At first glance the notion of a group of young Jewish Poles traveling to Israel during a war seems absurd. Who would come? How would they cope? What could they learn about Israel when the country is bombarded every day by rockets, indiscriminately spewing venomous daggers?
The answer each member of the trip will give is…an immense amount can be learned, and no one would think of going home. In fact two more Poles arrived in the middle of the trip, despite the rockets, despite the hardships of a country at war. At the end of the trip I spoke with several who didn’t want to leave!
Coping? Just fine! They were situated in Jerusalem, studying day and night while spending several days touring the country. I personally spent two wonderful days with them touring the Judean desert, the Jordan valley, the Galilee and spending an amazing weekend in Safed.
How does this all make sense? Two words should answer our query—Israel Returns! The organization is the brainchild of Michael Freund, an American idealist who made aliyah with his family to Israel years ago, got involved in politics (Deputy Communications Director in the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), engaged in the business world, but for the last ten years has focused his energies on one mission—returning lost Jewish souls to Israel and the Jewish people.
Israel Returns is responsible for the return of Bnei Menashe, Jews from India; the Subbotnik Jews from Russia; crypto Jews from Spain; and many other hidden Jews all over the world. Israel Returns finds them, facilitates exploration of their Jewish identity and, ultimately, returns them to their homeland and to their people.
Poland has been one of Israel Returns’ projects for the last ten years. Rabbi Boaz Pash has represented the organization in Krakow for most of that time. Today, I am their emissary and it is an honor to work for such an organization.
For the past year I have been working in Krakow which includes teaching many Torah classes, leading a trip to Israel six months ago, and participating in Israel Returns’ summer seminar a few weeks ago. This trip is an important aspect of the Israel Returns’ educational component as the heavily subsidized Israel seminars endear participants to Torah, Israel and the Jewish people.
Having concluded my tour-guiding course, I was chosen to take the group on a tiyul on Friday, which would culminate in the old city of Safed for Shabbat. Two days in the summer, despite a war and intermittent falling missiles, were for us an adventure into the land, history and people of Israel. Here is a quick report on my time with the group.
We began early in the morning dropping almost a thousand meters to the location of the lowest place on earth. We did not dip in the Dead Sea though; instead we hiked through a canyon called Nachal Og just west of the Sea. Nachal Og is a beautiful canyon which winds its way down from the mountains of Judea to the sea.
Millions of years of erosion and sedimentary deposits created a deep crevice in the land, opening it to magnificent depressions and narrow passageways. It was not a simple tiyul, though. For some it was a battle against fear and anxiety.
There are two or three areas where it is extremely difficult to climb to the next level and metal spokes are drilled into the rock, which makes for an adventure. But everyone persevered and conquered the terrain. After two hours of hiking in the early sun, we concluded just in time and boarded the bus and on to our next destination.
Driving up the Jordan Valley we learned about the geological formations on the eastern border of Israel, the children of Israel’s entrance point into the land (Jericho), the great monasteries built in the Byzantine era, and the Crusader fortresses (Belvoir) hovering over the mountains. Closing out the trip we reached Bet Shean, a Roman city built on an ancient Israelite city, which in turn was built on an ancient Egyptian city!
After a hike and a drive we were ready for the second destination of our trip: Nahal Hakibbutzim. Nestled under the historic Gilad mountain range (where Saul and Jonathan fought and ultimately died in battle with the Philistines), the waters rolling off the mountain gather in many intense streams on the way to the Jordan River. This area is so fertile that one Babylonian rabbi (Resh Lakish) considered this to be the Garden of Eden.
Unique throughout all of Israel, in which deep streams are sparse, this stretch of a bit more than a mile has water, almost five feet deep with a soft sandy, base, makes it a pleasure for both adults and children to swim in, especially on warm summer days. At different points we came across artificial “slide” which made for added fun.
Our next stop brought us to one of the four holy cities in Israel: Tiberius. The city, resting on the bank of the Sea of Galilee, was built by Herod Antipas in the year 20 CE in honor of Roman Emperor Tiberius, and it became the center of Jewish life in Israel during the Mishnaic Period (ca. 200 CE) and Byzantine era (324-640 CE).
