Tuesday, January 14, 2014


No matter how many times I do this I know exactly what will happen...  The last day of a mission to Israel is always a mixture of emotions.  On one hand people want to get back home to see their families, on the other hand you are already home and it is hard to leave.  This mission, with all our Christian friends was a little different.  These Pastors could not wait to get back to let their congregations know what they found in Israel!  I could not believe my ears but just like I was sad, they were sad.  The kind of sadness one experiences when you know you are about to leave the most spiritual place in the entire world.

Today was a spectacular day!  We began by visiting Yad Vashem!  No words can describe what happened at Yad Vashem!  No words even come close to capturing the feelings and emotions that our Christian friends felt.  Yad Vashem is just extremely overwhelming both emotionally and spiritually... The way Yad Vashem takes a toll on your being is indescribable.  We, as Jews are used to experiencing this, we never get used to it but it is never the first time or the last...  A human being, any human being with a heart and a conscience needs no more than ten seconds to understand the enormity of what Yad Vashem memorializes.  "When you enter the children's memorial you are one person, when you exit you are a different one!"  That is exactly how one of our Pastors from Las Vegas described this moment... There is no need for further explanation.

After Yad Vashem we went to The Israel Museum where we saw the model of Jerusalem at the time of The Second Temple.  I have seen this model many, many times but because of the context of our mission we were looking at very different places on the model than we usually lookout for.  I must also add that we had a superb guide.  Throughout the years I have had many, many guides but our guide this time Ronny Netzer was simply spectacular.  Ronny is originally from Sweden and has a tremendous amount of experience with CUFI missions.  His command and knowledge of the Christian Tradition was incredible and because we were there he took extra care of framing it within a Jewish context so that we could understand what was happening a little bit better.

At the Israel museum we were able to see the Knesset with the Israeli Flag flying at half staff as a sign of mourning the death of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.  There were many helicopters and planes up in the air.  We had lunch at the museum... Can you imagine how I complained?  All that kosher food out there and we were having lunch at the museum's cafeteria?  Well, my moaning went without anyone listening to it... I guess when you are in a group when only 3 other people out of 26 complain, no one really listens.

After the museum we went to visit a remarkable place where I had never been before.  YVEL, a jewelry factory outside Jerusalem owned by an Argentinian Immigrant.  YVEL is more than just you average jewelry factory because it employs only new immigrants and at the same time provides them with an education.  It was founded sometime ago and today it has become one of Israel's most interesting social experiments.  The Ethiopian immigrants that work at YVEL have designed their own jewelry line and sell it there along with the other designs.  Israel is the only place in the world where this stories happen all the time.  This is a link to their website so that you can see for yourself.

The last thing in the itinerary was a visit to a site that is only popular amongst non Catholic or Greek Orthodox Christians.  The Garden Tomb.  This place is actually very interesting.  This is the alternate version of The Holy Sepulcher.  The Pastors in our group came here because many Christians believe this is the true site of the sepulcher.  Beyond the fact that there alternate versions that I never knew about it was most remarkable to understand the perspective of Evangelical Christianity of what happened at this place.  When I asked if they believed this to be the actual place of crucifixion, the answer was a remarkable one... "The exact place is irrelevant, what matters is what it means!"  Again, I never knew it but that kind of theology where meaning is more important than magic and superstition is closer to the way in which Liberal Jewish Theology perceives the world.  This moment left me thinking that I have much more in common with these Pastors than I ever thought.  I understand that when it comes to political outlook we may be apart in certain issues consequence of the way in which we understand God.  However, when one engages in interfaith work it is very important to leave politics aside... Extremely important.
It never ceases to amaze me how some of us who claim to be the most enlightened, liberal and outgoing very often are the most narrow minded when it comes to understanding Evangelical Christianity.

We ended our mission with a dinner at Abu Gosh, a little Arab village very friendly to Israel since 1948.  I was only able to have the hummus and the veggies because the restaurant was not kosher.  Their hummus by the way is really famous and I must say it lived up to the expectations.   During dinner everyone had a chance to speak and recall what the most important things that happened to him or her on a personal level in the mission were... I have no words to tell you how profoundly emotional, revealing and amazing this was!  If I ever had doubts that these people are for real in their support for Israel this erased them all!

I am left with a wonderful feeling.  This mission will not only be good for Israel but also for our community!  In 16 years in Las Vegas this is the first time I have been engaged in strong interfaith work.  I am happy that it is with a group of people that share our love for Israel, not because they "want us all to die so that the end of days will happen" (please get that out of your minds once and for all) but because they love The Jewish People!

