyamalan recognized in the DVD features of the Sixth Sense, he is not a very good actor. While I appreciate the "director cameo" made famous by Hitchcock, anything more than three lines should be left to those with some semblence of acting talent. He ultimately comes off as self-involved and vain.

And speaking of self-involved, having a movie critic who hates everything wrongly predict his own future based on his knowledge of movies is incredibly trite. I expect more than Scream-type (no offense to Scream, which did a wonderful job of being what it was) entertainment when I lay down $8 for a Shyamalan picture. This character appeared as nothing more than an extended middle finger to movie critics. Critics, by the way, who are quite rightfully lambasting this mass-produced monstrosity.

Furthermore, the directing talent that I have come to expect with Shyamalan's work was entirely vacant. While Shyamalan use of unique camera angles is often used to develop characters and perpetuate the story, here it was as if he was simply searching for opportunities to use these "camera tricks." At times, I felt myself saying, "Just fucking stop and put the camera where it's supposed to be!"

The only redemption for this otherwise disasterous piece of garbage was good (although I would certainly not label them exceptional) performances by two actors, the main character, Cleveland Heep, played by Paul Giamantti, and the water sprite, Story, played by Bryce Dallas Howard. Although the dialogue was sometimes stilted (why can't water sprite's use conjunctions? Don't they have conjunctions in the Blue World or is that something else we're not allowed to know?), those two actors were the only reason to stay in the theatre at all. Because it certainly wasn't the trite, dull, and, ultimately, predictable story.

So if Shyamalan is reading this, feel free to use that link to the left and drop me an email so you can send me my $8 back. My only regret (besides seeing this movie to begin with) is that I can't get back the hour and fifty minutes of my time that you completely wasted.

* Sorry, I can't bring myself to create a link. You'll just have to google it.


Blundering Through Israel - Part VIII - July 3, 2006

Continued from Part VII

Today was caucus.

In caucus we discuss our experiences, our thoughts, and our personal beliefs, particularly how they have been affected and influenced by our time in Israel. And then we make our financial commitment to Israel for the next year.

If you're wondering what happened in caucus, what I said, what other people said, what my thoughts and recollections were about it, sorry. Not this time.

Some things are better left remembered rather than said.

If your curiosity simply requires more, here are some more pictures. These are from the Dead Sea, which has a 33% salinity. For comparison, ocean water is 7% salt and Salt Lake in Utah is 14% salt. The high concentration of salt and minerals literally forces you to float...

A model of Jerusalem during the Second Temple period. The Second Temple is the tall building surrounded by walls with the rays of sunlight reaching towards it. The retaining wall to the left is the Western Wall today...

A replica of the Dead Sea scrolls...

Totally illegal photos of the actual Dead Sea scrolls (breakin' the law...). The things I do for you crazy kids...

The portion of the museum housing the Dead Sea scrolls. It was constructed with Kabbalistic influence...

One of the sculptures from the sculpture garden...

Jerusalem at dusk...

Shots from our private concert with top Israeli recording artist Idan Raichel...

Our time with the Israeli Bukhari community...


Blundering Through Israel - Part VII - July 2, 2006

Continued from Part VI

Today was Masada. To anyone who had heard the phrase "snake path," that is all that needs to be said.

For the uninitiated, climbing Masada is the practical equivalent of going to the gym when you really don't want to, but feeling really good and proud of yourself afterward. Times ten thousand. On both ends.

Masada was a city-fortress atop a mountain created by King Herod. In 70 B.C.E., a small group of religious zealots took refuge there after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple. After two years of trying, the Romans seized the fortress by building a ramp to the top on the back of the mountain.

As the Romans breached the defenses, the Jews at Masada made a decision that distinguished them from many other Jews. They decided that, rather than suffer the imminent torture of humiliation of Roman punishment and slavery, they would engage in a mass suicide, dying free.

The 45-minute (45. Yeah. Right.) climb up Masada was bright and early, in order to avoid in the intense summer desert heat.

Climbing Masada is like using a stairmaster. A stairmaster on steroids. Lots of steroids. When you're asleep.


But the physical pain of climbing the mountain is nothing compared to the perplexing questions that confront you at the top.

Masada is more than a national landmark. It is part of the Jewish zeitgeist. The idea of Jews killing themselves rather than facing slavery and humiliation is incredibly romantic to the Jewish community.

But is it really a sign of strength?

One fact brings this issue to the forefront for me: There are no descendents of the Jews of Masada.

