Monday, March 31, 2014

The Wall

Today was all about the walled city of Jerusalem. We had scheduled a tunnel tour for 11 am and it was really exciting. Back in 1990 we walked through excavated areas next to the men's side of the Western wall. Today we had an extensive tour and were amazed at how much work has been done. We actually walked the length of the original western retaining wall.

The tour started with an in-depth history and geology lesson. Then we walked for an hour and a half seeing all kinds of building stones and even walked through an aqueduct. There are two different chapels used by women so they can be at the wall and nearer to the Temple Mount. One cobblestone street we walked on was over 2000 years old and several huge stones that weighed over 480 metric tons equaling 1000 tons each.

When we were leaving the old city I saw some boys watching a bird. It turned to be a Hoopoe (national bird of Israel) with a tuft on his head and a long beak.

Of course we ate and shopped and then got ready for our evening activity. We were visiting a very old friend and his family and they live in a settlement called Benjamin in the West Bank. Meir was a camp counselor in 1981 and stayed in our home. We have kept in touch and I have become friends with his mother. So he sent one of his sons, Itzchak to escort us by train and bus to their home. We had been there in 1988 and only a few families were living in the tiny settlement and in caravans, mobile homes. Today over 15000 people call this home. 

We took the train to Ammunition Hill and changed to a bus. Because of heavy rush hour traffic it took almost an hour to get there and we passed through three check points as we left Israel. Finally we arrived and met Meir, his wife Miriam and six of their 11 children. Itzchak and his older brother Ezra have recently finished their army service. Hana works in communications for a TV station. The three youngest girls were 8, 11 and 14. We enjoyed talking and catching up after all these years. Both Miriam and Hana are wonderful artists and showed us some of their paintings. Miriam made sushi for us and then Hana and Ezra took us on a walking tour. Finally we had a light dinner and then had to say goodbye. We got on the bus and retraced our route back to Jerusalem. It was quite an adventure.

Ezra and Hana

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Strangers in the Night

Today Jeff and I pretended to be locals and took a train and bus to Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem. Then we took a bus to Yad Vashem and later the train home. All done without a hitch, and with some advice from friendly Israelis. The title refers to the bus driver from the hospital complex to Yad Vashem. He drove the uphill curvy road like a madman. I whispered to Jeff that I felt like I was on the Night Bus in the Harry Potter movie and we both broke out laughing. Anyway we arrived everywhere safely.

We got an early start with hot showers and breakfast at the hostel. Walked around the corner to the train stop and hopped aboard. This light rail system is a few years old and runs smoothly and frequently. The tracks are on Jaffa Road which is closed to vehicular traffic. Trains are clean with plenty of seating and standing room. You can buy a ticket at a machine at each stop and validate it on board. Today it is cloudy and rather cold. We rode to the end of the line and got off at the Mt. Herzl station. Yad Vashem is a downhill walk from there. But, we took bus 27 to Ein Karem where Hadassah Hospital is located. You get off the bus, go through security and enter a small shopping mall. Upstairs are coffee shops and restaurants which service the staff, patients and families at Hadassah. 

We had arranged a private tour with the help of one of my chapter members and our region office. We met our guide and she took us into the new tower.

There are five floors below ground and 12 floors above, some of the higher floors are not open yet and work is progressing in many areas. In a main hallway we stopped to see some contributor plaques. Hilton Head Chapter is proudly on one of these boards along with some big regions.

All our members should feel great about this and kudos to our generous donors. We were not able to go underground to see the emergency or operating rooms, but we know people were there saving lives. We did visit two of the four healing gardens.

These garden areas represent nature and bring some of the outdoors inside. This will help the patient's morale and provide a nice place to visit with their families. There are also huge ceiling to floor windows with magnificent views to enjoy. We walked around a patient floor and admired the single and double rooms. Very spacious and bright with a large nature photograph in each along with a futon so a family member can spend the night in comfort. We were very impressed with the lighted signage to acknowledge contributors. Each area has a family sitting room with a refrigerator and seating so the family can wait comfortably and prepare food during their visit.

Next we went to the mother and child pavilion which is as kid friendly as possible. Bright colors and graphics are all around to cheer up young patients whether they are admitted or outpatient. We also saw a tiny newborn as the maternity and neonatal units are in this area. It is amazing to see people of all races, religions and creeds sitting together in the waiting rooms and sharing patient rooms. Hadassah treats anyone in need of medical care. Their research is responsible for many of the modern procedures and cures that we enjoy around the world. The overall theme in the children's pavilion is transportation and the donor signage has trains, buses and boats....

