I just returned from a nine-day JWRP trip to Israel with a group of 90 Jewish, mostly middle-aged, mostly married men from around the world. Hailing from Canada, U.S., South Africa and Australia, we ate and drank our way through Israel on a personal journey for meaning and significance.

Dubbed “How to be great as a man” we were treated to riveting motivational speakers, great food and better wine when we weren’t climbing the Judean Hills, hiking around the Sea of Galilee, or swimming in the Dead Sea, Our trip leader, Saul Blinkoff, a successful Disney animator and director, would regale us with stories of his own long climb to success and how he found purpose and meaning in his life. Think of him as a Jewish Tony Robbins, without walking across the hot coals. After all, as a people we had suffered enough and didn’t need to be reminded.

There was the young convert, raised Catholic, who found out his grandparents were Auschwitz survivors for whom “never again” meant never Jewish again.

Israel was the back story, Jerusalem the colour commentary – the real story was the bonds that were forged amongst the guys, all of whom came on the trip for deeply personal reasons. There was the young convert, a gentle school teacher from Toronto, raised Catholic, who found out his grandparents were Auschwitz survivors, for whom “never again” meant never Jewish again.

The author, left, with Toby Berkel

Raised Christian by his equally unsuspecting mother, he found out his true heritage on a trip to Czechoslovakia, where his Moravian Jewish roots were uncovered. He was on the trip to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah. As was the New Jersey wise guy Hedge Fund Manager, as street smart as a rapper, whose rabbi prevented him from chanting his Bar Mitzvah prayers as a 13-year-old because he was dyslexic and couldn’t learn the Hebrew. Forty years later, he stood on a mountain top synagogue at Masada and cried out his prayers, surrounded by his brothers in fellowship and love.

Let me tell you about the young management consultant, who over beers one Jerusalem night, told me his wife sent him on this trip as a tribute to their Israeli-born fertility doctor who made it possible for them to finally have children, after six years of trying and four miscarriages, the last one a bloody stillbirth in his arms. He says he still has nightmares.

Or the heavyset Californian IT recruiter with the 1000-watt smile and the saddest eyes on the trip, whose messy divorce was being broadcast on social media by his vengeful wife. We were able to mollify his pain and suffering with copious amounts of libations, notably McCallan’s 18. One of the lost Jewish Tribes must have been Scot for sure.

We were a motley crew, vacationers and victims, seekers and cynics, religious and secular, believers and not. Yet, we forged bonds of friendship that I can imagine occurs only during intense moments of decision and resolve. Sort of like enlisting. Doesn’t matter why you signed up. You are here and I have to put up with you. So I better find a way to like you. Cause your snoring is keeping me awake. But you are such a nice guy that I haven’t got the heart to tell you.

Jack MuskatJack Muskat

It was that kind of trip. Guys sharing without mushiness or smarm. Drinking without getting drunk. Hardly sleeping but never tired. Pain mixed with laughter. Lots of laughter. Guys have a kind of unspoken understanding. We are like dogs, sniffing and appraising, comparing and discerning. It was a bit like high school or summer camp, where you try to find out where you stand in the pecking order without looking like you are trying too hard, trying to act cool, remembering your first cigarette or drink. But unlike high school, we were hardened by life, scarred in some places, and the teenage cant and hypocrisy just wouldn’t cut it with this crowd.

We were all one, nerds and cool guys, millionaire entrepreneurs and modest Hebrew school teachers.

We were all one, nerds and cool guys, millionaire entrepreneurs and modest Hebrew school teachers, brassy Americans, in your face South Africans, surfing Australians, and the ever-polite Canadians who got along with everybody, except the Saudis. In nine days of close-quarters contact, not one person was asked what he did for a living. We talked instead of what does it mean to be a man, are we good husbands, fathers, grandfathers, why are we on the trip, what do we think of Kentucky bourbon versus Irish Whisky, where to eat, and who had the falafel and shawarma combo.

The author at Ben Gurion Airport

What we learned is that there is no past, no future, only the present. The NOW. And each of us has the power to make a difference, NOW. We have been given free will to make the choice now. And to make mistakes. We came away with the understanding that we are part of a big mystery, a cosmic puzzle, for which the Jewish people have been living for 4000 years and who have been most recently telling their stories in sitcoms and movies, entertaining us with their wisdom, which is universal but not particular to them. What is Seinfeld, except a show about nothing. Which is about everything. Us.

And there’s the rub. This was a Jewish guy’s trip. But it was not just about Jews or guys. It was about all of us who struggle to make sense of it all, who revel in the music of life between the dark chapters that plague us from time to time. I think Jordan Peterson’s message that Life is suffering is a bit austere. Just visit a Tel Aviv beach and you will be reminded of the bad pun, Life is a Beach.

For a brief nine days I got a glimpse into the beyond. I tore back the curtain of the Truman Show and blinded by the light, met my Maker, saw my reflection, and wept tears of gratitude to be alive for that moment.

Dr. Jack Muskat is a Toronto Psychologist and writer. He has visited Israel dozens of times over the last thirty years but says this is the first time he has really seen it.