The Land of Silk & Honey

Last week my friend and I decided it was a great day to “make a tiyuul,” as we say here in Israel. In America it would translate to “go on a field trip.” I had been wanting to go to the Marzipan factory/store/museum in Kfar Tavor for three years, so…. we planned an entire trip with activities in that area.

Kfar Tavor is a small, but growing (what isn’t here??) village about an hour southeast of us at the foot of Har Tavor (hahr tahVOOR) or as it’s pronounced in English, Mount Tabor. The area is steeped in history. For the Jewish people, Har Tavor in the book of Judges (Mishpatim), is the mountaintop where Deborah and Barak planned the victory over the Canaanite general, Sisera. It was in the times before the Davidic kingdom was established, and this mother in Israel bravely led and advised General Barak. She was a prophet and a judge. Great role model too!

For Christians, in the Gospel accounts, Mount Tabor was the site of the transfiguration of Jesus in front of his disciples into a glorious form. It was during the feast of Sukkot (tabernacles), so his followers wanted to build Sukkot for him, Moses, and Elijah who also appeared with Jesus in a glorious cloud. Today there is a Roman Catholic (Franciscan) Church and a Greek Orthodox Church atop the mountain. It is a pilgrimage site for all faiths with sweeping vistas for miles in all directions- a beautiful and tranquil spot.

But today, we were staying at the foot of Tavor. As one more interesting historical note, the Rothschild family were great philanthropists, funding much of the modern Palestine pioneer movement. Dorothy Rothschild sent money and aid to Kfar Tavor in the early 1900s for agricultural advancement…..her Hebrew name was ….. wait for it….. Devorah! And!!! In Hebrew devorah means “bee.”

Which in a circuitous way, brings us to our first stop of the day. A most unexpectedly wonderful surprise!!!

Dvorat HaTavor Honey Farm/Bee Farm

My friend, Hadassah, and I arrived unannounced, but were greeted by our most gracious Israeli host, Yigal ben Ze’ev. What an amazing, hospitable and entertaining man!!! Yigal first gave us a tour of the farm/farm animals and petting zoo. They have not only typical farm animals but poultry from around the world.

We next went to one of the indoor educational areas, where Ze’ev explained the life cycle of the honeybee; how honey is processed; and the different products obtained from bees and their practical applications – from food to pollen to beeswax. It is a great place for all ages. Little kids are given bee costumes to wear and keep; honey and carob are mixed to create a delicious fudge; and each person gets a wick and fresh sheet of beeswax to make a candle. For me, a former homeschooler, it was paradise! I learned that propolis is used for its antibiotic properties and royal jelly in hormone therapy as well as cosmetics. Bees are widely used in natural pollination here with Biobee, a leader in organic insect technology around the globe, located just a few kilometers to the South.

After our lesson, we were escorted to the next station, where Mr. ben Ze’ev demonstrated how smoke in a canister was used to put the bees into a more dormant phase in order to extract the honey from the hives. He suited up in his beekeeper suit and led us into a caged in area from where we could watch him collect the honey in the apiary. Supposedly, in the time of Abraham, donkey dung was mixed with acacia wood chips to put the bees to sleep. Who knew???

We also learned the history of beekeeping from ancient to modern times, seeing different hives from logs to ceramic bee jars to skeps and modern plastic stackable hives.

The next stop on our journey was the silkworm farm. Actually, worms is a misnomer. They are actually a caterpillar, and their use in silk production has a rich history. Israel was a major stop on the silk route, as mulberry trees grow here. The caterpillars feed exclusively on the mulberry leaves. (By the way, the delicious mulberries were ripe for picking in the courtyard. Here in Israel they are called toot etz, or tree strawberries).

In another large indoor educational center, Hadassah and I learned about the lifecycle of the silk caterpillar and the history of the silk industry. There was a short film, great displays on cocoons, silk extraction ( the cocoon left behind by the newly emerged moth is collected, boiled, and silk threads extracted), weaving, fashion, and more hands-on arts and crafts activities. At each station we received lovely handouts in both Hebrew and English.

At Dvorat HaTavor, there is ample shaded area with lots of picnic tables. Great for families, classrooms, birthday and Bar Mitzvah parties. Bring your own food. Clean, well-appointed restrooms were a plus. Tractor rides around the farm are available with advance reservations for minimum ten people.

