gap year in israel

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Day 1

So far we are having an excellent time. Everyone was on time and we made our El Al flight nicely.Alina was able to sleep through the whole thing.

We had a nice driver pick us up in the airport and took us straight to our hotel. We have used this hotel every year because the location is great and the staff is very nice. They renovated part of the hotel so I must admit that Ben and I have superior rooms and are living in a style that we have grown accustomed to. Even though we had an early arrival our rooms were ready and we were able to check in.

We then walked to the old Jewish Quarter and had a tour of the Jewish Museum and two synagogues; one Sephardi and one Roman. Before there was the Ashkenaze-Sephard divide Jews had left the land of Israel two centuries before the common era and settled it Rome…and have never left making it one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. As a result they have some differences in prayers and customs.

After the tour we had a short ceremony for the Jews who were deported from Rome to Auschwitz on October 16, 1943. We stood at the spot where the Jews were rounded up. Of the 2000 Jews gathered that day only 15 came back alive. Gabby lead us in the mourner’s kaddish.

We then ate lunch in an Italian fast food place. This being Italy, all the food is great and this was no exception. We continued in the rain to the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. Definitely a highlight of the trip but was difficult for us because of the rain and it was a bit chilly. Interesting fact is the Colosseum was starting in the year 73 CE. If you remember you history the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 and Masada fell 3 years later. The Jews were taken to Rome in slavery and as a result we wound up building the Colosseum (just like we built the pyramids). Personally I think we should get free admission as a result….but we still had to pay.

We then took a Metro train back to the hotel and met Professor Piperno who gave us a history of the Jews in Rome but mainly focused on how his family faired in the Holocaust. He was 5 at the time but remembers everything because it was so traumatic and robbed him of his childhood. He told stories of bravery of how non Jews risked their lives to save his family and stories of cowardice about other non Jews who turned in members of his family. Basically for the 9 months of the Nazi occupation he was in hiding in one place or another….mostly underground rarely seeing the light of day.

We then went with him to a great Italian restaurant where we ordered way too much food and took doggie bags home. It is now time to sleep since everyone is exhausted.


Day 2

First from yesterday Gabby’s mother asked a good question if there were pictures from the synagogue visit. And sadly the answer is “no.” And the reason is even sadder because even though Italy is not usually associated with terrorism there was in fact a terrorist attack on that very synagogue during services resulting in the death of a baby. Since then on four corners surrounding the Jewish area there are armed Italian police. To enter the synagogue even on a Friday night there is intense screening and security. Living in Israel I am used to security and being checked by guards in malls, bus stations, etc. But I never had that experience in Israel (probably since a high percentage of the people davening in the Orthodox shuls I went to were armed.

Today everyone woke up on time and we had a great breakfast in the hotel. Then we took a short walk to the central train station and boarded a modern train to Florence. The ride took about 1 ½ hours and was fun. We arrived to Florence and had a short walk to our hotel. Just my room was ready since it was early so we stored all our stuff in my room and the girls freshened up (apparently Ben and I were good to go).

We then went to the Academy to see the David statue but bad timing had a really long line. So I made an appointment for later in the day and continued onto the Duomo. It is huge and smack in the center of Florence. A very majestic renaissance era church with the second largest dome in all of Europe. How they made that thing without electricity and modern tools is beyond the imagination. We continued from there to lunch…..for pizza! Then arrived to the world famous Ponte Vecchio bridge and explored the jewelry stores on the bridge (just like in history that the silver and gold merchants set up shop on the bridge itself). We then walked back to the hotel exploring various leather markets and other shops along the way.

We finally got to see Michaelangelo’s David statue. It is in The Academy which was an is an art student school. First we could see examples of how he attempted to carve in stone before seeing his masterpiece. Yes we have all seen pictures of it…but it is nothing like the original which is breathtaking. We had some free time so Alina and Rachel could buy leather jackets in the marketplace.

Finally we all left for dinner at Sale de Teatro. First the students became members of the club (I was already a member from previous year). Then we entered to eat and eat and eat and eat. Shouting in Italian the chef served course after course of endless food. All the while we drank endless red wine followed by desert and coffee. Now the students are enjoying a guitar performance while I came back to the hotel to write the update.


Day 3

It was a glorious day in Tuscany. First we awoke to a great breakfast in the hotel. Then our tour guide Natale picked us up in his very comfortable van. We then went to the medieval city of Sienna. We were able to see clearly how cities looked at that time since the central part has remained close to what it looked like then, large main square, narrow streets, and an impressive cathedral on the highest point. Sienna was in the process of expanding the cathedral so it could rival Florence as a political center when the Black Plague struck killing 70% of the population and never fully recovering.

