Congregation Anshei Israel’s 11-day mission to Israel in June was no ordinary tourist trip. Instead of focusing on history and popular sites, the itinerary delved into the culture, problems, agriculture and technology of modern Israel.
Rabbi Robert Eisen says that this is the fourth time he has taken congregation members on a trip to Israel, but he has lost count as to how many times he has been there.
“This year’s Israel mission trip was billed as off the beaten path,” says Eisen, who led a group of 13 people. “This was more for people who have been to Israel before, although there were a few people going for the first time. Our other trips were more introductory surveys for the person who was going to Israel for the first time. They were more of an historical overview.”
Eisen explained that this trip was about people rather than places. The group sought to find insider views and hear more than what is in news reports; to ask “Why are you here?” and what motivates people to live in places such as Hebron (the largest city in the West Bank and one of the most ancient Jewish sites) or Misgav Am, which is surrounded on three sides by the Lebanese border. Instead of going to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, they toured the Ghetto Fighters’ Museum, which was established in 1949 by Holocaust survivors and tells the story of the Holocaust, emphasizing the bravery and triumph of the survivors to rebuild their lives in Israel. They went to Gamla (often called the “Masada of the North”) rather than to Masada. Nearly 2,000 years ago, Gamla, a walled city, was the site of a siege by the Roman general Vespasian who tried to subdue the Golan area. Several thousand inhabitants fought against the Romans, but threw themselves to their deaths to avoid capture.
“Traveling with my congregants gives me the opportunity to get to know them better, and I see Israel through their eyes,” says Eisen. “This is not like a trip to the zoo, this is our homeland and people who make this trip become invested in the land and people of Israel. It helps me to refocus on what’s important, and it is a joy to see people engaged and inspired.”
Eisen wrote a blog every day and during bus trips held informal discussions so people could share their thoughts. On the final day of the trip they reflected on what they saw and learned, and compared what they had seen on the news to what is really happening there. “I help to translate what we are seeing, and I try to help make sense of it and try to make it inspiring,” Eisen says.
“It is phenomenal to travel with Rabbi Eisen,” says Ron Gray. “He is always organized, plans everything with attention to details and gives us insights and additional history, but does not usurp the role of the tour guide. Our guide, Ami Braun, has spirit, knowledge of history and his love of the land of Israel is exceptional.”
Gray and his wife, Margo, were along on this year’s trip, but they are no strangers to Israel. Gray has been there six times and Margo seven. Visiting Israel has a special significance for the Grays since they have about 100 relatives in Israel; some of their relatives were Zionists who went to Israel in the 1930s. “We have been married almost 43 years, and one of the conditions of our marriage vows was that we would visit the relatives in Israel,” says Gray. “We are very Zionist and believe in the state of Israel and want to support Israel in any way that we can, including going there and spending money.”
One of the things Gray liked about this year’s trip was learning about what is happening in the present day, especially with technology. “Israel is a modern nation, it is not a third world country,” he says. “We got a full picture of modern-day Israel.” The group toured a desalinization plant, learned about high-tech companies and explored the latest in agriculture along the “Salad Trail,” a tour of a farm near the Gaza-Egypt border where 80 different crops are grown.
Margo says this trip enhanced her understanding of the multicultural nature of Israel. At an absorption center for Ethiopian Jews the group met people from Ethiopia, ate their traditional food and bought gifts that they made. A theatrical tour gave them another perspective as an actor conducted a tour in different personas within the Sephardic residences of Jerusalem. She was fascinated by the trip to Peki’in, a village in the upper Galilee that is home to Druze, Moslems, Christians and Jews. The Druze follow a monotheistic religion based on Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which also incorporates the philosophy of Plato and Socrates and elements of other religions. The Druze hold positions in Israeli politics and also serve in the Israel Defense Forces.
Since Israel is home to the three Abrahamic faiths, says Eisen, this trip included Christian sites and sites important in the history of Islam. Before the trip he read the book, “Shared Stories, Rival Tellings” by Robert C. Gregg, which contains five stories that define each religion, and looks at how each religion has its own meaning for each story. “This book takes a look at how different groups of people settled the land at different times in history,” Eisen says. “It helped me to have a broader perspective on this trip as we visited certain sites. If we can think about these stories and start to look at the different narratives, the different groups can come together if we respect everyone’s story.”
There was a fun side to this trip, although Eisen says it was all a fun experience. “One of the most enjoyable things for me was walking on the beach in Tel Aviv,” he says. “It was one of the special moments. It is a very beautiful area with the Mediterranean Sea on the left and the modern city of Tel Aviv on the right. There were many families walking on the beach, just enjoying life.”
For Gray, planting a tree at one of the Jewish National Fund groves was fun. “We went to a specific grove and planted a type of tree that grows well in that area,” he says. “What made it more special was that we saw a plaque for a tree planted in memory of Shaol Pozez, who was a member of Anshei.”
“This was the first time my husband, Aaron, and I had been to Israel,” says Katherine Leonard. “We liked that we got the chance to meet with a few individual Israelis on their home turf and hear a little bit about what their day-to-day lives are like. Our trip was masterfully arranged by Rabbi Eisen so that we could experience the epic sweep of Eretz Israel from ancient times to the most modern technology. We started the trip visiting ancient sites such as the Western Wall and the Cave of the Mach Pelah and in a sense progressed through history to experience the present day reality of a winery in Gush Etzion as well as high-tech entrepreneurship and a sewage treatment plant in metro Tel Aviv.”
At the final banquet, Eisen says he made the ironic comment, “We are leaving home to go home.” But he has already begun planning the next trip, scheduled for 2018, a journey to Poland and Israel that will be similar to the iconic “March of the Living” teen trip, yet designed for adults.
Korene Charnofsky Cohen is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.