Over 30,000 participants were expected to travel with Taglit-Birthright Israel this past summer. Following the University of Arizona graduation in May, 28 UA students traveled on Birthright. Other schools represented on the bus included the University of Southern California, University of Wisconsin, Washington University, and Arizona State University. Elyse Pincus, UA Hillel Israel engagement coordinator, and Or Maoz, Jewish Agency for Israel fellow, staffed this summer trip, as well as the winter one last December.
Tucsonan Joel Berkson, a UA sophomore studying optical engineering, said, “Arriving in Israel, the holy land, felt surreal. Throughout the trip, I gained a much desired higher understanding of the geo-political issues that affect the small country. At the Gaza concrete wall, we spoke with an Israeli woman who lives in a town bordering Gaza. She related how she and the rest of her town dealt with regular shelling during the most recent wars with the Palestinians. Her revelations opened my eyes to the situation. Spiritually I felt most connected to myself and the land when we spent a night in Bedouin tents in the Negev. We walked to the middle of the desert, separated ourselves, and sat on the ground alone to look up at the stars, pray, or just do whatever felt comfortable. It was the first time I really focused on my thoughts and felt connected with the land, the same place where biblical events occurred.”
Students also took part in a special Tel Aviv Taglit Day. They explored Tel Aviv through various activities, learning about the culture, diversity, food, music and start-up companies there. The group also had time to visit various beaches in Nahariya and Ashkelon and raft down the Jordan River.
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Native Tucsonan Sophie Gibly, a 2014 ASU graduate who now serves as program director for Jewish Arizonans on Campus at the UA, co-staffed back-to-back Birthright trips with students from the UA and ASU.
The Israel 2.0 trip from May 15-31 was designed for young adults who had previously been to Israel and wanted to experience more of what the country has to offer. This two-week trip was based out of Jerusalem with day trips elsewhere. One Shabbat was spent in Jerusalem and one in the North. Birthrighters attended learning segments in the mornings, hearing world-class rabbis and speakers; in the afternoons, they rode ATV’s, went rafting, wine tasting, hiking, visited museums — basically interacted with Israel the way native Israelis do. Techies enjoyed an engaging Tech Day in Tel Aviv’s start-up district. This schedule allowed participants to develop stronger bonds with one another as well as deeper connections with the land and its people.
From May 30-June 10, the 10-day Israel Free Spirit Birthright trip covered the familiar homeland sights and sounds. In addition, its Bedouin village visit had four components. Participants started the day with their own group, and then chose one of four tracks: life-drawing classes, drum-circle classes, making creams and perfumes from native ingredients or a scorpion-hunting activity. At night, they converged for a dance party, where the Birthright group from India performed a fully choreographed Indian dance. Afterward, they slept under the stars. Tucson Birthright participants Sophie Pollack and Sara Rosenberg, both UA sophomores and pre-business majors, are thankful for this gift of experiencing Israel and for the amazing people they met along the way. “Meeting in front of the El-Al check-in counter at JFK Airport, everyone instantly clicked. We were strangers but the fact that we were all college students and Jewish gave us a connection that I had never experienced before. Bus 106 became a mishpacha (family),” says Sara. “I instantly fell in love with Israel, a place that I had researched and always heard about but never seen. Each day was a new adventure, from rafting down the Jordan to exploring the old city of Safed. I loved experiencing a new culture and talking with Israelis. Eight Israeli soldiers joined our group and it was incredible how we could become so close despite living on the other side of the world.”
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Every other year, the Phoenix and Tucson Jewish Federations share a bus filled with college graduates and young professionals on a Birthright Israel trip. Matthew Landau, Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona director of leadership development and public relations and a past Birthright participant himself, helped lead this year’s Shorashim Phoenix/Tucson Community Trip.
From June 15-26, the travelers traversed the land. Their itinerary included the usual first-time tourist sites — the Golan Heights, Rabin Square, Independence Hall, the Western Wall, Yad Vashem, a Bedouin village, Masada, and the Dead Sea, to name a few. In Tel Aviv, they toured the newly opened Birthright Entrepreneurship Center, a partnership between Birthright and the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. It highlights Israeli achievement in agriculture, medicine, defense, cyber security, science, transportation and aerospace. In Kiryat Malachi, part of our Partnership2Gether region, Leah Avuno, one of Tucson’s two new Shinshinim (Israeli teen emissaries through the Jewish Agency for Israel), organized a meeting between the travelers and youth groups there.
Tucsonans/former Tucsonans on the bus included Aaron Campbell, Katherine Cornish, Maria Cornish, Andrea Hahn, Adam Katz, Jonathan Kay, Robert Kay, Carly Levy, Jacob Louchheim, Erin Olitzky, Eric Simon, Alexander Stuchen and Braden Stuchen.
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Diane and Ron Weintraub, in whose honor the Israel Center was re-named, took their 55th trip to Israel in June. Their visits have spanned more than 40 years. The primary reason for this sojourn was family. Speaking of mishpacha …
The Weintraub’s Israeli son-in-law, Dan Schoenfeld, and their four Israeli grandchildren reside in Ra-anana. Aviv, 26, is in graduate school at Tel Aviv University; Itai, 24, is a student at the Jerusalem School of Music; Dekal, 21, is finishing her duty as a medic in the Israel Defense Forces; and Gilad, 15, is a high schooler. Diane and Ron’s daughter and son-in-law Arlene and Harry Moskovitz of Hoboken, N.J., accompanied them for the week’s stay. Fifty family members convened in Israel during that week. In addition to the aforementioned, 14 of Ron’s cousins came from the Los Angeles area to celebrate a double bar mitzvah at the Western Wall, followed by a dinner at a Jerusalem restaurant. A few days later, there was a celebration barbecue for the grandmother of the bar mitzvah celebrants’ 70th birthday. Then, 14 of Ron’s cousins, who had made aliyah from Argentina, hosted an open house dinner with an additional 13 of his Israeli-born cousins in attendance.
