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‘My first time in Israel’

Larry Hankin, IJN Associate Editor

It was 1972, and I was finishing my freshman year at college. I worked full time and lived at home during that first year of school, so I had a little money saved up.

My best friend and I were planning to drive cross-country, right after school was out, from Kansas City to California in my 1969 VW bug to do whatever young people did when they made a pilgrimage to California in those days.  Needless to say, my folks weren’t thrilled about our free-spirited , lack-of-any-real-plans itinerary.

My Dad pointed out to me that I could afford a trip to Israel, and wouldn’t that be a lot more meaningful and a better use of my hard-earned money than trekking to California in my not-so-reliable car?

My initial reaction was, “why would I want to go to Israel? It’s a war zone.”

I still had television news images of the 1967 Six Day War emblazoned in my mind.  But as I thought about it, those images of Israel not only fighting to survive, but to prevail, are what convinced me to change my plans.

Little did I know that I would be a witness to history on that trip, and how that trip would ultimately set the course of my life and career.

In the interest of getting the best price on airfare, I took a charter flight from Kansas City to London, where I picked up an El Al flight to Tel Aviv. That flight wasn’t direct either. It touched down in Vienna for just enough time to pick up a large group of Soviet Jews – one of the earliest such groups. 

In high school, I had participated in walks for Soviet Jewry and I had learned about the cause in religious school, and I was vaguely aware that relatively few Soviet Jews were just beginning to be allowed to emigrate from Russia to Israel.

So, here I was, literally surrounded by history in the making. These bedraggled-looking Russian Jews in the airplane seats all around me were the reason why there was a State of Israel.  I recognized the significance of that at the time, but didn’t come to fully appreciate it until years later.

I was welcomed at Lod Airport (the former name of Ben-Gurion International Airport) by my uncle and aunt, who had made aliyah to Israel just a few years before. They would be my hosts and tour guides for the next two weeks.

Just 24 hours after my arrival in Israel, my excitement about being there was shattered by the  news reports of what would become known as the Lod Airport Massacre.

On May 30, 1972, three conservatively dressed members of the Japanese Red Army boarded an Air France flight from Paris to Tel Aviv.  Once in the Lod Airport, they opened the violin cases they were carrying and pulled out Czech assault rifles. They began to fire indiscriminately at airport staff and visitors, killing 24 people and injuring 78 others. Two of the Japanese shooters were killed from Israeli fire, and the third died when he set off a grenade outside on the airport’s tarmac.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility for the attack.

All I knew at the time was that I missed that horrific terror attack by almost exactly 24 hours, and that my aunt and uncle stayed glued to the television as the details unfolded.  Those details included the fact that my aunt’s colleague at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Prof.  Aharon  Katzir, an internationally renowned protein biophysicist, had been killed in the attack.

The next day, my aunt said that other people she worked with had connections with some of the other victims of the terror attack.  I realized right then and there just how small Israel is, and how much of a personal impact a tragedy with 24 dead and 78 injured has on the people of this tiny, close-knit country.

The rest of my trip was not so dramatic, but was no less impactful. I set out to discover the meaning of  “the Jewish homeland” and  “a Jewish state.”  I saw first-hand both the interaction between and the separation of the Jews and Arabs in Israel. I experienced Middle Eastern culture.

I feel fortunate that was able to visit Israel before terrorism changed everything.

Back then, a Jew could go up onto the Temple Mount. I didn’t realize at the time that, perhaps it was appropriate for a Jew to do so, but nonetheless it was permitted, and very interesting.

Back then, you could walk through crowded streets of Jerusalem and worry only about  a pick-pocket – certainly not about suicide bombings.

A highlight for me was climbing on top of the ramparts of the walls running the perimeter of the Old City of Jerusalem, where you can take a self-guided tour of  life in the Old City from a bird’s eye view, and take in the phenomenal vistas of the new city of Jerusalem and the surrounding hills.

Outside of Jerusalem, my maiden voyage to Israel included Egged bus tours to Haifa, Tel Aviv and Masada.

When I left Israel two weeks later, security at Lod Airport was markedly tighter than it had been when I came, and it’s never loosened up since.

That trip had a tremendous impact on me as a young Jewish man. I became involved in Hillel in college, especially that next year during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. I took Hebrew language, Jewish history and thought and Middle East geography classes in college. I decided to major in journalism, and I sought an internship at the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle. That set me on my career path of Jewish journalism, which has included the opportunity to visit Israel six more times in a journalistic capacity.

When my father passed away two years ago, I spoke at his funeral, and recalled how he gently convinced me to go to Israel in that summer of 1972. Of all the gifts my father gave me, I believe that was the greatest.

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, IJN Executive Editor

I got to Israel before I got to Israel. The tension was immense, and sustained.

Two weeks before the Six Day War in 1967, my college buddy Yitzhak Twersky and I essentially dropped out of classes and arranged a massive transfer of college students to Israel.

