Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Reflections on this Summer in Israel

 Reflections from some of the Onward Israel participants...

Alex Davidson 
Senior at University of Maryland 
Interned at the Israel-Asia Center

"Spending this summer in Israel despite unexpected turbulence is something I would not trade for anything. Participating in Onward Israel has given me valuable insight into what it really is to be Israeli; to be strong, to be proud, and to live life with great vigor. The level of both professional and personal growth I have experienced in Israel are invaluable."

Chelsea Polaniecki 
Junior at Brandeis University
Interned at OneFamily Fund

"This summer in Israel was like one giant family reunion, the kind where every step you take you meet another family member whom you'd never had the chance to meet before. You learn about who they are and laugh about your crazy cousin. You realize how a family can be so huge, the size of an entire nation, and yet you can still feel such a strong and innate connection between you and your 'cousin.' Although I do have family living in Israel, this summer I met my 'extended family' so to speak. I met a new side of the Jewish people; a Jewish people in the midst of war. And it was a most uniting and loving experience. As soon as any information of an injured or passed soldier in Gaza was released, heads dropped and tears flowed, everywhere. The soldiers were each someone's brother, son, husband, boyfriend etc and therefore they were everyone's brother, son, husband, and boyfriend. We worried together and we prayed together and we kept each other strong, like any family would. This summer was a hard one, but there was much beauty and love to be found amongst the worries and tears."

Tatiana Hasson
Senior at University of Maryland
Interned at Ethiopian national project


"This summer I learned how unique, fun and inspirational the city of jerusalem is. Jerusalem had always been 'home' in my mind, on a spiritual, religious an ideological level. However, this summer jerusalem turned into my practical, 'real' home as well."

Aaron Rosenberg
Sophomore at Clark University
Interned at Barbara Shaw Gifts


"My most memorable experience I'd have to say was Eilat because we were able to get away from all of the news and chaos of the war and just relax by the Red Sea for a few days. It also was so amazing to travel across the country with the great friends I've made!"

Doreet Nagatti
Sophomore at Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Interned at Alyn hospital


"Israel made me strong. Seeing the resilience of the Israelis after every misfortune, going on with their lives as usual, really inspired me. No matter what, life always goes on. Am Yisrael Chai"

Zack Filkoff
Senior at Emerson College
Interned at Nefesh B'Nefesh

"Living in Israel has shown me how important it is to do something meaningful with my life because here in Israel, everyone is doing something to contribute to a better tomorrow. Not just for themselves but for their home, their country, and for the world"

Elior Anina 
Junior at Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Interned at Made in JLM 

"A summer abroad in Israel was a once in a lifetime experience. I embraced the diversity and culture of this beautiful country. I really enjoyed living in Israel for the summer even during a time of war. One thing that really inspired me was the Israeli mentality that life goes on no matter what the circumstances."

Saying Goodbye to the Homeland

The airplane takes off and my eyes start to close as I prepare for 16 hours of traveling back home to California. Missing Israel already, I reflect on the incredible memories I have of a summer filled with joyful and insightful adventures.

I traveled throughout the country spending time in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ra'anana, Haifa, Tzfat, the Golan, Yeruham, and Gush Etzion. This summer, I grew much closer to Judaism as I celebrated Shabbat every weekend, prayed in the Old City at the Kotel and the Hurva, and for the first time observed Tzom Tammuz and Tish'a B'Av. I learned about the history of Israel by touring the City of David, viewing the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum, and hiking in Gush Etzion, where battles took place during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. I took public transportation to my internship, learned some Hebrew on the way, and thus, surpassed my experience as a Birthright participant by really living as an Israeli for two months.

Along with all these great adventures, I cannot ignore the fact that I was living in Israel during Operation Protective Edge, a monumental time in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This life-changing summer consisted of some of the happiest memories of my life and yet, this summer I also witnessed overwhelming tragedies. 

