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Go To Israel

May 9, 2009 | by Sherri Ziff Lester

Youth movements have cancelled summer trips to Israel, and the Maccabiah Games were almost postponed. Now may be the perfect time to visit.

It's eight o'clock on a clear, sunny, periwinkle blue morning. I'm halfway around the world. I'm sweaty from a great workout but the air is so fresh, I think I can do another mile. I'm happy, the day is perfect and it's barely started yet.

There's nothing like a vacation. It affords you the opportunity to truly vacate -- remove yourself from your usual surroundings and listen to the hum of your own self. A chance to taste a different way of life, to soak in another spectacular place on our wondrous planet. So here I am tasting, soaking...

I walk the side streets of this village as I have in many places around the world as varied as Taipei and Tuscany, Bath and Belize, Portofino and Puerto Vallarta. But here I become aware of the deepest place of myself. I'm enveloped by a sense of peace and serenity. I feel safe. And alive. I wish I could share this feeling with everyone I love.

The walls here seem to call to me, the soil seems to speak. I stop for an orange at the corner market and pick out an enormous mango instead. I need a quick snack after my morning power walk before my blood sugar plummets. So I find a spot next to a local at a city bench. My face quickly becomes doused in fresh juices. We laugh and she asks how I am so brave to come here, despite my country's warning. I'm stunned. I don't feel brave at all. "Because I'm a Jew." She thanks me for coming and weeps.

This is a magical place. It moves through me with every breath in an indescribable way. I am calm. I am at home. This village is the Old City. And I am in Jerusalem on May 6, 2001, just a few weeks ago.

This is my experience -- the view of my own -- as I travel through Haifa, Tiberias, Safed, the Dead Sea, Eilat. Peaceful. Serene. Safe. Not quite what we see on the news.

Yes, we see images of violence on the news, but they are most often grossly out of context.


Yes, this is a serious time. But know this: Day-to-day life in Israel remains calm. This intifada is contained, and since the Palestinians have been prohibited from moving freely, crime has dropped 50 percent. I can't deny that the threat of suicide bombs is frightening. I can't deny that the brutal killing of two young boys hiking is horrific. But how many times a week do we hear of awful atrocities -- a postal employee opening fire, a drive-by shooting, a famous rap star in a shoot-out in a hip nightclub.

These are daily occurrence of life in Los Angeles and yet world tourism hasn't shut us out. Tourists flock to California in record numbers despite these incidents. Why? Because, at the end of the day, the threat is not that real. Stuff happens everywhere, yes, that's true. But the threat is not that real.

Despite the violent clashes we see on TV coming from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, know this: these are isolated, contained incidents that involve only a handful of people. TV news only shows the bloodiest moments of the greatest conflict. When I was in college in Philadelphia, I saw footage of an earthquake at home. I was petrified. I quickly called home in a panic. My brother casually remembered a tremor early that morning. No big deal. Business as usual. The homes of a few unfortunate people in Northern California had suffered structural damage, but all in all, damage was minor, and life goes on. The view from the news was a very different one. Constant speculation that this was the beginning of the Big One ensued, microscopic damage of one lone house ran repeatedly on every channel.

See the similarities? Stuff happens, yes, but the news does not present a full picture of reality.


Tourism is the second greatest source of revenue for Israel. And it's down 80 percent. This is not only devastating to the economy and the ability of thousands of Israelis to support their families, it deeply affects the soul of the country. "Where are they?" they wonder. "Where are we?" I wondered. There are embarrassingly few tourists.

If you had met me 15 years ago upon returning from my first trip to Israel, I would have shared with you a message: there is a God, and He wants to hear from you. That was my beginning: Say hi to the Creator of the universe, and your life will transform before your eyes.

I had heard a whisper that I was certain was divine. I listened, I went. Once there, I immersed myself in the study of Torah and contemplated one question: What does it mean for me to be a Jew? My answer is a lifelong quest: to live, daily -- in my every breath and action -- with the knowledge that I have been sent to this earth for a purpose, that I am partners with God, and as such have the ability and the responsibility to heal the world in a way only I can, to be kind at every opportunity, to love fully at every opportunity.

I learned that to walk this world as a Jew means that a set of guidelines applies to me. A set of earthly instructions, followed closely, enables my soul to drink from an eternal flow of holiness. The closer I align my whole self, the more I impress upon myself the following of those mitzvot, the more clarity, insight, and mystical experience I receive. Very simple. I'm hardwired to respond to this amazing software called Torah. There is a God, and He wants to hear from you.


I return from my most recent trip with a different message: There is a family, and they need to hear from you. This family is the Jewish people living in Israel -- whether they are Israeli, Russian, Brazilian, South African, American, Ethiopian -- and you're part of it. They are holding down the fort for us. Their presence ensures a Jewish homeland for all of us. Quite simply, they're there and we're not.

Our ancestors risked life and limb to settle Israel. Who among us does not feel at least a lump in our throats watching the Six Day War footage of Israeli troops reclaiming the Western Wall?

There is a family and they need to hear from you.

Why you?

Your presence in Israel says to the Arabs, to the UN and to our critics in the media:"Israel is here to stay.” It's not up for grabs. We're not going anywhere. We're willing to live in peace, but we're staying.

Your presence in Israel tells the rest of the world: We are committed to protecting Israel.

Your presence in Israel tells Israelis: We are one family. United in both the good times and the bad. I support you. I thank you for enduring this difficult time for our benefit. I know it's a rough time, and I've come home to help. I've come to say thank you.

And know this: Any of our grandparents would have hiked for miles and camped in the wilderness just to kiss the Wall, to breathe the mystical air in Safed, to make a wish on one of the zillions of stars in the Negev night. Today, we have the opportunity to go to this land in first-class luxury, enjoy outstanding cuisine, world-class spas and sports facilities, five-star hotels and resorts.

And yet, we're not going.

There is an instinct that every human possesses: In a time of crisis, we go home. When a loved one is deathly ill, we go home. In times of need, we go home. It's time to go home.

I'm not suggesting to pack up and move to Israel. I'm just saying to go visit. Give yourself a trip of a lifetime. One that's spiritual, historical, meaningful, and just plain fun and relaxing. Go to Israel. Now.

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