Posted in Columns

Art & Soul: Creative expression links Israel’s past, present and future

I could hear the rushing flow of water long before I saw the striking sculpture from which it flowed, its white tile surface gleaming in the Jerusalem sunshine.

Several weeks ago, I returned from my first journey to Israel where I walked among archaeological sites representing thousands of years of social, political and religious history. With direction from enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour guides Gideon Har-Hermon and Ziv Cohen, my colleagues from the American Jewish Press Association and I traced the steps of ancestors whose influences remain though their bones have faded into dust.

The sculpture was on the grounds of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. At that moment, I did not realize that it was an integral piece of the Shrine of the Book, home of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Descending into the darkness of the underground chamber where the Scrolls are displayed, our chatty group fell silent. A Torah-like pillar glowed from the center. I looked up and realized that the ceiling was the underside of the fountain, its shape symbolic of the jars in which the nearly 2,000-year-old Scrolls had been preserved and found.

The artistic display connected these ancient objects to their original context while creating a bridge to the present. For me, this is the essence of art: communicating thoughts, emotions, experiences, and yes, even history.

The purpose of my visit was to understand Israel in a way that I could not through other people’s descriptions. It is tempting to define Israel simply in terms of the ancient because historically significant sites permeate the landscape. However, focusing solely on relics of the past misses the point. Israel is a living, breathing entity. Her complex political, social and religious structures, like those of our own country, beg for analysis, for context. Israel’s art overcame language, cultural and generational barriers, and enhanced my appreciation for this geographically small but globally significant nation.

How many is 1.5 million?

The Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem was designed to help students understand the magnitude of the Holocaust in which 1.5 million children under age 18 were killed.

“How do you show that large of a number? It’s too big for a child to comprehend,” said Yad Vashem guide Dr. Edna Wilchfort. A line of broken pillars of different heights, an image reminiscent of a family portrait, topped the hill toward which we walked.

“How many is 1.5 million?” she asked. Her question hung in the air as we entered the cave-like opening below the pillars and then surrounded by darkness, haunting music and a somber voice that called names, one by one. Slowly, from the oppressive black appeared a single, far-away light. Then 10. Then 1,000. Then tens of thousands-more than eyes could see, more than anyone could count. Like stars in the clearest night sky, they softly brightened the room with a dim light. We understood the depth and breadth of 1.5 million lives lost. I felt the painful impact of that message for many hours afterward.

Israel’s art, in the form of the memorial, told the story that words could not.

Ancient history lights the night

Days later, we experienced the Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem, located in the Old City. The story of Jerusalem is detailed in the permanent exhibits housed throughout this archeological site, where visitors can get a 360-degree view of Jerusalem from the top of The Citadel’s towers. After dusk, the museum came to life with The Night Spectacular. Light, music, and sound were projected from and onto every surface of the courtyard in a multimedia telling of Jerusalem’s history. Who would have thought to use The Citadel as a mega movie screen? Modern technology creatively connected past to present.

The Tel Aviv Museum of Art offered art in a more traditional sense. We visited the one-year-old Herta and Paul Amir wing that houses “The Museum Presents Itself: Israeli Art from the Museum Collection.” Selected works wove a framework of viewpoints regarding modern Israel from the early 1900s through today. A colleague and I searched for connections between the words and phrases painted on the surfaces of the museum’s walls. We debated the meaning of the texts and wondered whether artist Douglas Gordon had some kind of hidden message within the work as a whole.

Our conversation was appropriate. We were in Israel, after all – a place of history with a level of mystery that, like art, leaves interpretation and understanding up to the beholder.

This originally ran in the March 2013 edition of JUF News.



Posted in Columns

Making a new path to understanding Israel

I started writing this message on a sunny Shabbat morning in Jerusalem, during my first visit to Israel. The first few days of my adventure involved myriad hours touring this ancient city, although people – rather than artifacts – made the biggest impression on me.

I am a Christian and my concept of Israel has mostly been based on Biblical knowledge, an amalgamation of history and faith. As an American working for a Jewish communal organization, I have some notion of Israel’s importance in the global arena – but I have not always had detailed reasons for supporting Israel that I can share with others.

During my travels with journalists and others from the American Jewish Press Association, we shared a post-Shabbat dinner discussion with several people from the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute, “a center of transformative thinking and teaching that addresses the major challenges facing the Jewish people and elevates the quality of Jewish life in Israel and around the world.”

Dr. Marcie Lenk, a Hartman Institute fellow, discussed the program she directs, “New Paths: Christians Engaging in Israel” project. She cited results of a Pew Research Center Report (December 2012), noting that  50 percent of American Evangelical Christians sympathize with Israel, 10 percent with Palestine and 27 percent sympathizing with both. She worked with a Christian team to develop an “Introduction to Israel” course for Christians, taught by Christians, rather than Jews. Eight U.S. churches are testing the curriculum.

The idea is to help people think about Israel as “more than the place that Jesus walked,” Lenk said. She ultimately hopes American Christians will connect with modern Israel in some way. While the course includes some history, that is not its sole focus. The Institute wanted to avoid getting into “dueling history books,” she said. Instead, Christians can read Israel’s Proclamation of Independence and discuss what it meant for Jews, how Israel has been portrayed by American and global media – and whether Israel has yet met the goals set forth in 1948. The idea is to demonstrate the complexity of modern Israel, Lenk said. Poetry – written by both Israelis and Palestinians – is also part of the curriculum.

My experience in Israel was emotional and inspiring. As I walked through Jerusalem’s Old City, the spicy scents, raucous chatter and bright colors provided a backdrop of history against the bumpy stones layered beneath my feet – a reminder of what life might have been like when Jesus walked those same streets 2,000 years or so ago.

