Rabbi Loren Sykes is the Principal of the NFTY-EIE High School in Israel. In these weekly postings, he gives a description and rundown of what the group is doing day to day, which he hopes sheds some light on what the EIE experience is like.
It was another exceptional week for EIE. The weather was spectacular, truly summer-like, which added more bright light to the smiles of the participants. This was a busy week for EIE. It included a major break from the regular routine, a break that will continue this coming week as well. We continued our fast-paced learning of Jewish history in class, in Jerusalem and out in the field.
This week, EIE focused on the end of the Second Temple period, from the construction of the Second Temple through its destruction by the Romans, the Judean revolt and the period of the Zealots and Masada. On Wednesday, we toured the Herodian Mansions in the Old City as well as the Davidson Center and the Southern Wall excavations. During Herod’s reign, three major groups, with different goals, rose in Jerusalem. The Sadducees, dominated by the Priestly class, was exceptionally wealthy. Their homes were opulent and magnificent. The remains of their homes were excavated after the Six Day War when the Old City returned to Jewish control for the first time since 70 CE. From intricate mosaic floors to evidence of massive fires, the mansions are an exceptional, historic archaeological site.
At the Davidson Center, EIE students learned about the Temple during Herod’s reign, got a picture of the grandeur of the Temple and saw the evidence of the destruction. The Pharisees, another major group, had homes in this area. The Pharisees brought us rabbinic Judaism, that which would sustain Judaism after the fall of the Temple and the end of the priestly cult in Jerusalem. The massive stones of the Southern Wall combined with the toppled columns etc make a deep impression on all who see them.
From Jerusalem, we set off for the Negev and the Dead Sea region. We spent the night at the Masada Youth Hostel, a beautiful facility, where we had dinner and a short activity. We all went to bed early as we were waking up at approximately 4 AM for our Masada climb. By 5:15 AM, we were on our way to Masada, a short walk from the hostel. We made our ascent before sunrise so that we could be at the top to witness the glory of the sun ascending over the desert and so that we could be there before the temperatures rose into the upper 80’s. If you have climbed Masada, you know that it is an intense hike as the route gets steeper the closer you get to the top. Some made it to the top very quickly while others, like me, took well over an hour to make it to the top.
After enjoying the glorious sunrise, we had a fantastic Tefillah led by EIE students. While we prayed, an IDF Unit, known as Shahar or Dawn, was having their own ceremony, celebrating the official joining of the division. Several soldiers came by and explained what was taking place and why it was important. The students were fascinated.
All four classes took different routes to see the various archaeological finds on the mountain. From the bathhouses to the ballrooms, the palaces to the simple open spaces, everyone got a sense of life on Masada both when it served as a vacation palace for Herod and when it was the last defensive stand of the Zealots, those who refused to accept Roman sovereignty over the land of Israel. Students learned the story of the Zealots, the siege they endured and the moral dilemma they faced at the end: should they submit to Rome or become martyrs, taking their own lives. In the end, the Zealots chose martyrdom and took their own lives. A debate among historians and Jewish leaders continues to rage today about the choice the Zealots made. EIE students struggled with the question as well. As we prepared to descend, we passed a large Hannukah Menorah that promised “Masada Will Not Fall A Second Time,” a testimony to the commitment of the IDF and Israeli citizens to ensure that the State of Israel is strong and lasts forever.
Friday, students hiked Nahal Arugot, a beautiful valley that has a gorgeous stream and many waterfalls. In the afternoon, they went for the classic soak and float in the Dead Sea. This was followed by a quiet, restful Shabbat at the Youth Hostel and a visit to the Bedouin Tent experience Saturday night. Today, EIE moved to Sde Boker, the home David Ben Gurion built and where he lived his last days, to begin Gadna, the IDF experience, to try and get a sense of the crucial role the IDF plays not only in defending Israel but in the culture of Israel as well.
Building, destruction, exile and return – major themes for the week, major themes in Jewish memory, and major themes in Jewish and Israeli modern reality – resonated throughout the week, as they will in the weeks to come. These are major themes not only for EIE but for Jews everywhere. I hope you can take some time to think about them over the course of this week and ask your children about them when you next speak together.