The Educational Value of a Good Storm

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A week ago exactly, we began Israel Uncovered, a unique campus leaders mission trip to Israel. We knew we wanted to expose students to many facets of Israel, but we did not anticipate how central rain -- yes, rain -- would be to the educational experience. Our students enjoyed three days of beautiful weather at first. Then, on Saturday, torrential rains began. Before we knew it, Israel was (and still is) being visited not only by The David Project student leaders, but by a once-in-a-decade storm, which is expected to last throughout the trip. Just to mention a few highlights of the storm -  Israel's most central road, the million driver (1/8 of the population) per-day Ayalon highway, was completely flooded by the Ayalon River which had overflowed. Tel Aviv trains stopped running and drivers were encouraged to stay at home today.  Jerusalem snow, a rather rare occurrence, is expected tomorrow, and the Kinneret (Sea of the Galilee), our largest water reservoir, which supplies drinking water to about 25% of the country, is rising at an almost unimaginable rate.  Last, this blog post was hampered by a six hour power outage caused by a fallen tree that knocked down power lines.  Here are some pictures and a storm liveblog.

On the logistical side of the trip, the storm creates many boring complications. But educationally, this is a fantastic opportunity for students to explore a side of Israel that is seldom taught.

Rainfall in Israel is unlike rain in any other place.  It is a central feature not only of our our past (as we will soon see with a brief exploring of biblical theology) but of Israel's present thinking and psyche.

Let me explain.

When it rains, my kids often sing "rain, rain, go away, come again another day." This is a normal response for children all over the world. But each time they sing, I cringe. They were born in Boston and must have picked it up there or on YouTube (where they were also introduced to, and fell in love with, Christmas, but that's another story).

As a born and raised Israeli, I never knew this song. It would never occur to me to wish rain away. On the contrary! When it rains in Israel kids rejoice in song-

"גשם גשם משמים כל היום טיפות המים טיפ טיפ טף טיפ טיפ טף מחאו כף אל כף" - loosely translated from Hebrew into "Rain, rain from the sky; All day long, drops of water; Drip drip drop; Drip drip drop; Clap your hands, clap your hands."

Why is this? As Times of Israel Founding Editor David Horovitz told our students on their very first evening, Israelis cannot explain a thing without zooming out to provide thousands of years of historical context.

Israel has a mostly dry, Mediterranean climate. Tiny Lake of the Galilee aside, unlike European countries or many American states, large  bodies of water are almost nowhere to be found here (as an aside, look how neatly Israel fits into Lake Michigan). Now imagine you are an ancient Israelite. You leave Egypt with its abundant Nile and find yourself in the dry Judaean hills, with no lake, river or pond in site. The Mediterranean Sea only provides you with salt water. Even if you could tap into the aquifer, you need rain. In fact, you are now in a land in which absence of rain means doom.

This is why rain in the Promised Land plays such an essential role in the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people. The Torah and Jewish tradition link, from now on, between the behavior for the Jewish people with divine-sanctioned rainfall in Israel.

If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season... Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain...

This paragraph in Deuteronomy 11:13 was essential to the way Israelites saw their presence in the land of Israel as a sovereign (and at times semi-autonomous) people between ~1250BCE to 70CE.  More on the theology here. Or watch Harrison Ford's Hollywood rendition.

Then, for the next 2,000 years, something interesting, perhaps unprecedented, happened. While a small minority of Jews remained in the land of Israel, most Jews dispersed around the globe. They not only continued to believe this, they chanted the request for rain twice a day, as part of the morning and evening prayers. They even had it written on parchment by a scribe, rolled up and put in a Mezuzah, which was then placed on every doorway in the house. Jews lived in Spain, England, Babylon, Persia, Libya, Ethiopia or America, but prayed for rain in Israel. Even in 2013, religious Jews in America may sing "rain rain go away" when it rains in Brookline, MA, while praying for rain in Jerusalem, Israel.

Today’s Israeli is obsessed with rain. While only a minority of Israelis still consciously link their religious observance to a decision by God to open or close the skies, we all have rain on our mind. All of the time.

Rainfall is a national pastime, and its absence is at the top of a group paranoia.

My kids have already been taught in preschool about water conservation. In Brookline, we washed dishes with running water. Here you soap the dishes first. Many do the same in the shower or when brushing their teeth. Water prices go up annually, not only for the purpose of generating revenue for the state, but to encourage Israelis to use less water. In fact, each person in a given household is allocated several cubic meters of water per month at a lower rate. If this allocation is exceeded, he is billed according to a second, higher, rate.  It is illegal to water one’s backyard during the day, as much of the water goes to waste. As a teenager I used to wash my parents car with a hose. Today, following years of drought, this would be illegal.