In Sienna we came to a regular looking apartment building made a brick. But once we were inside we could see that this facade hid an elaborate and elegant synagogue. It was built on the site of the ghetto but even shortly after emancipation the Jews still felt nervous there to build anything too showy. During the Holocaust most of Sienna’s Jews survived and were hidden by non Jews across the countryside. However today there are only 50 Jews left in the community which has a Hebrew school consisting of only 8 students.

For lunch we ate at a family run restaurant in the middle of nowhere. The family lives upstairs and opened a restaurant on the first floor. The food was absolutely amazing using only local products grown in the area. We had to hang out in the restaurant for a while afterwards because we were too full to move. We were then brought to another example of a medieval town and went into some shops. One of the shops was a butcher run by the same family for hundreds of years. Unfortunately for us the main meat product is pig. I have never seen so much pork in one place in my life. It was disgusting. We also were able to go into the cheese cellar to learn a little about the process of making cheese.

It was then off to a winery to taste some local wines and eat saffran cookies. Saffran is the most expensive spice in the world and also grown locally in Tuscany. It was nice being on the farm, playing on the swings, and taking in all the views.

Everywhere we went the countryside was beautiful. We then came back to Florence exhausted. The students can have some free time now and I encouraged them to go to sleep early since we need to wake up at 5:30 tomorrow.

Day 4

We had a really early wake up at 5:30, breakfast, and then the train station to return to Rome. We arrived to the same hotel we started out in and stored our luggage. Then we were off to the suburbs to visit the Israeli embassy. Maddie, Ben, and Alina all asked great questions but I am not allowed to write anything here nor supply pictures. You can ask your children why (or me in email but I may not answer till Sunday).

We then took a very old tram to a restaurant near the Vatican. We had soup and a buffet and then we were ready to enter sort-of another country. The Vatican museums are vast and we saw a lot of statues, paintings, architecture, etc. We learned that in Roman times the statues were not just white but they were painted on and may had glass eyes. We were able to see a couple of mummified Popes but not the current one who is alive. It is fascinating to be in the heart of Catholicism but hard as Jews since they persecuted our people so much in the name of God.

We then returned to our hotel to check in since it was too early before. After a rest we took the Metro to the Spanish Steps. Spain used to have an outpost on those steps and occasionally would kidnap people into the Spanish military. Today it is a meeting place for people from all over the world. I got to tell the students that back in ancient history…before the invention of the cellphone, young people would travel in Europe and choose a date and a time months in advance when they would meet up at the Spanish Steps…and people would just show up. They were amazed.

In that area today are major shopping stores like Gucci, Fendi, Prada, Dolce and Gabbana, etc. I allowed the time to go through the shops, get dinner, and have some free time adventures. I am hoping none are commissioned into the Spanish army. I explained carefully how to find their way back using the Metro (it is quite easy). We have a more normal wake up at 9 so they can stay out later if they want.

Day 5

We had a great last day in Italy! We woke at a leisurely 9 and had breakfast. We stored our luggage at the hotel and set off for our adventures. Our first stop was the Capulet Crypt. Upstairs is a museum about a particular Catholic order of monks. But the special part is the crypt. The would take the bones of the monks after they died and make very morbid artistic displays. It can’t be described so try Google. Let’s just say it is very different than Judaism.

We then went to the Crime Museum. That place starts off reviewing various horrific ways people used to be tortured (often the Church doing the torturing). Then it reviewed more modern police and detective work.
Our next stop was the Piazza Navona, and ancient chariot racing track which now has some impressive fountains, lost of artists selling their wares, and various street performers. Then off to the side of the square we had lunch at a great restaurant. The food is incredible but the restaurant is quite narrow and we were shoved together like sardines (we probably should have eaten there the first day when we were thinner).

Thanks to a tip from Rachel’s dad I took the students to get gelato (ice cream to us Americans). The ice cream as great but the staff was like the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld. With full stomachs we went to the Pantheon, an ancient pagan temple which is now a church. An interesting fact is like in many Churches in Europe people are buried there. One person is Margherita who was the wife of one of the leaders of modern Italy. In her honor the Margherita pizza was invented which is red (tomato), white (cheese), and green (basil) representing the colors of the Italian flag.

Our last stop was the Trevi Fountain. If you throw in one coin you will come back to Rome. If you throw two coins you will fall in love. If you throw three, you will get married. I threw three… I instructed the students not to throw three…they are too young. Rachel did not listen (sorry to Rachel’s parents…I tried).

We then took a rented van to the airport where we are not about to board the plane. In the van I had all the students say what were their highlights. some answers were: the food, Tuscany, dead things, embassy, and the group of students.

It was a fantastic journey and I am very pleased. Yes they had fun, but it also was educational and helps the students understand the world and themselves better.