This off season Morgan Pressel is spending part of her time off on a mission trip to Israel.
Blog 3After reluctantly setting my alarm to get up and watch the sunrise, it was well worth it! As the sun rose over the Ramon Crater, it cast a beautiful orange glow over the rocky formations, and was a photographer’s dream! After a quick breakfast, we headed out to tour some of the JNF’s big projects in the south beginning with visiting Be’er Sheva. This city is referred to as the capital of the Negev, and a large River Park will change the face of the city and make it an even more desirable address for those wanting to raise families. It is still a few years from completion, but you can already see the effect it is having on the community.
Then we visited an absorption center for Ethiopian Jews. Many of the residents were brought to Israel in 1985 because of a famine in their homeland. But adapting to a new lifestyle is never easy, as the small luxuries we have experienced since birth are foreign and unnatural to them, like opening a door handle. They are also used to having their own land and not living in an apartment-style building. The second generation usually joins the army and becomes well educated, and most don’t want to return which causes tremendous problems within the family structure. It was interesting to see how each family has their own farm plot and tends to it daily, and uses it to feed their families.
The next part of the journey was amazing and incredibly sad at the same time. We visited Aleh Negev, a state-of-the-art communal village for special needs people. The facility serves people suffering from mental diseases as well as trauma and other injuries. We saw a young girl who accidentally consumed poison when she was one-year-old, and now is a resident in the facility, and she is in a vegetable state. Another set of one-year-old twin boys are paralyzed from a genetic disorder and suffer seizures and need feeding tubes to survive. We toured the facility and the new zoo-like area that has many different kinds of animals that help the patients with therapy. They have horses, goats, chickens, deer, rabbits, birds, and fish, just to name a few. It is a facility unlike anything I have ever seen, providing care to those who need it the most.
We continued onto Sderot, an area tremendously effected by rockets and missiles from the nearby Gaza Strip. In 9 months, the JNF built the largest indoor playground in Israel, complete with a soccer room, movie screen, rock climbing wall, and video games as well as many other activities for the children in the community. The center is fortified and very safe and secure, and allows them to enjoy life without worrying if they are close enough to a bomb shelter. It was fun seeing all the kids enjoying the playground, and listening to their laughter is what it is all about.
That evening, Madison and I went down to the Old Port in Tel Aviv for dinner, and enjoyed a relaxing night after a long day. In the morning, we headed back to the golf course for our last day in Israel. It was “Meet Morgan Pressel Day” at Caesarea, and it was great! It started with a clinic for the participants of the tournament, and then Madison and I played golf with two of Israel’s top female golfers, Laetitia Beck and Hadas Libman. It was a tough day on the course with a strong wind but we managed to grind it out and have fun. It was great to play with these young talents, as they are the future of Israeli golf, and will hopefully be able to spread the popularity of golf in the country in the future.
After golf, I hosted a small clinic on the range for a group of youngsters from the Peres Center. These kids were between 9 and 12, and none of them had seen golf before. It is fascinating how quickly kids can learn and pick up skills! It just shows the bonus of starting a game (like golf!) at such a young age.
Back inside the clubhouse, there was a short awards ceremony and reception, during which my sister and I were given honorary memberships at Caesarea Golf Club. It is quite an honor, and I look forward to returning many times!
From there we headed back towards Tel Aviv, packed and got ready for dinner. We had dinner with some locals from the area, including the former mayor of Tel Aviv, Ronnie Milo. It was a nice farewell dinner, and it was sad to say goodbye to all of our new friends when it was time to head towards the airport. After being questioned by El Al security once (or twice, or three times) more, it was back to the United States of America.
It was definitely interesting landing back in JFK and hearing all of the Christmas music playing through the airport and in every store. It is something I didn’t think about while I was in Israel, but something I noticed almost immediately upon our return.
Having been home now for a couple of days, I have really had time to reflect on the entire trip. Telling friends and family about all of the things we saw and experienced, it is amazing we fit it all in during the 8 days! Our brains are exploding with new information, and my sister and I both commented on the fact that despite studying for years in Hebrew School and becoming Bat Mitzvahs, we learned much more during our short trip to Israel about our heritage, culture, and history. Most of this was due to our great tour guide, Shalom. He made things fun and interesting, and seemed to have a story about every building and tree in the country! But it was also from walking the streets of Jerusalem and the Old City, celebrating Shabbat in the Jewish homeland, and getting to know people from all over the country.
