I would like to begin my column this week with an addendum to last week’s article about Beit El. A reader reached out to me expressing surprise that in my article there was no mention of the many supporters of Beit El from Queens, especially Eugen and Jean Gluck of Forest Hills. The response to my article motivated me to explore the Queens connection. It is clear that Eugen and Jean Gluck z”l were the life force behind the growth of Beit El institutions.
Gluck met Ketzaleh (Yaakov Katz) in the late 1970s and adopted the town as his primary cause. He rallied his friends, many from Queens, and business associates (including those in China) to support Beit El. His offices were the offices of Beit El, and when the annual Gala dinner approached, Beit El took over his offices, using his space and workers. The activists who worked to organize the dinner and attend board meetings were mostly from the Queens area. Over a thousand supporters attended the dinners, some year after year, most often in the presence of Israel’s leading politicians. Indeed, Beit El would not be what it is today without the support it received from Americans, specifically the community of Queens.
Several months ago, my friend Elisheva* and her husband Baruch* traveled to the new Visitors Center in the ancient city of Caesarea. Caesarea is an upscale neighborhood located on the Mediterranean coast between Tel Aviv and Haifa, near Hadera. The modern Jewish town of Caesarea, which boasts the only full-sized golf course in the country, was established near the ruins of the old city, which in 2011 were incorporated into the newly created Caesarea National Park.
The ancient city of Caesarea was built by King Herod in about 25–13 BCE as a major port. Clashes between the Jewish and non-Jewish population of the city sparked the Jewish revolt against Rome, which ended in the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. There is a great deal of history in this ancient city, including the eras of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Muslim conquest, the Crusader conquest, and the Mamluk conquest. The Roman theater, which has amazing acoustics, still stands in the ancient city and is used for concerts. My family attended a Yaakov Shwekey concert in the ancient ruins with the sounds of the waves of the beach in the background. The large hippodrome once used for gladiator fights, horse races, and public executions still stands on the beach.
The Visitors Center focuses on King Herod and the vaults he built over 2,000 years ago. There is very little mention of the Jewish connection to the ancient city, and the entire area does not have a particularly Jewish feel to it. Even so, Elisheva had a few minutes of downtime and decided to catch up on her daily T’hilim. She was quite surprised to find her t’filah unusually moving and filled with an exceptional amount of kavanah. She did not expect to have such a spiritual experience in a place that appeared to be so lacking spiritually.
As Elisheva and Baruch strolled through the area, they came upon a religious man, HaRav Moshe Abu-Aziz, who seemed to be very much at home walking around the area. Rav Abu-Aziz, who lives in Or Akiva, just north of Caesarea, is a father of eight, a teacher, and a master of trivia. He has won many competitive quizzes and contests all over the country, including “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” He is most famous for being the first person to win the one-million-shekel prize on the TV show “One Against 100.”
Rav Abu-Aziz is very connected to the persona of Rabbi Akiva, the greatest Tanna, and he is a wellspring of information about him. Rabbi Akiva was killed by the Romans on Erev Yom Kippur in the ancient city of Caesarea. Rav Abu-Aziz showed Elisheva and Baruch the ruins of what he believes were once Rabbi Akiva’s shul and the pit where he may have been held when taken out to be killed. He believes that the revolt against the Romans began in that shul, as well. The shul was eventually destroyed in an earthquake, followed by a tsunami in the 800s.
Suddenly, everything made sense to Elisheva. She felt that the information Rav Abu-Aziz shared with them shed light on her earlier experience. Elisheva believes that in the place that felt so secular, there actually was a great deal of Jewish connection and k’dushah, and that is precisely what enhanced her davening.
Intrigued by this story, I called Rav Abu-Aziz to find out more about Rabbi Akiva and Caesarea. Rav Abu-Aziz is a friendly man, happy to share his encyclopedic knowledge with anyone who would like to listen. My name was familiar to him, but I don’t imagine the residents of Or Akiva are reading the Queens Jewish Link, as wonderful a newspaper that it is. He asked if I was the Dr. Susie Steinberg who has written responsa about the genre of the detective novel which appeared in France in the late 19th century. Interesting, but not me. I explained that I am a writer, but I don’t write responsa. He offered to help me get onto the show on which he won a million shekel to help fund the books I’m looking to publish. Hmmm. While I would love to raise funds for my books, I don’t exactly see myself competing on a trivia show – in Israel, no less. Rav Abu-Aziz told me that he travels the seven-minute distance from his nearby home to Caesarea every day, weather permitting. He has done extensive research about the life, death, and burial of Rabbi Akiva and has strong opinions about those subjects. He wishes that tourists would be given more information about such a central character as Rabbi Akiva and his connection to Caesarea. Rav Abu-Aziz’s community from Or Akiva comes to daven S’lichos in the ancient ruins during the period of the Yamim Nora’im. Rav Abu-Aziz offers a free tour of the ancient city of Caesarea to anyone who is interested, and he can be reached at 054-647-0686.
Israel is filled with holy places, where thousands of years of Jewish history took place. Archaeologists are constantly finding antiquities from holy eras. In Israel, even in areas that you think may lack strong Jewish presence, if you dig deeper, both literally and figuratively, you may be surprised at what you find.