My inaugural journey to Israel – an initiation of sorts

April 7, 2008 in Israel, It is what it is - opinion column | Comments (0)


My first journey to Israel occurred in 1995 as part of a mission from my family’s synagogue in Southern Florida – Boca Raton to be precise.
The tale of that journey is one I’ve not shared publicly. I’ve told some friends, but for the most part, I’ve kept it to myself.
Until now.
I hadn’t intended to go on the trip. I was planning an extended adventure in Alaska. It was one of those fly-into-middle-of-Denali-in-bush-plane-hike-raft-through-wilderness-get-picked-up-on-other-side-in-bush-plane things. But after an array of family events, not the least of which was my father’s recovery from a rather invasive Cancer surgery, I decided that shifting my trajectory was the right thing to do.
And so in June of 1995 I found myself on an El Al flight to Israel.
For the record, I’m Jewish. I was raised in what would probably be categorized as a fairly traditional, conservative household – synagogue on most weekends, Hebrew school, bat mitzvah – the whole nine yards.
Somewhere around my 14th birthday, though, I pretty much gave up on the whole religion thing. Truth is I rejected G-d and in the process ditched any and all thoughts about organized religion.
But that is a story for another day.
The relevant bit here is what happened to me on this mission in 1995.
Since I wasn’t dialed in to the whole religious experience thing I figured I’d focus on my family and absorb as much of the incredibly rich regional culture as possible.
We landed at Ben Gurion at about 11am on a hot morning in late June. The airport still was rather small and so we deplaned via an outdoor stairway onto the tarmack.
Stepping from the chilled tube of airplane the sharply dry air hit like the gust from an open oven door. Things started off with a trip to plant trees. From there it was to the Haas Promenade for an across the valley view of the old city of Jerusalem. It’s that view you’ve seen a million times. Stately walls, speckled with minarets and flags with the distinctive, shimmering gold Dome of the Rock at its center.
We went to our hotel, and after a good night’s sleep we were off for a walking tour of the Old City of Jerusalem.
If you’ve never spent time in any ancient sort of city there is one thing that seems pretty universal about those locations. In ancient times, when a marauding army of one sort or another was coming in, the people who lived there would raze their city to the ground so as to leave nothing for the incoming troops to inherit. They’d have to build from scratch.
And so throughout lands with this deeply seeded history you have layer upon layer upon layer of cities built upon each other leaving stratifications of civilization to uncover.
Back in 1995 they were still in early-ish stages of excavating parts of the old city. One such dig was an amazing discovery of a literal city street – complete with homes and paved roads – that lay about 40-50 feet below the actual streets of the existing city.
From deep below the city we emerged to walk through street upon street of this magnificent history. Images of ancient times juxtaposed with those of modern day.
After several hours we emerged at the top of a stairway that looked over the plaza leading to the Western Wall. For the uninitiated this space is also sometimes called the Wailing Wall … though I lean towards the former title as it feels … well … less maudlin.
It is common practice to write a note with a prayer on it and then insert it between the stones of the wall. At the time, a friend of mine was pregnant with her first child. It was a somewhat late pregnancy and so out of concern for her welfare and that of her baby, I wrote a note wishing for an easy delivery and a healthy child.
I finished writing my note and then started walking the 200 or so yard journey across the plaza to the wall itself. With my mother on my left and my sister to my right things were going simply enough.
And then suddenly it wasn’t so simple.
About 20 yards along, I felt as though I’d walked into a wall of some sort. I can’t explain it any other way than to say that it was as though a very strong wind – the kind you might experience walking down a city street in Chicago – kicked up and was pushing in my face, almost holding me still.
My mother and sister kept walking and it wasn’t until they’d gone another 10 feet or so that they realized I was no longer with them. I’d frozen in place, clutching my note in one hand.
If my mother were able to raise one eyebrow, she’d most certainly have done so, but as it was she walked back up to me with a simple, “Cathy? Something wrong?”
It took me a minute but I managed to squeeze out some sort of response. I can’t recall precisely what I said, but it was something along the lines of: “I can’t go there. I can’t go to that wall.”
From here I’ll truncate the story.
After about 10 minutes or so of taking my time to walk in what must have looked a bit like a toddler taking first steps, I found myself nose to stone with several thousand years of history.
The next cognitive moment I have took place nearly 15 minutes later. My forehead was against the wall. My arms were stretched wide with palms flat against the stone above my head. Tears poured from my eyes and I had this incredible, deep, warm sensation – as though I were wrapped tightly in a soft blanket.
There, in that moment, I found a connection to something far greater than myself.
Was it God?
I have no idea.
But what I do know is that each day after took on a richness and depth beyond anything I’d ever known.
The next time I stepped foot in Israel was in March 2007. Twelve years had passed and the country had changed … a lot. Unlike my first journey, this next one was wholly business-focused, and while I went to some of the same places, it felt a bit detached and clinical.
That is not the case this time around.
Once again I fly all these miles for what is essentially a business-oriented journey to attend a few conferences and strengthen my professional acumen. But unlike last year, I find myself in a different role with this trip. The Israeli Consulate is graciously hosting a group of us to spend some time – meeting with entrepreneurs, talking with business people and looking into all that which is innovation in Israel.
That may seem like it’s all business, but on some level this year I feel a deeper connection to the journey and am quite curious as to what that may bring.


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