I cannot thank Arn and Nancy Tellum enough for making this trip a reality. Also, I need to thank Russell Robinson, Sharon Tzur, and Merav Atias from the Jewish National Fund for creating the once-in-a-lifetime journey and for being our hosts for the week. And I cannot go without thanking Shalom Kleiman, the greatest tour guide in the world! I am honored to call all of you my friends, and thank you for sharing this wonderful experience with us.
I have always followed the news on all happenings in that region of the world, as it has always been a place I have wanted to visit. In planning the trip, I had reservations of safety and security based on the way the conflict is portrayed in the states. During the week, despite realizing the turbulence in the area, I never once felt threatened or nervous. At no point did the current events prevent me from experiencing the country to its fullest.
When we planted a tree early in the week, we were told to take a stone from the ground and bring it back home with us. We had to promise, however, that the stone would someday return to its home. So I will keep the stone on my dresser as a reminder of the trip of a lifetime, and I promise to return, hopefully many times, with the stone in hand. But in the meantime, I will take with me the lesson of perseverance I learned from the people of Israel, and apply it to every aspect of my life.
Morgan Pressel giving a clinic.
At some point, the show must go on, and we got on the bus and headed north to the Golan Heights. We visited one of the bluffs where Israeli soldiers defended their positions during the wars of 1948, 1967, and 1973. It is easy to see why the plateau is such a coveted piece of land for both the Israelis and the Syrians. From this point we also had a beautiful view of the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee. It is amazing how much the Sea has receded in recent history, which is a problem because it is the main source of water for the country. The National Water Carrier takes water to the populated areas of Israel, and control over the Golan Heights is very important, as the flow of water into the Sea of Galilee is vital to the water supply.
We continued on our journey and ended up in one of the most visited sites in Israel, Hula Valley. A JNF rehabilitation project, Agamon HaHula is a nature preserve in the valley where approximately 500 million birds stop every year during their migration. We rode on a hidden wagon and went bird watching, as this preserve is one of the top bird watching sites in the world. There are thousands upon thousands of cranes that live here year-round, and they can be very loud when they are all together. It was fascinating to see them all – I have never seen so many birds in my life!
For lunch we stopped at a fabulous organic hotel/spa, Mizpe Hayamim, and ate too much, as usual. I feel like every meal has been the last supper, but I must say the food has been excellent - and I would classify myself as a picky eater! The views from this restaurant over the valley were spectacular, which made the food taste even better.
After filling our stomachs to the brink, we visited the birthplace of Jewish mysticism, also known as Kabbalah. It has become popular over the recent years thanks to celebrities, like Madonna, but it is a very religious movement of Judaism that aims to answer the bigger questions, like the nature of the universe. It is something that is studied after all of the other Jewish texts, such as an understanding of the Talmud and the Torah. The small town of Tzfat also has many small artisan shops, with Judaica pieces, works of Israeli artists, and souvenirs for those who come to visit.
Morgan Pressel introducing the Peace Players to golf.
The next morning we went to work - we went to the golf course! Caesarea is the only 18 hole golf course in Israel, which was designed by Pete Dye a few years ago. Madison and I played with the Israeli junior champion and a famous sports-television personality. It is a beautiful and well-designed desert-style course with generous fairways, but quickly penal if you miss one. We had a great time, and had a little gallery that followed us around, too.
After the round I interacted with two groups of kids, one from the Academy at Caesarea, and another from Peace Players. I helped the Academy kids with their putting strokes, some kids as young as 4 and 5! They were great. The girls from Peace Players, both Israeli and Palestinian, had never even seen golf before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. We went over the basics, and after 20 minutes or so they were all making contact! Think back to the first time you picked up a golf club – it isn’t that easy! These girls were between 16 and 18, and play basketball, so they certainly had a natural affinity to sport as well as tremendous eye-hand coordination. I was very impressed.
