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Rabbi Moshe's Blog

Mission to Russia: St Petersburg and Moscow

St Petersburg day two 

On our second day in Russia, we got up at 8:30 am in St Petersburg. It was still dark but the city was moving. We started our day by doing our prayer in the Grand Choral Synagogue, the only Synagogue in the city that was open throughout the communist era. It was fully run down until the government of Russia returned it to the Jews. It was actually one of the first institutions they gave back. The Synagogue has been remodeled and rededicated thanks to the generosity of the Safra family, and it is now one of the most beautiful Synagogues in the world.

We prayed and read the Torah in the smaller Synagogue, which used to be the Chabad section of the Synagogue. The whole experience was incredible.

We had a delicious breakfast on the third floor of the Synagogue, and went through the complex, which includes a Jewish store filled with kosher items, and artifacts for sale. We were happy to help out the community there by purchasing many products.

From there, we continued the tour of the majestic and palace-filled city of St Petersburg. We heard the midday cannon shot at the Peter Paul Fortress we had visited the day before, where the first Chabad Rebbe had been imprisoned. 

We had hors d’ouevres, Lechaims, and wine on a rooftop of the fortress overlooking the water, and celebrated the freedom of the Jewish people in a place where people were once arrested for the crime of practicing Judaism.

We then experienced being drawn by royal carriages up to the hermitage, the winter palace of Catherine the Great. We toured the museum and its special diamond room. The museum was filled with fascinating artifacts. Not all the history is so kind to the Jews, but there were many Jewish themed items we marveled at.

We ended our day in St Petersburg with a 5 star dinner in the Choral Synagogue restaurant, where we heard from Rabbi Pewzner, the Chief Rabbi of St Petersburg, who told that the city currently has 10 Synagogues, and many of the city’s 80,000 Jews are actively involved. In fact, while we were eating in the restaurant, a book reading was going on nearby in the Synagogue, with over 800 Jews in attendance!

Rabbi Pewzner spoke about the Jewish reawakening in St Petersburg. How people attend the Synagogue daily and are part of the community. He noted the difficulties as well, pointing out that most Jews who cared about their Judaism moved to Israel during Perestroika. Those that remained for the most part didn’t care about their Judaism, and it has been tough but rewarding work to reconnect with them, and thousands are active in Synagogues across the city, attending on a daily basis.

Moscow's Jewish triangle

Next day we flew to Moscow, and from there traveled to our hotel in the Marina Roscha neighbourhood, which is where the headquarters of Jewish life in Moscow is located.

Chabad of Moscow has over 32 institutions including schools, shuls, social organizations, and an orphanage. Over 100 families are involved in rebuilding Jewish life there. Chabad manages about 85% of Jewish life in Moscow, and close to 100% of the Jewish life in communities throughout the rest of Russia.

The Chief Rabbi, Berel Lazar, is very close to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Putin is a big supporter of the Jewish institutions. We didn’t hear of any antisemitism in Russia and we all felt very safe wherever we went, carrying ourselves proudly as Jews with Yarmulkes and other Jewish paraphernalia.

We first visited the Marina Roscha Jewish Community Centre, a 9 storey building rebuilt after an antisemitic arson attack in the early days of Perestroika. It used to be a small Synagogue, the only active Synagogue in Moscow during the communist era. After the Synagogue was attacked and burned to the ground, they rebuilt an incredibly beautiful community centre. Putin was at the opening ceremony which took place in 2000. Ever since its been built, the trajectory of Jewish life in Russia has changed and the government has been returning Jewish properties and encouraging Jewish communities to get stronger.

We had a beautiful breakfast. I found that the restaurants in St Petersburg and Moscow are top quality in both service and food. We then went to Zaryadye Park in the centre of Moscow near the Kremlin. It’s like their Place des Arts except 10 times bigger and nicer. It includes a beautiful bridge going over the water. There we went to see a 3D film of Russia and its provinces.