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה
Blessed are you oh God for having sustained me, for having kept me alive and enabling me to reach this moment in time.


I really have no idea what all these Pastors have been having for dinner but they wake up in the morning with some pretty serious energy!  Just to give you an example, Sunday morning I was late to the bus and Rabbi Tecktiel did no hear his alarm go off so we were off to a pretty interesting start.  Our Christian friends are never late, have no complaints, eat whatever they serve them and enjoy it and pretty much are always in a good mood!  No, it's not the holy water.  Remember, most Evangelical Christians do not believe in that type of magic... With me, by the time I wrap my Tefillin, pray then remove them... We are talking complications galore.

We started our day by visiting the tunnels under The Kotel, no matter how many times I come here I am always amazed by the fact that I am standing on the same streets as Rabbi Akiva once did.  No matter how many groups I come with or how many times I come by myself it is always awesome to understand this is the closest to The Holy of Holies (The Kodesh HaKodashim) that we have stood in two thousand years.  I am not one of those people who believes we should build the Temple once again, for me the fact that we have a modern State of Israel pretty much fulfills the need of for a third Temple.  Yet, it is incredible to be able to touch history which is what happens every time I am in Israel.  The Pastors of course LOVED this...
There are so many things here that speak directly to them and what they believe!  I always looked at Israel as my homeland.  Today I look at Israel as my homeland but I finally understand the emotions that it evokes in people of other faiths.  Now, more than ever I understand the importance of making sure we have a strong Israel.  Without The State of Israel all of this holy sites that Christians hold dear will be victims of the same fate as so many other holy sites in Arab Lands.  Remember The Bamiya Budhas in Afghanistan?  For those of you that don't remember or are too young to know, this is a link to a video showing  The Taliban destroying one of the marvels of the world.

After The Kotel Tunnels we spent some time walking around The Christian Quarter of The Old City of Jerusalem.  We stopped at many of The Stations of The Cross and also visited a Church that is exactly on one of the stations on The Via Dolorosa.
We also visited another Church where Christians believe Mary's mother used to live... Our guide pointed out the only reason that The Church was not destroyed by The Muslims was because for centuries it was used as a school for Muslim Boys.  At this Church Pastor David Shearin asked me to offer a prayer for The Peace of Jerusalem, which I did.  It was one of those moments where first you feel super weird and it then evolves to a great feeling of understanding and camaraderie between people of different faiths.   Throughout this whole entire day I really understood the differences between Evangelical Christians and Catholics.  Remember, being born in Mexico it was not until I came to Las Vegas that I really came in contact with other Christians besides Catholics.  Nothing really illustrates these differences as spending some time inside The Church of The Holy Sepulcher does!  I really found the entire site to be overwhelming from many points of view... Dark, smelly, crowded, filled with images of death and gore!  My head was really spinning in there, I found myself grasping for air.  I was relieved to know that all of The Pastors that came on this mission felt very much the way I felt!  Later I found out that they also do not believe that was the actual sight of the sepulcher.

One of the moments of incredible comic relief happened precisely inside The Church of The Holy Sepulcher.  Inside The Greek Orthodox side of The Church there is a marker on the floor that points downward towards the center of the world.  My friend and colleague Bradley Tecktiel went over to the marker because he found it interesting... After touching it a couple of times he moved the marker by mistake a couple of feet, hence the center of the world is now off!  What did Rabbi Tecktiel say? "Why if you want to mark the center of the earth would you not affix it to the ground." Luckily for us and the Las Vegas Jewish Community no one noticed what happened.

Today we also visited The City of David.  It goes without saying how amazing this archeological site is!  Every time I come back something new has been found.  It was the first time I did not go into the water tunnels build by Hezekaiah...
We toured the site via the dry tunnels which are a little more civilized and equally as amazing.

After the visit to The Old City we went back to The Hotel and eventually made our way to Downtown Jerusalem.  I was very happy to meet up with Jonathon Berman who recently made Aliyah and is now a soldier in The Nahal Brigade.  Jonathon grew up at Temple Beth Sholom and is now 26 years old.  I still remember the day when he came to my study to tell me he wanted to make Aliyah.   Elliot Karp, our Federation Director was also very happy to see him, Elliot was also instrumental in helping Jonathan with making Aliyah.  We came back to the hotel and prepared for what would be the last day of the mission.  Layla Tov!