For several days, ancient Jerusalem consumed my mind. Archaeological treasures were everywhere I looked. There was so much history, so much to learn – it was almost overwhelming. At the same time, people dressed in modern garb, drove cars on the streets, ate together, argued about election results and breathed life into the ancient scenery. Far more than a tourist destination, Israel is home for 7.9 million diverse people who make Israel a daily experiment in democracy on the world stage.

I now have a concrete connection to Israel that I lacked prior to a few weeks ago. While Israel is far too complex to understand in the context of one week, I have a much better grasp of its culture and people, of the landscape, and a connection to my faith tradition that defies my previous imagination. I believe dialogue between people of different cultures is exciting and necessary for finding common ground. I hope the Hartman Institute’s New Paths program promotes this kind of open communication, which in my opinion, has the potential to change the world for the better.

For more on the Shalom Hartman Institute, visit

This originally ran in my JUF News blog, “Outside In.”



Posted in Columns

Fearlessness in Israel

Life changing.

If I was limited to only two words, those are the words I choose to describe Israel.

The change started when I was invited to tour Israel with the American Jewish Press Association. I have not been out of the country since I was 14 and never had my own passport. I hoped my husband could go, but his work schedule did not allow it.

That meant I would be going to a different country thousands of miles away. Alone.

I didn’t know anyone on the tour. I didn’t know anyone in Israel.

Truth: I was nervous. But not enough to miss this kind of an opportunity.

I wasted a lot of energy worrying about whether my passport would arrive on time. Of course, it did. As my travel date approached, I felt nervous again. What if I got sick? What if someone in the family got sick while I was gone? What would it be like? What should I pack?

The translation, of course, is that I’m a closet control freak and there would be a lot of things out of my control.

I let them go and focused on packing.

Because the Israel Ministry of Tourism sponsored our tour, we were offered opportunities to see and do things that most people would not be able to do – at least not in the week or so we have been here.

I connected with history in a way I never imagined.

I got lost (fortunately, with a colleague) in the Old City of Jerusalem. We had a “map” that was not the most accurate device. I hate getting lost, but we just kept walking.

A young man from one of the shops in the marketplace helped us find our bearings. He was one of the first to do so without insisting on shekels first, so I asked him whether he had scarves in his shop – which he did. He wanted us to see his brother’s jewelry shop around the corner, so we followed and spent nearly an hour looking at the lovely designs, talking with them about their life in Israel and purchasing some of their wares.

They offered us coffee or tea, which we gently refused – but then one of them said in his culture, it’s important to receive hospitality when it is offered. So we accepted and were treated to a delightful cup of tea with mint leaves.

If we hadn’t been lost, we never would have met them. Yes, they were selling but they were also open to talking about their culture.

I lost my fear of people I don’t know – OK, so it’s not fear, but it’s a general discomfort that I can hide pretty well. I’ve gotten to know some of my colleagues and I feel like we’re old friends after traveling together for so many hours and miles.

Like I said, Israel changed me.

Yesterday I checked three things off my bucket list. Things I figured I’d never do because I was really afraid to do two of them.

We went to a reef in Eilat, a beautiful resort area on the Red Sea, to swim with dolphins. Not just swim – dive. As in put on a wetsuit, mask, tank, weights, flippers and all those good things and gracefully descend into the water. I have snorkeled before, and love it. Getting used to only taking air through my mouth from a tank was a little unsettling. My teacher was a patient man who spoke calmly to me when I became impatient with myself. Meanwhile, the dolphins circled around us. I’m pretty sure they were laughing at me.

I finally relaxed and we descended 15 or 20 meters. I faced my fear and did it in Israel.

Like I said, it changed me.

A couple of hours later, I was high in the Eilat Mountains on the back of a camel. She was a lovely, soft creature with long eyelashes and a mellow attitude. It was more exciting than scary – I have ridden a horse before and I think it was more comfortable on the camel. Truthfully, it may have been faster to walk. But we were on camels! In the mountains! The only sound was the padding of their feet on the rocky soil, occasional laughter or conversation, and the wind whispering the secrets of the ages as we ascended the mountain.

After our ride, we gathered in a tent and enjoyed Bedouin-style hospitality. A young man served us tea and bread, both cooked over an open fire. Several ibex came down the mountain to check us out. We relaxed and enjoyed each other’s company.

Then our host talked us into staying for the newly established “adventure course” – a complicated maze of ropes and zip lines. I said, no, I would watch the others and learned again that when hospitality is offered in Israel, it must be accepted.

Five minutes later, I was wearing a helmet and my legs, waist and rear end were wrapped up in a belt. I ascended a ladder to the first part of the course – truthfully only 20 feet or so off the ground – and stopped.

I was finished. I said, “Thank you,” and started to go back down the ladder.

Our host – and my supportive colleagues – cheered me on, urging me to keep going. One deep breath and I was on my way across the rope, and then across another and then it was time for the zip line.

I held my breath, wrapped my hands around the ropes holding me up, sat back and jumped.

I never, ever thought I would do something like that. I felt like a little kid again (although I probably would have been too scared to try it when I was a kid.)

Inside, I realized that most of what holds us back is our own thought patterns.

I had to go to Israel to figure out how to let mine go. And now, I’m ready to take on the world!

Israel is more than history. It’s more than politics. It’s a vibrant, growing country with more opportunities than anyone can imagine, with strong, interesting, open people.

I love it here and can’t wait to come back.

Thank you, Israel!

This article originally ran in my JUF News blog, “Outside In.”