Young men exhilarated by JFSA Israel mission

(L-R) Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Young Men’s Leadership Mission participants Ed Baruch, Andrew Isaac, Jeff Wortzel, Guy Gelbart (JFSA staff), Michael Wexler, Daniel Nadowo (Ethiopian National Project staff), Nadav Kersh (tour guide), Todd Sadow and Adisu Tzahai (ENP staff) in the Alma Cave in Israel’s Naphtali Mountains. Not pictured: David Plotkin, Grace Rodnitzki (ENP staff), Larry Tishkoff (Jewish Federations of North America staff)

A life changing week — that’s how participants in Tucson’s first Young Men’s Leadership Mission described their eight days in Israel earlier this month. This mission, which was tailored to meet the interests of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Young Men’s Group, integrated Jewish history, visits to JFSA partners and beneficiaries, and rigorous outdoor adventures like caving.

“It’s one thing to read about Israel in the headlines or learn about the history as a kid. It’s a whole other experience to go there and be present at these sites and put it all together,” says David Plotkin, one of six group members on the trip. “We experienced sights that directly tied into the survival of the Jews throughout time: Touring the Roman ruins at Caesarea and then going to the Golan Heights to experience modern day defense,” adds Plotkin, an architect who serves on the JFSA board of directors and the building committees of the Tucson Jewish Community Center, Congregation Anshei Israel and Habitat for Humanity.

Michael Wexler, who co-chaired the mission with Andrew Isaac, also emphasizes the educational aspect of the trip. “Our tour guide, Nadav Kersh, taught us the history of the area as if I were reading a Western Civilization textbook.” Plotkin enjoyed the way Kersh and Israel Center Director Guy Gelbart, who staffed the trip, played off each other.

In addition to being the first Young Men’s Leadership Mission from Tucson, what set this tour apart from most Federation missions was the integration of learning with the spirit of outdoor adventure. While most missions visit Masada, they tend to ascend by cable car. These men hiked up — and some of them ran back down. The hike up Masada had special meaning for Plotkin, who became a Bar Mitzvah there in 1989. Through the historical perspective of the mission he was able to appreciate the significance of studying Torah at a place where Jews had been defeated. “We survived and the Roman Empire, which conquered us at the time, is gone.”

Todd Sadow at Mount Bental in the Golan Heights.

Many groups make their way up to the Golan Heights, but the Young Men’s Mission drove ATVs off the beaten path and along the Syrian border to better understand the region’s geopolitical situation. They had lunch in the mess hall of an Israel Defense Forces outpost, where they heard firsthand experiences about guarding Israel’s borders. “The soldiers seemed amused that we wanted to try their food,” says Ed Baruch. Group members also got to climb into a Merkava tank. This was followed by target practice at a civilian firing range on Kibbutz Ayelet HaShachar.

The highlight for many was the afternoon spent with the Ethiopian National Project, a JFSA beneficiary. First the group had lunch with children in the ENP’s Scholastic Assistance Program in Afula to watch the program in action. “Seeing the excitement on the kids’ faces was inspirational,” says Wexler, the JFSA 2012 Gary I. Sarver Young Man of the Year and a trustee on the board of the Handmaker Foundation. “They were very excited to converse with us and had a game arranged that was an icebreaker to conversations. Most of them were interested in Hollywood and wanted to be music stars.”

From there they went with young leaders from the ENP to explore the Alma Cave in the Naphtali Mountains. Caving turned out to be extremely challenging, even for these experienced outdoorsmen, as they rappelled 60 feet down to the mouth of the cave, swung on ropes over the mouth of the cave and spelunked through the darkness with headlamps. Afterwards most of the men donated their caving equipment to ENP.

“It was my first experience caving,” says Wexler. “The leader of the trip had us all turn off our lights to see what it was like in pure darkness. I have to say, it was pretty cool and scary knowing the light from our headlights was what kept us alive, and if they went out, there was no way we could find our way out safely.”

While everyone visits Jerusalem, the Tucson men rode Segways through the Haas Promenade and Peace Forest. They also explored the City of David’s archeological excavations and went on an underground trek. “Walking through waist-deep water in the ancient tunnel that supplied water to Jerusalem from a spring was a privilege that few tourists probably experience,” says Baruch, who is active in the Jewish Community Relations Council and Congregation Or Chadash.

Touring recently excavated portions of the Western Wall also made an impression on Baruch. “It’s hard to get a sense of how big the entire Temple complex really is from just the small portion that is visible above ground today,” he says. “What you can actually see of the Western Wall today, where people are praying, is probably a tenth of the actual size of that wall. By going down into the excavated area you can see how far down and how far back the wall extends, which gives you the actual size of the entire structure.”

The Young Men’s Leadership Mission evolved in response to requests from members of the Federation’s Young Men’s Group, who wanted an experience similar to the Young Women’s Leadership Mission to Israel in 2010, says Stuart Mellan, JFSA president and CEO. The Young Men’s Group starts each program year with a retreat on Mount Lemmon, with many of the members biking up, says Mellan. “We want to keep nurturing an inspired Young Men’s Group to build leadership for our community. We found that Israel experiences can be very powerful and transformative, and we want to do everything we can to build on this momentum.”

Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is a local writer and editor. She can be reached at nancy_ozeri@yahoo.com.