My first week in Israel, the news released that three teenaged boys had been kidnapped in Gush Etzion (funded by Hamas). I don't know what it's like to lose someone dear to me. Fortunately, I have never had to go to a funeral in my life, but this summer in Israel, I attended my first one. I went to the funeral of the three boys that were kidnapped and murdered: Eyal Yifrach, 19; Gilad Shaar, 16; Naftali Fraenkel, 16. I didn't personally know these boys and yet, I felt it necessary to go to the funeral, alongside the thousands of others in attendance, to show my solidarity with the Jewish nation.

I was amazed to see how Israelis and Jews worldwide came together during this time for the same cause, to #BringBackOurBoys. Around the world, there were events to create awareness of the kidnapped boys and vigils  after the boys' deaths.

      80,000 people rally and pray in Tel Aviv for kidnapped Israeli teens

After the tragic news was released on July 1st of the three boys murder, the IDF's Operation Brother's Keeper quickly transformed to Operation Protective Edge. Since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge, more than 3,488 rockets have been fired from Gaza to Israel

As lucky as I was to be living relatively safely in Jerusalem and enjoying my time there, I have to remind myself that 64 soldiers were killed since the operation began and many are seriously wounded. Even though I had to go to a bomb shelter three times, that was nothing in comparison to other towns in Israel under constant rocket threat.

While I've been distraught during this time, I also have witnessed hope and determination in Israel. When there are 30,000 attendees at a lone soldier's funeral and countless opportunities to donate or volunteer, I feel a sense of pride. This pride derives from the immense support and accountability Israelis have showed to one another and the enduring resilience that makes up Israel.

                                Funeral for Lone Soldier Max Steinberg

Through the heartache, I found a community in Israel. When I attended the teenaged boys funeral, had a vigil with my Onward Israel Program, and prayed for Lieutenant Hadar Goldin with the town of Ra'anana, I created a unique Jewish bond. This bond I will carry with me for the rest of my life as I continue to advocate for Israel.

After this summer, I take ownership as a Jew to fight for the Jewish home land. I am not an IDF soldier, but I will find ways to show my support. Whether it's by donation, sharing articles on social media, or getting involved with AIPAC, I will do my part to defend a country I love.
                               the nation of Israel lives  --עם ישראל חי!

Until next time in Israel, Shalom!

-Camille Pilar Phillips

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Ra'anana in a Time of Mourning

My heart aches. My hands tremble. My eyes burn from the tears.

What I'm describing, was a life changing experience I had in Israel. A night where I prayed with the town of Ra'anana for the safety of IDF soldier, Hadar Goldin.

On Friday August 1, the IDF announced the suspected kidnap of Hadar Goldin.
I hear the news while I'm on my way to my boyfriend's cousins' house in a town called Ra'anana. When his cousin picks us up from the bus stop, he tells us that Hadar was in his grade in High School.

My heart feels heavy as this new information settles in. Hadar is no longer a name I read in the multitude of news articles about Israel- it is now much more personal. Hadar is a friend, a twin brother, a son, and a fiance. As I learn more about him, I can't help but worry.

The next morning at 6 am, I woke up to a rocket siren in Ra'anana. We shake off the sleepiness in our eyes and calmly walk down the stairs to the bomb shelter. A couple of minutes later, I hear a loud boom- the sound of  the Iron Dome blowing up a rocket fired from Gaza. After this boom, we casually return to our rooms and continue sleeping.

Imagine a rocket siren going off in the United States. I honestly can't. And yet, in Israel, rockets become normalized. Most Israelis aren't phased when they hear a rocket siren. It's just another day at war to them; it's just an aspect of the Israeli reality. Fortunately, the Iron Dome makes the rockets a bearable disruption in the day, rather than total destruction. Nevertheless, the sirens are a constant reminder of Hamas' death threat.  