In the gift shop, we met The delightful Malka Ben Ze’ev, Yigal’s wife. She is the Queen Bee here ( in Hebrew Malka translates into queen). The store was small but well stocked. I bought a bottle of mead (honey wine) for my son…made on the premises), honey lip balm and two jars of bee pollen, which I might add is really helping me combat my allergies!!! There were all kinds of cosmetics, candles, honey, books, toys, and cookbooks.

Hadassah and I spent about 2 1/2 hours there, but could have easily stayed longer! The place has been in operation for over 25 years. It is a family run industry. Their son, Boaz does Skyped lessons in English for classrooms around the world… book well in advance!

This was by far one of the best activities to date I’ve done here. Our hosts were super gracious and had great stories. The farm, located on Moshav Shadmot Dvora, on the outskirts of town, is open from 9-3 year round. Tours in Hebrew, English & Arabic. Reservations required.

http://www.bee@tour-galilee.co.il. Tel. +972-4-6767459. They are on Facebook & Youtube

The rest of the day paled in comparison. In the immediate area are the Marzipan Museum ( just a room with modeled Marzipan storybook characters) and rather expensive gift shop with no service.

Har Tavor Winery is also across the way, and a pioneer museum on the main road. There is a lovely new shopping center right off the main road with several Kosher restaurants.

But don’t dare miss Dvorat HaTavor!!! Welcome to the Land of Silk and Honey!!

Summer Fun in Israel

After spending three months back in California welcoming two beautiful new grandbabies into the family, it was still wonderful to get home to the tranquility of the beautiful North of Israel.

Summer has come to Israel in all its glory. Schools are almost finished, and many cities have already started hosting their summer festivals. Lailot levanot- white nights are back. This means the cities are up all night turn by turn with food, wine, dance, art, cultural and historical street parties. Each city showing off its diverse cultural and regional specialty. Total fun!!!

So, last week we took the train with a group of friends down to Tel Aviv for the Eat Tel Aviv fair. Held in lovely Charles Clore Park bordering the Mediterranean at sunset, the setting couldn’t have been more perfect. There were scores of pop-up food stands serving up tasty dishes for reasonable prices. Tables were set up for the crowd to enjoy their food in a relaxed, casual atmosphere.

There were just so many options! Because Tel Aviv is our food capital, and because of the diversity of the population, there was everything from gourmet chef restaurants to street food. Lots of international food too. Kosher as well as non-Kosher were represented.

Our friend stopped off at Mexicana first so we could all sample her fresh fish tacos. They did not disappoint, ranking right up there with the tastiness of Southern California, served with chips & Pico de gallo. Ron decided to try Vong, a Vietnamese Restaurant on the chic Rothschild Boulevard, moderately priced and always packed.

He had an amazingly tasty cold salad topped with coconut, grilled fish and dill. It helped to know Hebrew, because almost all of the restaurant menus were written exclusively in Hebrew. But- it added to the adventure…

One of the chef restaurants featured was Magdalena (chef Zuzu) from Migdal in the Galilee. Not Kosher, but it looked interesting. Dough balls stuffed with spiced meat and covered in warm goat yogurt and a chicken kebab with a tomato based burgil.

I had heard about the seafood chef restaurant, Manta, for quite some time now. Right on the Tel Aviv beach, this pricey gem gets consistently rave reviews – so I was more than disappointed to see overly greasy fish and chips offered.

Hopping from booth to booth, I just wanted to see everything ( impossible in our time frame) and get pictures and comments from the people. Wildly popular Asian, Namu Namu was serving up fresh and tasty noodle bowls with fresh grilled veggies and papaya & mango chunks. Yum.

Eat Tel Aviv opened its gates (with very high security!!!! Assuring!!!) at 6pm. By 8 pm things were beginning to get hopping. Several local bands were playing on various stages, and a DJ was setting up for dancing later that evening. On to more food. More barbecue joints than I could even imagine in Israel! Chef Market looked interesting.

