Arline Blake in a self-portrait with the Western Wall and the Temple Mount in the background.
By Stephen J. Kotz
Diana Stone said she had too many concerns about security to ever consider visiting Israel on her own. David Weseley, who had visited the country before, said it had never occurred to him in his wildest dreams that he would take part in a temple-sponsored tour. And Dr. Bradford Tepper, who had visited the country twice before as a young man, said he had always dreamed of returning but had never found the time to do so.
Despite coming at the journey from different viewpoints, the three members of Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, who were among the 20 people who visited Israel in late March on a trip led by Rabbi Leon Morris and Rabbi Gadi Capela of Temple Tifereth Israel in Greenport, were unanimous in describing the 12-day tour as a life-altering experience.
That goes for Rabbi Morris too.
“I knew I was providing a meaningful experience for my congregation, but I don’t think I was prepared to see Israel through their eyes,” said Rabbi Morris, who announced earlier this year that he would be leaving Sag Harbor and moving with his family to Israel this June. “The experience of seeing them see Israel reminded me of all our reasons for moving our family there this summer.”
“This was more than a trip. It was really a kind of personal spiritual journey for everyone,” he continued. “This was both an experience in which we were doubly touched by the people of Israel and the places that we saw, but it also had some kind of a transformative effect on us as a group, the connection that we experienced with each other.”
Participants ranged in age from 32 to 89. The itinerary included stops in the new Israel: bustling Tele Aviv, the center of modern Israeli business, educational, and cultural life; and the old: the ancient City of David, where archaeologists have excavated the ruins of the palace built there by King David 3,000 years ago when he established Jerusalem as his capital, and the Western Wall, one of the Judaism’s most sacred sites.
“Approaching the Western Wall—I don’t think I can put it into words,” said Dr. Tepper. “Touching the wall is like being in contact with God.”
There were stops in Haifa, a fashionable resort city on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, a kibbutz, where young Jews are committed to establishing a society of co-existence with the Palestinians, and a visit to the Golan Heights, where the group could look across the border at Syria, one of its fiercest enemies, as well as visits to Ariel, a settlement in Samaria on the West Bank.
“I think the people of Ariel are very brave. I was very proud to be there,” said Dr. Tepper of that visit, although he was quick to add that residents may have settled there “to make a specific political statement” or simply because it was a place they could find affordable housing.
Dr. Tepper, like others who took part in the trip, expressed hope for peace between the Arabs and Jews, but stressed that the political differences remain wide. Ariel, for instance, could be described, depending on one’s viewpoint, as a city in “Samaria, in the occupied territories, on the West Bank or in the liberated territories,” he said.
“I would love for there to be peace. From those I had conversations with, everyone says they want peace,” he said, “but when you have generation upon generation of animosity in your bones, peace will be something that has to be nurtured.”
Although exploring the issue of Jewish-Arab co-existence was not the primary focus of the trip, Rabbi Morris said “it loomed large. We did not avoid it. We embraced it.”
“On the grassroots level, there are many things that are happening, many things that are quite hopeful” for improved relations, he added.
Ms. Stone said she expected to discover a country with armed guards everywhere, but found it to be the opposite of what she expected. “Now, I can’t imagine why everyone in the world, no matter what their religion, shouldn’t go to Israel,” she said. “I can’t wait to go back. I’m excited that Leon is moving there—even though I’m also heartbroken—because I can go visit.”
Ms. Stone, like the others on the trip, said she was impressed by a sense of progress and purpose in the country. “I’ve never been in a place where everyone seems to be moving in one direction and that’s forward,” she said.
Dr. Tepper, who said he could not recall any buildings taller than four or five stories when he last visited in the early 1980s, said he was awed by the economic development and the high level of research being done at universities in the country.
Another important element of the trip, according to Rabbi Morris, was to help participants grasp the notion that “the Jewish people are a nation. This is our indigenous place. This is our homeland. To many American Jews, who understand their Judaism only through a religious lens, it is important for them to know that Israel is not only the birthplace of their religion, but also of the Jewish people.”
For Mr. Weseley, a highlight was the bonding among the participants. “On the bus, we created a beautiful community,” he said. “It’s like those of us who went to camp as kids and didn’t think we could ever have that experience as adults.”
That extended to the group’s guide, an American-born Jew named Ezra Korman. “There was a wrap-up session on the last night, and we had an extraordinary guide. He’s on the level of Leon, and that’s saying a lot,” said Mr. Weseley. “He’s done hundreds and hundreds of these tours, and he cried.”
He said he anticipated that the trip would have positive impact on the synagogue. “There is clearly a wonderful new energy impulse coming back from the trip,” he said. “A highly energized bunch of people have come back.”