Israel Mifgash - Day 7
While we are still enjoying our time here to the fullest, a bit of melancholy has set in as we realize that we have reached the final days of our wonderful experience together. And truly, it is much more of an “experience” than a “trip.” We have had picture-perfect weather, smooth travels, and great conversations – in English, in Hebrew, and most often, with a little of each language. The teens have been a true pleasure – curious, polite, adventurous, fun, and flexible.
Both the melancholy and our travels today, which were focused on a difficult period in Israel’s history, led us to refer to today as “Emek Ha-Bacha” literally, the “valley of tears.” You will read below about Emek Ha-Bacha, an actual valley that we visited this morning in the Golan Heights and is called by this name because of its connection to the difficult 1973 Yom Kippur War.
We met this morning at the Hugim School — as usual at 8:15 am. But the atmosphere at school was altogether different today, as there were no students and only a few teachers to greet us in the entryway. It was not just another Thursday in Israel; actually, there is a strike going on here, and the schools and municipalities throughout the State of Israel were closed today as workers expressed their displeasure about wages and budgets through a formal strike. So, other than our group of Americans and a few Israelis who were scheduled to accompany us today, the school was empty and quiet. We boarded the bus and noticed that getting out of the City of Haifa was much quicker this morning, as there was far less traffic than usual.
We headed North, with our destination being the Golan Heights. As we climbed higher into the mountains of the Golan Heights, the beautiful agricultural areas of the Galilee and its rich and lush fields turned to a landscape that was filled with basalt rocks from volcanos thousands of years ago, barbed wire fencing, tank and artillery remnants, and fenced-off old mine fields. While much of the Golan Heights is not cultivatable, there are many cows grazing on the grassy areas and lots of vineyards where grapes are grown and harvested to produce some of Israel’s finest wines. On our way to Mount Bental, one of the most well-known places in the Golan Heights, the sun began to peek out through the dark clouds, allowing us to see some of the highest mountains in the State of Israel.
Mount Bental, in Ramat Ha-Golan, the Golan Heights, is one of Israel’s favorite mountain peaks, partly due to the great views of the Golan Heights – even into Syria – and partly because Mount Bental was the site of one of the most important battles fought during Israel’s war to retain the Golan Heights in 1973. The mountain-top provides both scenic beauty and a glimpse back at the Yom Kippur War (1973) in which Israel defended itself against the attacking Syrians whose armies surprised the Israel Defense Forces on the holiest day of the Jewish year – the Day of Atonement. We walked around the bunkers that remain there, looked out toward the now-abandoned city of Kunetra and the no-man’s land between Israel and Syria, and imagined being right where we were standing, but seeing the approaching Syrian army threaten to take the strategic Golan Heights from Israel.
Following our time on Mount Bental, we took a short drive to Kibbutz El Rom, a Kibbutz founded in 1971 just 2 years before the Yom Kippur War. During the war, the Kibbutz and its people sustained bombing, destruction injuries and loss of life – both civilians and soldiers. We viewed a film there that described the most important battle that took place during the Yom Kippur War, right there, in the “Valley of Tears.” This battle was led by one of he most decorated soldiers in Israel: Commander Avigdor Kahlani. Kahlani was awarded the highest medals of honor both for his brilliance and bravery in the Six-Day War of 1967 and again in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 for his leadership in the battle of the “Valley of Tears”.
Following the film, we made a visit to the memorial commemorating the soldiers who fell serving the 77th Battalion in the Yom Kippur War, but who forced Syria to finally retreat from advancing further into Israel. And… who did we see leading a group of people there and speaking at that very place in Emek HaBacha – the Valley of Tears? Commander Avigdor Kahlani himself!! Amazing… we were just meters away from the man who led his battalion in the Golan Heights and prevented Syria from overtaking Israel’s important strategic presence in the high hills of the Golan.
From the memorial, we began our descent from the Golan Heights back into the Upper Galilee where we had lunch in the beautiful and quaint city of Rosh Pina, close to Tz’fat, our afternoon destination. We ate delicious hummus in and enjoyed the views of the rich Hula Valley, with its abundant fresh water and fertile soil. The Hula Valley is also a major stopover for birds migrating along the Syrian-African Rift Valley between Africa, Europe, and Asia.
We arrived in Tz’fat in the mid-afternoon. In addition to its history which dates back 3,000 years, Tz’fat is one of the most magnificent places in all of Israel. Set high up in the mountains, it is said that the “air of Tz’fat” influences one’s soul and spirit in mysterious ways and makes it the perfect place to contemplate nature and to discover one’s connection to everything spiritual. Known in Jewish tradition as one of the four “holy cities” of Israel (the others: Jerusalem, Tiberius, Hebron), Tz’fat has long been the center of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah, as well as a place of Jewish art, culture, and music. We walked around the Old City of Tz’fat and through its winding streets, looking at the views from the many terraces and porches that fill the area. We also toured some of the old underground tunnels of Tz’fat and even had a chance to do a little shopping before meeting the bus to begin our return trip to Haifa. By the time we departed Tz’fat, the dark clouds that had been with us all day lifted and the sun and blue sky seemed to illuminate the white and yellow stones of Tz’fat so that the whole city looked “golden.”
On our way back to Haifa, it was clear enough to catch a quick glimpse of the only fresh water source in all of Israel – the Sea of Galilee, known in Hebrew as “Kinneret.” The sun sunk into the horizon and the sky treated us to a picture of orange and red at sunset. The bus was quiet on the hour and a half drive back to Haifa, as we reflected on our day in the north of Israel. Today was a perfect microcosm of Israel itself: a mixture of ancient history, natural beauty, modern events, Jewish study, spirituality, religious diversity, and the struggle of the Jewish people to maintain the borders and interior of its hard-won modern nation state. How lucky we are to be able to visit so many places that are important to Jewish history and identity; and how fortunate to be exploring this land and people together with our Israeli partners and friends.