George Southworth died almost 30 years ago, but if he were still living I’d find him to help me with a problem.
My first University of Miami journalism professor and career mentor had a long, distinguished career in print media as a writer and editor for the Miami Herald. That was back when journalists were held in high esteem and dressed the same.
He taught we aspiring student cub reporters to write a newspaper story as an inverted triangle: the important facts on top and continue to trickle down to copy that could be cut if space was at a minimum.
Nevertheless, for me, how to prioritize experiences seen the past week and a half during my first visit to Israel is perplexing. I know Mr. Southworth would have counseled me through.
Do I lead with the incredible VIP treatment for Andi and me upon arrival at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport or do I start with the coleslaw? You know, the coleslaw that for still some unexplained reason is served at every meal in Israel: breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’ll probably go with deplaning and before leaving the jetway, being greeted by a VIP host who then matter-of-factly walked us past a passport control line numbering in the hundreds, stopped at immigration for all of 30 seconds, helped us grab our luggage, waved at the disinterested customs agents and deposited us at our waiting car which then drove us an hour west to Jerusalem. I figured the process was special and Israel’s way of acknowledging a synagogue president from Summerlin, Nevada. I was really impressed with myself until I found out all 83 others on our trip were given the same treatment.
I wouldn’t lead my story with the opening night reception for our state delegation from Jewish Nevada. It was wonderful except for the cheesy Israeli Elvis who greeted us with his version of Viva Las Vegas in an otherwise beautiful outdoor setting overlooking Jerusalem. Elvis was quickly forgotten the next morning with the captivating underground tunnel tour we took at the Western Wall culminating with some private time, if you chose, in front of the Wall. Men and women were separated in prayer. The Western Wall, Wailing Wall, HaKotel, call it what you might, but it’s undeniably one of the most photographed sites in Instamatic history. A steady stream of onlookers and those praying and waiting their turn to pray. Easy to get caught up in the moment.
There might have been something newsworthy to report when we visited the Knesset, Israel’s Congress, a body with 120 members who love to argue. However we couldn’t be sure what the debate on the floor was all about, probably judicial reform, the political topic du jour, but we sat in the cheap seats and didn’t understand a word of the Hebrew they bantered. Do you know any Jew who doesn’t like to argue? Arguments R Us was founded by Jews. We’re told that in Israel arguments are passionate, but at the end of the day they sit down, put their differences behind them, enjoy a cold Goldstar and a plate of coleslaw.
Israel is a new kid on the world’s block. Receiving independence from the UK in 1948, 75 years ago, she officially became recognized by the United Nations the next year. A homeland for the Jews, Israel is both the land size and population (a little below 10 million) of New Jersey. Jews make up 74% of the country, 18% are Muslim. It has the unfriendliest border neighbors on earth with Israel not looking to run next door to borrow a cup of sugar from Lebanon, Jordan, Syria or Egypt. These guys don’t play with fake bullets and would love nothing better than to help the Jewish state disappear. Sixty percent of Israel is desert but only 10% of the population lives in the desert. The major population centers of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are crowded. It seems a prerequisite to getting a driver’s license in Israel is agreeing to honk your horn every 12 seconds. It makes New York City sound like downtown Cedar Rapids. Jerusalem is the historical center; Tel Aviv, on the Mediterranean, the commercial hub. Tel Aviv has a European flair despite being in Western Asia. The two cities feel about each other as Auburn does Alabama or Michigan does Ohio State. Jerusalem is the capital city; Tel Aviv makes believe it is. Jerusalem is traditional, Tel Aviv is everything but.
Our group of 85 included four from the Reno area and the rest from Vegas. Not everyone was Jewish. Almost a quarter of our group were from our Temple Sinai, the largest representation of any synagogue. We toured Israel’s top three attractions in depth: Old Jerusalem, Y’ad Vashem and Masada. Fortunately, transportation was provided almost everywhere allowing us to avoid taking taxis whose drivers are as surly and devious as in the rest of the world. On the occasion we did hail one, we knew it was a mistake. We were unwillingly driven to the driver’s brother’s store for the finest sale in jewelry and minerals and a fare that was constantly rising. Ultimately we bailed out of the cab on the highway and walked back to our hotel. I felt like Dr. Richard Kimble looking for his next secluded outpost. That was the end of Andi’s Israel taxicab confessions.
We spent four nights each in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and one in the Negev Desert. Not in a tent, but a splashy spa resort. We lunched on a kibbutz, learning the communal history of kibbutz, where if you choose to live as part of one and you are accepted, your independence is pretty much spoken for. Doctor, lawyer, tradesperson or highway worker, your paycheck goes to the kibbutz spreading the wealth equally. We were told the story of some years ago, when a kibbutz member created a specialized bullet proof vest and left the kibbutz to make his fortune. The kibbutz sued, claiming the invention was made while the inventor was a member of the kibbutz, and the vest and profits belong to the kibbutz. The courts agreed. Today there are 270 kibbutzim throughout the country. And one inventor looking for a new home.
Andi got all muddied up and swam in the Dead Sea, below sea level, the lowest point on earth. I waded with a clear view of Jordan in front of me. The Dead Sea content is 35% salt making it impossible for plants and animals to survive, thus its name. We dried off and went to the top of Masada. While we didn’t see King Herod or Peter O’Toole, the views and historical significance were breathtaking. Andi also rappelled a crater and came back up in one piece. She said it was safer than being in the backseat of a taxi.
