“Israel is an inspirational and complicated place,” Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said upon returning from the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona interfaith community leadership mission last month. “Visiting Israel teaches that one must have great resolve and still, at the same time, be very open to hear competing views.”
Rothschild was one of 25 professional and lay leaders from both the Jewish community and Tucson at large on the mission co-chaired by Shelley Pozez and Bill Holmes.
“This was a wonderfully diverse group of community leaders who clearly came away from the experience with a deeper sense of understanding and connection to the people of Israel,” said JFSA President and CEO Stuart Mellan. “Each group member enhanced the experience by sharing their own perspective and life experience.”
This included Pozez and Karen Speigel sharing their families’ stories of surviving the Holocaust at the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum, making the inconceivable magnitude of that genocide more real and personal, said El Rio Health Center Foundation Executive Director Brenda Goldsmith. “I was taken down to my knees and humbled. We were all soul searching about how to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”
“It was a trip of our lifetime,” said Linda Immerman-Stoffers. “We have been privileged to have visited over 40 countries, but none compare to the excitement and emotion of Israel. I was in tears everyday from a story or a historically significant location.”
Pima Community College Chancellor Lee Lambert said Israel’s reputation for successful start-up ventures kindled his curiosity about their educational system. He was impressed with extracurricular support systems like the Ethiopian National Project, a JFSA beneficiary that helps at-risk immigrant teens succeed in school and beyond.
“Interacting with students and seeing how they’re growing and learning — that moved me a lot,” Lambert said. He shared the story of a struggling 11th grader whose life was turned around by the ENP. “The supportive network that the project built really made a difference for him. When I think about the challenges of our community and a lot of our students with remedial needs, we can’t give up hope for them. By showing that we care, we stay engaged, maybe we set off a spark that leads to them going the extra mile for their own futures. That was a powerful story.”
JFSA board member Ellen Freeman said visiting Israel brought to life programs and concepts that she’d heard about through the Federation. “Up until this trip the phrase ‘our partnership region’ or ‘Ethiopian Jews’ or ‘Same Moon,’ they were all just concepts. I met people from the Partnership2Gether region and it helped give some dimension to the fact that these are real people, with real families and real issues, who benefit greatly from our help.
“I know the Same Moon program is meant for kids. But at a dinner that we shared with people from our partnership region, we were sitting in Jaffa, having an outdoor meal, and I looked up at the same moon. All of a sudden, here I am, sitting in Israel and I got to do the same thing that we’re suggesting that our kids do.”
Tucson Fire Chief Jim Critchley was eager to continue the work started in 2013, when the first Firefighters Without Borders delegation from Arizona visited Israel, and to help lay the groundwork for a group of Israeli emergency first responders coming to Tucson in October. The group met with the commander of the Israel Air Force’s elite combat search and rescue unit 669. Critchley had dinner with Israel Fire and Rescue Chief of Operations Shmulik Friedman and visited a Jerusalem fire station. “We’ve got so many similarities between what we do and how we do things, but lots of differences, too. I’m looking forward to them coming in October to continue the conversation. We can learn so much from each other.”
While visiting the borders with Syria and Jordan, Critchley gained a better understanding of Israel’s security needs. “Up on the Golan Heights, they’re about making sure the war [in Syria] stays outside of the fence line,” he said. “The West Bank needs to be under Israel’s control, just because of the proximity; the symbolic locations of three different religions are all within 100 yards of each other and they’re still able to let everyone exist together.”
That sense of coexistence permeated the group’s itinerary, which included meeting with Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, and visiting both Jewish and Christian holy places.
“Whether you are a Jew, or a Christian, or a person of no faith, this is a trip that touches you to your core,” said Holmes, a managing partner of Agape Hospice and Palliative Care who recently joined the JFSA board. “There were times when we had to hug somebody who was having an amazing emotional reaction to the Western Wall or to kneeling and praying at the site of Christ’s crucifixion.”
“I feel like a part of my soul came together,” said Goldsmith. “We’re all ultimately asking the question, ‘What are we here for on this planet?’ I feel like a piece of that puzzle was put into my heart.”
Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is a feature writer and editor living in Tucson. She can be reached at [email protected]