After Shabbat on Saturday night, we find out that the community in Ra'anana is having a prayer service at Hadar Goldin's old high school. Without hesitation, we get in the car and drive to the school. When we arrive, I am shocked to see, what looks like the whole town of Ra'anana, gathered at the school's shul 

The high school principal spoke to us as well as the Chief Rabbi of Israel. What gave me goosebumps was when, Hadar Goldin's twin brother went in front of the room and spoke to the crowd. I couldn't understand how he was so calm up there. How could he speak to us without breaking down in tears? He was very composed and told us that he was confident his twin brother was still alive. He felt assured that the IDF would not leave Gaza without his brother. He left the room giving me hope.

We sang psalms and everyone in the room could hear one man's voice over the rest. This man sang loud with so much emotion that everyone could sense his pain. I sang with my arms around the people next to me as we swayed from side to side.

I can't understand Hebrew, but I could understand the atmosphere of the room and that was enough to feel something. I've never felt such an overwhelming amount of sadness as I looked around the room and saw everyone crying. I don't personally know Hadar, and yet I couldn't help but cry. I started breathing heavily as my throat choked up while I sang. My cheeks were wet with tears and my face grew hot.

The vibrations in the room of everyone singing was an awe-inspiring force. As people sang, they were praying to God with all their might. I saw a woman in front of me with her arms stretched open to the sky and her face looking up to God with tears running down her face.

It was inspiring for me to see Jews with so much faith in God, despite the suffering they've faced as a people throughout history. For thousands of years, Jews have been persecuted and even today, Jews face anti-Semitism worldwide. The Israelis combat the current manifestation of anti-Semitism: Hamas, a terrorist organization driven to obliterate Israel (As explicitly written out in the Hamas charter). In that moment, I looked around the room and saw sincere people with good hearts. I could not fathom why human beings could want to destroy the people in the room, myself included, based off a single factor that is their Jewish religion.

After the service, I left the shul emotionally drained. I wanted to crawl in bed and not think about war, politics, media bias, anti-Semitism, and the rest of the mess that had consumed my thoughts the past two months.

The next morning I woke up to the news I was dreading most. Hadar Goldin was announced killed in action by a Hamas suicide bomber. I was shocked to find this out only hours after our praying. This was a tragedy I have a personal connection to and I didn't even know Hadar. And yet, being Jewish and a supporter of Israel, I can completely identify with this tragedy. 

Hadar Goldin was one of the 64 IDF soldiers who have died since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge. However, I don't like associating a number to Hadar or the rest of the soldiers, because every soldier has a unique story and a life behind that number. I encourage you, reader, to learn about the men who have sacrificed their lives defending the Jewish home land. For that cause, I am forever grateful to the brave, young soldiers of Israel. 

יהי זכרם ברוך-  May their memories be a blessing

Hadar Goldin, 23

-Camille Pilar Phillips

Tech Aviv

The refreshing, pleasantly-warm Mediterranean waters rushed over my feet as I strolled down the Tel Aviv coastline. The beach was filled with Israelis, taking part in a wide variety of activities. Many were laying down in the sun, soaking up the warm Friday. Some were playing with their dogs, which were running wildly across the beach.

The Tel Aviv beach reminds me of Miami in the sense that there are glamorous hotels across the beach's boardwalk. Tel Aviv is also referred to as the New York City of Israel, because it creates a hip, international, and innovative aura to the country. Tel Aviv is the country's largest economic center with modern restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs.

When I visited Tel Aviv with my program, we went on a tour of Jaffa, one of the oldest port cities in the world. The city of Jaffa is mentioned in the Jewish Bible, dating back to the times of King Soloman. In 1950, Jaffa formally merged with the Tel Aviv municipality, creating a unified city.

Jaffa's ancient history contrasts the rising tech hub that is Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv, referred to as the 'start-up nation,' has the largest number ofstart-ups per capita. The vibrant environment of Tel Aviv contributes to its title as the world's second most innovative city of 2012.

