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Am Shalom's Civil Rights Journey

civilrights4Just a couple of weeks ago, 32 of us from Am Shalom traveled to Atlanta, Selma, Birmingham, and Montgomery on a transformational journey led perfectly by Rabbi Steven Lowenstein and Cantor Andrea Rae Markowicz. We experienced not just the narratives of a history most of us had read about and some of us had lived firsthand, but also the soundtrack of a movement. From This Land is Your Land being sung by demonstrators in Atlanta's Hartsfield airport to If You Miss Me At the Back of the Bus to I Shall Not Be Moved to We Shall Overcome, we sang and sang and sang. We joined Bishop Calvin Wallace Woods, Sr. in song, an 83-year-old Civil Rights pioneer and pastor, as we chanted aloud in Freedom Park in view of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham (where young girls Addie, Cynthia, Carole, and Carol were killed in the infamous bombing). We joined congregants in song during a Rise Up Sunday service in the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. We sang If I Had A Hammer, and Hiney Mah Tov on our bus. We sang out the pain of memory and the joy of enlightenment.

In Montgomery, we learned about the Southern Poverty Law Center. We stood across the street around a water fountain memorial that commemorated 40 events reflective of the trials, struggles, murders, legal cases, and successes of a few decades of our Civil Rights history.  We grew silent as we heard of the open spaces the memorial’s architect purposely left vacant to house unknown future events that will need to be added…  We spent quality time at Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative learning about how 25% of all people on Death Row live in Alabama, about their work on trying to improve prison conditions, about their efforts to exonerate wrongfully imprisoned Death Row inmates, about their work to change laws regarding the treatment of children who were being incarcerated in adult prisons, about their documentation of lynching in the south, and about their non-litigation work around issues of race and poverty.

civilrights11On the bus en route to the Rosa Parks Museum, we listened to Billie Holiday’s haunting Strange Fruit as we reflected and anticipated.  We learned the stories of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott that went beyond the sound bytes many of us grew up reading about without truly understanding.

Welcomed warmly by Rabbi Elliot Stevens and by everyone at Congregation Beth Or, we sang, chanted, prayed, and learned together. We joined Cantor Andrea as she participated so beautifully in the congregation in which she had served years before as a student cantor. We shared dinner and stories as Rabbi Steve guided us through an inspiring evening. We embraced Shabbat as one community of friends.

The next day, we were on the road to Selma, now paved West 80, but just a dirt road during the time of the March. We quietly approached a place on the side of the highway.  We walked across the road to view Maya Lin’s 1991 memorial to Viola Liuzzo, the civil rights activist murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1965 for simply driving a black man from Montgomery to Selma.  On the somber bus ride to Selma, we listened to Joan Baez’s One Tin Soldier, to John Legend and Common’s Glory, to a video interview with Representative John Lewis.  We listened.

We arrived at Selma’s Mishkan Synagogue, which had been the spiritual home of one of our fellow travelers.  We heard his personal memories of the joys and the struggles of growing up in the congregation, and in Selma, during the height of unrest.  We asked questions.  And we listened.  And we prayed.

civilrights6We met Jo Ann Bland and heard her testimony of growing up in Selma as a young girl baffled by not being legally permitted to sit at the lunch counter in her town and ultimately joining her grandmother in activism.  She marched for voting rights.  And she marched across the Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, on Turn-around Tuesday, and again two weeks later.  She shared details of her incarceration, of the beatings, of the terror.  And we all walked across the Pettus Bridge, imagining the horror and grateful to be together in those moments.

Ask any of us to tell you more.  Ask us to tell you about the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum.  Ask us to tell you about Bishop Woods sharing the details behind why Birmingham, originally called “The Magic City” was then dubbed “The Tragic City” and “Bombingham.”  Ask us to tell you about the fire hoses, about the dogs, about the children, about the attention finally paid.  Ask us how it felt to hear him say, “We had the ingredient of prayer.  People would pray until they got happy.”  Ask us to tell you about our late-night ride back to Atlanta, each of us looking back and wondering.

