For ten days in late March and early April, I had the amazing experience of a lifetime when I visited the Jewish homeland of Israel. I went with nearly 20 other members and four counselors of JESPY House, which is a South Orange-based organization that helps adults with special needs and developmental disabilities reach their potential in life. 

My group and I had a blast as we toured plenty of historical and other interesting sites in the northern and central parts of Israel. We left from Newark Airport on Sunday, March 27th and after 10 hours in the air (during which I had the thrill of flying over the Atlantic Ocean and Europe for the first time), arrived at the Tel Aviv airport at 5:30 am Israel time on Monday the 28th. After we set foot on Israeli soil and met our tour guide, Menash Golan of Oranim Educational Initiatives, we started our adventure. 

First we went to the Neot Kedumim Biblical Landscape Reserve, which contains forests that covered the hills in ancient times and where we planted trees. Then we proceeded to the ancient city of Caesarea, which was built by a Roman king and dates back more than 2,000 years, and whose buildings include a sports arena and a circular outdoor theater. After having pizza somewhere, we got to Tel Aviv, Israel’s second largest city, where we watched the sunset on the beach and had a delicious welcome buffet dinner at the Deborah Hotel, where we stayed on Monday night.

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On Tuesday we visited two port cities – Jaffa, an old city that features businesses and residences within its stone walls, and Haifa, Israel’s third largest city, which was built partly on high hills and partly on ground and sea level. In between Jaffa and Haifa, we ascended Carmel Mountain, where we saw damage done by wildfires to forests last fall, stopped by a lookout point that had a long view of Haifa, and had lunch in a woman’s apartment in a Druze village. After going through Haifa, we traveled to the Golan Heights, on the way passing the Sea of Galilee and over the Jordan River, and we stayed Tuesday and Wednesday nights at guest houses in the Merom Golan Kibbutz.

Wednesday was a great day. In the morning we went to the Galilee region, where first we rode a cable car up to the top of the Menara Cliffs, where we had a great view of the region and the borders of Syria and Lebanon. After descending the cliffs, we went for a forest hike in a nature park (at times walking over rocks and small streams) and had lunch at an outdoor restaurant. In the afternoon we rode back to the Golan Heights, where we visited the Odem Mountain Winery and the DeKarina Chocolate Factory and went up to the top of Mount Bental, which has a bunker that was used by Israeli soldiers in the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

On Thursday we traveled to Jerusalem, the Israeli capital, but not before going to two other holy cities – Tzfat and Tiberias. Both of those cities were interesting. In Tzfat we visited an old Sephardic synagogue, walked by some art galleries and did some shopping, and ate lunch in the city’s visitor’s center. In Tiberias, we hung out for a while by the Sea of Galilee. We got to Jerusalem in the late afternoon and checked into the Montefiore Hotel, where we lodged for the rest of the trip. The first thing we did in Jerusalem was eat dinner in an Italian restaurant called Spaghettimi.

Friday, April 1st, was a very big day as we made it to Jerusalem’s Old City. First we went to a lookout point in the modern part of the city where we had a wonderful view of the Old City and Menash lectured us about the history of Jerusalem. When we got to the Old City, we walked through the sites of King David’s Tomb and the Last Supper and other historical buildings, and of course, reached the Western Wall, which was left over from the destruction of the Second Temple and is one of the holiest sites in the world. We were actually in the Old City twice; we returned there three days later to visit an archeological museum and a section of the old city that was excavated in the last century, part of which was underground, which was quite a sight. On both those days I had the spiritual experience of praying at the Western Wall and sticking a couple of prayers in its cracks.

Back to Friday. We got back to modern Jerusalem and had lunch at Sami’s Restaurant, where some of us had falafel (an Israeli delicacy made of mashed chick peas), then we walked through a nearby open-air market where hordes of people shopped for Shabbat. On Friday evening some of us went to an Orthodox synagogue near our hotel for Shabbat services, during which we heard a choir sing beautifully, then we all had a good Shabbat dinner in the hotel. Saturday was a quiet day as most places in the city were closed for Shabbat, and we walked around some neighborhoods and rested in the hotel. On Saturday night, we ate dinner at a burger place and shopped at an outdoor/indoor mall that was built two years ago.