We delved deeper into the city's thriving start-up community with a presentation at the The Library in Tel Aviv's business district. The Library provides a co-working space for tech start-ups to develop their ideas and hold meetings and events. The Tel Aviv Municipality funds The Library as a way to foster a community of creative entrepreneurs.

The joke in Israel is either you're a Jerusalem person or a Tel Aviv person. Jerusalem caters to the religious Jew because of its history, its connection to the Torah, its kosher restaurants, abundance of shuls, and religious communities. Whereas, Tel Aviv is not as religious and instead, the city depicts another side of Israel. This depiction is a flourishing city of beautiful beaches, global businesses, a spirited night life, and an energetic culture.

Shalom for now!

-Camille Pilar Phillips

Discovering the Spirit of Tzfat

Mountains stretch for miles and miles. The view is breathtaking. The cool breeze of the north touches my cheeks. The sun is setting and I feel absolute bliss.

My weekend in Tzfat was nothing less than extraordinary. The beauty of this quaint town in Northern Israel is a setting out of a storybook.

I arrived in Tzfat early Friday afternoon as some shops were closing for Shabbat. I made it to Tzfat right in time for a falafel lunch and a day in the Artist Colony,  a popular shopping area in the heart of the Old City. The Artist Colony is filled with Judaica shops and art galleries galore. Walking on the ancient stones in these narrow streets, glimpsing at the stores on each side, was a shopping experience like none other.  

Stores filled with beautiful paintings of the Western Wall and other Jerusalem mosaics caught my eye as I walked through the Artist Colony. There were many shops carrying jewelry of star of Davids, Chais, and hamsas.

Tzfat has a history dating back more than 2,000 years ago and is considered the most mystical city in Israel.Many great Rabbis have lived in Tzfat, including Rabbi Isaac Luria, the ARI who taught the study of Jewish mysticism while living in Tzfat.  For this reason, Tzfat is known as the 'City of Kabbalah.' 
The spirituality and history that is ingrained in the land makes Tzfat a meaningful and unique place to live. The scenic views in Tzfat and the Shabbat quiet that takes over the town, created a relaxing weekend vacation.

Shalom for now!

-Camille Pilar Phillips

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Israeli Movie Festival: A Break from Wartime Reality

I was walking from the Kotel around 9:00pm, when I noticed there were people at the entrance of the Tower of David. The tower is a medieval fortress, containing archeological findings 2,700 years old. During the day, there's a museum inside this historical site, so I was curious why people were there late at night.

I discovered that the first Lord of the Rings movie was playing at the Tower of David as part of the Israeli movie festival. I was intrigued by this instantly! One, I'm a big fan of The Lord of the Rings movies and two, how was a movie going to be played in this ancient citadel?

I walk by this tower every time I enter the Old City through Jaffa Gate and yet, I had never gone inside before that evening. I stepped inside the fort and went back in time. I am always astonished when I walk on the Jerusalem stones and touch the walls from thousands of years ago. I'm grateful to see Jerusalem's history before my eyes and I can only hope the site will stand the test of time. 

Down some steps and through the fort, lies an area of grass outdoors. I saw a group of 50 people sitting down on portable seats, watching the movie projected on the ancient stone walls. Parents, children, Israelis of all ages gathered to watch the movie. On this quiet night in the Old City, you could not hear rocket sirens; you could only hear the voices of Gandalf and Frodo.

What a beautiful thing it was, to see Israelis taking a break from their current reality. Taking a break from the news, the criticisms, the worry, the pain. Taking a break from war.

When I see Israelis carry on with their lives by going to work and enjoying their time out in town, I see strength. Despite the adversity Israel as a country faces, its people persevere.

These Israelis at the Tower of David face the unpredictability of running to a bomb shelter at any time of day.

These Israelis might be an IDF soldier, or a past soldier, or will mandatorily be a soldier at the age of 18.

These Israelis probably know some friends, family, or loved ones in Gaza whom are risking their lives every day to defend the country.  

And yet, these Israelis are watching The Lord of the Rings...

