In November, 33 Tucsonans traveled to Israel under the auspices of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona — some for the first time, some for the 35th time, and everything in between. The mission was personalized to accommodate these varying degrees of experience, with optional side trips to Petra and Aqaba, Masada, the Dead Sea, the City of David, a Segway tour of Tel Aviv and the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Jerusalem. “There were 33 different journeys, but they all came together in the sense of being inspired,” says Stuart Mellan, JFSA president and CEO.
The mission wove together Israel’s historical context and background with contemporary challenges and achievements.
“Through site visits, we ‘lived’ our Jewish heritage, mainly from the times of the first and second temples, as never before,” says Alan Kendal. “We were immersed in the modern history, development and social-religious aspects of Israeli life from almost the first wave of settlement under Ottoman rule to the present day.”
“There was a beautiful morning in Tel Aviv when we stood on a rise looking out on the Mediterranean to our left and the modern city of Tel Aviv on our right,” says Jim Shiner, who chairs the Tucson Jewish Community Center’s committee on directors and governance. “From there we were shown where 60 secular Jewish families decided to create a great city ‘like New York City.’ Who knows what they envisioned, as none of them had ever seen New York. We were shown a picture of the families on that day meeting on that sand dune. They dreamed it, and then did it. It is significant to me that it was secular Jews, not the observant, who gave birth to this magnificent city.”
Tracy Salkowitz, executive director of the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona, says that she sees that pioneer spirit still thriving. “Israel today is very different from the Israel I experienced in the ’70s, when the country was barely 30 years old. I was worried that I wouldn’t recognize it, that it would be too different. It is extremely different. It is sophisticated. It is international. It is dynamic. And yet that pioneer spirit is still very much present and the love for the Jewish people is apparent everywhere.”
“We were fortunate enough to get an up-close view of the various borders of Israel and their inherent issues,” says Nanci Berens, who, together with her husband, Robert, co-chaired the mission with Gary and Tandy Kippur. Their travels took them to every frontier. While exploring the Golan Heights on ATVs they were just meters from Syria, which they also viewed from the strategic outpost of Mt. Bental.
Visiting the Upper Galilee, near the border with Lebanon, Kendal’s wife, Susan, was struck by the fact that “orange trees, lemon trees and grapefruit trees are planted right up to the border, and are harvested in full view of Hezbollah terrorists. According to our guide, nothing makes them more aggravated than to see Israelis carrying on their everyday lives, sending their children to school and cultivating crops.”
“A major contrast of Israeli society vs. non-Israeli society is clearly demarcated at the ‘green borders’ — where Israel’s influence on the land ends and barren land, resembling those of biblical times, is all one can see for miles across the border,” says Alan.
Shabbat in Eilat brought the mission within meters of Egypt and Jordan, and in view of Saudi Arabia. Part of the group spent a day in Jordan, visiting Petra and Aqaba. They experienced the contrast of peaceful borders and tense borders.
“Aside from a constant threat from its neighbors, Israel maintains a high standard of living,” says Berens. “The most impressive part of the trip was the strength of the vibrant atmosphere in Israel and the quality of life in many of the cities.” Aluf Benn, editor in chief of Ha’aretz newspaper, reinforced this perception when he met with the mission for a private briefing in Tel Aviv. He pointed out that Israelis pay close attention to the news, but their conversations move quickly from current events to daily life.
How Israeli society approaches the challenges of daily life was a major focus. In B’nei Brak, near Tel Aviv, the mission visited “Mafteach” (key), a program geared to break the cycle of poverty in the ultra-Orthodox haredi community through a range of employment services. Sixty percent of the growing haredi population lives in poverty. By offering separate hours for men and women, gender-separated staffing and content-filtered Internet, Mafteach provides resources and training that this population has not had access to before. In Hadera, the group spent an afternoon with students in the Ethiopian National Project, a JFSA beneficiary that aims to advance the scholastic achievements of youth and empower parents and community lay leaders.
Many of the participants were impressed with Israeli innovation in confronting environmental challenges as well. “Israeli engineering has produced the best desalination plants in the world,” says Alan. “Together with a national water grid and waste water recycling, Israel now has a surplus of water for consumption and agriculture.”
A unique experience shared by some of the participants was a dinner served in total darkness by blind waiters at the “Nalaga’at” (Please Touch) Center in Jaffa, which promotes interaction between deaf, blind and deaf-blind individuals and people able to hear and see, regardless of cultural or social distinctions.
Ten of the participants spent three days meeting leaders from other Jewish communities at the GA in Jerusalem, which was dubbed “The Global Jewish Shuk.” Eliot and Vida Barron say they were impressed by the number of young people involved and the expertise of the speakers. Mellan enjoyed the chance to meet with young Israeli social entrepreneurs who are engaged in bettering society. “That’s the work we’re trying to do here,” he says. “We want to create programs that have depth and meaning, and that respond to their interests.”
Salkowitz says that she was especially moved by President Shimon Peres, who spoke about the founding of the state and the legacy that we, as Jews, are passing on to our children. “He emphasized not being bound to our past, but the importance of being informed by our past,” she says, echoing the theme that permeated the trip.
Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson. She can be reached at nancy_ozeri @yahoo.com.