Consider the possibility that Jews of the Holocaust simply committed mass suicide rather than suffer the unspeakable atrocities of the concentration and death camps. While some did, the majority did not. And it is the children and children's children of the survivors, those who relied on hope and faith rather than pride and glory, who make up the world's Jewish communities today.

So who is stronger, the person who bears the torture and humiliation in the hope of survival or the person who kills himself, and his yet to be born descendants, to preserve the dignity of avoiding it?

And doesn't a Jew who kills himself complete the goal for the anti-Semite by expediting his work?

Isn't living the real act of resistance?

And if so, aren't the survivors the real martyrs?

If this is the case---if the attempt to live is more honorable than the act of death by one's own hand to avoid humiliation and servitude---then why is Masada a source of pride? Why is Masada so highly revered? Why do entire families go to the top of the mountain to have their bar mitzvot in the ruins of the Masada synagogue? Why did I feel such a connection to the past when I prayed in that same synagogue? Why should we revere those who contradicted not only Jewish law, but the principal Jewish value---any law can be broken to save a life?

And yet we do. We sing songs of our pride in Masada. We tell the story as one of resistance and sacrifice, not one of shame.


With questions like these, that climb seems pretty easy.

Masada from the ground (admittedly a little blurry)...

A model of Herod's Northern Palace...

The view from where it stood today...

Davening morning prayers at the synagogue atop Masada...

The ramp built by the Romans to breach Masada. You can see the Roman encampments at the top and the top right...

A model of the bathhouses...

The bathhouse ruins...

The false floors of the bathhouses...

The Israeli flag, flying atop Masada, as a symbol that it will never again be conquered...


Blundering Through Israel - Part VI - July 1, 2006

Continued from Part V

While the rest of my group is exploring the Old City of Jerusalem, I've taken the "optional activity" to optionally leave the tour and fulfill an eight year old promise.

The last time I was here was three days after my little brother left. He spent a year in Israel, studying at a university and living on a moshav, which is a village in Israel that contains some communal characteristics, such as a business on the moshav's property.

One of the families on the moshav adopted my brother as one of their own. So, naturally, when I came to Israel, they called me on my cellphone (yes, everyone in Israel has a cellpohone, even tourists), and invited me into their home.

I instantly clicked with everyone. In true Jewish fashion, they stuffed me like a goose and made me feel at home, which was doubly wonderful because on a trip where I didn't have a person I connected with, I found solace with my new Israeli family.

Above all though, was the instantaneous connection I made with G___, one of the sons in the family. He and I were both around the same age and gelled in a way that makes the barriers of oceans surpassable and the barriers of brotherhood extend beyond blood.

I enjoyed teaching the only girl of the family, N____, English, which she immediately told me she was learning when she found out I was from the States. This twelve year-old girl was so sweet and inquisitive; she stole my heart with her absolute adorability.

And her little brother, Y___, with whom I share a Hebrew name, became my adopted baby brother. We went to Cessaria together and he stood between the ancient columns, mocking Sampson who stood there centuries before, in a way only a little boy could do.

And S_____, who also was around my age, was a young man with his whole life ahead of him, on the presapice of doing something great, something I know I would see in time.

Their parents, my new Ema and Abba, took me in as though I was born in their house, spent hours talking with me, even without a fluent knowledge of English, proving the love of family has no language barrier.

But I could never spend Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, with them. My program was centered around Shabbat and the idea of leaving it for any reason was unheard of.

So now, eight years later I was able to fulfill my promise that next time, I would spend Shabbat with them.

And what a Shabbat it was. Once again, Ema and Abba stuffed me like a goose with all types of Israeli goodness. We sat outside, within earshot of the artillary being fired in Gaza, and discussed Israeli and American politics, our Jewish identities and our national differences.

G____ was so different and so identical to how I remember him. He and I continued the many discussions we had about everything the closest of brothers discuss as though they had never stopped. We were simply, truly, totally happy to be talking to each other one-on-one, without instant messaging or telephones between us.

S____ had fulfillled the greatness I knew was in him. He was now the father of a beautiful boy, A____. While I admit I'm partial, A___ happens to be one of the smartest and cutest kids I've ever met. And to see S____ with him, to be in the presence of the sheer, unadulturated, unqualified love that this father eminated to everyone around him was simply breathtaking.

N___, the little girl I taught some English, was a little girl no longer. She had become a beautiful woman. And it took no stretch of the imagination to know that she had stolen the hearts of many men since when she stole mine eight years before.