Ask us about our last day in Atlanta, about viewing the reflecting pool and tombs of Martin Luther King, Jr. and of Coretta Scott King.  Ask us about sitting in the small Ebenezer Baptist Church hearing Martin Luther King, Jr. speak in his own taped words.  Ask us about our participating with the gospel singers and musicians and preachers in a moving Sunday morning service at the larger across-the-street Ebenezer Baptist Church and about the sermon delivered by The Reverend Raphael G. Warnock, Ph.D.  And ask us about our stop at The Names Project, about the AIDS Quilt, about what we learned about civil rights and the politics, then and now, of AIDS in America.

civilrights8Ask us about this journey, and let us all be inspired to sing out, to shout out, to speak out with conviction and intentionality toward building a world of wholeness, compassion, and justice. And if you need a little lift, listen to 15-year-old Royce Mann sing out his poem just a few weeks ago at that same church in Atlanta. We are not in this alone.  

In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words: 

            If you can’t fly, then run.

            If you can’t run, then walk.

            If you can’t walk, then crawl.

            But, whatever you do,

            You have to keep moving forward.


Contributed by Guest Blogger and Am Shalom Member, Kerry Leaf

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Yad Vashem: Remember, Appreciate, and Act

written by Randi Brill Zieserl, Am Shalom Board Member and Trip Participant

March 23-24, 2016


The sun is vibrant in the clearest blue sky you can imagine, but for

the past three hours, time has seemed frozen. The sun feels warm, yet

I feel cold. I am walking to the bus, leaving Yad Vashem for the

second time in under 16 months. I'm overwhelmed with as much as I can

capture on this second too-short visit. It is all swirling deep inside

me, "Why?" impatiently resisting logic. Once again the experience of

coming here is changing me--more. Today I am here with my own child,

who is absorbing this for the first time. This reality changes me most

of all.


The last time I was here, I was taken by the STORY. This time it is

different. This time it is not one story of six million; it is too few

real stories left of too many real people who represent six million

individual stories, so many of which we will never know.


How close, too close, it feels to me as I continually scan for our

daughter. I want to give her space to take this in and at the same

time, I want to instinctively protect her from having to comprehend

even what little she can of it all. This is up close and personal and

that is what frames today's visit for me.


As we wind our way through, I feel more each time I discover another

small detail. First, it was a watch fob that used to rest in someone's

hand to simply check the time. Then it was a battered, oversized spoon

used to prepare meals I imagine were much like those my own

grandmother made. Most compelling were the many pairs of unsuspecting

eyes looking at me from photos taken "before." These images, tucked

inside a hem or lining, the only evidence of the life they lived

before, showed strength, energy, and the sparkling personalities of

people I could have known, could have seen in our own little town.

There was even an image of a person I could have easily been had I

born then and there instead of here and now. With each artifact, my

awareness of the lost story behind each one slowly grows.


I flash incessantly from a "that was then" sensation (that I'm just

not buying) to the harsh questions that bubble up in my gut about

today. "What makes now so different? IS it really so different? Are we

really any less indifferent today than everyone was not 60+ years



We roll our eyes at our election; IS it so different? How much more

engaged must we each become? How easily our instantaneous media

explains away each incident some may strive to call isolated. I look

at the underlying patterns potentially emerging and become all at once

confused, angry, and frightened. Could anything this horrific actually

happen again? Or is it already? Still?


As compressed as history makes these years, as short as they seem

compared to 40 years in the desert, for example, the changes in real

time were no less gradual. That is PRECISELY how we boil a frog, yes?

Is that how this grew to such enormous proportions so quickly,

tragically, and yes, efficiently?


We comfort ourselves with the public immediacy of our social media

today. Many see it as the protective shield to prevent the lack of

knowledge that was such a fundamental part of creating the illusions

and sustaining the trust that "this too shall blow over soon." Yet is

social media not also a propaganda vehicle if used as such? The

difference is the speed with which it moves.


So many Jews believed the best, not the worst. I think this is because

to not believe what they were told was unfathomable. To look at their

faces, to see their precious single pieces of luggage only

confirms--they did not know.


"Put your shoes and clothing down where you will be able to find them

after you shower." Those instructing knew full well that these items

would be as gone as their owners in only moments. I can "see" and feel

the trust and hope as so many spent their last few moments alive,

carefully folding their few garments. I can sense so clearly that they

did not begin by believing that they were to be murdered within the



I observe what we can see to represent just a few of these people we

have lost. These very real individuals had families and talents and

routines just like ours. I really start to see them and I easily

understand how they truly did not understand. Would I have understood?

