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Young women cement bonds with Israel, affirm JFSA goals on mission

Rachel Green reads a newspaper while floating in the Dead Sea

Sixteen Jewish women, ages 32 to 45, plus group leader Amy Hirshberg Lederman, departed from Tucson in June on a 10-day Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona mission that many say changed their lives.  “It was a pretty emotional trip. If the personal is political then this was a political trip,” says Lederman.

The itinerary included a flurry of outdoor activities, tours of historical sites, wine tasting, conversations with many Israelis — even preparing luscious meals together, visits with scholars and artists, and empathic bonding among the 17 women that combined to provide an eclectic experience of the Jewish State.

Mission Co-chair and community volunteer Rachael Baker had initially approached Stuart Mellan, JFSA president and CEO, a few years ago to suggest a young women’s leadership mission to Israel, an idea that stemmed from one of

Lederman’s Limmud adult education sessions. The trip, says Baker, allowed the women to see firsthand why it’s so important to contribute time and financial resources to the Federation.

The group visited recipients of Tucson Federation dollars, including a scholastic assistance program for Jewish Ethiopian teenagers, another program that targets alienated Israeli youth ages 15-18, and an Ethiopian absorption center.

Tamar Bergantino says her family’s personal history came alive at the absorption center.  “My parents escaped Communist Romania and went to Israel in 1959. It gave me a perspective on what my parents may have experienced,” she told the AJP. Her parents, Paul and Silvia Esrig, moved to New York City in 1965, and now reside in San Diego. The absorption center made Bergantino want to help “create a better life for the [Jewish] underprivileged, with a Jewish connection.”

Bergantino, who describes herself as “ethnically Jewish but not religious,” says that “everybody had different objectives” on the trip. It was such an intelligent, funny group of women, she says. “We laughed so hard every day.”

Co-chair Julie Feldman adds that “the amazing thing about this trip is we were able to shed all our roles that we have back in Tucson, as mothers, spouses, at work, and experience so much together as Jewish women.”

From the mission’s first day in Israel, says Lederman, “our tour guide, Lyana [Rotstein], made the politics, the land, the people and the texts live and breathe,” adding that Lyana was a wonderful example of a modern Orthodox young woman who was also “very hip.” Rotstein was born in the United States and made aliyah with her family at age 3.

“I wanted an active trip,” says Feldman, a clinical psychologist at the University of Arizona. “I didn’t want to be in a room all day or just visit museums. I wanted to be on the land.” A jeep tour of the Golan Heights helped fulfill that desire, says Feldman. “It was exhilarating, and at the same time had layers upon layers of history and politics.”

Of myriad activities on the mission, climbing Masada was one of the most meaningful for Angie Goorman, who’s an occupational therapist. Not a big hiker, she says she found the climb “very challenging. It was very hot. Amy Lederman literally led me up the trail. She took a step. I took a step. I literally followed in her footsteps. She gave me strength. It’s a little cliché, but once I got to the top I felt that anything was possible.”

When the group visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum, on June 14, “I knew it would be emotional, but my response was completely unexpected,” says Feldman, whose mother-in-law is a Holocaust survivor from Ukraine.

After Yad Vashem, “we got right back on the bus and went to the market. The transition for me was unreal,” she says, “with the contrast between death and sadness and loss, to the vibrancy of the market and all of its tastes and smells.”

Rachel Rivera, a development associate, last traveled to Israel 20 years ago when she worked as a nanny for five months in Tel Aviv after she graduated from college. “I wanted to come back [to Tucson] with a renewed connection to Israel,” she says. Rivera discovered that “Israelis were so willing to sacrifice for future generations of Jews and Israelis. I can’t imagine doing that,” she admits. “Their intense belief that this was their destiny really touched me.”

Rivera is adamant that to “be informed about Israel is not to take an AP report on the front page of the [Arizona Daily] Star and think that’s all there is.”

Feldman notes that the group heard various speakers who all had different points of view. “They talk about all the political problems but I don’t see a solution. As a psychologist, I believe in negotiation, working toward a common goal. But there’s so much hatred.

“I didn’t really understand at first why people stayed there,” says Feldman. “It’s so dangerous. But it’s all about the land. People feel so passionate about it. I had never experienced that before. Israelis are in love with where they live. The joy they feel living in that place, that’s what I was struck by.”

Most of the women on the mission have been involved in local Jewish causes and have served on the Federation’s Young Women’s Leadership Cabinet, says Lederman. This mission was her sixth or seventh trip to Israel, starting with living there for a year after college in 1974-75. “This time I was looking at Israel through 16 pairs of eyes,” she says. And the fact that this mission took place at all, she says, begins with “leadership that comes from within. If you dream it, it will happen.”