A Day in the North of Israel
Last night, before everyone went to sleep we sent one last WhatsApp message reminding everyone to bring rain gear for our day in the north. We had been following the weather all weekend, and it seemed 100% certain that our day would be rainy with showers all throughout the day.
But, don’t forget: this is the land of miracles… and though we are never supposed to pray for rain to stop in this climate in which water is a prized commodity, let’s face it - we got a little gift today. Not only was there no rain, but it was sunny and beautiful in the north of Israel from morning until night! The weather was perfect, the temperature felt just right, the spring wildflowers are just poking through the ground, and the views in the hilly and mountainous north could not have been more spectacular!
Tzefat: We started out from school this morning with our group and 4 of the Israeli students. Thanks to Ben T and his wonderful speaker and playlist (of mostly 80s and 90s music!), we had continuous music whenever as we were driving from one place to another! Thank you, Ben T! Our first stop was 1.5 hours from Haifa, way up in the northern district of Israel, almost 1000 meters above sea level in the town of Tzefat. Tzefat is not only the highest city in the Galilee; moreover, it is at an elevation higher than any other city in Israel.
The city of Tzefat dates back to ancient times and is considered one of 4 holy cities for Jews and Judaism in Israel. Together with Hebron, Jerusalem and Tiberius, Tzefat (or “Safed” in English) has a remarkable history that spans the millennia and a most interesting history. Tzefat’s elevation high up in the mountains made it a favorable city to inhabit as those living in Tzefat could look down and see virtually the entire Galilee. Occupying the top of a mountain always provides a strategic advantage and offers security, especially at times of political or geopolitical instability. Tzefat also had and still has an important water source that facilitated its place in international trade and enabled the people to manufacture fabrics and upholstered goods, thanks to the river that runs just below Tzefat and is filled with water throughout the year.
Like many other cities in Israel, the population of Tzefat has constantly changed over the centuries, while continuing to be home to Jews from different parts of the world at different times. It is the belief that Tzefat goes back to the Roman/Second Temple Times – some 2,000 years ago. While not much is known from the Biblical period, we do know that by the 12th century, Tzefat became an important, fortified Crusader city. The Mamluks captured Tzefat from the Crusaders in the 13th century. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 led many Sephardic Jews to make their homes in the mountains of Tzefat. The Ottoman Empire retained Tzefat from the 1500s until the city became part of the British Mandate just following World War I. Tzefat remained in British hands until Israel proclaimed its independence from Britain in 1948.
In addition to its strategic advantage, its water source, and its magnificent setting, Tzefat is mostly known for its Jewish mystics. It was in Tzefat that Jews – at first from Sephardic lands and then from Ashkenazic lands - starting in the 1600s – began the practice of mysticism. These Jews observe the laws and mitzvot of Judaism like other Jews. But, in mysticism, the element of drawing near to God and one’s prayer through movement was added to classical Jewish theology and philosophy. We wandered through the narrow roads and walkways, climbed up and down stairs and , sat in a famous Sephardic synagogue, and wandered in and out of lovely stores and galleries in which art and mysticism are fused.
We stopped for lunch – choice of schnitzel, falafel or shawarma – and ate outside in a little park in the northern town of Katzrin. Following lunch, we had a great tour of an olive-products factory that uses trees in the area that are up to 1000 years old to make its special olive oils, soaps, and all-natural, all-organic skin products. We saw how olive oil is made and pressed, and we had a chance to sample breads with 6 different types of olive oil, as well as some facial and hair products that are also made the finest and healthiest olives.
From Ktzrin we drove to the northeast tip of Israel – to the region called the Golan Heights – Israel’s border with Syria. Today was so clear that we were able to stand at the edge of a hill and see all the way into Syria. Damascus was less than an hour drive from where we stood looking down at the Syrian border. There was also a bunker for us to visit – one of the remnants of the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Dror, our guide, explained to us the complexity of the political situation on that border: 1. The frequent battles over territory in the Golan Heights; 2. Syria’s civil war; 3. The current stalemate between Israel and Syria over the Golan Heights; 4. The Druze villages that are in the Golan Heights in Israel but are very close to Syria and/or Lebanon; 5. The instability of the region in general. We also got a great view of the snowcapped Mount Hermon – very close by and very majestic.
It was quite cool on Mount Bental as we looked out at the Syrian border so on our way back to Haifa we stopped for something warm to drink and had a chance to see the sun setting over the rich and green Galilee region and the only fresh water body of water in Israel, the Kineret (The Sea of Galilee).
Another perfect day in Israel – Kudos to our Israeli host students, to our guide Dror, to our driver Elias (who really negotiated a bunch of hairpin curves on steep mountain roads!), and Liron – our Hugim faculty-member- extraordinaire who joined us today.
Layla Tov… good night from Haifa!
Rabbi Lisa Eiduson, on behalf of HiBuR 2020