It took a cancelled flight, a tasty Newark airport Caesar salad, and a 10 hour Advil PM induced sleep coma, but my wife Allie, 50 fellow Park Synagogue congregants, and I finally arrived at Nof Ginosar Kibbutz Hotel just after dinner time this evening. I first planned to visit Israel as a NYU student in the summer of 2002, but in the wake of 9/11 and in the midst of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, concerns over safety and security convinced me to push it back. From there, career passions, Cavs playoff runs, and family vacations took precedence. Finally, at last year’s Park Country Fair, Allie and I made a pact with Rabbi Skoff that we would spend part of July of 2016 in the Jewish homeland.
We thought our countdown to Israel hit zero on Monday afternoon when our group successfully passed through security and took a seat at gate C22 at Hopkins airport. However, an epic New York thunderstorm delayed our connecting flight to Newark, and soon it became clear that the first day of our trip was in serious jeopardy. On the surface, you might cringe at the thought of a bunch of neurotic Jewish families in the midst of a travel debacle. I may have heard a few Yiddish words unfit for print in this fine publication, but overall, our team stayed positive and confident, even when United gate agents told us that we needed to retreat back to the east side and try again on Tuesday. As Rabbi Skoff wrote in an email the following morning: “The Jewish people waited 2000 years to get back to Israel. After one more day, your wait will be over.”
The second go-around was more successful, and by Tuesday night, Allie and I were following Bill Clinton’s DNC speech and a remarkable Indians comeback win while boarding a flight for Tel Aviv. In some ways, you can already feel Israel at the departure gate. The familiar sound of Hebrew wafts through the air, the orthodox daven evening prayers before boarding, and the labels on the snacks read right-to-left. We were a little anxious about the long flight, so after enjoying Jennifer Lawrence in Joy, we huddled under our hopefully clean airline blankets to get some rest.
Once on the ground in Tel Aviv, we met our tour guide Anat, chugged a delicious fresh orange juice, and boarded our luxury purple bus for the kibbutz. We’ve learned that highway signs in Israel are in three languages: English, Hebrew, and Arabic. Back home, our neighbors are our allies. While our group feels super safe, instability in the region also feels palpable: the Syrian boarder is a few miles away and concrete walls near to the toll road are a stark reminder of the current climate.
After a few hours, we made our way to the Sea of Galilee. Dinner on the kibbutz would rival any Free Food Friday: beef brisket, chicken, broccoli salad, and hummus. Tomorrow, the trip begins in earnest, with a visit to a Golan Heights, a chocolate factory tour, and a rafting down the mighty Jordan river.
Aaron Goldhammer is a host and producer at ESPN Cleveland.