There was the Georgian (as in former Soviet Union) Tasch and Tasha serving up atcharuli (eggs baked with cheese and spinach in a pizza pocket; dumplings; and rice stuffed eggplant rolls. Really curious about the “hanging things” from a string, the man told me it was a very sweet delicacy. A dessert with grapes in the center. So…. I tried one. It was like eating a mouthful of the wax found on the outside of cheese with a chewy booger inside. No thanks!

Ah!!! HaTarnegol HaKahol!!! The Blue Rooster, a very pricey upscale Tel Aviv hotspot, ranking among the best in the world!!!! And who was there but Master Chef, Shaul Ben Aderet!!! Surely he would be cooking up something amazing!!! Wrong!!!! Instead of urban five star meats and veggies prepared in creative ways, it was street food. Pastrami sandwiches and brisket on baguettes with chimichurri. My husband tried it, and neither of us were thrilled. As far as I’m concerned it was a missed opportunity to show off iron chef brilliance-

Nitan Thai was there as well as Iceberg – my favorite artisanal ice cream shop in Israel. Instead of the inventive passionfuit, mango, banana or lavender rose or even sweet violet or espresso crunch, they were dishing out vanilla, kinder cookie, chocolate and other non-interesting scoops. So sad. Chef restaurants, Messa & Quatro (Italian) only offered gnocchi and fettuccini alfredo type selections.

But then I saw it!!

Texas BBQ! Butchery de Bariloche. Hmmmm- sounds intriguing. Smells heavenly. Generous portions of smoked barbecue brisket chunks, fries, pickles – and a Guinness! All for 45 shekels! That’s about 12 bucks American. Could it even come close to LA’s Wood Ranch or Chueys??? You bet!!! Succulent! Tender bits of perfectly smoked awesomeness!! So worth the 30 minute line. By this time, the park was packed, the lines incredibly long, but with ocean breezes, great tunes, great friends and food, it made for a perfect welcome home for us.

We Remember

Two years ago (April 23, 2016) I wrote a blog post on Yom ha Zikaron, the Israeli Memorial Day. Please read. America has a lot to learn from how Israel remembers its history and its fallen.

Tonight begins Memorial Day and Yom haAtzma’ut, Independence Day – this year Israel celebrates its 70th year as a nation recognized by the United Nations. Memorial Day begins the preceding evening with a two minute national siren calling the nation to attention for a day of mourning the fallen.

Throughout the day the music on the radio is soft and pensive. With many songs of prayers and sad songs of remembrances of national tragedy. The television stations broadcast ceremonies from the graveyards and stories of the lives of the victims and heroes. All day. Nothing else.

Israel also has another way of remembering its fallen sons and daughters, both of soldiers and victims of terror. Throughout the land, monuments are erected, both corporate and private. They can be found in city parks; along the ocean drive; in the middle of forests; standing solitary in the desert sands; and in larger cities.

A particularly beautiful memorial is the pair of angel wings at the foot of a soldier’s grave in Netanya.

In our city, I came across a large monument rather obscurely placed in a local park. It is pretty hidden from the road, in a place the soldier liked to frequent… in a lovely secluded park near a small hiking trail-

Others are incredibly thoughtful and meaningful. These are usually more private memorials set up by immediate family members and friends. Early this spring as I was walking home from a friend’s house, I discovered this tribute to a young man who had given his life for his country. It was in one of his favorite places, close to his home, with a beautiful view of the valley below. He has left this earth and has walked up the stairs and through the door to heaven- his dog can be seen at the door. It’s poignant, beautiful, thoughtful, and my favorite.

There are other ways Israel remembers her war dead and victims of terror on this day. People wear small bouquets of the red flowers, Blood of the Maccabees. The tiny blooms signifying drops of blood.

From the setting of the sun until an hour after sunset, IDF soldiers are selected to stand guard at the graves of fallen soldiers in the national cemeteries. This year, my son was one of those chosen for this high honor. Throughout the day, free transportation is offered to those wishing to visit the graves of their loved ones. It is one of the most solemn days of the year. Ceremonies are held, sirens blare through the country at 10 am. All cars stop on the roads. People get out and take a minute to say a prayer and remember. It is all quite surreal, something you never forget. The siren blares into your innermost soul…. and the world stands still.

It is the most incredibly moving experience!! The entire nation comes to a complete standstill for two minutes!