Sunday, the next day, turned out to be the best day of the trip. We traveled a bit south to the Judean Desert, which borders Jordan. That morning we went up to Masada, an ancient fortress that was the site of a battle between almost a thousand Jews and several thousand Roman soldiers, which ended with killings and suicides amongst all but a few of the Jews themselves to avoid becoming slaves to the Romans. Masada was an amazing and spiritual sight, and it had an ancient synagogue where my niece and nephew read Torah after having their Bat and Bar Mitzvahs, respectively.

Next on Sunday, we went to a resort called Tzell Harim (meaning “Shadow of the Mountains”) on the Dead Sea. There we hung out on the beach, swam and floated in the Dead Sea and in a regular pool, and had a delicious buffet lunch. Following that we passed Masada again and went to the Nahal David Nature Reserve, where we took a somewhat challenging hike to a waterfall and back. Finally, we went to Genesis Place, where most of us took camel rides. It was a bit of a challenge for me to ride my camel as well; I had to hold on for my health as the camel got up abruptly, walked down a hill, got down to eat leaves, went up the road and back, and went back down at the end. Still, I saw what Abraham saw when he traveled that route thousands of years ago.

The weather was sunny and warm on the first seven days of the trip, then on the eighth day (the second Monday), it rained. That day we went back to the Old City, as I mentioned before, and there we also had a pizza lunch in the Jewish quarter, walked through the Armenian quarter, and passed by a city wall that was built by the Ottomans when they conquered Jerusalem in the 16th century. Next we went to see the Knesset, the Parliament building from where the country of Israel is governed, plus a large Menorah statue that was donated to Israel by the British in the 1950s. After that we went to a large mall for shopping. So on Friday and Monday we got a large taste of Jerusalem both old and new.

On the second Tuesday the weather cleared. That morning we traveled to a Mediterranean beach and hung out there for a while, and some of us collected seashells. Then we went to a community center near Tel Aviv, where we met a social group that’s like JESPY House but whose members spoke mainly Hebrew. The two groups had lunch on a Kibbutz, toured an orange farm where we picked oranges and other citrus fruits and squeezed them into juice, and had a Karaoke program back at the community center, which was fun.

The last day of the trip (Wednesday, April 6th) was a very important one. After checking out of the hotel, we went to visit Yad Vashem, which is the largest Holocaust memorial in the world. In Yad Vashem’s main building, we walked through a series of exhibits showing the history of the Holocaust from how European Jewish communities were in the early 1930s, to Hitler’s rise to power, to Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass, which officially started the Holocaust in 1938), to the concentration camps, and finally to the camps being liberated by the Allies at World War II’s end. The exhibits included actual possessions of people who perished in the Holocaust, replicas of a street in the Warsaw Ghetto and the sign at the entrance to Auschwitz, and a three-level bed bunk that was in that camp. The whole presentation was very haunting, very powerful, very moving, and very disturbing.

After leaving the main building, we went to another building where we listened to a Holocaust survivor talk about his experiences in five different concentration camps. That was quite moving as well. Next, after lunch in the museum cafeteria, we went into an underground memorial to the 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust, which consisted of dark glass walls, lots and lots of stars representing all the young victims, and recordings of people reading the names and ages of all those children and the countries where they lived.

Following that we had a discussion about our impressions of the memorial.

On the rest of Wednesday, we recapped our trip by going to a park called Mini-Israel, which contained replicas of famous Israeli sites, and went back to Tel Aviv where we hung out for a bit on another beach and had a farewell dinner in one of the city’s tall buildings. Finally we got to the Tel Aviv airport and boarded an 11-1/2 hour redeye flight that got us back to the States very early on Thursday, April 7th.

Throughout the excursion we had an excellent tour guide in Menash. He spoke dynamically and enthusiastically about the places we visited and passed, and he commented that we were one of the best tour groups that he had ever had. In addition, the hotels and the Kibbutz where we stayed over the nights were nice and comfortable, and the food was great and plentiful wherever we ate.

All in all, it was a very unique, amazing, and spiritual experience and a great privilege for me and the other JESPYites to visit Israel, the home of the Jewish people. Israel is much, much more than what’s reported about it in the news – it’s a great and beautiful country that has lots of rural scenery, many new and old cities and towns, and thousands of years of history. Our Israeli experience was one that we’ll all cherish for the rest of our lives.