Sunday, January 12, 2014


The New Egalitarian Section of The Kotel
just as Shabbat was about to start.
Shabbat in Jerusalem is always wonderful but this was truly an amazing Shabbat…  Once we got back to The Hotel from The Kotel we got ready for a Shabbat Dinner hosted by The Jewish Federation of Las Vegas.  I must say that traveling on this mission with Elliot Karp (CEO of The Las Vegas Jewish Federation) has been a fantastic experience.  The Shabbat Dinner in itself was a reflection of all the hard work Elliot put into making sure that this mission got off the ground.  Elliot has been a steadfast advocate of deepening The Jewish Community’s relationship with CUFI (Christians United for Israel) even when at times he has been severely criticized by Rabbis who espouse fundamentalist views within our own community.

During Shabbat Dinner, Cantor Mariana Gindlin from Sinai Temple in Las Vegas led us all in song to welcome Shabbat.  I recited Kiddush and Rabbi Tecktiel shared with the group the meaning of various Shabbat rituals that we would be observing during dinner.

The food was out of this world…  For a change it was not only me having a religious experience with the meal but all of our Christian friends I believe did so too!  Once we got settled I delivered a D’var Torah trying to understand the difference between the Christian concept of salvation and The Jewish idea that all Jews and The Righteous Among The Nations have a place in the world to come.

When I first agreed to participate in this mission I did so thinking that it be a great way to support Israel.  Every day it becomes even more evident that beyond supporting Israel we have made some really nice friendships with people that are wonderful.  I have to say that I was very surprised to find out that we have many things in common with The Pastors that came on this trip.  Yes, there are theological differences and of course there are differences in our political beliefs.  I chose to concentrate in the things that united us rather than the things that separate us.  I think that in the months and years ahead I will look back at this trip as a turning point in the way in which I view Evangelical Christianity.

Let me give you an example of how personal and close it gets.  The UPS man (Glenn) who delivers packages to Temple Beth Sholom day in and day out attends church with a Pastor who is in this mission with me.  Pastor Joshua Teis, Pastor of Southern Hills Baptist Church of Las Vegas.  Who is by the way, not only a super nice guy but also a wonderful human being.

Shabbat Morning we left for Synagogue while the Pastors took in the sights of The Dead sea and Masada.  We walked all the way to Baka, a wonderfully interesting neighborhood in Jerusalem looking for a Minyan led by my colleague Tamar Eldad Appelbaum.  Unfortunately we did not find the Minyan and went over to pray at Kol HaNeshama, a reform Synagogue led by Rabbi Levy Kelman whose father was one of the past Rabbinic Legends of The Rabbinical Assembly.  While at Kol HaNeshama we had the true and amazing privilege of listening to s Drashah (A talk) by Rabbi Michael Marmur who is the “Chief Academic Officer” for The Hebrew Union College. 

We then went back to The Hotel and rested until Shabbat ended.

Friday, January 10, 2014


Friday Morning we left the Galil and Kibutz Lavi for Jerusalem.  We left very rely in the morning so we arrived in Jerusalem at around 10am.  The first thing that was unusual for me is that for the last 25 years or so, every time I find myself in Israel with a group we begin our visit to Yerushalayim by playing Yerushalayim Shel Zahav on the bus as we make our final way up to Jerusalem.  This time there was also music playing.  I really could not tell you what we were listening to but it seemed to be a Christian spiritual song about the importance of Jerusalem.  As much as the background music was different, the faces of amazement were exactly the same.  Every person on that bus who had never seen Jerusalem before seemed to shine in a very special way the first time they laid eyes on the Old City.

We proceeded directly to the overlook at The Mount of Olives, which, to tell you the truth was also extremely unusual for me.  Most Jewish groups go directly to The Haas Promenade on Armon Ha Natziv, commonly known as The “Tayelet”.  More often than not we pour some wine and eat some rugelach and recite a Shecheyanu.  Standing at The Mount of Olives was a very different experience and it was interesting to find out that The Promenade overlooking The Old City at The Mount of Olives was named in memory of Rehavam Ze’evi, Israel Minister of Turism that was assassinated  by Palestinian murderers inside The Old Hyatt Hotel on French Hill.  I think there is a poignant meaning and significance behind the naming of this beautiful outlook, why?  Well, I will leave that reasoning up to you…

From The Mount of Olives we made our way down by foot from the top of the mountain.  We passed The Jewish Cemetary and entered a couple of significant places for the pastors in our mission.  When we got to the bottom we found ourselves in the heart of East Jerusalem at the precise time that prayers at The Mosque were concluding.  It really felt like being in a different world.  At not time did it felt dangerous, it just felt different.  By the way throughout our descent from the Mount of Olives we kept bumping upon tourists from many different parts of the world.  I noticed for the first time how many different people come on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and how many actually stay on the East Side of The City and have Arabs as their guides.  I wonder if all of these tourists understand that if Israel did not exist, many of these holly Christian sights would have been destroyed and desecrated already like has been the case in many Arab countries.