Central Moscow

From there we went to Red Square, which is where the communists used to gather for big parades. Today, it is still a popular square which we explored. Then we went to the new city centre where 10 skyscrapers are going up, many of them being built by Jewish developers.

The one we went into, which includes a mall, is being built by the Leviev Group. It’s an incredibly stunning tower. Malls in North America pale in comparison with this new mall. It’s vibrant, filled with high end stores, and includes the Jaffa restaurant which is magnificent. It’s large, packed with people, and the food they served us was just incredible. This in the middle of a regular work day.

Next up was Arbat Street, a famous one kilometre pedestrian road. It’s a big tourist area in Moscow. Right off Arbat Street is a Chabad House serving English speaking tourists. It’s an embassy-sized house given by Moscow’s government to the Jewish community, and as the yuppie community grows in the area, the house is being renovated. We met with Brooklyn-born Rabbi Yanky Klein, who shared amazing stories, including how a little over a month before, on Simchat Torah, they took the Torahs and danced on Arbat Street, Moscow’s most popular street.

Then we visited the Jewish Museum. It contains the Jewish history in Russia. It also serves as a museum of tolerance and antisemitism, and it is the most interactive and hi-tech museum that anyone in our group has ever seen. The 80-million dollar museum is built on grounds that the Moscow government gave to Chabad. It was an old bus depot and they kept its outer shell. However, upon entering, your jaw drops. The way the story is told and the exhibits is something that should be the envy of every museum in the world, Jewish or beyond. The museum was packed with people, and not only Jews. When they opened, Putin symbolically gave a month of his salary to show his interest in helping to make it happen.

Next, we visited the Bolshoi Bronaya Synagogue, which is in the middle of a high end neighbourhood. During communism, the Synagogue was closed. It was reopened and expanded, and it has a beautiful restaurant on the 5th floor with a rooftop view of Moscow. The restaurant is the highest class kosher restaurant you can find anywhere in the world. We had great food and Lechaims with lively spirit at the restaurant. It’s amazing to walk the streets of Russia feeling free and proud as Jews.

Shabbat in Moscow

On Friday, we stayed in what’s known as the “Jewish triangle,” i.e. the Marina Roscha borough. We saw several schools at different levels of Jewish education. The classrooms are hi-tech and include a focus of caring for children and youth with special needs. We visited the Bukharian Synagogue and the Chesed Centre where they not only run their soup kitchen but also all the social work they do for the entire community. The high quality os what they have built, and how busy and active they are is just unimaginable in a place where just 30 years ago nothing existed as far as Jewish infrastructure is concerned. All of this happened in the last 20 years.

Then we went to the Kremlin. We saw the Kremlin and its museum. The Kremlin was once a feared site, but in modern day Russia it hosts events such as Menorah lightings with Putin, where he gives greetings to the Jewish people, and where today they show support of Israel.

Then we prepared for Shabbat. We spent Friday night with the community of Israelis and tourists in the hotel with Rabbi Friedman. It was a lively experience. The prayers, meal, and discussions were phenomenal.

Shabbat morning, we spent the day in the Marina Roscha Synagogue. It was filled with hundreds of people and hundreds of children singing the prayers were fervor, excitement and passion. The vibrancy of Jewish life was incredible. If you were to walk into any vibrant Jewish place in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Brooklyn or Montreal it would feel the same.

We then ate a beautiful meal in the restaurant with Rabbi Lazar. He spoke about the last 30 years, what they envisioned, and how they built Jewish life. He shared their plans for the future. Moscow has half a million Jews, many of whom are not yet discovered. He described their outreach work to get more Jews involved. He also discussed Putin’s relationship with the Jewish people and how Jewish life is stronger than ever. It was a very inspiring meal.

The trip ended with many from our group going to see the Bolshoi theatre, an others enjoying a relaxing evening in a Russian bath house. Then, everyone got together for a delicious barbecue and farewell dinner where many expressed their wish to return.

We definitely will organize another trip to Russia for others to experience and get inspired.