Friday night we celebrated Shabbat with a wonderful kosher dinner at the hotel. It is interesting to see how the traditions and holidays are observed in a culture that has no other religious influences. In the United States, it is assumed that the week is Monday-Friday, and the weekends are Saturday and Sunday. In Israel, Friday and Saturday are the days off, and Sunday becomes a normal work day.
Morgan Pressel in the Dead Sea.
Then we drove farther down the Dead Sea to the most popular attraction in Israel, an ancient palace called Masada. It was built by Herod the Great in the early 30s BCE, and it sits on a plateau that is 1,300 feet above ground which made the palace very difficult to penetrate. About 100 years after it was built, a group of Jewish zealots fled Jerusalem for Masada at the beginning of the First Jewish-Roman War. They used the base as a place to torment the Romans, and eventually the Romans built a ramp of stones that allowed them to penetrate the fortress. When the Romans entered the palace, however, they found it on fire, with all 960 inhabitants committing a mass suicide, as they would rather have killed themselves than fallen prisoners to the Romans. Today, it is a tourist attraction with a cable car that takes you 1,300 feet in 3 minutes, and once you get to the top you can explore the ruins of what used to be the palace of Herod the Great. The views of the Dead Sea and the desert are spectacular, as the land in this area has tremendous character from millions of years of earthquakes and flash floods that have shaped the land.
After nearly leaving one member of the crew behind, we headed for a spectacular hotel in the Negev Desert overlooking the Ramon Crater, the largest makhtesh in the world. I can’t wait to get up early tomorrow and watch the sunrise over the crater, and I have a feeling it will be spectacular. We took an evening to relax, and I indulged in a spa treatment before sitting down to write about the last few days. With only a couple of days left on this journey, I’m excited to see what else it will bring!
Morgan Pressel with the Peace Players.
This year, I have been given the opportunity to go on the trip of a lifetime – a mission to Israel. I am finally relaxing after our third busy day! This is the first moment I have had to sit down and collect my thoughts, and think about everything we have seen and learned so far.
The trip started with a trip on El Al, the Israeli airline famous for being the safest in the world, and after being grilled by security at the airport, I see why! They take nothing for granted, and understand better than anybody the dangers in the world today. I slept most of the flight, so I felt alright when we got in, which was great because there was a busy afternoon planned. The trip started with a trip to the Haas Promenade at Armon HaNatziv, overlooking the golden city of Jerusalem at dusk.
We then attended a meeting of an organization called Peace Players. They use basketball as a means of bringing kids in divided communities together. This evening, it was a group of young Palestinian girls, ages 9-14, most of which had never touched a basketball in their lives. Unlike in the United States, most young girls here aren’t exposed to sport, so it was special to see them learning how to dribble, learn some drills, and compete as a team. After this session, the girls will be introduced to Israeli girls who are also learning how to play, and they will be brought together to learn about teamwork, coexistence, and peace. I was able to speak to some of the coaches, talk about my experience as a female athlete, and listen to them talk about how the program has helped their lives.
In the evening, we were treated to a very special dinner with former Prime Minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert. It was interesting listening to him talk about politics in Israel and abroad, the conflict in the Middle East, and what he sees for the future of Israel.
Morgan Pressel at the Kotel.
The next morning was the most spiritual part of the trip. We had a great breakfast in the King David Hotel, one of the famous landmarks in Jerusalem. Then it was on to the Old City, to visit the famous Temple Mount. Visiting the Kotel, a part of the Western Wall, was a humbling experience, to think of all the biblical stories and famous historical figures that have come here to find God. We learned more about all of the battles that have taken place on this holy ground, and how it has changed over the last few thousand years. I followed the tradition of writing down my prayers and putting them in a crack in the stone of the wall, the closest spot to the Foundation Stone and the Holy of Holies. Then we went on a tour through the underground tunnels along the wall, which wasn’t underground 2000 years ago. After the Six Day War, excavation began to locate the extension of the Western Wall. The architecture is amazing, and to know that the stone has withstood billions of people, numerous battles, and time is fascinating, as well as thinking about the billions of people that will come after me. I wonder how much it will continue to change. We also sat with the Rabbi of Jerusalem’s Holy Sites, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowich.
