Local people, places, travels and simchas – 2.11.11

“This year in Jerusalem”

Abby, Jordan, Joel and Jane Herz at Independence Hall in Tel Aviv

When Joel Herz recently visited Israel after a long hiatus, he was astounded by the growth and progress of this small country.

In 1988, as a recent law school graduate, Joel spent three months in Israel, living and working on a kibbutz, studying Hebrew, and traversing the land. Fast forward to this Dec. 21 through Jan. 2, when he returned with his family — his wife, Jane, their two children, Jordan, 17, and Abby, 14, plus Jane’s mother, Barbara Lebovitz, and their nephew Michael Schwartz, both of New Jersey. Their bus tour stopped at the usual tourist sites; however, Joel said, “It was our recommended Israeli tour guide who made the 4,000-year history come alive, putting it into perspective, revealing what a miracle the current state of Israel is and how it has survived.”

The following are some of Joel’s impressions of Israel today compared to 1988:

• High-tech industry: “Extraordinary.” In 1988, Tel Aviv had one high-rise building; today, there are about 50. High-tech parks housing big-name companies in the computer, medical and biomedical fields abound and are a positive, driving force of the Israeli economy.

• The Carmel Forest fire: It reminded our traveler of the Mount Lemmon fire, with trees planted too close together and never thinned by logging. He was optimistic that Israel will learn from this, recover, and in time, the forest will grow back.

• Archaeological ruins: The unearthed ruins of ancient cities in Israel were second-rate back in the ‘80s compared to other ruins Herz had seen, such as Ephesus in Turkey. Today, that has totally changed, with the “monstrous” archaeological digs at Caesarea, Megiddo, Beit Shean, Beit Alpha, and the tunnels underneath the Western Wall.

• Security: In 1988, Israeli troops with high-powered weapons were everywhere. Today, while there are troops in some areas, they are generally not found in the big cities and are far fewer. The whole country seems much safer and more at ease.

11th winter Taglit-Birthright Israel

UA students Bradley Shane and Jenna Kusek on Birthright Israel trip

“The Birthright trip was absolutely fantastic once we actually made it out of New York City!” exclaimed Laura Wilson Etter, University of Arizona Hillel director of engagement. She and Israel fellow Max Rusinov accompanied the Taglit-Birthright Israel group over winter break. Due to the East Coast blizzard, numerous flights were cancelled. Many of the Israel-bound students scrambled to find other ways (train/bus/ limo) to reach JFK airport in time for their El Al flight, which was delayed several hours, giving them extra time to catch the flight.

From Dec. 28 to Jan. 7, 35 UA students (five of the scheduled 40 didn’t make it to New York), plus one each from the University of Southern California and Wesleyan University, traversed Israel by bus. The entourage included four Tucsonans — Adam Gold, Sarah Kats, Lacy Padilla and Gelya Tepelboym.

For five of the days, eight Israeli soldiers joined their group. The soldiers, who were the same age as the students, had a strong impact on the American travelers, making life in Israel very tangible for them. On Mt. Herzl, the soldiers told personal stories at gravesites. Max, who had served in the Israeli army, visited his commander’s grave and shared his own story. The soldiers led military activities, teaching the group krav maga (Israeli martial arts), how to don an army uniform correctly, and different positions for holding a gun (but without the gun).

Other highlights of this free trip included visiting the Western Wall, hiking Masada, swimming in the Dead Sea, spending a night in a Bedouin tent, taking camel rides, and checking out falafel stands at every stop. Lacy was one of five students who celebrated a Bar/Bat Mitzvah at the Shalom Hotel in Jerusalem. In Kiryat Milachi, part of Tucson’s TIPS region, the students interacted with elementary school children, playing track-and-field games and doing face-painting and crafts. Finally, doing their bit for the Israeli economy, the busload of shoppers made stops at the Ahava cosmetics and Naot shoe factories.

Today, this Birthright opportunity is considered a significant rite of passage for Jewish young adults. On to the summer Taglit-Birthright Israel …

Benefits of membership

Corinne Forti with Hadassah membership certificate

When Corinne Forti converted to Judaism in June 2009, she received a free one-year membership to Hadassah Southern Arizona, donated anonymously by one of its members. Because of this unique program, she has become an active volunteer, not only in Hadassah, but in other Jewish organizations around town, fulfilling the mission of tikkun olam (repairing the world).

Forti stated, “I was searching and always felt Jewish — like Judaism was in my DNA.” She took Temple Emanu-El’s “Taste of Judaism” class and studied for conversion with Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon. Anne Lowe attended Corinne’s conversion ceremony and presented her with the Hadassah membership certificate.

Forti is currently Hadassah’s chairperson for Jews by Choice, as well as its representative for Shalom Baby, a Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Shalom Tucson project. For both of these, Corinne contacts the synagogues monthly, seeking the names of new women converts for Hadassah membership and new babies to receive bags filled with handmade items and other newborn essentials. At Passover, she participated in Jewish Family & Children’s Services’ “Matzah and More” project. During this past year, she represented Hadassah at the Saul Tobin Jewish Community Leadership Institute and attended the Desert Mountain Region fall board meeting hosted by Hadassah Southern Arizona.

Time to share

It’s your turn — keep me posted — 319-1112. L’shalom.