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Israel trip gives Tucson J staff new insights, ways to connect with community

Tucson Jewish Comunity Center staff members and Israeli chefs prepare a communal meal Nov. 16. Guests include the staffs of the Kiryat Malachi and Hof Ashkelon community centers and members of the Partnership2Gether steering committe. (L-R) Todd Rockoff, Abby Gettinger, Lisa Delyria, Stacy Ramsower, Christina Pugh, Denise Wolf, Chef Yael Shamir, Chef Maya Klein, Travis Fischer, Chef Sahar Rafael, Lynn Davis, Sue DeBenedette, Oshrat Barel. The Israeli chefs, joined by Chef Orly Varon Shushan, will visit Tucson in May for the Israel Festival.

Jewish culture and connection were the focus of a recent Tucson Jewish Community Center staff trip to Israel. The group of 10 returned to Tucson from their 12-day trip on Nov. 19 with a renewed sense of purpose.

The Tucson J staff joined with delegations from the Shimon and Sara Birnbaum JCC in Bridgewater, N.J., the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus in Columbus, Ohio, and the Springfield Jewish Community Center in Springfield, Mass., to share best practices and immerse themselves in Israeli culture, geology, religion, geography, politics, education, food and more.

Sue DeBenedette, director of marketing and communications at the Tucson J, says her reason for going on the trip “was to better understand Jewish values, Jewish culture, and Jewish history, so I could do my job better.”

“I’m the person who’s out branding the J, creating the marketing campaigns, public relations, and [I was able] to really understand how I can better communicate to the community what the J means, and not just from a Jewish sense, but from a values sense,” she says. “I get it now that Jewish values are universal values.

“It’s consideration for others, promoting education, promoting lifelong learning … it’s all those things that I think people in any community [value] … to create a sense of peace, and a sense of family,” DeBenedette says.

She was among several non-Jewish staff members who attended, reflecting the 54 percent of the Tucson J’s membership that is not Jewish.

“The J aspires to embrace Jewish culture while simultaneously offering services to all parts of the community. Improving lifestyle and speaking to the Jewish population are not mutually exclusive and both can and do exist within the center’s programming, says Todd Rockoff, president and chief executive officer of the J.

“Our outreach to the general community is by opening a hand to organizations, civic organizations, cultural organizations, and looking for opportunities to build effective bridges,” he says. “We do that through a Jewish lens in camp, in preschool, in our Jewish life and learning programs, in sports and wellness — in all that we do.”

That Jewish lens exists in a statement of principles common among all JCCs, which mentions that “‘Israel is an eternal birthright of the Jewish people’ and therefore programming around Israel is integral to the mission of the JCC,” Rockoff explains.

One such program is the Weintraub Israel Center’s Partnership2Gether twinning program, which pairs Tucson with the city of Kiryat Malachi and the Hof Ashkelon region.

The Tucson delegation visited Hof Ashkelon’s Hatzav kindergarten, where Abby Gettinger, an early childhood education teacher at the J, delivered a book of photos, messages and letters to the class from her students. The Israeli students gave Gettinger a similar package to take back to her class. Gettinger’s class is one of 17 Jewish classrooms in Tucson, which include congregational religious schools and Tucson Hebrew Academy, connected to a class in Israel through the Weintraub Israel Center.

Connections are also made through various shlichim, or Jewish emissaries, who visit the Tucson J, such as the Tzofim Friendship Caravan that visits each summer during camp to provide campers with an understanding of Israel.

“The reason we brought staff on this mission is to help come back and carry that message,” Rockoff says. “The national benchmarking study that we participate in says that amongst our membership, when you talk to people who come from the general community to the J, they have a deeper understanding of the complexities of the situation in the Middle East. They have a deeper understanding of the relationship that Israel has to our community.”

A difference exists between the perception and reality of Israel, with media reports distorting reality by portraying Israel as a place where there is far more violence and death than in other countries, says Christina Pugh, a member relations associate at the J.

She participated in a lecture given to the group by Matti Friedman, a former Associated Press reporter, who said that Jerusalem’s death count was 24 individuals in 2014, compared with 144 deaths that year in Indianapolis, Ind., a city with a similar population size.

“That’s something everybody had brought up to me: ‘How safe did you feel there,’” she says. “As far as the safety, there’s military there everywhere, so I definitely felt safe.”

Pugh was also struck by the differences in how Jewish religion and culture are perceived in Israel and the United States.

“In the entire world, Jews are thought of as ‘that’s their religion,’ and I guess you can see it here in America where, when you think of being Jewish, it’s about going to the synagogue, and celebrating the holidays,” she says. “[In Israel] it’s not about your religion, it’s about who you are. They don’t base their day-to-day life on the religion, the holidays, things like that. It’s just about who they are, their history.”

Pugh thinks that her newfound understanding will help inform the way she interacts with current and prospective members looking to the J to provide them a sense of community.

“The biggest things are to help everyone, especially our staff, understand that it’s not about the day-to-day religious aspects of it,” she says. “For our members who come from Israel, to help them feel a connection to home.”

Lynn Davis, director of arts and culture at the J, oversees programming for the center’s annual film festival.

“Those of us doing film festival programming watch dozens, if not hundreds, of films over the course of the year in making our selections for the festival,” she says.

“I think we’re a special breed who always has their eye out for the one we haven’t heard of, or the one that nobody else has heard of, or what’s brand new, or what can I get my hands on to bring to our community,’’ says Davis, who had the chance to interact with a colleague who holds a similar position at the Springfield JCC.

“Those opportunities to network with colleagues from other Js are absolutely invaluable,” she says. “I think it’s easy to feel, you know, here you are alone in Tucson and you’re in the Tucson J, and we all need to remember that the JCC is a movement. There is an entire nationwide, international even, network out there of people to tap into.”

Oshrat Barel, director of the Weintraub Israel Center and Tucson’s community shlicha, was a part of the team on the trip. For her, it was a chance to be a tourist in her own country, to see it through new eyes and take nothing for granted. To tour the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum, for example, and see a J staff member weeping, was deeply moving.

Visiting the Partnership2Gether region, where the J staffers stayed overnight with host families, was particularly meaningful, says Barel. “Now we have another nine shlichim for Israel and for our partnership.”

Michael Miklofsky is a freelance writer living in Oro Valley with his wife and three daughters. He also is a Realtor® with Realty Executives Tucson Elite and director of administration for The Shoe House, Inc.