Perhaps best known as the final resting place the Sanhedrin after being exiled from Jerusalem, Tiberius was also the place where Rabbi Judah Nasi compiled the Mishna, the city where the Jerusalem Talmud was compiled, and the place where Modern Hebrew vowels were constructed.
As a result of the thriving Jewish life and holy history of Tiberius, many holy rabbis are buried there. We visited the graves of Rabbi Akiva, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai, the Shl”a as well as Maimonides and other Tannaimfrom the Mishna. Each site afforded us the opportunity to speak of these towering personalities and their influence on Jewish life over the centuries.
Although it was a Friday afternoon and Shabbat in Safed was next on the agenda, I couldn’t resist showing the group an ancient synagogue called Arbel. Dating back to the early Byzantine era, we were able to behold its original doorway made of limestone with a groove for a mezuza and we noted its direction facing Jerusalem. This short visit was our last stop before journeying to the third holy city of our day (Jerusalem, Tiberius and now) Safed.
We arrived at Ascent Hotel with enough time to prepare ourselves for Shabbat and make it early to the Beirav synagogue in the heart of the Old City. Veteran followers of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, with sweet voices, no concept of time, and huge hearts invited us to sing, dance and spiritually rise to accept the holiness of Shabbat. That spirit ushered us into our Shabbat meal where we continued to sing and share Divrei Torah (words of Torah). I began to hear the stories of some of the young Poles.
Sandra is 21 and living in Warsaw. Until two years ago she was Christian; her family hid her Jewish identity from her and only through serious research and determination did Sandra uncover that not only did she come from line of Jewish women, but her great grandfather was the leader of the Jewish community! Today she is studying Judaism (as well as a towards a law degree) and is involved in the Jewish community in Warsaw. She loved her experience in Israel.
A similar story could be told by Olga, Daniel, Grzegorz and many others. What an inspiration!
Shabbat morning we prayed, ate some more, sang a lot more, and some people rested. Then we met for a walking tour of Safed. There are three significant time periods in the Jewish history of Safed: the Crusader (beginning of the 11th century), the golden age of Jewish scholarship and mysticism (beginning of the 16th century), and modern Israel with the founding of the State.
We began our tour at the Crusader castle at the highest point of the city and then jumped almost a thousand years to discuss the miraculous victory of the Jews in 1948. Rabbi Avraham Zeida Heller (great grandson of Krakow’s Rabbi Yomtov Lipmann Heller), the chief rabbi of Safed at the time, remarked that the war was won with actions and miracles: the actions were the prayers of all the inhabitants around the clock; the miracle was that the Palmach fighters arrived just in time!
Winding our way downward we reached the holy synagogues of Safed, starting with the most important Jewish personality of Safed —Rabbi Joseph Karo. The author of the Shulchan Aruch and “Rabbi of all of Israel,” as he is known, Rabbi Karo’s synagogue is still functioning today and we were able to take a peek during the mincha service. Other synagogues included the Ar”I and the Alshich, as well as the beautiful Abuhav Shul.
We concluded our tour in a little alley called simtat hamashiach (alley of the Messiah). The atmosphere in Safed is very mystical with many Jews actively waiting for the Messiah to arrive every day. A story is told of Savta Yocheved, an old lady who all her life would sit by her windowsill and look longingly down her alley awaiting the return of the Messiah. She reasoned that it is not possible that the Messiah should arrive and not come through Safed! This reflects the very palpable feeling of elevated spiritual consciousness, which permeates the ancient city.
We returned for a wonderful seuda shlishit (the traditional third meal of Shabbat) with more songs and a wonderful melodic Havdalah filled with dancing and good feelings.
Our journey back to Jerusalem was quiet, each participant trying to internalize all that Safed provided. The trip would continue for another ten days but I would only meet them one more time, giving a lecture on the laws of Shabbat. I hope to meet this unique group of young Jewish Poles again, watching them grow in Judaism and love for the Land of Israel.
Jeremiah the prophet speaks to the Jews going into exile and promises them that there will be a reward for their efforts to return from the enemies’ lands. “There is hope for you in the end, says God, and the children will return to their boundaries.”
How fortunate are we to have Michael Freund and the Israel Returns organization to make the dreams of so many hidden Jews come true.