Israel will never forget the tremendous cost of its freedom- of being surrounded by enemies, of the victims of acts of terror, of what it means to be the only Democracy in the Middle East. And the evening it ends, she celebrates that independence – knowing full well it’s price.

Aliyahversary!

The whole story started in earnest 7 years ago, when John, Max and I made our first trip to Israel the week following Max’s Bar Mitzvah. As a youth, I had dreamed of moving to Israel, but after I got married and started having children, the raging fire inside me had died out completely-or so I thought.

Visiting this amazing country, we felt a connection to the land and the people. The spark inside leapt into a flame and I had a burning desire to return.

Three years later, after a lot of soul searching, research and planning we sold our beautiful Southern California home, packed up our belongings and the adventure truly began!

We arrived the week before Passover, a quasi reenactment of the Exodus experience. After touching down in our new rented home in Karmi’el in the North, we headed for a week in Jerusalem. How apropos and glorious. The spring festivals were upon us, and it was a time of visiting old friends, making new ones, and intense bonding between my husband and 16 year old son. We were invited to a Pesach Seder by the most welcoming family, the Eisenberg’s- the best Passover experience for us to date. We toured the Old City, experiencing the sights, smells, history and traditions of our new home.

Returning to our new home in Karmi’el the true adventure -and hard work- began. Our city was lovely, well-planned, with a tight Anglo community that was open and ready to make us newcomers feel at home and integrated into the new land. Our neighbors, all native Israelis were friendly, hospitable, and more than ready to help us make the adjustments to an entirely new culture and language. For the first six months, we never once were without an invitation to a Friday night Shabbat dinner!!!

The last three years has been a time of intense growth. We’ve had wonderful times exploring our new land from the mountain trails and archeological sites of the Galilee region. We,be strolled along romantic Mediterranean beaches. Discovered new cities. Rode camels in the desert and snorkeled among the tropical fish in the Red Sea. Floated in the Dead Sea and stood under the waterfalls at Ein Gedi where David hid from King Saul.

It’s been fun eating different new foods from a wide variety of cultures. We’ve celebrated holidays and joyous celebrations- weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, IDF swearing-in services at the Kotel, national festivals; and days of remembrance, mourning and funerals.The sweet and the sad, both.

For the most part we’ve had wonderful experiences. I wondered if my teen son would acclimate. He’s made life long friends in his gap-year Mechinah program. He drafted into army service and surprised us his first Shabbat in the army in full uniform. An unforgettable memory.

None of us could have imagined the friends we’ve made from all cultures. True, caring, wonderful people we’d trust with our lives. Israel is a very, very connected place, we’ve found out. Hard to explain, but something I’ve never ever experienced before. Although rough on the outside at times, seemingly gruff at first, the Israeli will go out of his/her way to help his fellow Israeli. It is a true connectedness. A how can I help attitude? We’ve met the most remarkable people and made great friends.

In return, we’ve learned the art of hospitality. We’ve opened our home to visiting family, old friends and new ones. Sharing the beauty and history of our new home with pilgrims of different faiths, world adventurers, scholars, Lone Soldiers, or those needing a meal and a place to stay is new to us- but has been the most incredibly rewarding experience. I just wish people in America knew the true benefits and joys of hosting the way these people do. We’ve learned so much, have had so much unexpected fun, and have had our hearts enlarged.

It has not always been easy. In fact, this move has been the most difficult thing we’ve ever done. Leaving behind four daughters, friends, lifestyle and home was huge. Thank goodness for skype and other social media immediate connection with our loved ones is possible. We’ve made a lot of adjustments. Learning a new language at my age has been painful, but there were lots of resources from our five month Ulpan classes, ongoing survival Hebrew class, and all the people willing to help out. I learned that if you truly try with all your heart to integrate, people give you much more respect and kindness. And even though modern-day conversational Hebrew is very different than the Biblical/Liturgical Hebrew I grew up with- it’s added to my understanding of the latter.

Difficulties have included seemingly simple things now difficult like banking, understanding the utility bills and daily life…all in Hebrew(without the vowels!!) We’ve had to deal with the trauma of health issues, for me, hospitalization, surgery, treatments- everything in Hebrew! Conversion from the English to the metric system; the dollar to the shekel. But we’ve tried to have a sense of humor through the difficulties; a sense of adventure; and the attitude of “it’s an opportunity to learn and grow.”