We all like to think so, but that is only today's hindsight that fuels

that belief, I think. We have puzzle pieces they did not.


As we near the last section of the museum pathway, the gist of the

sign over the work camp entrance distills down to six words that catch

in my heart. "The work will make you free."


I walk under that gate and think of those words--and of myself. I

work. All the time. Very hard. If I had been told that through my hard

work I could have saved my children and we could have been freed, I

can only imagine how much force I would have mustered to prove my

value, to work, and to try to save my family. I believe as I sit here

that I too would have probably believed, unable to comprehend the

brutal reality until it was too late to change the outcome for my

family, barring miracles. I believe it is more likely that I would

trust to the end that I still had the power and strength to change my

fate and the fate of my family. I think that probably I too "would not

have known."


"They did not know." That phrase keeps spinning around me as I look at

the normalcy on this loud, modern bus of ours, gleaming in the bright

sun, ready to whisk us to our next discovery. One of the kids is

fussy, frustrated about some small issue that will disappear in

minutes. This time it is not one of our daughters, but it easily could

be. I am so grateful that all of our kids have the freedom to be

frustrated about something small, that our kids are safe and not

hungry, sure and not frightened, and healthy and happy. One and a half

million children--and all of their children--are not.


It is now early morning the next day. The sun is coming up again now.

Today our daughter becomes a Bat Mitzvah here in Jerusalem. It is time

to wake my family and to welcome this special day.


As we pause from our everyday activities at home for these incredible

experiences in Israel, I know and learn once again that remembering

does matter, and that equal to that need, remembering is not nearly

enough. We must also appreciate and act--and strive to know as best we

can the truths. We must also consider the possibilities for which we

do not yet have evidence in a way that steers our actions wisely and

still drives us make the very most of the gift of each day.


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Slower Motion Means Deeper Notions

March 21, 2016

by Randi Brill Zieserl, Am Shalom Board Member and trip participant

With all my plans to walk, to write, and to blog each day, I've had to revise my timeline and temper my expectations more than a bit. For those of you who know I embarked on this adventure to Israel at about 50% strength, I suppose my discovery won’t surprise you, nor will the fact that I have been completely shocked by my low energy level. Manishtahnah. (Let's just all agree I spelled that wrong.)

It is now Monday and I can stand it no more. I need to capture a bit of this experience. I have this great chance to return, so I yearn to make the most of it, limits or not. Ever determined to turn negative to positive, my need to go more slowly, pace my walking, and rest more is showing me slivers of Israel at a level of crisp detail I would have otherwise missed. I cannot go fast, so instead, I go deep. In Israel, there is something to discover with every lens, even my slower motion one. Or is it especially this slower lens? While I am not clocking the steps I envisioned, I am capturing something much more powerful—new, rich, and deeper connection to this amazing place.

Yesterday, Steven "suggested" I hang out on the bus, skipping Independence Hall since I had been there before. Slow or not, I’m still me, and I opt to go, telling myself it is mostly sitting. Yes, the words and story are not new to me, but this time, it all sounds different. How much I'd missed the first time. This slowing down increases my presence, I realize. The patina of the words, the intensity of the story, all have so much more meaning.

How did those 66 families do what they did with such fairness, community, drive, and a passion we cannot even fathom? I think I will not pass a white or grey seashell without recalling the decision to have a young child allocate the plots of land. The child pulled a grey shell with a plot number on it and then a white shell with a family name on it—66 times. Thus this child randomly matched 66 family names with 66 home locations with an overt objectivity that only innocence can achieve. It was so simple—and effective. I laugh at the number of meetings we would require today to make a decision of much less importance.

Then, as we progress into the actual meeting room of what was then the museum, I think of our own family every Friday night. Piano lesson hurriedly finished, a scent wafting from the oven for Shabbat dinner, dresses flying, and an excited urgency to "take that breath." What must it have felt like to be in that tiny room, on that Friday, May 14, 1948, at 4:00, to create a Jewish state in the land of Israel—before Shabbat? As I listen to the story, riveted, I can "see" Golda Meir, sitting in that hard wooden chair, listening intently and at the same time, wondering about the safety of her own two children, knowing she was a part of history, yes. A worried mother, also yes. No texts to confirm, only trust and hope—on all fronts.


