Forty-nine members of Beth El Congregation in Pikesville spent ten days in Israel, seeing its most popular and picturesque sites from March 20 through 30. They toured Tel Aviv, the Western Wall, the Golan Heights and more while traveling together.
This trip coincided with political turmoil in Israel, due to significant protests and strikes over proposed reforms to the country’s judicial system. The reforms, which would weaken the power of the country’s judicial branch, have been met with mass protests that have been held weekly since the beginning of the year. On March 27, the country’s largest trade union called for widespread strikes.
Beth El Congregation has been holding trips to Israel for many years, with one taking place approximately every three years. The protests were taken into consideration during the planning of 2023’s trip, but they were deemed to not be a safety concern to the attending congregants and would not cause them any logistical problems.
Eyal Bor, a former resident of Israel and the director of The Beth El Schools and The Rabbi Mark G. Loeb Center For Life Long Learning, said that Beth El’s trip coincided with the height of the protests. Departures from the Ben Gurion Airport were suspended for several days, leaving the congregants on the trip uncertain as to whether they would be able to make it home on time.
“The most common question we had on the trip was if we would be able to get back home,” said Bor, who went on the trip with his wife, Hana. The two are professors at Towson University. “Everyone was curious, so it was a relief to all of us when they opened back up.”
On Monday, March 27, the group gathered to watch Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the country. While he stated that judicial reform would take place, he also announced that he would be postponing it in order to enter into a dialogue with National Unity Party Chairman Benny Gantz and others who stand in opposition to the reforms. Gantz had written a letter to Netanyahu and his coalition beforehand urging them to compromise.
“Today there is a strong sense of hope here that Israel is on the right path and that the current tensions will ultimately enable Israel to emerge as an even stronger democracy!” wrote Beth El Rabbi Steven Schwartz in a statement posted to the congregation’s social media the day after the address. Schwartz also attended the trip to Israel.
“This is the first time in my life I’ve really kept up with political issues in Israel,” said Eyal Bor. “It’s the first time I’ve seen this magnitude of people wanting to make a difference. … It was an experience of democracy for many of us, seeing this many people out on the streets.”
“It created a lot of curiosity among the group, and people had a lot of questions,” added Hana Bor. “[The experience] helped our group of Americans to not just connect to the land, but to understand the dynamics and complexities of the Israeli people.”
A few congregants on the trip participated in some of the protests themselves, with one notable one occurring outside of Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence. And while it happened the day after they left the city, there was a large protest of over 100,000 people in Tel Aviv while they were still in Israel.
“It was a very interesting time to be in Israel,” said Schwartz. “It was very affecting, as Americans, that we were able to be there during that time and have an on-the-ground experience. It was a wonderful learning opportunity, and we all felt that there is something very serious going on there right now.”
Even with the protests, the Beth El congregants were able to have a good time traveling across the country filled with memorable experiences, such as speaking with Israel Defense Forces soldiers on the Lebanese border, hiking Masada and going to the recently opened Peres Center for Peace and Innovation in Tel Aviv. At the very end of it all, they were welcomed back home to Beth El by the synagogue’s staff and clergy, who had lined up outside to greet returning congregants.
“I hope that over the course of the trip, [the congregants] were able to grow their own Judaism and get more in touch with how Judaism is important to them,” noted Schwartz, “and to understand how significant Israel is to Jewish life.”
“No matter what the political views of the participants were,” said Hana Bor, “they were able to understand how important Israel is to them, and how important Israel is to the Israeli people both demonstrating for and against the reform. Everybody participating is doing it from a place of concern and deep, deep love for their country.”