The word on the street was that all Israeli male farmers had been called up to reserve duty. The crop was going to fail and the Israeli economy was going to die unless volunteers could be gotten to those farms, somehow.

We went into action.

Ordered telephones to our rooms (unheard of at the time).

Started collecting money (as the days went by, huge piles of cash, hundreds and thousands of dollars were dropped off in stray envelopes).

We found out how to get passports, quick.

After a week or so the Jewish Agency in downtown Manhattan turned over its offices to us.

We convinced students.

Talked to their parents.

Bought airlines tickets.

Fought for hard-to-get seats on the last flights out of the US.

We got hundreds of volunteers to Israel.

Then, when the war started, we collapsed.

All this around-the-clock work and tension said one thing: You’re going to Israel. It was as expected as breathing.

When I finally went, some eight months later, I was, as they say, psyched up, beyond belief.

Even so, nothing prepared me for the impact.

I will limit these remarks not to my first time in Israel, but just to the first several hours.

They were overwhelming, and still shape my spiritual identity.

We landed. It was night. I located a taxi, which would carry me to Netanya, the site of Ulpan Akiva.

The roads were not very large, busy or lit.

Just me and the taxi driver, with the great mystery of Israel all around us in black expanses and occasional lights.

When I got out of the taxi near the ulpan in Netanya, it was a semi-rural area.

Not built up. There were no street lights to soften or dilute the force of the starlight.

The scent in the air was unbelievably sweet, rich and alluring.

The stars in the Holy Land at night were overwhelming.

The holiness was palpable.

I couldn’t believe I had made it to the earth on which Abraham our Father had tread.

I couldn’t absorb the force of the holiness, of the Oneness Who created and stood behind those powerful lights and orbs in the sky.

It was as if I were physically struck.

I lay down on the ground and looked up, feeling enveloped by G-d.

I stayed there.





I saw at once that the holiness in the Land and outside the Land were qualitatively different, two totally different spheres.

I understood the magnetic pull of Israel on the Jewish people and the Jewish soul then, and thousands of years before then.

These first few hours in Israel changed my life forever.

Andrea Jacobs with a soldier, during her first trip to Israel.

Andrea Jacobs, IJN Senior Writer

February 25, 1994.

A dizzying taxi ride whisked me from Ben-Gurion Airport up the winding ascent to Jerusalem. I was the sole passenger.

The driver interpreted urgent words coming over radio: Dr. Baruch Goldstein, a Jew, murdered 30 Palestinians worshipping in a Hebron mosque.

I was horrified.

And calm.

The physical beauty of the place swallowed me whole.

Traveling is an exhausting experience, yet I never felt more energized.

Jewish journalists from all over the world checked in at the hotel on Mount Scopus.

I observed them. They observed me.

My hotel room was empty. I didn’t unpack my luggage. Instead, I went out on the balcony, which looked down upon the Old City.

Circling birds filled the pink-blue expanse of sky.

A profound sense of belonging carried me higher and higher.

And when I fell back to earth, I realized I hadn’t moved an inch.

I was attending an international conference of Jewish journalists. While I dutifully planned to attend press conferences and seminars, I already hungered to break away from the crowd.

I awoke to my first full day in Jerusalem on Shabbat. Actually, I called it Saturday –– then.

Due to tensions generated by the murders in Hebron, we were warned to stay away from the Wall. Palestinians were throwing rocks at Jewish worshippers.

“Who will go with me?” I asked a room of relaxed, coffee-drinking colleagues.

Joe Millis of London’s Jewish Chronicle volunteered.

A former Jerusalemite, he guided me past religious neighborhoods, artsy café-lined streets, historical structures in disarray, alleys drenched in flowered scents.

My feet hurt, but my heart raced.

After an hour, I finally gazed upon the Old City.

Mounting excitement displaced all fear.

Somewhere inside the stone labyrinth, the Wall waited.

I wandered, closer and closer, to the heart of a recurring dream –– struggling through the unknown, yet certain of the end.

The Wall was smaller than I imagined. I wasn’t prepared for the checkpoints, the delays, the swarm of people.

Then Joe told me to go to the right, to the women’s entrance, and disappeared.

My fingers shook as I reached for the Wall. Everyone was praying in Hebrew.

I mumbled lines from Tennyson: “An infant crying in the night; An infant crying for the light; And with no language but a cry.” 

On a rain-drenched Sunday, I took a cab to Yad Vashem. Although I understood its significance on an historical level, I was in for a visceral shock.

The children’s memorial flooded me like an enormous tear.

Names. Flames. Prayers for the dead. Memory.

Like souls, the birds flew all around.

Wednesday, at the suggestion of my roommate, I took a bus to Safed. Again, I had no real knowledge of the place.

The bus climbed a steep hill, then stopped.

This was Safed.

But why was I here?

For reasons I will never understand, I made my way down to the cemetery. 

