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Israel Journal: Day Eight


All the natives…
Our Emanu-El staff and tour guide, Zvi, portray the major players in the Masada saga.

Friday, June 20, 2008

today we were off to Masada and the Dead Sea. Because of the expectation of a severe heat wave (estimated highs of 105 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit), Zvi recommended that we skip the hike up the mountain fortress and plan on taking the cable car.

We had a relatively benign wake-up at 6:15 A.M., followed by breakfast. En route, Zvi started the day with a review of the complicated system of gates and fences that demarcate present-day Jerusalem. The green zone, the transfer points, Ramallah and the Jewish settlements of Zone 3 (the focus of Condeleeza Rice’s recent criticisms) came vividly to life.

Zvi told us that between 65 and 70 percent of the wall is completed and that officially, “The wall is temporary,” but he also commented that nothing is more permanent than [what] is “temporary” in the Middle East. He noted that the walls and fences serve mainly to protect the highways.

From the bus, we spotted the caves of Qumran, where a Bedouin shepherd originally found what was to become the great archaeological find of the Dead Sea Scrolls: More than 4,000 scroll fragments of more than 100 different biblical texts. We were taught three key items about the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls:
  • The Bible of 2,000 years ago, virtually “hot off the press,” mirrors our own quite closely.
  • The scrolls are helpful tools in studying the texts.
  • The scrolls present the little-mentioned Essenes in a new light. (The Essenes were a controversial Jewish sect, rarely described in official texts, that preached predestination.)
We arrived at Masada and made a quick and leisurely ascent in a cable car. We immediately watched a short introductory movie providing “the official story” of Masada, a story of extreme bravery of a band of Jewish rebels choosing death rather than a life of slavery under Roman rule. Yet, Zvi managed to quickly temper that interpretation. The motto “Masada will never fall again!” probably should end with a question mark rather than an exclamation point.

How reliable is Josephus as the sole source of information? Is suicide ever the best option? Was there a debate on top of the mountain? Who are the heros: Elazar ben Yair (the leader of the rebels who gave the famous speech, “It is still in our power to die bravely and in a state of freedom”) or Yahanan ben Zakkai (another Jewish leader at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple who realized the futility of resisting the Romans at that time but recognized that it was possible for the Jewish people to survive, even exiled from its spiritual center, Jerusalem)?

Zvi noted that the symbolism of Masada for Israelis has changed over the past 40 years. In the early days of statehood, the fearless warrior fighting to the death represented “the new Jew,” but as time has passed, Israel’s sense of self no longer needs to rely on that kind of collective national identity mythology. Indeed, the Israeli army used to be sworn in atop Masada but not for the past 20 years.

We had two “dramatic” surprises atop Masada. The first was the appearance of all the major players in the Masada saga — played in costume by various members of the Temple Emanu-El staff. Saul and Jen portrayed the Jewish members of the rebel group, discussing their few options; Rabbi Howie eloquently played Elazar ben Yair, paraphrasing his famous speech; and Zvi portrayed Yahanan ben Zakkai. We enjoyed listening to their words while being supplied with snacks in one of the few shady spots atop the fortress.

We then were instructed to unite with our families to discuss what values we cherish most as a family and the ways in which we would implement them if we were to be presented with the “ultimate” decision.

Finally, we were led to a precipice facing the Dead Sea and the mountains adjacent to Masada. The archaeological remains of long-abandoned Roman camps were pointed out to us in the distance. Zvi encouraged us to shout the motto of Masada in Hebrew as loudly as we could into the distance — “Shayneet M’tzada lo teeplo” (Masada will never fall again) — and our collective voiced echoed back to us as clear as day! This was a most beautiful and memorable way for us all to remember the lessons of Yahanan ben Zakkai: Look, we’re still here.

We made our way down in a cable car to the cafeteria, followed by some shopping at the Ahava outlet store at Masada. Then, off we went to swim in the Dead Sea. Kids and grown-ups had lots of fun floating and applying light and dark colored mud (the latter reputed to have youth-enhancing effects). It was reported that Judy Becker was carded when attempting to get a drink at the King David later that night.

We celebrated Shabbat with the local Reform community of Mevasseret Zion in their beautiful new synagogue overlooking Jerusalem, led by Rabbi Maya Leibovich. We prayed and sang together our shared tradition. Later, each Temple Emanu-El family was assigned to a Mevasseret Zion family with whom we were invited to share a lovely Shabbat dinner in their home. Everyone reported having a wonderful time, enjoying the opportunity to meet an Israeli family, and discussing our shared experiences, our similarities and our differences.

It was a memorable and beautiful day!

— Melanie Shulman


Back to Israel Journal (2008)


Click on the thumbnails below to view
larger versions of the photos and a slideshow.


Zvi shows an arial view of Masada to help orient the group.
Zvi shows an arial view of Masada to help orient the group.
Two Masada natives travel in time to tell us about the threats they faced from the Romans.
Two Masada natives travel in time to tell us about the threats they faced from the Romans.
Ben Yair, leader of the Zealots, suggests suicide instead of slavery.
Ben Yair, leader of the Zealots, suggests suicide instead of slavery.
Ben Zakkai comes all the way from Yavneh to convince us that we do not need to kill ourselves.
Ben Zakkai comes all the way from Yavneh to convince us that we do not need to kill ourselves.
Hard at work on their values statement.
Hard at work on their values statement.
The Becker-Merkels
The Becker-Merkels
The DeLotts
The DeLotts
The Kleinmans
The Kleinmans
The Marks-Millmans
The Marks-Millmans
The Shulman-Feigens
The Shulman-Feigens
The Rabbis Goldsmith
The Rabbis Goldsmith
Saul
Saul
Ahhh, the shade!
Ahhh, the shade!
A demonstration of how the water gets from the surrounding mountains to Masada's cisterns.
A demonstration of how the water gets from the surrounding mountains to Masada's cisterns.
Ben and Jen in a Herodian bathhouse.
Ben and Jen in a Herodian bathhouse.
G.G. in an ancient doorway on top of Masada.
G.G. in an ancient doorway on top of Masada.
Judy and Lynda get some shade at the top of Masada.
Judy and Lynda get some shade at the top of Masada.
Getting into the spirit of it all...
Getting into the spirit of it all...
Judy enjoys the mud at the Dead Sea.
Judy enjoys the mud at the Dead Sea.
Uh, you have something on your face.
Uh, you have something on your face.
We LOVE mud!
We LOVE mud!
Yes, you really do float...and yes, it is really cool.
Yes, you really do float...and yes, it is really cool.
Relaxing back at the pool before Shabbat.
Relaxing back at the pool before Shabbat.
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