June 9, 2012

Israel has changed so much in the 36 years that I have been coming to visit and sometimes live here, and perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than in Tel Aviv. What was once a decent-sized town with one tall building on the shores of the Mediterranean has grown into a major international city of substance and style.

Its skyline is extensive with new buildings, and the cranes continue to work adding yet more high-rises to an impressive array of high-tech towers, financial centers, media facilities, hotels, and much more. In its older areas Tel Aviv still looks the same: four-story, central European looking apartments, in white and off-white, flaking slightly in the humidity of a coastal city. Gentrification is proceeding in many areas, as you would expect in a country of astronomical real estate values.

Tel Aviv today reminds me of a cross between the coastline, color and fashion freedom of L.A. (including Venice Beach), the gay-friendly openness of San Francisco, the financial muscle of New York (on a smaller scale) and the high-tech dynamism of Sunnyvale or San Jose.

We had the opportunity to meet with Rabbi Miri Gold, the protagonist of the recent Attorney General's ruling in Israel to fund Reform and Conservative rabbis for the very first time. She was very good indeed, and really deepened our understanding of the challenges and opportunities of the Reform movement in Israel today. The current ruling of funding for 16 Progressive Movement rabbis in Israel applies only to those living and working in rural areas, at least so far. These regions have to have cities of no more than 5,000 people and are under Regional Councils. Miri was a perfect test case for the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC, under Anat Hoffman's direction). Perfect, but it still took seven years to come to fruition, from 2005 until June 2012... Things change for the Reform movement in Israel, but it does take time.

After Rabbi Gold's very informative meeting with our whole group, we headed off to Independence Hall, where the State of Israel was proclaimed in 1948, and where the informational film seems to be the same one I first saw in 1976... Still, it is Israel's founding building, and worth a visit. There are some changes afoot on Dizengoff Square in front of Independence Hall, once Mayor Meir Dizengoff's home—a large new building going up at the end of the street and a new statue of him on horseback, erected for the centennial of Tel Aviv a couple of years ago. Tel Aviv is exactly the same age as Temple Emanu-El of Tucson, by the way.

We also visited the newish Yitzhak Rabin Museum, which traces the arc of his life and career and the contemporaneous changes going on in Israeli and world society. It is a very fine, very contemporary museum and a great addition to the extensive museum scene in Tel Aviv. There was one distressing note: I realized that events that I recall well from my own life are now museum fodder. I am getting older and older. There is a splendid patio with a great view of Tel Aviv on the outside of the museum. The visit to the Rabin Museum was a reminder that things might well have been very, very different for Israel, and especially for the Palestinians, if Rabin had not been assassinated.

We also walked through the Carmel outdoor food and everything else market on a Friday, and experienced an authentic Israeli food shuk in full cry. There is also a very extensive outdoor craft market there, as well as shopping streets both middle class and expensive. We wandered down Shenkin Street, the Rodeo Drive of Israel (although Jerusalem's Mamila now gives it some competition), filled with clothing boutiques, cafes, fancy soap shops, and the like. Wendy and I decided we weren't really hip or young enough to shop Shenkin, but the people-watching is really something. You could say that about Tel Aviv more generally. I think in Jerusalem you watch monuments, antiquities, and religious sites and people, and look for familiar faces from around the Jewish world. In Tel Aviv you watch people—or the ocean.

Our Shabbat evening experience was quite different but very beautiful on our final Friday night in Israel. We went to central Tel Aviv and enjoyed services and a Shabbat dinner with the newest Reform congregation in Israel, Kehillat HaLev, led by the charismatic and musical Rabbi Or Zohar and an excellent ensemble. It is a very small, young, and warm congregation that uses music and some Kabbalistic elements for most of its Erev Shabbat service. The Friday night before it was officially welcomed into the union of Israeli Reform congregations at the Biennial Convention held in Tel Aviv, and Or Zohar and his fellow musicians—he plays guitars and sings, his wife plays an unusual instrument, the harmonium and sings, there is an excellent young percussionist and a fine saxophone player—led Tefillah at the biennial for 500 people. On this night our group represented about half of the total congregation, but it worked nonetheless. The congregation is a satellite of Beit Daniel, the mega-Temple in Tel Aviv. When I attended the dedication of that synagogue in 1992 no one would have predicted its tremendous success over 20 years.

Rabbi Or Zohar asked the Reverend John Kitagawa and myself to offer blessings during the service, and John was quite eloquent. He expressed how important the deep sharing and mutual learning that had taken place over the pilgrimage tour had been for everyone, and expressing delight at the lovely service we were all enjoying and the warmth and welcoming attitude of the congregation. It was a great moment.

At our hotel we bumped into the Young Men's Mission from the Jewish Federation of Tucson. It was nice to see more familiar faces. They spent Friday night having dinner and Saturday morning on a bike riding tour of parts of Tel Aviv. Interesting choices for a Jewish trip on Shabbat in Israel. We also paralleled the Jewish National Fund national mission to Israel—same hotels, mostly—and met actor Hal Linden, just along for the ride. They spent Shabbat going to Masada and the Dead Sea.

On Saturday we had a fabulous Shabbat lunch overlooking the sea, and then shared some thoughts about the meaning and experience of the pilgrimage tour. It was a moving way to conclude a fantastic trip. We decided to have a contest for the most obscure facts we had learned about Israel during the trip, with the prize for most obscure winning a lovely book about Jerusalem. Among the facts were that the black spots on the Bauhaus buildings in Tel Aviv are bat guano and they don't chase away the bats because the bats eat the many mosquitoes that otherwise flourish here; that if you aren't sure what book of the Bible a quote comes from answer "Isaiah" as it is the longest and most quoted book; that there are huge nutria rats in the Jordan River now, imported from South America in a failed farming effort for pelts; that if you want to really see something you need at least three perspectives; that Moshe Dayan had a huge butt, and wouldn't allow himself to be photographed from behind below the waist; and that Israeli food is "heaven on a plate," which isn't really obscure but certainly is true, and delightful.

On an earlier Temple pilgrimage that I took to Israel Irene Steindler said, "You took 38 tourists, and you brought back 38 Zionists!" I'm not sure that this is always a guarantee, but certainly a great love was cultivated for those who journeyed with us. Many thanks are due to the Reverend John and Kathy Kitagawa, to my wife Wendy, to JoAnne Naef and Mila Vasser, to our guide Muki Jankelowitz, Sarah Cytryn and Guy Millo of ARZA World/Da'at Travel, our driver Adi, and to the congregations of Kol HaNeshama, Kehillat HaLev, Professor Paul Dees, Rabbi Miri Gold, and Rabbi Or Zohar.

It has been L'Shana Hazot biYerushalayim, this year in Jerusalem. May you travel to Israel soon, perhaps with us, and as memorably!

L'Shalom v'Rei'ut,

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

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