I will never be able to sit in our happy row two each Friday night, a precious daughter on each side, and be anything less than incredibly grateful for the gifts of freedom to be there, to be part of our own thriving Jewish community, with now an even deeper connection to this beautiful land.

Today, we stand in Sefad, outside of the synagogue. At Steven’s signal, Andrea leads us in a short version of L’Cha Dodi. Just the first and last verses, quietly, and not on Shabbat, to build an image I will “see” every Friday night as we welcome in the Sabbath Queen. I am here—right here, standing, singing, and feeling the difference of this air, the clarity of this blue sky, with the flag ruffling in the breeze. It is different and the definition of mystical though still far from reach, is somehow closer now. Each Friday as I turn for verse nine, this will be my image—a gift I’ll treasure always.


As for tomorrow, we return to a true favorite place—Kinneret Cemetery—so rich with history and our daughter’s middle name in Hebrew. I look forward to the new details I’ll discover there. Slower can be good. What better place to be so present?

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Rick's American Cafe {Morocco Trip}

 by Michael Blum, Am Shalom Board Member and Morocco Trip Participant
Religious and spiritual experiences aside, about 10 of us had a great time visiting Rick’s American Café in Casablanca. We walked there after dinner on Monday night. It was designed and opened about 10 years ago by Kathy Kriger, who had just retired as Commercial Attache for the American embassy. All of the décor was taken from the movie, “Casablanca”. It was quite beautiful and exotic, but no Humphrey Bogart or Sam. To our delight, Kathy was seated at the end of the bar drinking her Jamieson and was eager to chat after her initial shock at 10 Americans invading at once! She dispelled the rumor that the current piano player was related to the original Sam in the movie, but did tell us that Bogart had insisted that the movie director audition the son of his personal cook of 35 years, who was a great singer and pianist but too tall at 6’5” (compared to Bogart’s 5’6”!) to get the part. The movie was playing in the upstairs bar on continuous loop. We all had a drink at the bar, took pictures and taxied back to our hotel. A good time was had by all!
Am Shalom trip participants enjoyed a wonderful time in Morocco! 
See more pictures here and follow all of our trips and activities at


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Etched in Memory {Morocco Trip}

 by Denise Hoeflich, Am Shalom member and Morocco trip participant

It is a difficult task to isolate one moment from this remarkable trip to Morocco. I came on the trip to open my self and sprit to a new world and experience. I came to communicate with new surroundings and people and venture away from a well trodden path.

Far from family, far from everything and despite the sometimes strenuous conditions, I found myself happy at all times as I contemplated the ancient walls that lacerated the modern Muslim cities. As I think back about all of the places and people we saw it feels like a whirlwind. However, the more I think about the past 8 days, the more I become aware how certain moments somehow do become etched in memory.

My mind goes to the tiny synagogue in Merket where time seems to have stopped. The Jewish population, once a thriving community, has almost completely vanished leaving a ghost like feeling in this place of worship. The old Jewish caretaker seems almost put out to open the place up. Despite this, we bring out the broken and tattered Torah and read it anyway. I stand and gaze as the caretaker begins to smile hearing Torah chanted in this broken place. His smile lights up the otherwise dark, damp and forgotten home. I capture in a glance this almost unreal vision and store it in my heart, along with a few raindrops and blessings whispered sweetly into this caretaker's ear.

It is a moment I will never forget.

Am Shalom trip participants enjoyed a wonderful time in Morocco! 
See more pictures here and follow all of our trips and activities at
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The Name of One Person