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The Peter and Paul Fortress - Mission to Russia 2019 Day 1

We arrived Tuesday in Russia with a group of 25 who hailed from Israel and various other places who got together to see Russia. We began our trip in St Petersburg, a beautiful city. The architecture and wide streets are magnificent! We saw so many different former palaces that were so beautiful.  

St Petersburg is a city of 5 million, and like Montreal there are between 80,000 and 100,000 Jews. It is a bustling city with lots going on. We toured the city, and went to see the Peter and Paul Fortress, where the founder of the Chabad movement was imprisoned. We saw the prison itself, how prisoners were treated, and were explained the prison system.

To imagine that we were in a place where we were once imprisoned for spreading Judaism and yet today Judaism is growing exponentially was very profound.

We had an incredible breakfast at a beautiful kosher restaurant. Later, we had dinner with a show in a palace that was also kosher (and a 5 star meal!).

I can't imagine getting such treatment in Montreal within a kosher environment.

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Meeting Canada's Ambassador - CLE Israel Mission Last Day

We woke up in the Herzliah Ritz-Carlton, where we had a beautiful view of the marina. We started our day by meeting with the Canadian ambassador to Israel Debra Lyons, who very warmly received us and related on how active Canada's relationship is with Israel on many levels. She was very interested in our mission, and in hearing what our group was doing. She promised to help us in further missions, and noted how busy the Canadian embassy is with much cultural trade, and many other levels of activity.

 We then heard from the CEO of Cyberhat, Nadav Arbel. He came from Intelligence Unit 8200 in the army, and started a company to be able to help people strengthen the security of their information, particularly lawyers, who have lots of valuable and important information. Nadav explained about the different vulnerabilities, and advised on being on guard and what to watch for.

The highlight of our trip followed. We visited Achim HaChaim, an army organization of combat soldiers who help combat soldiers who are injured physically or mentally. They provide a space where the soldiers can be themselves and be with each other. They have a beautiful home, where they help those struggling from PTSD or the like rejoin society. It was very moving and powerful to see the work they do for each other. Our group was very moved. We met with some soldiers who detailed their battle back into society.

Then we visited the Israel Museum on the Tel Aviv University campus where we saw the story of the Jewish people in the diaspora. A beautiful farewell dinner followed. It was emotional to separate and go back home after forging a great group in which everyone learned from each other and gleaned knowledge together while growing spiritually.

In this visit, we learned about the country of Israel, the challenges they face, and the way everything is accomplished legally. 

Next stop: Russia! 

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Startup nation - CLE Israel Mission Day 7

On Sunday morning, we checked out of Jerusalem. First we visited the Foreign Ministry where we had an opportunity to meet with the Director of the Legal Department of International Affairs, who gave us the inside track in understanding what the department does in terms of Israel's international relations, for example at the United Nations.

We also met the Former Ambassador to the United Kingdom Daniel Taub, a fine Orthodox Jew who was involved in several peace treaties that Israel had tried to negotiate. Taub is a consummate diplomat, with a very clear understanding of how the UN works, international law, how the world tries to exploit it while Israel works hard to make changes. It was a very impressive and powerful discussion.

We then split into two different groups. One group visited three law firms that are listed among the top 20 law firms in the country. These are forward-thinking and very successful firms. At one of the law firms, they met with the prosecutor from the famous case of the soldier in Hebron. It was fascinating to hear firsthand how everything played out in court. They also heard about the work Israel is doing on an international level, particularly in hi-tech. They discussed deals that have happened and deals that are ongoing with Asia and North America.

The other group got the opportunity to see Israel as a startup nation. They saw Israel's ingenuity, particularly in relation to digital health. Israel is transforming the world through innovative companies, even though it is a tiny country, and it leads the entire world in many areas of hi-tech, particularly innovation and bringing ideas to fruition..

We then had a beautiful networking dinner with several of the aforementioned law firms. We got to know each other and compare notes. We met colleagues who live their life in Israel. I found it remarkable how proud the Israelis were of us Canadians, and vice versa.