The Weintraubs spent a day in our Partnership region, talking with staff and visiting the proposed site for a future Friendship Trail being planned for Hof Ashkelon.
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Joyce and Bill Becker spent a week at the beginning of June in Israel for their grandchildren’s b’nai mitzvah. Their son Mark, who grew up in Tucson, became a bar mitzvah at the Western Wall in 1979. Mark, now of Phoenix, and his wife, Erin, carried on the tradition with their children, Garrett and Lauren. On June 4, Israeli Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz officiated at the b’nai mitzvah at Robinson’s Arch, along the western wall of the Temple Mount. Afterward, the grandparents hosted an oneg Shabbat luncheon at the David Citadel Hotel. In attendance were Shlomo and Micki Lutski, an Israeli couple Joyce and Bill had met years before on a past Israel mission. Shlomo Lutski is a famed former Maccabiah basketball player and head coach. The Lutskis, of Petach Tikva, hosted a family Shabbat dinner for the group the night before the simcha.
One of Bill’s Tucson dental patients, who knew of his upcoming travel, gave him an envelope with tzedakah money to donate while in Jerusalem. Bill handed it to the rabbi, who explained that this gesture would protect them on their journey.
Besides arranging tours for the week, Mark scheduled a private session with a scribe, who took out a Holocaust Torah and had Garrett and Lauren read a portion from it. Then he had them write their Hebrew names on a piece of paper, as well as the last word of a psalm. Upon leaving, he presented each of them with a picture frame containing their Hebrew name and the complete psalm with the last word that they had written as a memento of this unique activity.
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At the end of Moshe Rast’s Tucson Hebrew Academy eighth grade graduation trip to Israel, his mother, Martha, and sister, Panina, joined him. For the next month, the family visited friends in the North and volunteered for two and a half weeks on an eco-farm. During this time, they attended Shavuot services at the Abuhav Synagogue in Safed where the Torah was read from what is thought to be the oldest Torah scroll in a condition fit for reading, dating from around 1400.
At Yarok Az Eco-Farm on Moshav Ilaniyya (near Golani Junction), the three worked at an organic goat farm and permaculture center. The farm provides enough food for its own consumption and leaves no waste, being self-sustaining with compost, compost toilets, and a recycling center. The volunteers slept in dome-shaped ecolodges or in a mud house. Their activities included reinforcing the fence around the garden, weeding, planting and tilling the soil, trellising the tomatoes and cucumbers, feeding and pasturing the goats and sheep, re-building the chicken coop, making jam from the fruit of the plum tree and painting signs. The farm combines ecology and sustainability with tourism, as it also serves as a guest farm. During their stay, the threesome helped host army soldiers and circus acrobats on tour.
Martha concluded: “You get room and board for volunteer time and the experience of a lifetime.”
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From July 3-12, Renee Hulsey, her daughter, Mallory, and uncle Bernard Goldstein flew to Israel for a cousin’s wedding. The nuptials, which took place at Al Hayam, a beachside venue in Caesarea overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and surrounded by Roman ruins, capped off a wonderful week of touring.
Renee had previously visited our homeland on Rabbi Robert Eisen’s 2014 Congregation Anshei Israel tour. Mallory, a 2015 THA graduate, had joined her eighth grade class on their annual Israel pilgrimage. In planning this year’s itinerary, they re-visited some sites but devoted time for different and ecumenical ones. In the North, they toured Caperneum and the Annunciation Church; in Jerusalem, the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; and in Bethlethem (with special permission to enter the West Bank with their guide), the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square.
In Jerusalem, Tucson friend Liora Olesen, who spent the summer in Israel, gave them a tour of the city, including the Tower of David and David’s Tomb. A highlight of their last day was a tour of Hadassah Hospital at Ein Keren, including the new Sarah Davidson Tower. Renee, a life member of Hadassah, and Bernard, an associate member (a male who supports the organization’s mission), relished seeing and took pride in the fruits of their monetary support for this “state-of-the-art, amazing place,” funded mostly by U.S. Hadassah members.
Touring, eating, shopping and taking planes, street cars, buses, light rail, Gett (taxis like Uber) and bikes (up the Promenade to the Port of Tel Aviv) topped off an incredible journey.
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Nathan Rix and Benjamin Manninen were recipients of the Beth Weintraub Schoenfeld Memorial Israel Experience Subsidy from the Coalition for Jewish Education and the Weintraub Israel Center. Nathan also received JFSA’s Rabbi Arthur R. Oleisky Teen Recognition Award, a stipend toward Israel travel, which he used to attend Camp Daisy and Harry Stein’s four-week Big Trip Israel. Benjamin participated in a program at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology.
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Yochanan Gibly and Lola Maas spent six weeks at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel as Schwartz-Hammer Impact Fellows through the Jewish National Fund.
Yochanan, a senior at Catalina Foothills High School, summed up his experience:
“I spent my summer at AMHSI with 140 other students from across the United States. It was a life-changing experience that helped me find myself and develop my own thoughts and feelings about Israel. I stayed in dorms with kids my age, learned not only in a classroom but also in the historical areas where the events took place. Israel became our classroom. We spent time exploring the problems that Israel faces today. It showed me that Judaism is a very tight-knit community; no matter where you are from, you belong, and being Jewish isn’t solely about the religious aspects but also about the ideas and connections you form with other Jews and people.”
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