by Randi Brill, Am Shalom Board Member and Cuba Trip Participant

Today at the United Hebrew Congregation Cemetery in Cuba—we remembered. As we stood at that tiny Holocaust memorial monument just inside the entrance, we said Kaddish for the six million Jews who perished as well as for the people we’ve personally lost, those we continue to remember in our hearts. As I uttered the all-too-familiar words, I felt the pain of my own newest loss so acutely. How could it be possible that I am truly standing in Cuba on this stunningly bright and beautiful day saying Kaddish for my mother exactly nine months and one day after her death? How?
My mother would have indeed taken Jewish worry to entirely new heights at the mere thought of her daughter being in Cuba at all, and “Oy, in an old cemetery, no less.” As I acknowledged how fresh this loss of my amazing mother still remains, I realized yet again the common denominator of loss. Everyone in this cemetery became a loss to someone—hopefully.
Her funeral was in Pittsburgh. I have no family anywhere else. Three days later, we held a last night of shiva at home in Glencoe. Rabbi Steve came to the house that afternoon with candles, prayer books, and a little stuffed bear sporting a T-shirt. While it was for the girls, since that day and by tacit understanding, this little bear remains steadfast at its post in my office. Each night, as I repack briefcases, untangle tech cords, and other such prep, this little bear stands by. In these quiet hours, the pain’s been known to seep in. Or is it out? Either way, this bear is fine company as its T-shirt reads, “We all laugh differently, but we all cry the same.”
How fitting to remember that in this country so rich with differences, in this cemetery so full of people and lives to be remembered. We do all cry the same. As our group began to explore, our mission was as follows: “Find and remember the name of just one person buried here. Many may have no family left in Cuba, no one to remember them.” Here I am, able to cherish everything from big moments to little pearls of wisdom from my mother. Some days, I can still almost remember the sound of her voice. Yet many of those buried in this cemetery may not be remembered at all—by anyone.
So I set off to find “my” name. I walked from headstone to headstone, hoping a name would resonate. I looked for graves where no one had placed any tiny stones to signal remembrance.  I’d see a name and realize how young so many were when they died. How could I possibly know which name to choose? I was becoming convinced I should try to remember them all when my husband called me over to one particular grave.
There, with no tiny stones on top, was the grave of a man born in 1888 who died in 1936, just 48 years later. The name on the headstone read “JOEL ROSENHOCH BRILL.” That is certainly a name I’ll remember. While he may or may not be a REALative, this man is now family.
And to think, I’d been relieved my mother had no idea I was in Cuba. She always was a woman of few words, and today it feels like the word was only one. BRILL.
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Cuba: On the Cusp of WHAT?