Our agenda was full and the pace, by the end of each day, exhausting. Jewish Nevada contracted with Kenes Tours — don’t dare go to Israel without using them. Every detail was accounted for. The expediency, efficiency, personality and knowledge of their personnel is as good as you’ll find anywhere. It was like touring the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis with Jackie.
We spent an evening in Ramat HaNegev, our Las Vegas Jewish community sister city of 8,000 spread across 20 villages. The red carpet was rolled out at the local high school with a fun night of food, games, music and camaraderie. The students greeted us, graced us and showed us how proud they are of their village and school.
We normally traveled in three buses and had a security guard with us at all times. The guards had the physique of Hulk Hogan and the personality of Al Gore. Okay, maybe Mike Pence. Never once, anywhere did we feel threatened. Israelis understand the big picture but live their lives with aplomb. While there were shootings in Denver at a basketball championship party; murders outside London or another night in downtown Chicago, we were safer. Guaranteed. The largest cause of death in Israel is not terrorism but auto accidents.
The busiest spot on our agenda was inside the walls of Old Jerusalem. We visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the site of Jesus crucifixion and his empty tomb sits where he was buried and believed to have resurrected. Access was unrestricted with throngs of people lined up. Probably the most poignant was spending Shabbat in Jerusalem at a special dinner overlooking HaKotel, the Western Wall. Jerusalem gets eerily quiet on Friday afternoon with only the sounds of kids outside playing while mom prepares Shabbat dinner, the smells resonating from kitchen windows. Herman’s Hermits 1967 classic There’s a Kind of Hush comes to life. The calm breaks on Saturday evening.
By far the most interesting and somber morning was the three hours we spent at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem. Almost impossible to leave that building without wet eyes.
We were divided into three tracks — first timers, those interested in Israeli innovation, and security. We could pick and choose from the programs and tours offered. Not having been there before made it difficult to decide how to spend our days. By and large, our choices were satisfying with my only regret missing the outing to the Palestinian Territories and touring the city of Ramallah. We did, however, visit with the Israeli Air Force and had a crash course, literally, in flying a F-16 simulator. Based upon the results, Andi and I have no worries about being called to active duty anytime soon.
The happiest moments was the news from back home when our Vegas Golden Knights won the Stanley Cup. Selfishly though, it was disappointing not being in the arena to celebrate. We tried to stay connected to the action even though we were over 7,000 miles from the Strip. We all depended on fellow tour member Eric Potashnick, who made arrangements with the respective hotels for watch parties in conference rooms. We saw three games while we were away. That’s the good news. The not so good news is the games started at 3 AM in Israel. For the Cup clincher last Tuesday night about 30 of us were wide awake and packed into a Tel Aviv hotel meeting room chanting “We won the Cup” over and over again when we clinched. No doubt the folks trying to sleep in neighboring rooms at 5:30 am failed to share our enthusiasm. I knew the Knights would win when on the day of the final game, the rabbi traveling with us cast aside his yarmulka and donned a Golden Knights hat. That divine presence, and the Knights’ talent, was a tough combo to beat.
Food was plentiful. And good. Fresh fruits, eggs, pastries and coleslaw at breakfast. However, no bagels. Or not “real” bagels as we know: they were either too large or too small. You can get a bagel at Publix or Albertsons but not everywhere in Israel. Go figure. Lunches consisted of a variety of salads, falafel, shawarma and of course coleslaw. Dinners of lamb, chicken, beef and for the truly adventurous, turkey testicles. While they can’t make a bagel, Israelis love their breads and based upon consumption so do Americans who visit. I really don’t get the coleslaw thing but there were heaps of it at dinner. And lunch. And breakfast.
Also shopping aplenty, from wonderful outdoor markets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to upscale shopping rivaling any metropolitan area in the world. Tel Aviv has a buzz; Jerusalem is calmer and more historical. Israel is not for the feint of wallet or those short of shekels. Two years ago Tel Aviv was the most expensive city in the world; it fell to number three last year, behind Singapore and New York.
It was tough to leave the Stanley Cup behind but in spite of missing it, I’m glad I went on the trip. Israel was never super high on my travel list, but I knew the clock was ticking and this Jewish Nevada experience was everything I envisioned if I were to go. Traveling with experts and the itinerary knocked it out of the park, an incredible value not only for the money but with our time. Because international travel isn’t as much fun as it was when I wore a younger man’s clothes, I’m not sure I’ll make it back again. Praying at the Western Wall, with the gold dome of the Temple Mount in the distance was meaningful, but so is standing in front of the ark at Temple Sinai in Las Vegas. Throughout the journey I felt a strong connection to Israel’s history and people. I also met some great folks in our group including many members of our synagogue whom either I didn’t know or not well. This trip changed that. Israel becomes the connector for us as it does for Jews around the world. There is a true spirit of Tikkun Olam — “the repair of the world” – Jews not only shoulder responsibility for our own moral, spiritual and material welfare but also for the welfare of all peoples of society.
I don’t know of anyone who has visited Israel and returned with disparaging comments. I didn’t want to be the first. And I’m not. A rewarding venture that ended with a 14 hour trip back to the States on Friday. I am a better person, Jew and synagogue leader for the experience.
Now, at home, I have a couple of things to do: find a good bagel and avoid the sight of a bowl of ‘slaw.
Mr. Southworth might have told me to use that as my lead.