An added benefit has been the ability to travel Europe…. airfares are much cheaper than flights from Los Angeles. And travel is something we always dreamed of!! Prague, Budapest, Amsterdam, Italy, France, Switzerland ,Scotland-

We’ve planted gardens, fed Israeli soldiers, volunteered with the army, and I started my own business. John has become a coach of several Little League baseball teams. All in all, it’s been a full life so far. We’re living the dream, as difficult and glorious as it’s been. And look forward to more to come! What a three years!!!

The Wait

Yet another unplanned post-

Living in Israel has been mostly positive. Of course everything has its ups and downs. Being separated from friends and families has been made tolerable due to modern technology: Skype, FaceTime, SMS, Email, the myriad social apps, and our favorites, Viber and WhatsApp that allow one to call or text anywhere in the world for free. We’ve also been host to a fair amount of pilgrims, adventurers and family wanting a home base as they tour our beautiful country. Keeping in touch has never been a problem.

The past week, though, we were thrown headfirst into a most dire and difficult situation that grew beyond our most distressing imaginations. I had bought my ticket back to California last December. With plenty of time before the birth of our first two grandchildren- one due late March, the other at the end of April. My husband was due to follow late April.

A week and a half ago, Tess messaged me photos she had taken of her legs, feet and hands. Swollen so large she could not wear shoes. Her blood pressure was elevated. She was feeling nauseous and dizzy. Despite my pleas to take off work, rest, hydrate, and go to the clinic, she went to work…. for most of the day until she could take it no longer.

That night, she and Michael made the trip to UCLA Medical Center, thank G-d, a top level hospital! As I had suspected, she had preeclampsia and her BP was sky high. After a small seizure, she was put on morphine, but her and the baby’s heartbeats and blood pressure plummeted so they gave her norepinephrine. They wanted to get the baby delivered, so pitocin was started along with a whole host of other meds. That’s when we got the phone call.

John and I were beside ourselves. Me, especially, since I was to be present at the delivery. We could only pray, wait, and give them our “attaboys.” The long night for us passed with no news. Finally, late morning, calls from older sister who was taking my place as L&D coach. Tessa was ready to push, but having a really hard time.

No word. We are on pins and needles, but praying. My strictness in observing the Sabbath without phone in hand had been thrown out the window hours ago. Three hours later. Finally!! There are problems. Baby stuck and they have to try to turn it manually. More pushing. We are praying now harder than ever, our pleas ascending to G-d from the Holy Land. Two more hours. No word.

At last, baby is born but not breathing. Rushed to NICU. Tessa in bad shape. They are working on both patients. So…. what can we do??? I’m dying that I’m so far away from my babies. I want to be there for my daughter, to comfort her, hold her. My dear husband reminds me that we can do the best for the both of them just by our prayers. So I text four really close friends to have them join me in intercession on Tessa and Quinn’s behalf.

For the next couple days, the news is not good. For either. We now have people davening and praying and fasting and offering up all over the world as the small group of four pass the intentions on to others. It is very comforting, but still… I have 2 days before my booked flight- and this is the first time I don’t want to be in Israel….

Finally news on our granddaughter- after blood transfusions, oxygen support and other numerous procedures- takes an upturn. We are praising HaShem and rejoicing for this miracle, for new life!!! We get pictures. Of the baby. Hooked up to machines. Various tubes and monitors. It takes me back to the days when I delivered my preemies without family support. But Mike and her three sisters have put their schedules asides and are taking turns round the clock staying with Tessa – and visiting the baby. I feel a little better.

Still, as I mother, I’m beside myself. John reminds me that if I were in another state, we’d be in the same boat. But I’m not!!! I’m a world away!!! Tess takes a huge turn for the worse and begins to hemorrhage. She receives several units packed red cells. We pray even harder. We pull out specific Scriptures reminding G-d of His promises. Tessa’s fever has spiked to 104.6F/40.5 C! More IV antibiotics. They can’t figure out the exact cause of the infection.