We continued onto the top of the Mount of Olives for a fantastic view of the city, where my sister and I rode a camel! That was an interesting experience, but not one I’m sure I will try again!
After eating falafels in town, we went to the second most visited site in Israel, Yad Vashem. The design of the museum is very symbolic, as it is shaped like a razor cutting through the mountain, just as the Holocaust cut through the Jewish population. The history of the Holocaust, as told through the tour of the museum, is truly unbelievable. Standing in the Hall of Names and seeing the names of nearly 6 million Jews that perished during the Holocaust, it is hard to imagine how the world could even let this happen. It was a difficult hour-plus at the museum, but there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. We had the opportunity to meet with a woman who was a 3-year-old Polish Jew when the war began, and was the only member of her family to survive the tragedy, and came to the United States at 10. We listened to her tell stories of her time in the ghetto and concentration camp, how she came to America without knowing how to read or write in any languages, and how she returned in 1989 to her hometown and found her birth certificate and her parents’ marriage license. She is an amazing woman full of life, volunteering her time to teach those of the future of the terrible tragedy she lived through.
Morgan Pressel with the Seeds of Peace.
As if that wasn’t enough to fill a busy day, our jet-lagged crew headed to the Israeli Parliament. We met with Danny Ayalon, the Deputy Foreign Minister and Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States. Mr. Ayalon discussed similar topics to Prime Minister Olmert, and it was interesting to hear his views from the side of a different political party. From here we toured the rest of the Knesset, had an early dinner and were ready for bed.
Today, we woke up early to probably the most moving experience I have had during the trip so far. I had breakfast with members of an organization called Seeds for Peace, two Israelis and two Palestinians. The two young women were about 17 and 19, and they both shared their experiences at a summer camp in Maine dedicated to bringing youth together to talk and share their views on the conflict in their homelands. What shocked me the most, is that these two said that they had never met or spoken to someone from the opposing side. The purpose of the organization is not to tell the kids whether they are right or wrong, but is to teach them how to discuss the conflict and create more of an understanding of all sides of the issues. The young Palestinian woman said the experience had encouraged her to study politics in college, so she could gain an even deeper understanding of the situation, and hopefully one day help to resolve it. They both expressed they learned the other cultures consisted of people with feelings and heart, just as they have, and said they returned home with friends they never imagined they would have. It was then that the Palestinian man who went through the program 8 years ago, said something very enlightening to me. He said, “I believe that God put the Holy places of three major religions of the world in the same place to tell us that we must learn to coexist.” Talk about deep. I had never thought about it this way.
Morgan Pressel planting a tree for JNF.
Then we drove to the 9/11 Living Memorial, which was quite moving. While the Holocaust was a catastrophic event that defines history, September 11th was an event that defines most of our lives. As an American, I see how the event changed the future of the world, and I will never forget where I was on that fateful day. The Memorial is the only place outside of the United States that recognizes the names of all those killed on 9/11.
From here, we went to Harvey Hertz Ceremonial Tree Planting Center at Neot Kedumim, which is the world’s only biblical landscape preserve. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) has been committed to the reforestation of the land of Israel, and we were all given the chance to put our “roots” in the ground and plant a tree. One day I will return to visit my tree, and hopefully see the difference it will continue to make in the landscape of the country!
After this we left Jerusalem towards Tel Aviv, where we walked the streets of Old Jaffa, which is an important location in Military history, and lunched near the harbor. In Tel Aviv, we visited Independence Hall, where David Ben-Gurion first announced Israel as a Jewish state. I tried to sit in the same room and imagine what it must have been like in 1948, as Ben-Gurion lead the Zionists to their homeland. I had chills.
The trip has been non-stop and action packed, and I feel like I have been here for a week with all the information we have learned! And as you can see by my long-winded (yet short version) essay, it has been a lot! Still there is a lot more to learn, and I will be back to report more.
Madison, Morgan and Grandma on top of Mount of Olives.
Riding a camel
Topics: Pressel, Morgan