I am so proud to be leading an incredible congregational family trip to Israel. Eight families from Congregation Emanu El from Houston, TX, and I just finished the second day of our 10-day tour. These 27 people, ranging in age from 8 to 80, comprise born Jews, Jews-by-choice, non-Jews, in-marrieds, inter-marrieds, public-schoolers, Jewish day-schoolers, a non-Jewish grandparent, and even a couple who are the non-Jewish godparents of one of the children on the trip. In case their backgrounds aren’t enough, what makes this group even more interesting is that we are one of three congregations from Houston, led by three young rabbis – one Conservative and two Reform – who are traveling together, lodging together, and working together with one wonderful tour agency.
The theme of our tour is essentially “Israel is super cool!” In the last 36 hours, we’ve gotten a lot done: learned Jewish history hands-on through the lens of the founding of the modern state of Israel; eaten falafel and shwarma; surveyed the north by way of hiking, four-wheeling, and sightseeing; and continually engaged in the kinds of natural, organic conversations that happen when any mostly-Jewish group finds itself traveling through Israel with non-Jews on Christmas. As we traveled through the Galilee on Tuesday, the embrace of the Christians in the group on their special day of Christmas was equally meaningful, especially because our children had the chance to see Jews and Christians engaged in philosophical discussion about history, politics, religion, and spirituality.
Israel is a place, as we know, that can bring out so much of the worst in humanity. But it is also a center that draws so many different people together, all of whom could have four-wheeled, learned about history, sight-seen, and even gotten a hold of really great shwarma and falafel back in the States. It is not about what we are doing here – but that we are here, period. This place isn’t about all the cool things one can do in Israel; rather, traveling to Israel with one’s children, parents, spouses, friends, and grandparents is about how one feels when he/she is here.
It is our presence here that affirms our connection to this land – and it is our presence here that can produce productive, instructive conversations about the search of meaning in life. That is what truly makes this land a holy place. When we all come together and can agree on what we are looking for and remain committed to working towards achieving it for our fellow, Israel does indeed become a land flowing with the nourishing milk of ideas and the honey of sweet conversation.
Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss is the senior rabbi of Congregation Emanu El in Houston, TX.