So too, little Y___ was now a young man. He plated his guitar and exuded talent. We spent hours with my iPod, listening to American music that hadn't made its way to Israel and, with each new discovery, Y___ would say, "Oh! You have to burn a CD of that for me!"

Shabbat is a family holiday in every sense. The holiday is designed to set a time aside for people to spend time with their families and develop the relationships that last forever. When I was younger, my family had Shabbat dinner together and there was no getting out of it. No matter what the reason, for those one or two hours, no one could leave the Shabbat table.

And eventually, no one wanted to leave. It was a time we spent with family, talking to one another about just about everything. And now that my family is in many different parts of the country, we still call each other right before Shabbat to wish each other, "Good Shabbos."

So this Shabbat was both special and familiar. I traveled halfway around the globe to find the same thing I had at home, my family. Nothing could have been more worthwhile.

I found myself looking for any and every opportunity to spend time with them.

While I have pictures from my visit with my Israeli family, I've decided not to post them. Some things just aren't meant to be shared. Hopefully, you'll enjoy these shots of Jerusalem from Mount Scopus instead. And yes, I know the date stamps are a little off...


Blundering Through Israel - Part V - June 30, 2006

I realize that this part of the world is in turmoil right now, as it has been for many of my past posts. Ultimately, I'll probably post my thoughts about it. But for now, I'm going to complete the series and let the intervening events take their course. That being said...

Continued from Part IV

Whenever I tell someone Jewish that I lived in the Washington, D.C. area, it's just a matter of time before I hear the question, "Did you go to the Holocaust Memorial Museum?" I explain that I have, complement the museum, and then, distinguish it from the Israeli Holocaust Memorial Museum, known as Yad Va'Shem (transl. "Hand of G-d").

While I am moved by the U.S. museum---and I don't want to take anything away from it, because it's not only important, but extraordinarily well done---the museum operates from the proposition that you know little about the Holocaust and educates in exacting detail. Yad Va'Shem, however, begins with the principle that you have some knowledge of the Holocaust and moves on from there. In many ways, Yad Va'Shem is much more visceral, more raw, more internal.

However, this feeling was an eight year old memory for me, because I had never been to the renovated museum at Yad Va'Shem.

But now that I have, that feeling I had from eight years ago is even more true.

Yad Va'Shem is heart-wrenching, fascinating, emotionally exhausting, and extraordinary, all at the same time. While I could tell many stories about it, I'm going to limit myself to two.

The first is about the trees at Yad Va'Shem, which you can see in this picture.

Yad Va'Shem has a number of carob trees on the museum property. Each of these trees is dedicated to a person. Not a benefactor (at least in the traditional sense), but a "Righteous Among the Nations." This title is preserved for individuals (and one country, Denmark) that, for no personal benefit and at the risk of their own lives, save one or more Jews from the hands of the Nazis. Each tree has this Righteous person's name on a plaque in front of it.

But the reason Yad Va'Shem chose carob trees is that it takes seventy years to bear fruit. Like the carob tree (and the Talmudic stories about it), the Righteous never saw the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren that blossomed from the people they saved. And yet, for no reason other than their own humanity, they risked their lives to save the Jewish people one at a time.

The other story is of the Hall of Names.

The Hall of Names is at the end of Yad Va'Shem. The Hall surrounds you with shelves upon shelves of books with the word Yizkor (transl. "Remember"). Contained within the books are three million names of Jews who were slaughtered by the Nazis.

However, despite the Nazis' meticulous record-keeping, and as a result of their widespread desire to annihilate the Jews, many entire families were simply wiped out. There's simply no record of those lost families, no one to tell their names to Yad Va'Shem.

So while the Hall of Names has over three million people memorialized in its volumes, it has many empty shelves. Those shelves serve as a perpetual memorial for those three million Jews whose names will never be known.

As you can see, even a picture of some of those empty shelves tells more than anything I can write here.

And the collage of pictures above reminds you, that these aren't just names, but people.

Each name was a life. A mother, a father, a child, a grandparent, a grandchild. A person with hopes, dreams, aspirations. A person whose future was snuffed out with less care than a candle. And, ultimately, for no reasons other than hate and apathy.

While the Holocaust is and will always remain an indelible and profound part of my Jewish identity, the lessons are far more universal. One lesson is still inscribed at Yad Va'Shem and is attributed to Pastor Martin Niemeller:

When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent; I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews, I did not speak out; I was not a Jew.

When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.