Her gallbladder goes. I’m scheduled to leave the next day. A 25 hour trip with layovers and travel times. She’s going into surgery. Surgery is delayed until they can control the bleeding… I contact a whole host of other friends for prayers. Please go straight to the Kotel. Put a petek in the wall and daven, daven, daven! I plead with my Jerusalem girlfriend.

Priests are praying at the Holy Sepulchre, the Mount of Olives, throughout the Galilee and around the world. Rabbis in Los Angeles are praying. Torah classes are studied in merit of mother and child.

Tessa’s lungs are building up fluid and she’s having trouble breathing on her own. Unresponsive to antibiotics. Women’s groups are dedicating their Tanya studies to Tess & “Malkah bat Tessa.” I’m pacing the balcony, praying, glued to the phone. Possible sepsis? Clots removed. Heparin. Lasix. Blood. Morphine.Echocardiograms. MRI. Chest X-ray. CT scans. I’m floating in medical jargon.

John says to have faith. Look at all the good that’s already coming from this. We’ve told seven people and now there are prayers all over the US, Israel, Canada, the U.K., Europe, Australia and even Africa. People of all faiths are turning to G-d and doing goods deeds on her behalf. That G-d is faithful and merciful and compassionate even when we don’t get immediate results.

We are being purged emotionally, drained spiritually, but our faith is still unfaltering. Think of the many close calls, the many miracles we’ve already witnessed in our lives. John goes off to coach his baseball team when I get the news. Liver is going south. Heart and BP irregularities. I leave in four hours- not soon enough. I just want to hold my daughter. Tell her how much I love her.

I send encouraging texts to her sisters. We’re strong women. She’ll pull through. Keep up the faith. Don’t stop praying. I send them photos from my book, Talking to G-d by Rabbi Naomi Levy ( highly recommended!!!!!!). John comes home and I plead with him to come with me on the next flight. He reassures me that our G-d is faithful. That faith is believing without seeing. Hoping beyond all hope. When I get there in a few hours, if needed, he’ll change his flight-

This was the only time I’ve been in Israel that I really wanted to be elsewhere. By this time, we were being flooded with emails, calls & messages from concerned folk. Hundreds of them. I needed time to de-pressurize. To cry quietly. To breathe. The flight proved the perfect opportunity. 18 hours of blank space. Time to pull myself together. Hope I’d be there “in time” crossed my mind a few times, but I quickly pushed it aside and opted to focus on the saving power of a merciful Creator. He could do this. We could only pray for wisdom for the doctors. As my husband had reminded me, ” This is completely out of our hands. We can do nothing. G-d is in charge. What good will worry do?” Now you know why I love this awesome man so much!

By the time I arrived at Tessa’s bedside, the bleeding was under control and six antibiotics were down to four. She was sitting up and lucid. Mike and my three other daughters were there. They hadn’t left her side in almost a week. I could breathe a sigh of relief – and give these exhausted kids a much needed break. I was there.

By the next day, IV lines were pulled and oxygen was lowered. The baby, still in NICU, was allowed to be brought down to see Mama. The worst was over and all would be well in the long run.

Last night we were surprised when the evening rounds were made and discharge orders were written up for both. Shocked, but elated!

Yes. Sometimes we go through pure hell. Sometimes things happen in life that are simply beyond our control. But we have a most awesome G-d who listens and is merciful, and if we let Him, He can bring tremendous good to a broken world.

I’ll spend the next few days helping the new family get settled- cooking, cleaning, shopping, running errands so they have time to bond. It will be a long, slow process for Tess- but she’s skied, parachuted out of airplanes, rapelled up the tallest mountain cliffs in Hawaii, New Zealand & the States. And more. She’s a strong, athletic woman. Then I’ll move on…

I’m eternally thankful to HaShem for His mercy towards us. How can I ever repay????? And to all those out there who prayed for us; who sent notes of encouragement….. see, our prayers were answered! Hallelujah! Thank you so much for your outpouring of love. Hugs and high fives to all.

I will be in Southern California through the end of May. My regularly scheduled posts on life in Israel will continue as usual, hopefully uninterrupted.

The Great Bird Migration

The first week of January, John and I took a trip to the Hula Valley to witness the yearly winter migration of the Great Cranes from Europe to Africa. It was something we had planned on doing for two years, and was a spectacular sight.