We visited The Garden of Gethsemane where the gospels claim Jesus was arrested by The Romans.  I really never in my life imagined that I was going to find myself there nor did I know that place existed until that very moment.  I understand, there is no reason why I should actually know all these details but I suddenly realized that it is almost irresponsible not to have a clue, especially when we live in the midst of christian neighbors.  What stroke me about this place was the beauty and age of the olive trees in the garden.  I also learnt that Evangelical Christians consider themselves to be a branch of an Olive Tree, The Olive Tree being Judaism itself.  As opposed to The Catholic Church who refuses to refuse any acknowledgement of its direct connection to Judaism, Evangelical Christians feel proud of that connection.  It is precisely from the trees in the garden comes from.

Later, after many stops we found ourselves in The Old City and in The Jewish Quarter.  I must confess that it was a little bit of a relief!  I found myself in a familiar place and now the tables began to turn, I was once again able to start explaining Israel through my eyes to my Christian Friends.  After lunch we visited The Cardo and other important places in The Jewish Quarter.  We visited the home of Rabbi Daniel Sperber who is one of Israel greatest minds in the area of research of Jewish traditions and rituals.  We visited his library and we looked at the view of Jerusalem from his roof top.  I must say this is one of the most beautiful homes I have ever been to in Israel.

We then proceeded to The Kotel where the pastors joined the thousands of people welcoming Shabbat.  I took a little side trip together with Rabbi Bradley Tecktiel from Midbar Kodesh Temple to see first hand our section of The Kotel.  The section where men and women can pray in egalitarian fashion.  We have been able to do that for many years but the space is now open 24 hours a day.  The government has built an elevated platform and now provide Torah Scrolls so that we can pray there just like they do for the Orthodox.  The place is absolutely beautiful.  It is still possible to go all the way down to the bottom and pray where we did before.  The new platform however, is breathtaking.

The Pastors stayed at a different hotel than us so that we could walk back from The Kotel to The Hotel.  We walked back and prepared for Shabbat Dinner.

Thursday, January 9, 2014


Today, once again we continued to see Israel from a completely different perspective.  We began our day by heading to The Mount of Beatitudes which is a sight of tremendous holiness and significance for Christians.  Again, I found myself in a place in Israel where I had never been before.  Believe it or not The Mount of Beatitudes is one of those places that helps us understand one of the most significant theological differences between Judaism and Christianity.  It was at this modestly high hill, overlooking the Kineret (Sea of Galilee) that Christians believe Jesus preached "The Sermon On The Mount..."  This speech serves well as a tool for understanding the difference between observing the Mitzvot and preventing our instincts to take control of us and the Christian belief that one should never let any impure thoughts enter our mind and heart.b In other words, In Judaism a Hero is a person that controls his impulses.  In Christianity a Hero is a person that refrains from having impulses.  The incredible thing about this experience is despite our differences in understanding God, the trip remained very much about Israel and what we can do to make sure that she remains secure and vibrant.  Not for one second does it ceases to amaze me how much this Pastors love The state of Israel, yes, The STATE of Israel and not only The Land of Israel.  I would give anything to make some of my congregants understand what to my Christian colleagues seems to be a given... We should never take Israel for granted.

Today we also drove up to the border with Lebanon where we were able to see the proximity of the Hizballah positions and how at any given moment they could unleash thousands of rockets over Israel.  It never fails, every time someone who has never seen this before sees it for the first time, asks the same question; How can people leave so close to the border?  The answer, very simple; "This is Israel, everyone lives close to the border."  We were able to meet some soldiers who patrol our northern border and keep it quiet.  The Pastors brought gifts from them from Las Vegas and they were able to ask them any questions they wanted.  I think they were absolutely caught by surprise by two things;  First, how amazingly young our soldiers are and second, how honest open and candid they are to people's questions.  For me it is always an inspiration to experience moments like these, however, being how people who are not Jewish react to such an encounter was an incredible privilege that I will never forget.
We then headed for Capernaum or as it is known in Israel Kfar Nahum which is another series of archeological finds that are extremely relevant to Christians.  We headed for Kibutz Ein Gev where we had fish for lunch.  Believe it or not I am very familiar with this kibutz which at some point in time served as an absorption point for immigrants from Mexico who came from the same youth movement where I grew up.  There are hardly any Mexicans left in the kibutz but I was amazed at how much it has grown and has made an industry out of feeding fish to Christian Groups.  I don't have to tell you how important Christian Tourism is for Israel.  When we arrived at The Jordan River and witnessed people immersing themselves in "baptism" by the hundreds it was impossible not to understand what the number of Christians who visit Israel every year means to Israel's economy.