Written by Randi Brill, Am Shalom Board Member and trip participant
January 27, 2015
Today begins DAY 3 of four days in Havana. There is much to see, absorb, discover, and experience. Yet, there is a patina, a sort of film over it all, that I have a strong desire to peel away. It’s like the opening of a movie that starts with a watercolor painting and gradually morphs into today’s clear world. In Cuba, that watercolor world IS today—and it is very much in focus. The clarity with which I see everything is so sharp, so crisp, with colors so vivid that they feel like another sort of paint—powerful and pure acrylics, swirling straight from the tubes. 
My designer’s eye feels both electric and kinetic at once. Even with my medley of physical cameras, I’m unable to keep up the many images my mind’s camera is capturing so much more rapidly. Doorposts, archways and crumbling chunks of stone, with their jumbles of juxtaposed paint colors, reinforce my realization that there is no bad photo to be taken here. 
Everywhere you look is another photo waiting to be taken.  
And yet with all of this striking imagery, it is equally clear that there is a powerful undercurrent, heavily pulling at much of this country, locking it into a time long past for those of us only visiting here. Parts of Havana seem like Mayberry. Life moves much more slowly and simply than our frenetic lives at home. With no technology or cell coverage, there are no incessant pings, dings, or rings to distract from the only job required here: to be present. And I am. 
I flip from absorbing and recording to clicking and capturing. At the same time, I fall into a familiar activity from my work, figuring out what makes other people tick by attempting to put myself in their shoes. My mind wanders. How would I be and feel if I lived here, wearing these shoes? How would I contend with having so few choices and so little power to create change? I feel a growing knot at the mere thought of it. 
Then I realize that creating change is what I do as naturally as breathing in my world. If I’d lived my entire life here, I would not know what it is to create change. I would not know how much choice and power I’d be missing. I’d only know the familiarity of my own Cuban existence. As I walked early today, the city was waking up. People were walking slowly and presumably to work, they were cueing into lines to wait, or sitting on corners, talking or not. They were not rushing, carrying cups of Starbucks, or listening with earbuds in private isolation. These people were simply out on the streets, showing up for the gift of this day. 
“Boker Tov.” “Boker Or.” The light. There’s a fine light here, I think. I see in my mind’s eye an image from our early walk. It was a strong ray of light. A little boy was clearly on his way to school. He wore a backpack, sturdy black shoes, bright blue kerchief around his neck, and a crisp white shirt. As he slowly meandered, his little smile was genuine. He was clearly happy to start his day—in his world, the only world he knows. As he grows up, this familiar world of his will change into something new and different. 
WHAT? No one knows, no one says, no one is sure, and no one declares. Many might wonder, sort of. On this bus, we imagine and envision. Where we live, we think we know. Here, they know that they do not. 
The concept of change will be so unfamiliar to Cuba. I toy absently with the change management strategies that will no doubt begin for people for whom such ideas will be so foreign. Regardless of the specifics, having so little choice will gradually be replaced by more choice—of some variety. And there will be catch up—a lot of catch up.
I recognize a metaphor. With Crohn’s Disease, for years I could eat only plain, bland, typically beige foods. Highly disciplined, I never deviated from these foods, never risked the painful price to cheat. After major surgery, finally free of tubes and able to eat, a tray of “real” hospital food appeared. Instinctively, my alarms went off. “I am not allowed this food!” Quite a discussion ensued and my doctor finally arrived. He said, “Randi, you CAN eat this now. You will not get sick. Your body is fixed. Now, your brain must to catch up. Eat the corn soup and you will see.”
The Cuban people will likely encounter a great many “new foods.” They, too, are likely to struggle with newfound options, whatever they may be. They may also need to incorporate an increased speed of life if a technological explosion courses through this country. Will the music be even faster, the Jews even stronger, the colors even brighter, and the textures even richer? 
I only hope that with all the gains that may come, this splendor only grows. 
Clearly, my quick blog post has also grown, the surface of this experience barely scratched. And yet next I must capture my time in Cuba in only six words—by dinner. 
Hemmingway did it. 
“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”
Wow. I’m no Hemmingway.
The incredible woman we met at the museum did it, too. 
“Don’t try to understand this country.”
So I will try. 
 “A Jewish community determined to survive.”
“Changes, choices, coming. Connections, cultures, uncontained.” 
The title of this blog is six words, too.
“Cuba: On the Cusp of WHAT?”
We must all wait for that answer. In the meantime, we must continue to act, continue to take care, and continue to show up to climb those haystacks. I have a strong feeling I will be back. 
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End of Trip in Six Words

As you saw the other day in a post by Karen Leeds, our group was encouraged by Rabbi Steve to write a "Six Word Memoir" about Israel.

Here are some of our group's creations....some people wrote a few:

We’ll be back in April 2016.
(That feels too long from now!)
My mom would be so happy.
*Hebrew for ice cream
Karen has to pee every hour.
No more walking, my feet hurt.
When can we go eat food.
Forced prayer is not my thing.
I’ve eaten schnitzel recently 20 times.
I’ll be back in one month.
create, remember, memory, water, shopping, Israel
I will come back here soon.
No words can describe my emotions.
You don’t know until you are here.
Why can’t we be there yet?
I have changed. I’m better now.
Wonder. Awe. Pride. Respect. Amazement. Love.
Land of history. People of determination.
Remembering Sammy
Rabbi Michael:
I love the Mediterranean like breathing.
Koren, our guide:
I can’t answer, against union rules.


We are glad that you came.