We ended our tour in the older hospital building with the famous Chagall windows in its synagogue. Just beautiful!

Now we headed back through the food court where Jeff had snack. A slice of pizza with corn on top. What will these Israelis think of next?

So now we go outside and catch a bus back uphill and encountered this "cowboy" driver. Safely deposited by the train station we walked down the hill and then took a shuttle bus to Yad Vashem. The place was jumping with so many tour buses, high school students and army groups.

We went in through the visitor center and got audio guides and a map. Otherwise the admission is free. First we went to visit the children's memorial with candlelight reflections for the one and one half million Jewish children slaughtered in the Holocaust. Along the way we saw some sculptures and memorials. Then we went back inside to eat lunch and deposit our backpacks in the coat room.

Then we were ready to tackle the museum. It has been completely renovated since our last visit in 1990. Not only did they totally change the building, but the exhibit halls now include all of Europe. It is so hard to experience this heart wrenching place and no photos are allowed. There is a complete history leading up to the war and then areas for each of the major populations centers before the war and then the deportations, ghettos and camps. So many personal stories and artifacts. The displays are so well done and many video presentations and personal items that have been gathered. At the end we were weary and entered the Hall of Remembrance with its dome filled with photos of those who perished in the Shoah.

Back outside we stopped to see the memorial hall with an eternal flame for each of the death and labor camps. Last thing we walked along the Avenue of Righteous Gentiles. People who risked their lives to save Jews. At Yad Vashem they are memorialized with a tree planted in their honor. 

Now it is time to go home.

We got back safely and went over to the Mechane Yehuda market for a quick dinner. Things were pretty empty there with the cold weather and it being Sunday night. Now we are lounging in bed, reading, writing and relaxing.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Sitting on Top of the World

Okay we were standing on the top of the Old City of Jerusalem. Today we took a 2 1/2 hour walking tour and climbed up to several rooftops for great views of the city. We got up at 8:00 am after a late night getting the laundry done. Another gorgeous, sunny day here in Jerusalem. The entire city is shut down for Shabbat and people are walking toward the old city from every direction.

We had a quick breakfast and then walked downhill a little more than a mile to the Jaffa Gate. There we met a group taking a free walking tour of the city. We had a great guide named Yariv who works for tips and he was both funny and knowledgeable. We learned so much about the city, history and people. Started out with some stories about the Jaffa Gate and famous visitors (conquerors) to the city. He gave us a timeline cheat sheet to take home. First sculpture was Richard the Third during the Crusades. 

We walked through each of the four quarters of the city and climbed up to a rooftop in the Armenian section to look out over the walled city. In the Jewish Quarter we climbed up to a great vantage point overlooking the Kotel plaza. 

We went through alleyways and stopped often for information. We learned so much and it was so much fun. Afterwards our guide suggested a quiet place for lunch near the Jaffa Gate. It was quiet, cool and good food. We were able to sit and relax and rest our weary bones.

Then we did a little shopping in the Armenian section and then had to face walking home - all uphill. We took our time and stopped every time we saw a bench in a shady area. We strolled through the City Hall complex which has old and new buildings and colorful gardens and large trees. 

One large plaza had an interactive sculpture where you pedal bicycles to make things move. Of course it was turned off for Shabbat, but there are drums, phonographs, fans and flower pots. We will stop by next time we walk by to try it out again.

A nice lady also directed us to an area of pillows. They are made of concrete and arranged in a large area so you can sit comfortably and relax. The picture shows it better than I can explain.

We did finally reach our hostel and take a nice, cool nap. Now we are thinking about dinner as places start opening up as it gets dark. I took photos today of many different people heading to the Kotel and  around the city in various types of dress.

We are up and walk to Ben Yehuda Street for dinner. As it got dark we heard a shofar letting people know that Shabbat is over. We found a nice place with an enclosed patio area. We had a nice dinner and sat for a while relaxing.

Afterwards we did a little shopping and saw a sign in the window of a store.

I said to Jeff, "I wonder if it is our Abrams Hebrew Academy?" Of course he said it could be from anywhere. So I asked a kid where his school is located and he said, "Yardley." I could not believe it and found some parents who confirmed that this was the eighth grade trip. We found Rabbi Budow, the principal, in another store and said, "Do you remember us?" He took a moment and did remember. It was so amazing. Brian graduated from their eighth grade in 1988 and we moved out of the area seven years ago. We had been very active in the school so the Rabbi has a good memory.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Shalom Aleichem

It is Friday and an exciting day to be in Jerusalem. We slept late in our comfy bed and ate breakfast in the large dining room. Since this is a hostel you must wash your dishes. There are people here of all ages from all over the world. We sat at breakfast with people from England and also met two Sar-El (Army Volunteers) from Spain and Mexico who just came from Beer Sheva.