Located in Israel’s far north, the Hula Valley lies just north of Lake Kinneret, also known as the Sea of Galilee. Formed by the Syrian-African Rift, the valley is framed by the Golan Heights to the east; snow-capped Mount Hermon to the north; and the Naftali Mountain Range to the west. In this small area, a mere 30 km long and 7 km wide, is some of Israel’s most fertile agricultural land filled with fruit orchards, wheat, corn, peanut and barley fields, spotted with well-stocked fish ponds and lined with canals.

It is also one of the best places in the world for bird watchers. Israel, lying at the intersection of Europe, Asia and Africa – the Rift Valley especially- is a superhighway for over 450 species of traveling birds. That’s over 500,000,000 birds each year!!! The Hula is the last green spot before flying over the vast Sinai and Sahara Deserts in Africa. Thousands of visitors from all over the world come in the fall and spring to see the great bird migration.

At the end of the Ottoman Empire in the late 1800s, this area was a vast swampland inhabited by a few Bedouin tribes who made their living weaving papyrus mats, and a few early kibbutniks, mostly from Russia and Poland. It was a harsh land and malaria was always a problem. The Jews settling in the valley bought the land for their kibbutzim from the Bedouins at exorbitant prices. Even then, as they tried to farm the area, they were constantly under Arab attack.

Shortly after independence, in the early 1950s, the Jewish National Fund invested in the first national engineering project- the draining of the swampland. One third of the valley was totally swampy, another third had groundwater right under the surface. The water came from the aquifers of Mt Hermon, the Dan River and tributaries of the Jordan River which runs from the base of Hermon through the Hula Valley and into the Kinneret. The draining left spontaneously igniting peat bogs, which then had to be cleared, but which added to the richness of the soil. Canals were built parallel to the fields for adequate drainage, and in the late 1980s, man-made lakes and ponds were added and stocked with many varieties of fresh water fish. Today, not only is it prime agricultural land, but Agamon Hula has become a nature reserve for a number of animals.

Twice a year over 300 species of migratory birds (White Pelican; Cormorants; Great Spotted Eagles; Imperial Eagles; Cranes; Storks; Snowy Egrets;Herons) rest and refresh here as a midpoint in their travels.

We started our day early in the morning- entrance is free to wander the 8.5 km of meandering trails. Bikes are welcome and available for rent as well as golf carts and family friendly covered pedal carts. Our first stop was one of the beautiful bird watching platforms right on the lake. We took binoculars, but free telescopes are available for public use on each platform. Our morning sighting started with several varieties of duck, coot and loon as well as a few herons and graceful white egrets.

No one could have prepared us for what was in store next. We decided to buy a ticket to the tractor-hauled, camouflaged duck blind for a trip into the fields.

Passing through magnificent landscape, we finally arrived at a massive field where over 42,500 Great Cranes awaited. They had just arrived from Russia and were feasting on corn. In order to prevent these creatures from reaping havoc in the farmland, over 3 tons of corn per day is scattered in one of 3 fields specially designated for the ravenous sojourners. What a sight it was!

From there, we went closer to the lake to watch thousands of White Cranes and long legged storks.

Also in the adjacent fields were a herd of Water Buffalo being raised for their milk which is used by a nearby kibbutz for artisanal mozzarella.

Because these birds are so well fed here, many refuse to leave, staying in the area throughout the Hula, Golan and Galil year round. The White Cranes and Blue Herons are often spotted tagging after herds of local grazing cattle. The fish in the Kinneret are also an abundant food supply. Just last week, right above our house, there was a regal presentation of Aya, or spotted hawks. This truly is a land of diversity and plenty, and we are so blessed to be able to live in such a remarkable place.

Making the Connection

IMG_0862The United States today is facing a time of the erasure of its history; “cultural misappropriation” and confusion; fractioned families; identity confusion. Colleges and universities have been taken over by waves of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and Boycott, Divest and Sanction programs against Israel. There has been an ongoing bias in the UN and in the media against Israel.  Also, there has been a growing shift towards secularism and away from any and all religion. How then to connect the Jewish young adult to his/her heritage? How does one foster a connection to Judaism, to the land of Israel, to awaken a dormant spirituality, to create a sense of heritage, belonging, and identity?