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Music and Lyrics

Music and Lyrics at TBY
by Randi Brill Zieserl, Am Shalom Board Member and trip participant
Friday, December 26, 2014
Tonight we went to Shabbat services at Tiffilat Beit Yisrael, and saw some of the same incredible people who came to Am Shalom this past year. It was so very different to be there, and yet it was the same. We sat in the back, but soon were dancing all over that room. This was yet another amazing experience of so many on this trip.
We fumbled through the transliterated supplement trying to find our place. We certainly didn’t have the melodies to guide us. In fact, the melodies were all too familiar, but not for the reasons one might think. These were popular melodies, from The Sound of Music and The Beatles, modern tunes with, shall we say, highly classic lyrics like the words of L’Cha Dodi. It took me more than a minute to grapple with the incongruity. Really? The Von Trapp Family in synagogue? I quickly realized these lyrics are indeed among a few of my very favorites and it worked beautifully. Why not Let It Be?
Late into the night, raindrops were on roses as I tossed and turned. I could not shake the tunes. Finally I grabbed a pen and a small hotel tablet to capture the phrases in my head. New lyrics about this trip set to two familiar tunes, Raindrops on Roses (My Favorite Things) and Sunrise, Sunset from Fiddler on the Roof. I include them here in case you find yourself in need of a shower tune or two.
Our Favorite Things (about Israel)
To the tune of My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music
We went to Israel, and it was amazing.
Walking and learning, and laughing and grazing.
We saw this country from bottom to top.
But we cannot choose our favorite stop.
In the Old City, we went to The Wall.
Just scratched the surface, could not see it all.
Then to Masada, so fit for a king.
Though climbing down it was not Randi’s thing.
How the time flew!
Now it’s over, here in Tel Aviv.
Koren and Shiri and Phyllis and Steve—
Built a trip you would not believe!
Israel is Great
To the tune of Sunrise, Sunset from Fiddler on the Roof
(Verse 1)
Is this the Israel we imagined?
Frankly we didn’t have a clue.
This country makes us feel so proud to
Be a Jew.
Building this land to build each other,
Knowing our people have a place, 
That we can feel free to discover,
Face to face—
Israel is great
Although it’s small,
It has amazing might.
Each of us helps this country flourish
Though it must grapple with it fight.
(Verse 2)
Four thousand years is feeling recent.
We have endured, we have survived.
And if we really will admit it,
We have thrived.
We loved this trip.
We will be back. 
On that you may depend.
We have just barely gotten started.
Though this great trip now has to end. 
Israel is great
Although it’s small,
It has amazing might.
Next year and forward we will be here,


Helping to keep its light so bright.


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The Moms on the Bus Go Round and Round!