It was lovely evening. The entire day was amazing. A group traveled to Masada and the Dead Sea to feel Israel and experience some of the country's most famous sites.

A great time was had by all.

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Shabbat in Jerusalem - CLE Israel Mission Days 5 & 6

Friday morning. Another morning in which I am grateful to be waking up in Jerusalem. I made the trek to the Kotel.

Because it's Erev Shabbat, the plaza was more packed with people. Many Israelis start their day early with a Kotel visit to allow time to prepare for Shabbat.

We had an incredible morning. We heard from two great speakers: Ester Bisawer, a lawyer from the Ethiopian community, who has joined the anti-racism unit set up to be able to deal with the racism that exists in Israel against the Ethiopian community. It was a pleasure to hear about the issues, and to see her positive attitude to try and make it work. She believes that everyone will learn to live well together without having to worry about racism or bias against any group, and she battles to make her dream a reality. That takes incredible courage.

We then heard from Professor Robbie Sabel, who is a legal advisor in the Foreign Ministry and was very involved in many of the behind-the-scenes negotiations that Israel had done in the '90s with Jordan and the peace process. He really gave us an in-depth look that was fascinating and very appreciated.

Then we went to the City of David, an incredible archaeological site where they are digging up and exploring the beginnings of the city of Jerusalem, which started with King David.

We had a chance to tour an area for VIP guests. The leaders of the excavation site guided us through an area not open to the public. There, they uncovered an entire road, the road that every Jew in the Second Temple era used to travel on when coming to the festivals to spend at the Temple in Jerusalem. They went to the Mikvah at the bottom of the hill in the Shiloah pool, walking hundreds of metres on the way to the Temple. We walked on the same road.

They spent an enormous amount of money reinforcing the entire area under the houses so they can excavate and uncover the road. To see remnants of a palm tree, coins, and other items that were excavated from the area and come from the time when people traveled the road was very special.

From there we went to Machaneh Yehuda Shuk, the market, to capture the vibe of getting ready for Shabbat. Thousands were making their way through shoulder to shoulder, trying to buy their fares for Shabbat. We joined in and became part of the great energy and adrenaline. Then we went back to get ready for Shabbat. 

Shabbat was magical. We all went to the Old City where the women led a candle-lighting ceremony. We all marched together to the Kotel. The men's group joined in an incredible, melodious service filled with singing and dancing. All the melodies of the many groups around the Kotel float together and create a beautiful song and feeling of Shabbat.

With that great spirit, we went up to a beautiful hall overlooking the Western Wall, and had a delicious and spirited Shabbat dinner. People shared their feelings, how the trip has been a transformative experience. We had lots of Lechaims, and sang songs together til late at night and continued with a lively Farbrengen back at the hotel where many people shared personal accounts that were very moving and powerful.

Shabbat was a restful day. Some joined me to pray at the Great Synagogue, while others joined a special beginners' service where many serious questions were asked about Judaism and Jewish life. Both services were informative and inspiring.

We had a beautiful lunch together which consisted of buffet with every food you can dream of.

From there we went to meet and hear from Amit Segal, one of the leading political correspondents who gave us a picture of how politics works in Israel, and the current situation as it stands. He also discussed what he expects may happen. It was informative. We really got to understand the Israeli system down to the kishkes.

We then strolled through the Talpiot neighbourhood, where we saw beautiful homes and residences. We saw how the city has developed.

We then went back to the hotel. When Shabbat was over, we had a musical Havdalah on the rooftop of the Orient Hotel. Everyone held their candles and sang and danced. We all celebrated the beautiful Shabbat we had experienced, and plan on bringing that spirit into the week we are entering into. The Mayor of Jerusalem Moshe Lion was our privileged guest for Havdalah. He addressed us and expressed his gratitude for our visit to Jerusalem and for continuing to support Israel.

What a memorable Shabbat!

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The Supreme Court - CLE Israel Mission Day 4

(Please note: it is currently Shabbat in Israel. This blog post was written before Shabbat and prepared online in Canada for release Friday afternoon EST).

