For Nina Isaac, the impact of spending 10 days in Israel with Jewish women from Tucson and around the United States was brought into sharp contrast after she spent the next three days in Dubai, training Muslim nurses.
“It was a huge shift, being in Israel, the land of my people, and then going right into an environment that was totally different,” said Isaac, a lactation consultant. “I went from being in the majority, to being a minority, in a very foreign place.”
With a multigenerational focus on family, a group of 12 from the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Women’s Philanthropy spent five days traveling from the Golan Heights in the north to Tucson’s Partnership2Gether region in the south. This group consisted of six Tucsonans, accompanied by mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts and friends from out of town. They then met up in Tel Aviv with 98 women for the Jewish Federations of North America National Women’s Philanthropy “Heart to Heart” mission — another intensive five days.
Isaac said while the contrasts were dramatic, there was also a constant thread to both of her visits, a continuum from the Women’s Philanthropy mission to the nurses in Dubai. “With everything going on in the Middle East right now, it was amazing to get to know these Muslim women and their lives, to see them as my sisters.”
“This was my fourth trip to Israel and, without question, the most meaningful,” said Kathryn Unger, board chair of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. Of particular significance for Unger was the visit to Tucson’s Partnership2Gether region of Hof Ashkelon and Kiryat Malachi.
“First, we stopped at Netiv HaAsara and heard from a single mother who clearly and painfully explained the challenges of daily life on the moshav, an area adjacent to the Gaza Strip that was regularly and unmercifully shelled with rockets this past summer,” said Unger. “She took us on a walking tour. We passed a playground that looked abandoned. We heard no children’s voices. We were told that the children were in school, but the building was like a bunker, devoid of windows. Their playground was inside the bunker — they couldn’t play outdoors.”
“The proximity of Gaza was truly unbelievable … we’re talking a football field’s length,” said Melissa Goldfinger, who co-chaired the mission with Unger.
The visit to Netiv HaAsara included a stop along the security wall bordering Gaza, where participants added ceramic pieces to the “Path to Peace” mosaic. When Isaac returned home, her daughters showed her the “Path to Peace” wall at the Tucson Hebrew Academy, which represents a part of the border mosaic. THA students are making mosaic tiles for both walls, here and in Israel.
The women’s group also visited the kindergarten in moshav Gea Hatzav, which presented them with “All About Me” drawings to bring back to their twinning partners at the Tucson Jewish Community Center kindergarten.
In Kiryat Malachi, the women met with the teenage cast of the musical “Eureka!” at Art City, a cultural center funded by Partnership2Gether. The young performers spoke about the show and what the theater experience means to them. In the auditorium, their guide pointed out a framed plaque that read “With deepest gratitude to Diane and Ron Weintraub and the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.”
“So the highlight for me was seeing the impact of our community’s support,” said Unger. “Where rockets are striking, where the terrorist tunnels were discovered in our sister city’s backyard, where sirens were sounding repeatedly, our support provides a normal life for ‘our kids’ who are living in a war zone, as well as help for those who suffer the consequences of it.”
Goldfinger said she was struck by the tenacity and creativity of artists in the south who are “bringing beauty to destruction,” such as “Path to Peace.” Isaac mentioned another example, sculptor Yarom Bob, who creates Judaica and metal art from pieces of Hamas missiles at his Rockets into Roses studio.
This was Goldfinger’s fourth visit as well, but her mother’s first. Goldfinger, JFSA Young Woman of the Year for 2014, said that being with her mother, Sandi Henderson from Colorado Springs, Colo., for her first trip to Israel was very special. Isaac, in Israel for the third time, shared a similar sentiment about getting a fresh perspective through the eyes of her friend, Amy Nielsen from Phoenix.
One of the highlights for Goldfinger was their jeep tour of the Golan Heights, which drove home the strategic importance of the area. “We were able to see Syria. We saw how Israel had moved more soldiers into the area, and we saw an Iron Dome,” she said.
By contrast, Goldfinger said she also enjoyed seeing Tel Aviv by Segway as part of the JFNA mission. “Before the Segway ride we went on a tour of the street art, aka: graffiti, and that was very cool,” Goldfinger said. They also visited several fashion houses and ended in the Lewinsky spice market in south Tel Aviv.
The JFSA group also had a chance to rejoice in Jerusalem with Tucsonan Dana Narter, who was one of 25 women to celebrate becoming b’not mitzvah as part of the JFNA tour.
“It was also pretty cool to get an Israeli’s perspective of Israeli/American relations rather than the biased cable news channels,” Goldfinger said. “For example, according to our guide the White House knew that Netanyahu was going to address Congress from the get-go, and it wasn’t done behind their backs.”
On the last night, Bat-Galim Shaer, whose son Gilad was one of three Israeli teens who were kidnapped and killed by terrorists last summer, addressed the group. “To see her and listen to her speak was pretty incredible,” said Isaac. “She talked about her son and the horror of it all. But also about how the community came together and supported her family. She was very positive about life and about the future. Her positive attitude was surprising and inspiring.”
Goldfinger summed up the visit beautifully: “Being in Israel is always special. It’s like a sigh of contentment.”
Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is a feature writer and editor living in Tucson. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.