The Weintraub Israel Center has embraced the mission of creating a “living bridge” between Southern Arizona and Israel since it was founded in 1997. At the forefront of this mission are the Israeli shlichim — Hebrew for “messengers” or “emissaries” — who serve as directors of the WIC during their tenure in Tucson.
Oshrat Barel, the current shlicha (the term for a female emissary; a male is a shaliach) and the first of what Maya Angelou called the “phenomenal” gender to hold the position here in Southern Arizona, is preparing to enter her third year as WIC director. Already, her work has strengthened the foundations of that bridge in unparalleled ways, says WIC co-chair Jeff Artzi, who has been a volunteer with the Israel Center, a joint program of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and the Tucson Jewish Community Center, from the beginning.
Having served for five years as the partnership director for the Beit Shean-Emek Hamaayanot-Cleveland Partnership2Gether program, Barel was well-versed in the power of what she calls “people-to-people” connections when she relocated from Israel to Tucson with her family in August 2013 to take her post at the WIC. Within a year, Barel and the WIC coordinated the first two class-to-class connections between Jewish educational institutions in Tucson and schools in the WIC partnership regions of Kiryat Malachi and Hof Ashkelon. This year, the number of classrooms participating locally spiked to 19 and it promises to increase even further in the near future as Barel hopes to expand the service to Tucson’s public schools as early as 2016. Local Jewish schools participating this year, says Barel, included Tucson Hebrew Academy, Temple Emanu-El, Congregation Or Chadash and Hebrew High, with Congregation Chaverim already added to the mix for next year.
The goal, says Barel, is to help people here understand how Israeli citizens live their lives firsthand, rather than having them grow up knowing only what they’ve read in the headlines. She knows her work is making a difference each time she sees a preschooler receive their first picture from their Israeli pen pal. Usually, she says, the children are surprised to see that kids in Israel “look just like (them).” The hope is that when the 297 students currently in the WIC program grow up, they will maintain their personal connections to Israel. “That way they won’t need me,” says Barel with a laugh, adding that “the idea is to make many, many, many shlichim — not just one shlicha.”
To that end, the WIC and the Tucson J are partnering to offer a guided interfaith mission to Israel from Feb. 7-16, 2016 — the first such trip in the history of either organization. And, just like the WIC’s overarching mission, the trip will be geared toward helping anyone interested to establish a unique personal connection to Israel and Israelis. Says Artzi, “What we have found is that whenever someone takes a trip to Israel, regardless of their background … it’s inevitable that they come back connected to the country and its people in a very special way.”
Appropriately, the nine-day adventure offers many opportunities for travelers to link with locals face-to-face, whether it’s a cooking demonstration in Tucson’s Partnership2Gether city of Kiryat Malachi, a day at a film school in Jerusalem, or Shabbat dinner at the home of a host family in the ancient city. “Everyone will have the unique opportunity to share an Israeli Shabbat dinner with a stranger,” says Barel, “and I think that by the end of the dinner we won’t be strangers anymore.”
Opportunity is not just another word for obligation on this Israel trip, as it seems to be with some curated journeys. Though there are plenty of chances for seasoned visitors to forge more intimate connections with the State of Israel on the itinerary, Tucson J vice president Denise Wolf, who’ll be staffing the trip with Barel, promises that first-timers to Israel will get to visit all of the traditional “must-see” sights as well. “It’s really a trip for everyone,” says Wolf, adding that since Israel is constantly in a state of change, every trip is a novel experience.
Steve Weintraub, who is co-chair of the WIC alongside Artzi, says the committee in charge of planning this trip was careful not to make it another tour that caters exclusively to a single demographic. “I found that most previously sponsored Tucson trips to Israel had a targeted participant,” says Weintraub. “(They) were designed by age, marital status, specific religious affiliation, organizational membership, a specific mission or goal objective, an economic class, etc. … Our trip is different — it’s designed to be all inclusive.”
Weintraub, who will help lead the trip along with Barel, Wolf and Artzi, says the fact that organizers have nearly filled their first bus — including two reservations from professional travel agents — speaks to the quality and affordability of the excursion. But there’s still plenty of space for you.
Artzi says that once that first bus is filled, they’ll just start working to fill a second. Now, the only question that remains is this — are you up for the adventure? For a complete itinerary of the Weintraub Israel Center Boarding Pass Israel Experience, including pricing and registration information, visit jfsa.org/get-involved/israel-experience, or contact Barel at 647-8457 or [email protected].
Craig S. Baker is a freelance writer in Tucson.