Aaron Botzer, who immigrated to Israel in the late 1970s has done exactly that. From humble beginnings in the scenic mountain town of ancient Tsfat in the Upper Galilee, Aaron has cobbled together an amazing program for Jewish young adults. Livnot U’Lehibanot, Build and Be Built, is a program like no other in Israel. It is a holistic, physically and spiritually challenging Jewish experience that connects the participants to their heritage and community in an open environment. Combining hiking through the beautiful countryside while learning about the history, the land, the ecological balance, and the flora and fauna is only one experience to feed the soul. Through nature, hands-on experiences, seminars, connection to the local community, field trips, and unique cultural opportunities, the soul is elevated and can make connections not otherwise drawn.

Situated in the mystical city of old Tsfat, which is literally built atop layers and layers of history provides another advantage. Not only are the youth able to enjoy the artsy and spiritual vibes of this unique place, but the Livnot Center itself, is built on a most amazing archaeological site, the Kahal. Located on a 700 square meter site, in the heart of Tsfat’s ancient, Jewish quarter, are underground stone passageways and tunnels leading to rooms, structures, ritual bathing pools (mikvaot), synagogues, and homes from the 16th century, Tsfat’s Golden Age. The participants in this program spend time actually working on the ongoing excavations and renovations of the site. It provides a unique hands-on opportunity to connect with the past as well as to enjoy all that it offers in the present. There is a large communal hall that has been unearthed and restored. It contains wood-burning ovens from the 1500s, where today, pizza is made and challah is baked. The carved-out stone seating area along the walls of this spacious stone room is lined with richly colored Middle Eastern pillows and cushions – a perfect place for seminars, musical concerts and just hanging out.

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Livnot U’Lehibanot is not only concerned with the past, but community service programs and opportunities to volunteer within the local communities provide a link to present-day Israel. There are seminars and group discussions led by leading experts in different fields. Also, there are interactive workshops, in art and music, challah making, cooking, folk dance, ecology and sustainability, and spirituality. Fantastically fun and spirit-filled Shabbat celebrations are another highlight of the program. There are classes in leadership training as well, as the future leaders of society make up the different groups.

This life-changing program is not affiliated with any particular denomination of Judaism, which is very unique here in Israel. The philosophy behind this is that all denominations have the ability to influence one another for the good of all. There is no pressure on the youth to go one way or another, just to enjoy and grow from the experience. There are many different paths of Jewish spirituality that vary from individual to individual. It is quite open-minded in its holistic approach, which helps bridge many gaps. Ultimately, to form a bond with the Almighty, with Judaism, and with the land of Israel is the ultimate goal. Here, the young adult will meet many different people from all over the world – not just the States, but Europe, South Africa, Canada, Australia and South America. Trained mentors oversee the activities in a safe and fun environment.

The Livnot programs consist of short term 1 week, 2 weeks, and 6 weeks intensives. Each group consists of no more than 24 youth. The intensives are highly subsidized by generous patrons, making it very affordable indeed (a full week including room and board is only $195/ a six week course runs $500). It is perfect for the person who has made a Birthright trip and wants something more – to take that adventure to a higher level.  There are winter programs, running from December through February; summer programs from May through August; and special holiday programs. Perfect for the university student as well as the post graduate, who is looking for a different kind of spiritual experience. To date, over 1000 alumni of Livnot have completed the program and have gone on to become active young professionals and lay leaders in their own communities back home.

“In retrospect, there has probably been no single life experience                     that has had such a profound effect on my life. I was able to discover what a gold mine was out there for Jewish souls. Shabbat evening, with its candles and sensual setting, was a profound experience of peace and belonging, connection and fulfillment. My life has been forever transformed.”   Avi R., Program T25

” I am reminded of how one week in Tsfat set me on the path of personal legacy. Livnot has been the catalyst of my Jewish journey…my program showed me that being Jewish isn’t about scrambling to save people from being washed out by modern society, but rather that we are privileged to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We are connected to a thriving, growing family and culture that is infused with thousands of years of spirituality and wisdom.”  Abigail C., Program 256

“Life altering is an understatement!”   David B., Program 126

For more information, as a potential participant, or to donate – contact www.livnot.org

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