Finally got to the lobby and spent some time at the tour desk. We booked our trip to Petra with two hotel nights in Eilat. Also arranged for a tunnel tour on Monday. The representative is from Australia and then a young man from NY sat down and we all had a great time chatting about Book of Mormon and other stuff. Jeff went to an ATM and we found out how to use the light rail train and bus. 

So off we went to the light rail which runs right down Jaffa Road which is next to our hotel. This used to be a main car thoroughfare and now only has the trains. They are new, clean and run often. You buy a ticket at the stop and validate it when you get on board. Two stops later we were at the Jaffa Gate to the Old City. Of course it was still quite a walk and a friendly guy told us to follow him and all the crowds. So much has changed since we were last here. There is a large promenade to the gate and another large plaza adjacent. Below that is a shopping area with cafes looking out over the hills. Once inside the gate is is a busy place with cars and taxis for the first block. Tour groups were meeting and there were people everywhere. We started walking through the Moslem Quarter and passed hundreds of shops with souvenirs, clothes, luggage, food, cafes and even a shoe maker. We ambled through many alleys and one place was a lounge with men sitting around smoking hookahs and drinking tea.  We got to one set of stairs and a guard said only Muslims could enter as this way led to the mosque and it is closed to visitors on Friday.

Finally we found a street that led to the Jewish Quarter after walking on the Via Dolorosa. Soon we went through security and entered the plaza at the Kotel (Western Wall) and went down the steps. This is a magical place with bright sunlight reflecting off the stones. The wall is separated from the plaza by a low wall which now has a screen atop it. The men pray on the left side and the women have a separate entrance and section on the right. We were there about noon and not much going on then, noticing only one Bar Mitzvah. Jeff went to pray and put on tefillin with some orthodox men. I went to the women's side and found a spot against the wall. It is so cool and spiritual. I had written a prayer and had another from a friend to insert. It is hard to find a crack, but I found a hole and shoved them in with other tiny pieces of paper.

Afterwards we met on the plaza and went up some steps for a view and into the commercial and residential area. We came across a cafe with shady seating and had lunch.

Jeff had schwarma which he said was mediocre and I had very good falafel with humus and tehina. The pita here is so delicious and soft. Yummy! When we finished I spotted a gelato stand and went in for dessert. Two young men were at the counter and helped me select a flavor. One was from Long Island and one from NJ and they are here studying for a year. So young and so exciting for them.

One thing we enjoyed seeing was the newly rebuilt Hurva Synagogue. Last time we were here there was just an arch after the synagogue had been destroyed by the Jordanians.

At this point we were very hot and tired so we trudged uphill, back through the Moslem Quarter to the Jaffa Gate. We walked through the promenade which had an exhibit called Cooling Globes. It has travelled in the US and many other countries to promote recycling, conservation and saving our earth. It was started by the Clinton Global Initiative. There were some interesting pieces.

Finally got to the train and back to our hotel where we are resting and going through photos.

Got up, got out of bed and showered. Time for Shabbat dinner. We signed up for dinner at the hostel and were told to come early and help cook. We never expected such a fantastic evening. There were about 60 dinner guests and we all sat around wearing cook hats and cutting vegetables and making kebabs.

What a great group effort! And everything was delicious. There were so many salads and eggplant, the kebabs, and pasta and more. The tables were set beautifully with pita and hummus at every other place. There was a short service first with the candle lighting, kiddish and motzi. One of the employees explained the service as there were many non Jews present. The challah was delicious as were all the dishes. Each place also had red wine and afterwards we had to wash our dishes and clean up the tables.

We met such interesting people. The young man we spoke with this morning had his family visiting and there were about 10 of them at a private table. We sat with six women from Iowa who are our age and have embraced Judaism. Two young gals next to me were from Germany. Also a Jewish guy from NY who now lives and teaches English in an Arab country and also speakers fluent Spanish. He and I were talking with a Sar-el volunteer from Mexico and several members of her volunteer group are here. Met another group of VFI volunteers from Colorado, Alaska and Australia. What fun it is to meet these wonderful folks and share stories. We also met one of the owners of the hostel and his wife and baby daughter. A very sharp and sweet guy.

Now it is 10:30 and we are doing laundry. The wash should be done soon. We are waiting in the second floor lounge where there is a bar, seating areas, foose ball, pool table and several hammocks where Jeff is hanging out. It is abuzz with conversations in many languages.