This is Jackie Hendeli, a Greek Jew from Saloniki and Holocaust survivor, whose incredible story included nine days in an overstuffed cattle car with no water on his way to Auschwitz, the indescribable torture ofAuschwitz, and the Nazi death marches at the end of the war, I simply could never do justice...

My favorite sculpture; a woman whose children are holding on to her, but have been cut out of her body...
More artwork from Yad Va'Shem...

And the reminder of eternal hope that the view of Jerusalem inspires upon leaving...


Blundering Through Israel - Part IV - June 29, 2006

Continued from Part III.

My father has been to Israel many times. One of the reasons is the city of Or Akiva. Or Akiva is a poor city in central Israel near rather wealthy areas, such as Ceaseria. The city serves as the home of many new immigrants who come to Israel, often with little money.

After Israel's founding, Or Akiva was in very poor shape. The city had an extremely high crime rate and considerable drug problems. It also lacked any viable infrastructure. The homes were in extraordinary disrepair and there was no viable sewage treatment. In fact, much of the city had raw sewage in the streets.

The American Jewish community stepped in to help. Through various methods, they contributed money to improve infrastructure and made sweeping changes in Or Akiva. And when the situation in Or Akiva stabilized, much of the community moved along to other Israel projects.

Except Miami.

Miami stayed, realizing there was much work to be done in Or Akiva and has spent the last thirty years making widespread and incredibly significant contributions to Or Akiva. And to this day, Miami serves as Or Akiva's sister city.

For the past seventeen years, I've heard my father discuss projects related to Or Akiva. He's been involved, in one way or another, with almost every major project related to the city. And the organizations he's involved with make, not only financial contributions, but send employees to live in the city and manage the use of the contributions to address the community's needs. However, while I've heard of Or Akiva often, it had always just been the name of an Israeli city.

Until today.

Today, I visited Or Akiva for the first time. I toured the older part of the city and saw some dilapidated houses that we learned were the example of how the entire city used to look. Then we went to the rest of the city.

The improvement of thirty years of investment was exponential in scale. The entire city, while still certainly having a way to go, was simply not even comparable to the dilapidated few houses that were examples of the city three decades before. Certainly, this was still a poor city, but one where investment bore hope and where its citizens discovered opportunity.

The jewel of Or Akiva is its schools. Prior to the Miami Jewish community's help, the schools in Or Akiva were some of the worst in Israel. Graduation rates were abysmal and students had very little opportunity for success.

But today they are the gem of the city. The schools are so good that the wealthy community of Ceaseria, where parents could send their children anywhere for school, send their children to Or Akiva's schools.

We went to a school for at-risk children and celebrated their completion of their year with them. The kids loved the toys we brought, but were even more enamored with the digital cameras that everyone in my group had. One even asked me if he could keep mine.

As we joked later, those kids have expensive taste!

My favorite story of Or Akiva and Miami is an older one. Or Akiva was scheduled to become a city in 2001. A Miami contingent came to Or Akiva to join the residents for this momentous occasion.

The dedication ceremony was set for commence at 4:00 p.m. on September 11, 2001.

The Miami group was loaded on their buses at 4:00 p.m. Israel time to go to the ceremony.

Then the cellphones began ringing.

When the Miami group realized what was happening---that America had been viciously attacked by terrorists---they unloaded the buses, when to a television and watched the events unfold. The Or Akiva dedication ceremony was delayed.

The residents of Or Akiva were beside themselves.

Here were these people who had provided so much help to them for over a quarter century and now their homes were under siege.

So the residents of Or Akiva did what Jews do.

They brought food.

Lots of food.

And they were there for the Jews of Miami in their hour of need.

And later that afternoon, when the time for the city's rescheduled dedication ceremony, the people of Or Akiva made clear that the ceremony could wait until another day. But the Miami group decided that the dedication was why they were there and that it was incredibly important to the people of Or Akiva.

So the ceremony went on.

And now, the Or Akiva dedication plaque reads September 11, 2001.

The Or Akiva Community Center...

A gift to Or Akiva from Miami...

Our party with the kids...

Our visit to the Tishbi winery. Such great wine!

Some shots of Ceaseria...

An unfinished sarcophogus...

More ancient ruins in Ceaseria...

The palace in the sea. The square in the middle was a freshwater pool...

Where the chariot races happened. A la Ben Hur...

The Ceaseria bathhouse false floor. Wood would be burned underneath to make a sauna...

One of the beautiful Ceaseria mosaics...

More ancient Roman ruins in Ceaseria...