I almost felt like an outsider!  Me, a veteran visitor of Israel.  Me, a firm believer in coming here as often as we possibly can, found myself at a loss of words in trying to explain what I was witnessing.  This led me to a very obvious conclusion and a very difficult feeling.  I was both elated and jealous!  I keep asking myself, how can it be that so many people in our congregation make a conscious choice not to visit Israel when they have the opportunity.  We can certainly learn a lot from The Christian groups I saw around me the entire day.

We also visited an incredible place at Hof Ginozar... If that name sounds familiar, well it is because there is a beautiful song that we sing at the beginning of Shabbat to welcome Shabbat where we talk about the Shabbat falling over the Valley of Ginozar.  There we saw a 2000 year old fishing boat.  It was preserved by The Israeli Antiquities Authority in a most remarkable way.  It kind of makes you think what would be of all of these if it was a different people that had sovereignty over The Land of Israel.

We concluded the day with a meat dinner at Decks which is a wonderful steak house in the city of Tiberias.  We came back to the hotel and collapsed looking forward to another amazing day of discovery and bonding.  Tomorrow we are leaving for Jerusalem where we will spend Shabbat.

Meeting with IDF Soldiers...
Border With Lebanon... Those are Hiszbollah Positions

Meeting with IDF Soldiers...

Meeting with IDF Soldiers...

Meeting with IDF Soldiers...
Merkava 3 Tank

Meeting with IDF Soldiers...
Meeting with IDF Soldiers...

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


There are days in life that a person never forgets.  Today will be one of those days in my life.  Why?  I have been to Israel innumerable times.  I have come to Israel at different times in my life ready to explore and discover not only what this amazing country has to offer but also to discover part of myself.  Every time I am here I leave fully aware that I am not the same person as I was when I arrived.  Today was very unusual and nothing could have prepared me for it.

After a very long airplane ride from Los Angeles the first ever  CUFI (Christians United for Israel) mission to include Jewish Clergy arrived in Israel.  There are 23 Pastors, 2 Rabbis, 1 Cantor and our Federation Director.  We are all from Las Vegas which actually makes this even more remarkable because the experiences we share here during our week long trip will more than probably cause friendships to blossom that will benefit the entire faith community in our city.

As we got on the bus and our Christian friends began looking outside the window at the sites that many of us are so familiar with I witnessed a complete range of emotions from many of them.  Emotions that went from tears to lack of belief of how modern and beautiful Israel is.  Emotions that made it clear to me that every time one of them says "God bless the Jewish People and God bless The State of Israel", I know that the blessing and the words are more than heartfelt, they are genuine and absolutely spontaneous.

 Our first stop after the airport was Cesarea or like we call it in Hebrew קיסריה.   I have been there numerous times and I know exactly what to look for, what to see and the significance of the archeological findings from the time of Herod.  Today, I heard a completely different explanation of its significance and what it means for Christians around the world.  The sunset could not have been more beautiful but more beautiful than the scenery was knowing that standing there next to
 me were people of a different fate that love Israel.  Knowing that we are not alone is a very powerful feeling!

As I was walking back to the bus the words of a couple of my friends in Las Vegas came to my mind... Maybe joking, maybe not so much, people said goodbye to me last Shabbat by cautioning me about the always present Christian effort to convert us!  I have to tell you, the Pastors sharing this amazing
mission with me have about the same intention of converting me that I have of converting them.  Yes, I am sure that we don't see eye to eye in may theological issues and for sure we don't share some political views.  Imagine what kind of world we would live in if everyone acted or thought exactly the same.

And one more thing... That idea that Christians want all The Jews in the world to return to Israel so that we can witness what in their eyes would be something akin to the end of days... That is simply crazy!  That is known as Restoration Theology and believe it or not it is not part of either the vocabulary or the belief system of the Pastors that are here with us.  Christian Zionists... Who would have thought?  It is time for us to let them hold our hand as we continue to fight for the legitimacy, permanence and vitality of our beloved State of Israel.