Most telling, though, is the importance of the Kinneret. We sing songs about our only large sweet water lake. We romanticize and write stories about it.  That’s culture. But Israelis also obsess about the prospects of the Kinneret evaporating, mostly or completely. The levels of the Kinneret are monitored daily. It's not an esoteric matter for hydrologists. It's a matter of national importance and, as such, is featured on prime time news. During the far-too-common drought years, depressing diagrams and infographics  display the Kinneret's levels. The news is always bleak - water is running out.

How is this measured? There is a top red line (set at 208.8/9 meters below sea level if you must know), which is never to be passed to prevent flooding, and a bottom red line (212 meters) which  should never be passed if we are to preserve the Kinneret.  But then, during the 80s and 90s (I’m relying on Wikipedia here) there were so many drought years that the bottom red line had become irrelevant. So the Israeli trick? Typical of Israeli creativity (read: lack of respect for rules or systems), we drew a second bottom red line a bit lower, and another one a bit lower.  This went on and on. By 2001, the Kinneret had been nearly depleted. We marked a black line at 214.87 meters below sea level. Below the black line Israel would no longer extract water (below 215.5 this would not technically be possible anyway).

It is not uncommon to get in a taxi and discuss, in great length, the water levels in the Kinneret with the driver. The severity of expressions used to describe how dire the situation is, would fool an outsider into thinking a personal tragedy was at hand. Often the cabbie would repeat what experts had said on the evening news – The Kinneret is a lost cause. We’re so very far from the bottom red line, that only 2 or 5 or 10 incredible rainy winters would save the lake.

Then, somehow, every few years we have an unexpectedly blessed winter and the media goes out of its way to show flowing winters, waterfalls, melted snow from Mt. Hermon, and the Kinneret is back in shape. All of the sudden, the bottom red line of the Kinneret becomes a joyous water-cooler conversation topic at work.

Of course this only scratches the surface of water issues in Israel.  Self-sufficiency, a pillar in modern Zionist thinking, has led us to begin ambitious water desalinization projects. The Dead Sea suffers many of the same issues, but also many man-made deficiencies. There are ambitious plans – not without problems– such as the MDSC, which could help bring more water to the Dead Sea. Complex water issues such as control over the aquifer under the hills of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), sewage treatment, water allocation and more are at the heart of the disputes between Israelis and Palestinians. Water sources has played an interesting role in our relationships with some of our neighbors and played a part in war (1967, 1973-Syria) and peace (with Jordan).

But if the students on Israel Uncovered asked me (I haven’t been able to get to them lately because of, well, the weather) what they can learn from this, I would say the following-

I’m sorry you are inconvenienced by the rain. The weather has been less than ideal for a short trip through Israel, though you’ve been real sports about it. But you are also lucky.

You were able to visit the Kinneret yesterday, on a day when it marked one of its sharpest rises and the entire country’s eyes were on it. In fact, there's a chance water will teach  the top red line and the Degania dam we told you about when visiting the Dead Sea will be opened. When you saw the difference between rain in Jerusalem and in Masada on the same day and visited Herod’s water cisterns on Masada, you got a firsthand demonstration of how flash floods played a role in the Great Revolt of Jews against the Romans. You didn’t just take any jeep ride. The pictures you took captured the Jordan river gushing and flowing; You may, but also may never-- see the Jordan river like this again.  I know you will be in Tel Aviv tomorrow but if we’re lucky and it snows in Jerusalem (another seemingly mundane but rare weather phenomena that Israelis cannot get over) you will be able to tell your children someday that while you were in Israel, Jerusalem was covered in white.  Ask your bus driver or Israeli staff how they feel about the flooded road that delayed your program by an hour and they will surely say it’s a price worth paying for the rain.

Now you have the tools to understand all of this. Furthermore, you now have a firsthand experience of what makes Israel such a unique place. Only in Israel, past, present and future come together like this. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors prayed for rain here. Throughout history, Jews created a consciousness that places rainfall in Israel at the center of their concern.  And today, modern – religious or secular – Israelis feel a sense of existential dread when it does not rain, and sheer joy and gratitude when this special land gets the water it so desperately needs. Who would have thought that this storm tells the story of who we are, what we believe, and what we hope for?

The weather told a magnificent Israeli tale. I know you were able to feel and hear it.  But I challenge you with this - how do you share it with others?