An early tourist of the Holy Land, Mark Twain, wrote of the Jews:

"The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was. … All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?"

Just recently, I was reminded of Twain's words as I traveled Israel with the "Land and the Spirit" tour of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI). Some 300 Jews from the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe and South America came to discover and experience the spirituality that is embedded in our land, a living holiness that inspires people today just as it has Jews of all the generation before us.

We stood in the City of David amidst the excavation of homes and fortresses that were already old when, thousands of years ago, the Babylonians invaded and conquered.

We stood in the remains of the synagogue on the Masada mountaintop, as our guide told us that prominent among the few scrolls that survived the first century C.E. Roman pillage was the prophet Ezekiel's vision of the bones. The prophet told of seeing dry, dead bones and asking G‑d could these bones yet live? G‑d assured him that he would say how they would.

In that moment, we all saw ourselves as a fulfillment of that prophecy: In us, the dry bones of the Jewish people had been restored to life once again.

We went to Meron to the grave of the great sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and visited the grave of Maimonides not far away in Tiberias. For us, these teachers have never died. Their words have been in our minds in our Rohr JLI courses, and their thought is as fresh, relevant and inspiring today as it was when they walked these places themselves.

Hebron was a highlight for us all, the place where our history in the land began with Abraham and Sarah. It was the first land that the Jewish people acquired, to be a gravesite for the matriarchs and patriarchs.

In Hebron's old city, we toured Beit Hadassah, site of the massacre of 1929, when Arabs killed more than 60 Jews and drove away the rest, who were raped, beaten and robbed. In the courtyard, a playground now stands where mothers watched their children play in the sun, running past a plaque dedicating the space to the memory of Shalhevet Pas, a 10-month-old girl murdered by an Arab sniper in 2001. We could hear the energetic voices of other, older children at their lessons in school.

When a child is murdered, we respond by increasing life and joy, having more children and defending them.

Against All Odds

A participant of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute's first-ever mission to Israel takes a moment at the gravesite of the matriarch Rachel.
A participant of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute's first-ever mission to Israel takes a moment at the gravesite of the matriarch Rachel.
On Friday night, we walked through Jerusalem's Old City to the Western Wall to pray together with thousands of other Jews from all over the world. We sang and danced at this holy place left as a ruin by empires that vanished long ago.

We sat in Jerusalem together at the concluding banquet and heard Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, a former chief rabbi, speak of what makes us survive and overcome. He himself is among those who were like dry bones: A child Holocaust survivor, he saw a new life come to the Jewish people in their own Land after the death and destruction of the Holocaust.

Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Israel's Sephardic Chief Rabbi, spoke to us about the Passover Haggadah's words containing the secret of our survival: Vehi she'amda la'avoteinu, G‑d's promise has stood by our ancestors and by us. We too must pitch in and stand by our promise to live as G‑d's people.

On our last day, shortly before we left, we joined 300 Israel Defense Force soldiers at their base for a barbecue. Here were people who put their lives on the line every day for the sake of the Jewish people, living examples of our age-old response to G‑d's commitment to us. No matter what the odds, no matter who may stand against us, we will live, and our message of life and its spirit will triumph.

We sang and danced together in the brilliant spring sunshine. A young soldier lifted my son Lazar on his shoulders as we danced and sang of the Jewish people's survival.

We arrived home with a sense that the Land of Israel is the pulsing heart of the spiritual universe. Every time we make a choice to learn and to live as a Jew, we join that dancing circle celebrating the triumph of life and of G‑d's promise over all evil.

Leshana haba'a birushalayim, may we celebrate Passover even this year in a rebuilt secure and safe Jerusalem!