By: Rabbi Loren Sykes – Director of Israel Immersives

Despite being a very small country, Israel is an endless set of natural wonders! There is beauty everywhere. While the immediate area around The Dead Sea is desolate, just a few minutes away, there are magnificent canyons with streams and waterfalls like Nahal David, where the lush greenery around the stream contrasts strongly with the brown/red/tan walls of the canyon. The deep blue color of the waters of the Kinneret or Sea of Galilee are offset by the now mostly brown hills and peaks of the Golan Heights. The urban hustle and bustle of Tel Aviv is only a short drive away from the National Park known as Ne’ot Kedumim. Just about every part of every day presents an opportunity to enjoy and admire in awe at the majesty of Israel’s natural beauty.

In addition to the natural splendor, every place you visit and every person you meet simultaneously represents a piece of the puzzle of both the ancient and modern Jewish story. Going to Tzippori in the Galilee brings teens face-to-face with the world of our ancient sages who were faced with a daunting challenge after the destruction of the Second Temple and the fall of Jerusalem, the cessation of animal sacrifice, and the end of Jewish sovereignty. In hearing about how the sages reinvented Judaism at the time so that it could survive, teens discover that we face many of the same challenges. Rabbinic answers to these challenges provide insights into their time and can inform how we respond. They also highlight the ways in which our world is different than that of the ancient rabbis and how that serves as a basis for the different choices we may make.

Leaving Tzippori and visiting the Kinneret Cemetery located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee brings you forward several thousand years in just a few minutes. Many of the early Halutzim, pioneers, those who established the first kibbutzim, people who made 2,000 plus years of The Hope to return to Israel into a reality, are buried here. Walking between the headstones, teens meet two of the most important and powerful female Jewish poets of the modern era, Rachel and Naomi Shemer, who wrote about the challenges, the beauty, and the spirituality associated with the modern Land, People, and State of Israel.

Teens can spend hours in the Old City of Jerusalem, learning about the archaeological digs at the Southern part of the Kotel and visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and then travel outside the ancient walls and visit the offices of Lightricks, an award-winning application developer, that created Facetune! In Tel Aviv, you can take a Graffiti Tour, a very colorful artform that presents everything from beauty to polemic, social commentary to straight up silliness and then see the oldest continually operating port in the Middle East, the Port of Jaffa, all in the same day.

At the end of this week’s Torah Portion, Balak, the prophet Bilaam ben Be’Or, who was tasked by the King of Moab, Balak, with cursing the Israelites, fails at his task. Instead, he opens his mouth an says these famous words, Mah Tovu Ohalekha Ya’akov…:

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, and your tabernacles, O Israel! Like winding brooks, like gardens by the river’s side, as aloes which the Lord planted, and like cedar trees beside the waters…

 Numbers 23:5-6

This week, NFTY in Israel participants wandered throughout the country, saw the wonders, heard about the challenges, and saw the ancient and modern, sometimes one just a few minutes after the other. They can bear witness to just how good, beautiful, stark, rich, inspiring and confusing this place can is and can celebrate its diversity on the natural, social, intellectual, and spiritual planes. This is approach to Israel education and acquaintance is one of the things that make a NFTY in Israel Summer a unique experience.

Shabbat Shalom.