I stayed for four hours.

Only later did I learn that the great Jewish mystics were buried there. At the time, all I felt was love, catching me like a net.

I couldn’t stop crying.

In Safed, I knew without knowing.

I can’t explain it –– but no explanation seems necessary.

The day before I had to return to Denver, my heart started to break. The sadness was unbearable.

Don’t misunderstand me. The trip was incredible. I learned about the political situation, the history, the people, the land itself.

But I had fallen in love with Israel –– and believed with all my being that this love was reciprocal.

I didn’t want to leave.

A friend with an apartment in the German Colony left on assignment.

She offered me her place.

I was alone.

It was Shabbat, and I was Jewish –– but I had never observed Shabbat before.

Nothing was open.

There was no coffee, no TV, no extraneous sounds, no distractions.

The hours barely moved.

Finally I sat on the balcony, inhaling the twilight.

Something held me for a very long time.

The cab arrived at the appointed time.

I rode with strangers to the airport.

“I will come back,” I promised silently.

Five years later, I returned –– and the loving arms were waiting.

Photo by Chris Leppek, from his first trip to Israel.

Chris Leppek, IJN Assistant Editor

My first visit to Israel came in 1984. In some ways, it seems like a century ago.

The country wasn’t exactly an oasis of peace even then, but the waves of suicide bombers, the snipers from East Jerusalem, the falling of Kassams – all these still lurked in the uncertain future.

There are lots of memories of that trip. I recall the long-haired kibbutznik who asked me where I came from and, after I replied, had a hard time figuring out where “Denver” was. He drew a blank when I said “Colorado,” but “Rocky Mountains” finally struck a bell. “Oh yes!” he exclaimed. “Rocky Mountain High! John Denver!”

I remember the Israeli Air Force woman who gave me an IDF cap, which came in handy on those hot September afternoons. I wore it once while walking through East Jerusalem, not even thinking about the Hebrew letters embroidered on its side. But the hostile stares I received from the Arab locals soon made me think about them. After I removed the cap and stuffed it into a bag, the hostile stares transformed once more into friendly, if slightly mercenary, smiles.

Although that demonstrated that even in 1984 the tensions were there, they were a far cry from what took place later in the 80s, and even more dramatically in 2000. Twenty-five years ago, Jews and others walked through East Jerusalem all the time, frequented Arab restaurants and shops, and thought nothing of making day trips to places like Nazareth, Jenin and Bethlehem.

I remember my first meeting with the family of my boss, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, and having dinner with them at a kosher health food restaurant in West Jerusalem. His oldest girls, Tehilla and Temima, couldn’t have been much more than 10 years old at the time. When they spoke Hebrew, it was like listening to music. Their voices reminded me of softly chirping birds. Their middle daughter, Shana, was mysterious and quiet and a little melancholy. The others, son Mattis and daughter Riki, were tiny, exuberant and wild.

When we went to dinner, Hillel’s wife Elaine inadvertently left her purse at the hotel where I was staying. By the time we returned, the purse had been picked up by security, thoroughly searched and placed safely away. Elaine got it back only after a stern lecture from the hotel’s security man.

It was, perhaps, a faint premonition of the intifadas yet to come, and all the death and fear and distrust that followed in their wake.

I didn’t make it back to Israel until 2000. By then, it seemed a dramatically different place.

Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were virtually devoid of tourists, so fearful were foreigners of the regular reports of terror attacks. I remember having breakfast in the vast dining room of the luxurious King David Hotel. Aside from the handful of journalists with whom I was traveling, there wasn’t a soul there.

At night, gunshots could be heard in Jerusalem, coming from the eastern parts of the city, often directed at the Gilo neighborhood.

When groups of Israeli teenagers saw our small entourage, they often came over to greet us and to thank us for not deserting them – and Israel – in such dire days.

Things have improved considerably since then, or so I’m told, since I haven’t managed to make it back in the intervening years. Tourists have returned and gunshots are very seldom heard in Jerusalem. Physical barriers, and strict restrictions on the travel of Palestinians, have made this possible.

I suppose one might call Israel’s current status an uneasy twilight between war and peace. And I suppose further, if I’m going to be honest about it, that it really wasn’t all that different in 1984.

I remember taking my first good look at Jerusalem from the hotel balcony. The sun was setting, bathing the city’s limestone buildings and streets in golden light, and the air was cooling, releasing the spicy scent of cedar into the evening air. I thought I had never seen anything quite so beautiful, so seemingly peaceful.

Yet even then, I could sense the energy coursing beneath this soothing scene. I could feel the potent streams of faith and ideology, the ponderous burden of centuries of struggle, in the very air. Some of these streams spoke of love and peace, others of hate and war.

Since that evening, I have always pictured Israel as a potent matrix of all these elements, a dizzying and addictive land of contrasts and harmonies, a culture perpetually on the edge, a place you simply can’t help but fall in love with.

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