Going to the movie theatre or watching 'On Demand' at home is normal to me. However, I'd say Israelis treasure this normalcy. To live with a certain extent of normalcy is a fortunate thing that should be cherished, not taken for granted.

How appropriate it was to sit in the Tower of David that night. Just as this ancient citadel was used for military protection, I felt protected as well. During the movie, I felt untouched by the war, the antisemitism in the world, the political nonsense, and the daily tension. I was simply watching a movie on a cool night in beautiful Jerusalem.

 I only wish that all Israelis can return to some blissful normalcy once again.

-Camille Pilar Phillips

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Timeless Old City

I felt as if I was walking in another era as my program toured the Old City in Jerusalem. When I walk through this timeless city, it's as if I've been there before. For many Jews, there is an innate spiritual connection to Israel and I find that even more apparent in the Old City.

There's a certain way the light reflects on the ancient stone walls, and so depending on the time of day you visit, the same setting can look exceptionally unique each time. I always find a peaceful quiet in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. I love walking through the windy alleyways as if I'm in a maze. I enjoy sitting on the benches there as I watch kids playing, mothers strolling their babies, and fathers walking to schul with one another.

 The Old City is the location where the three major religions intersect. The city is divided into three quarters: the Jewish Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, and the Christian Quarter. We first walked through the Arab shuk in the Muslim Quarter where we went down narrow streets filled with shops. Hookahs, backgammon boards, hand-made leather sandals, and other trinkets caught my eye. We then entered the Christian quarter and went to the roof of the Austrian Hospice. There, we saw a breathtaking view of prominent Jerusalem landmarks. It was a grand vantage point overlooking the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and the Church of Mary Magdalene. Afterwards, we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is an important pilgrimage among all sects of Christians. We ended the tour at the Monument to the Defenders of the Jewish Quarter, a memorial dedicated to the defenders who fell in the Independence War. I spend a great amount of time in the Jewish Quarter so it was interesting to visit the other quarters and understand why one location is considered to be the holiest place among all three religions.

 Arab Schuk

 Church of the Holy Sepulchre

To me, the most meaningful sites in the Old City are the Western Wall and the Hurva Synagogue. These two places share a commonality of a history of destruction and thus, are sites that embody the strength of the Jewish nation. 

The Western Wall, or Kotel, is a remnant of the ancient wall that surrounded The First Temple that stood on the Temple Mount. The First Temple was constructed in 19 BCE and some 400 years later was destroyed by the Babylonians. The temple was later rebuilt in 516 BCE, but was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Now, the remnants of the wall from the Second Temple is seen as the most sacred site for Jews and a place for prayer and Jewish pilgrimage. From 1948 until 1967, when the wall was under Jordanian control, Jews were not allowed at their holy site. Once Israel captured the Old City in 1967, Jews were once again able to return to the Western Wall and to this day, it remains a sacred Jewish site. I'm so grateful that I can go to the kotel whenever I please, because these events show how hard Jews had to fight for their religion and  to defend their history.

 The Western Wall

The Hurva Synagogue was first destroyed by Muslims in 1721. In 1864, the synagogue was rebuilt only to face the same fate when it was destroyed again in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Finally in 2008, the Hurva was rebuilt and it remains a place of prayer and stands as a symbol of Israel's resilience.

 The Hurva Synagogue

  To finish this post, I'll leave you with a poem written by Yehuda Amichai about Jerusalem.

“Songs of Zion the Beautiful #21”
Jerusalem’s a place where everyone remembers he’s forgotten something
but doesn’t remember what it is.
And for the sake of remembering I wear my father’s face over mine.
This is the city where my dream-containers fill up like a diver’s oxygen tanks.
Its holiness sometimes turns into love.
And the questions that are asked in these hills
are the same as they’ve always been: “Have you
seen my sheep?” “Have you seen my shepherd?”
And the door of my house stands open
like a tomb where someone was resurrected.

Shalom for now!

-Camille Pilar Phillips