Day 4 of our trip was an incredible day. We woke up in Jerusalem. A number of people joined me at the Kotel to pray as the sun rose. It was incredible! Over 1500 other people, men and women, were praying at that time. 

The day started early. We heard from Rabbi Levi Cooper about a fascinating topic, women voting. It was something discussed in Israel far before any other country brought up the idea. He shared the Rabbinic responsa on the topic.

Colonel Eli Bar-On, who headed the legal department of the army, then met with us and related how Israel deals with asymmetrical warfare when it's not balanced being that Israel is a country battling terrorist organizations that are not real entities. It was very deep, very powerful, and gave a good picture of what Israel faces from a legal point of view.

From there we visited the supreme court of Israel. We sat upon a case and also heard from the former President Asher Grunis, who actually studied in Canada. I find it fascinating how the judicial system in Israel is respectful of Canada, and very often refers to Canada, sometimes even more than the United States, in comparing how the system works in Israel.

Grunis shared with us personal stories and insights in how he sees things shaping and developing within the law.

Afterward, everyone had a night of leisure on their own. We took a late night tour of the ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood of Meah Shearim. We got to taste some of the foods, and saw how the people get ready for Shabbat. The little streets and corners had the smell of Challah and pastries baking, and we tasted some Challah, and had some Cholent.

It was an incredible day with a lot of things to think about, connecting to Jerusalem in a very special way. Breathing its air, walking its streets. Wow!

When you're in Jerusalem, life is felt a lot deeper.

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The Knesset - CLE Israel Mission Day 3

We started off our day again in the beautiful Beresheet Hotel in Mitzpe Ramon, a small place but so full of beautiful wonders.

We visited the Ilan Ramon museum, which celebrates the life of astronaut Ilan Ramon and his adventurous spirit. How he always wanted to break out of boundaries, which is related to one of the reasons for our visit in Israel, to see how we all can break out of our boundaries, G-d willing in a way filled with life.

From there we traveled in order to understand a lot of what happens in the Negev desert by meeting with Bedouins, who used to be nomadic but recently have begun settling in villages. We went to one of their large villages and met with a group of women who are trying to empower women within the Muslim society to take more control over their lives. We also met with some of their legal team who have been educating the women on their legal rights, and how they can use their rights to stand up for themselves and deal with the difficult issues they face. I was impressed with their courage and faith.

Then we left to Jerusalem, and entered the beautiful and bustling holy city, heading straight for the Knesset. We spent a special hour with Member of Knesset Ayelet Shaked who is the head of the New Right party and was the Minister of Justice for many years. She is a very articulate and passionate person. She shared many of the meaningful changes within the justice system that she was part of. She spoke about her work and her view of Israel's position within the world and how she sees it going forward. She was filled with praise for the Canadian people and our system of governance and justice.

Then we checked in to the beautiful new Orient Hotel in the Emek Refaim section of Jerusalem. It overlooks the Old City walls.

We went to dinner, where we heard from Sarit Shemer, COO of Shurat HaDin - Israel Law Center, one of the most incredible organizations. They fight terror through legal means. They are one of the most creative NGOs who have helped fight terror by stopping the funding and suing terrorist organizations and those backing them in western countries around the world, including in Canada. They have been successful in making a big dent in some of the terror infrastructure, and it was incredible to see their creativity in how they apply the laws to fighting terror. They have won many cases and won money for victims of terror and their families. We were inspired by them, and as a group donated to them.

That's all for today. It was a great day. Onward and forward!

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Beersheba and the extraordinary Negev - CLE Israel Mission Day 2

Waking up in the Bereishit Hotel was incredible. It is one of the top hotels in the world, and it has a jaw-dropping view of the Ramon crater. Watching the sun rise was a magical moment, much like this trip has been magical.

Our large group of over 50 have begun meshing together. Friendships are being created. People are sharing laughs, people are sharing emotional moments.

We took a jeep tour into the Ramon crater to see some of the most magnificant nature that exists within it.