Monday, December 29, 2014
by Randi Brill Zieserl, Am Shalom Board Member, Trip Participant, and MOM
In a matter of hours, we will officially begin our last day in Israel. It feels as though I have always been here, so absorbed am I in what I’ve seen, experienced, and learned. On top of this personal journey, however, I’ve also had another big job, that of being a mom on the run, in Israel with my family. We lived the tacit understanding that while the rest of my little group was officially and happily off duty, I was very much still on. My day jobs had been tabled, but my mom jobs have been in full force. It’s been a pleasure to focus solely on my family, though that theory was tested daily when I woke the girls. 
It took a lot of work to ensure everyone was ready and fed when the bus pulled out each day. Less hearty folk would pale with such tasks before 7:15. After the flurry of bathroom trips that no one needed until I forced one and all to go, we erratically boarded the bus. Once I knew my little team was on board with backpacks, cameras, devices, and jackets, I’d fall into my seat. As Rabbi Steve instructs each Shabbat, I “took a breath” and spent my first minutes on the bus in quiet, albeit quick, transitional solitude. We’d made it to the bus in one piece; let the day begin.
We lived, not by the book, but by the bus on this trip. The bus drove more than our group. It drove our wake-up times, our bathroom times, our “everything,” so it seemed. We all adapted quite well. I think back to last Friday (which seems like months ago now). When we first boarded this diesel-fueled chariot of ours, we were all so timid, gently finding an open seat, unsure of others in our not-yet-formed mishpachah. These first seats soon became “our seats.” Kids swapped seatmates on a whim, but the rest of us stayed fairly consistently in our designated seats and sides of the bus. 
We got on and off the bus many times in a day, treating it as transport, bed, and communal kitchen in one. The bus became a large purse, housing our treasures, purchases, finds, and of course, Sharpie-identified fleeces and water bottles. It also safely kept our store hold of ridiculously unhealthy snacks, fruits, and group-made candy. Of course, if one cannot fluently read the fine print in Hebrew, who’s to know how terrible any given snack really is for one’s health? We’re in Israel, after all. What’s eaten in Israel stays in Israel (even though it will undoubtedly leave on my hips).
After each incredible visit to a wonderful place in Israel, the Am Shalom sign distinguished our bus from the myriad others, a sort of beacon when we were too tired to walk one more step. We’d reboard the bus, relieved and somehow also certain that Shlomo would be waiting like a sentry—shadowing our explorations as both protector and navigator.
My Israel-trip mom activities formed a pattern I stuck to with religious veracity. (OK, so why not, given my location?) Every night, I organized everything, taking errant things out of various bus bags to efficiently reload for the next day. I unearthed missing socks, empty water bottles, and ancient pottery shards. I looked for lost headbands and stepped on hair barrettes. 
I even developed a new definition for clean clothing. Any garment worn once was technically still clean until it became caked in cave mud or could otherwise walk itself to the dirty clothes suitcase. Even the girls, true fashionistas at heart, were quite content to wear what I offered up each night. (Once we are home, it will be my extreme pleasure to remind them they not only lived, but also thrived, wearing items retrieved from the green laundry suitcase. Don’t you wonder how that will play in Glencoe?) 
I smile at all of my thinking BI. (BI = Before Israel, of course.) So many people said this trip would change me. In the deep, empowering ways one expects, it absolutely has. It will continue to impact and transform my thinking and my actions. It also transformed my thinking about not only my mom jobs—it has made me see differently the universality of moms everywhere. 
Our bus was filled with moms of little ones and grown children, and combinations in between. I observed all moms on board quietly count kepies to be sure each child of our group was safely on board. These same moms reached absently for any child’s hand as we navigated busy streets or steep mountainside. On this trip they all became all of our children. When one was sick, everyone worried. Sunscreen and hand sanitizer became universal. The kids went to any mom to get some. Some of our “moms” are not even yet officially parents, but their instincts are so great in this area that they “just did it” without thinking. It does take a village. 
I often looked beyond our little bus family and gazed out the bus window. Four thousand years ago, five hundred years ago, and just yesterday, a scant century ago, this amazing land was filled with mothers in villages. I am worried about my child’s cough, hoping she will get through the long plane ride without too much discomfort. I calculate how soon I can call the doctor from Newark to book an appointment for the minute we return home. This and airplane safety (and where the DVDs have gone) are my worries. How fortunate!
The mothers of long ago didn’t have such luxury. They sent their children off to work and often didn’t know if they would see them again. They were not focused on college acceptances. They were worried about survival. A case might be made that to survive in today’s complex days, one’s children must be armed with the right degrees and wisdom, but it is not the same. 
I think of how complex this land of Israel truly was—and is. Moms here worry about the safety of their children 24/7 in ways that most moms in Chicago are fortunate enough not to know first-hand. We saw many young soldiers in uniform wherever we went, all children of mothers who no doubt worry. Instead of college degrees, these determined young women and men are armed literally with machine guns that swing casually from their shoulder straps, their definition of survival so different from our own.
Now this amazing trip winds to a close. We fly home tonight. My mom work now escalates to tackle its most major work effort so far, that of packing to go home (in almost the same number of bags with which we arrived). I must fit in dirty clothes and “must-have” rocks, memory-laden food wrappers and other acquisitions.
As a mom, I will be grateful, not only for this experience, for the wonderful families with whom we’ve so bonded, and for safe passage home for all. I am already grateful for my own local piece of Israel and my own outstanding “local reps” at a very rare place, not half a mile from my home—Am Shalom, now my continuing anchor to this powerful trip and to Israel. 
I’m already in that building a lot, but sense even that will increase. When I’m there, I will surely spot something new in the artwork that rivals any gallery we saw here in Israel. I will look differently at the stones in the lobby, and I already know I will now feel many even deeper connections—because of this trip. Rabbi Steve is bound to make a reference that will now resonate differently. Cantor M will sing a song that will reach me even more than before because this trip. As for Rabbi Phyllis and me, we are sure to share a glance or two as Rabbi Pam negotiates with Sadie or as Solly bops from lap to lap as she monitors from the bima. 
Yes, the moms on the bus do go round and round—the world, the times, and the children. We all do have other jobs, but none so special and treasured as this one, no matter where we moms are, no matter when we lived, and no matter our particular brand of challenges. We are moms, first and foremost. How lucky are we! Next year in Jerusalem.
Some of our littlest "moms" with their Barbies at Caesaria


Many of our young charges with our guide, Koren


A serious game of Go Fish on the bus (the only bus pic I could find!)

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