From there we traveled to visit Beersheba, which is Montreal's sister city and the engine of the Negev region. We learned a lot about the Negev region and heard from Dr. Shimon Glick, former dean of the medical school, a renowned medical ethicist and the former Chief Doctor of the Coney Island Hospital. He guided us through medical ethics and the legal issues related to those ethics within Israel, and how it's very much guided directly by the Torah and the values within it, where for example we look at life as a duty rather than what we are entitled to. His talk was very informative and it was amazing to see the incredible highly modern hospital in Beersheba, which has over 30 buildings. Montreal has a lot to learn from them.

From there we visited a social entrepreneur group - the Ohr movement. They are trying to reengineer the Negev in the south, and to bring life here to create a real centre within Israel. There are many things happening on the ground.

There is incredible progress in the south. You can see it in all the cities we passed and visited.

We concluded our day with a visit to the largest vineyard in the Negev region and one of the biggest in Israel. They have made many award-winning wines. It was beautiful to see and experience what Israelis, with their incredible determination, despite all the challenges that they face, are always looking forward. It inspired me, because the way we are taught to live is to look at the potential and to never be brought down. It was amazing to see how everything is done within a proper legal framework and with an appreciation of life in itself.

Another day in one of the most beautiful places: the holy land of Israel. 

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Our morning welcoming committee

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Late night Farbrengen 

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Star-gazing. Incredible! 

A visit to the front lines at Sderot - CLE Israel Mission Day 1

Yesterday, half the group traveled together from Montreal. When we landed, we met up with the rest of our group. And then we were 50. We began our journey in Israel by heading straight to the border with Gaza, the city of Sderot.

Sderot is a hot spot. It's taken the brunt of much of the terror coming from Gaza. The city is located less than a kilometre away from Gaza, and over 13,000 missiles have landed in or near the city.

We had a chance to meet with Miri Eisen, a retired IDF Colonel, who gave us an understanding of the geopolitical situation and the legal ramifications of what is going on at the Gazan border and how Israel is trying to deal with it.

We saw workers building the underground wall that will prevent terror tunnels from penetrating Israel and we spotted an Iron Dome defence system.

We had an opportunity to visit the Chabad Centre of Sderot and meet with Rabbi Chananel Pizem, who is doing incredible work. He helps many families on a regular basis, and is currently building a soccer field to help the rehabilitation of children who are traumatized the missiles through sports.

We also heard from some residents who live in Sderot. They shared what life is like when you must always be near a safe room. One of them recalled the time they had to remain in their safe rooms for 15 hours straight.

We visited the College in Sderot, which is a very successful college with a strong law school. They showed us their vision and the direction law is headed in their future.

Despite the fact that it's on Israel's front line, the City of Sderot is booming. New buildings are going up, and new neighbourhoods are being built.

The spirit of the Jewish people of never bending or bowing is incredible. The Menorah in front of the Chabad House, made of 9 mortars and proudly displaying the words "Am Yisrael Chai" represents the spirit of the Jewish people here. 

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At Chabad of Sderot 

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The famous Menorah made from mortars 

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Right across from Gaza where over 13,000 rockets have been fired at Sderot 

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The gold structure in the distance in an Iron Dome 

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CLE Israel Trip

Our fourth Israel legal mission has begun. Our group took off from Montreal yesterday, excited for the visit. Some people were already in Israel and met us when we landed.

This morning, we hit the ground and started learning, through the legal lens, all about how Israel works as a country, how they present themselves legally on an international level, and the legalities affecting how the government and army runs. How almost every process in Israel involves an integration of Jewish and Talmudic law.

Here are some photos I took from before, and after the flight.

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Raphael Levy revving up for the trip!

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Maurice Ouaknine preparing to travel.

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Andrew Heft wrapping it up!

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Zavie Levine with a pre-flight preparation.

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Melissa Singer excited for takeoff.

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Group photo after landing!

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Guess what Rosie bought in the duty free store (leave your guess in the comments).

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