Tucsonans share Israel summer experiences

Gila Ben-Jamin with Netzach Israel elementary school students holding Purim greeting signs received from Badsha Naicker’s fourth grade Tucson Hebrew Academy class through the school twinning program

Gila (Gail) Ben-Jamin credits her many years on the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Partnership2Gether committee for having made lifelong friends in Israel. She has hosted people from the P2G region at her home in Tucson and has been hosted by those folks in Israel. She stays in touch with them and travels to Israel every three to four years. From April 15-May 15, Gila spent a jam-packed month with these Israeli friends who arranged many of her excursions.

In 1964, at age 20, our traveler had lived on Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael where she attended an ulpan for five months and learned her fluent Hebrew. On her recent sojourn, for the first time, Gila experienced ceremonies for Yom Hashoah, Yom Haatzmaut, and Yom Hazikaron, and was present for Lag BaOmer, celebrated by lighting bonfires throughout Israel.

Many of the highlights included museums and memorials: the Yitzhak Rabin Center, Latrun Tank Museum, National Maritime Museum, Knesset and Supreme Court tours, Bible Lands Museum, recently excavated Kishle tour (a compound dating back to the time of King Herod), 9/11 Living Memorial Plaza, and memorial to the victims of the 2010 Carmel Fire.

Other high points: Gila hiked in the North along the Lebanese border and slept in a Druze village in Peki’in. In a bunker on the Golan, she saw, felt, and heard rockets landing in Syria just three miles away. Accompanying P2G friends, she attended milestone events – a brit milah and a wedding. On Yom Haatzmaut, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in attendance, Gila watched the finals of the International Bible Contest, won by an Israeli boy. She also dined with former Tucson shaliach Guy Gelbart and his wife, Inbal.

Finally, Gila re-connected with Israeli reporter Alon Velan, who, five years prior, had interviewed her for a three-minute segment on Israeli TV. One can google this short video (“Alon Velan interviews Gila Benjamin”) about our “Hebrew-speaking, motorcycle-riding, scuba-diving Tucsonan.”


Ben, Rachel, and Sam Rivera at the Jonah’s whale statue in Jaffa

From May 29-June 6, Rachel Rivera took her sons, Sam, 18, a University of Arizona freshman, and Ben, 16, a Catalina Foothills High School junior, to Israel. Rachel had lived in Israel for six months in 1993, following her graduation from California State University, Sacramento. She returned to Israel in 2010 on the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Young Women’s Mission. Every trip to our homeland is special; however, this year’s trip hit close to the heart, as Rachel had made a promise to her mother before her passing in 2015 that she would bring her sons to Israel.

Connectivity with the land and its people permeated their itinerary. Arriving at Ben Gurion Airport, the threesome met Amit Greenfield, their “amazing” guide who was recommended by Yoram Levy. Amit was an IDF officer, is still in the reserves and carries a glock handgun.

On Mount Bental on the Golan Heights, Rachel re-connected with a former boyfriend, Greg Raich, who had made aliyah and now works for the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force. Her boys engaged him about the reasons he made aliyah and his work for UNDOF helping to maintain the ceasefire between the Israeli and Syrian forces and supervise the implementation of the disengagement agreement.

At the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem, they shared Shabbat dinner with two “lone soldiers,” one from Alaska, the other from Ohio. Oshrat Barel, director of Tucson’s Weintraub Israel Center, had given them the contact information. This was an opportunity to talk with IDF soldiers who have no family in Israel, showing support for them as they help defend the State of Israel and its citizens.

The itinerary included so much more – the Latrun Tank Museum, a jeep tour, Masada, the Dead Sea, Yad Vashem, Beit She’an, kibbutzim… the traditional tour but zeroing in on the boys’ interests. Upon their return, Rachel claimed, “I have successfully launched two Zionists!” Her mother, she believes, would have said, “Well done!”


Birthright participants (L-R) Alyssa Montgomery, Ben Offerman, Cameron Busby, Manny Rosen, and Caleb Groff in Hof Ashkelon, part of Tucson’s Partnership2Gether region

From May 18-28, Hillel filled a Birthright Israel bus with students mostly from the University of Arizona, plus others representing Arizona State University, Bentley College, Berklee College of Music, Duke University, Emory University, Indiana University, Pima Community College, and the University of Southern California. Elyse Pincus, former UA Hillel Israel engagement coordinator, and Michael Walden, UA Hillel director of Jewish student life, co-staffed the trip. Tucsonans traveling on this free 10-day journey included Cameron Busby, Caleb Groff, Alyssa Montgomery, Ben Offerman, and Manny Rosen. Six Israeli soldiers (a mifgash, or “encounter” group) joined the tour for the entire 10 days, instead of the usual five, to have the same experience as their American peers.

The 40 travelers learned about the roots of the Jewish people and explored what being Jewish means in contemporary life. In Hof Ashkelon, part of our Partnership2Gether region, the residents brought in a local musician who led an interactive jam session with the students.

Another new experience was a tour of Tayibe, an Arab city in the center of Israel. The tour group members listened to a talk followed by questions and answers with an Arab Israeli who is pursuing her Ph.D. in Israel. This dialogue was sponsored by the Sikkuy Partnership, which is a shared organization of Jewish and Arab citizens working to implement full equality on all levels between the Arab Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel. Afterward, the group visited a mosque to learn about Islam and its traditions.


Alexander Muss High School in Israel Arizona contingent: Front row (L-R): Hailey Fischer, Rachel Falk, Jordan Brooks, Jessica Zucker, Amy Shugar, Emily Jones (Tucson), Sophie Setton; Back row: Mallory Hulsey (Tucson), Nathan Rix (Tucson), Josh Sidi, Ayden Raphael

Mallory Hulsey, Amalia (Emily) Jones, Nathan Rix, and Max Silverman spent from June 21 – Aug. 2 at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel. Mallory received a subsidy from the Beth Weintraub Schoenfeld Memorial Israel Experience Program of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. Amalia, Nathan, and Max traveled all expenses paid as Jewish National Fund Schwartz-Hammer Impact Fellows.

Through this six-week academic and fun adventure, the land of Israel became their living classroom. Here are excerpts from their blogs and other writings:

Mallory, a Marana High School junior: “Over the summer, I learned 4,000 years of Jewish history. While learning about what happened, we would visit the sites where they occurred. For example, before we went to the Western Wall on Tisha B’Av, we learned the significance of that date in Jewish history, making the experience that much more emotional. In the nearby town of Hod HaSharon, I was immersed in the Israeli culture, shopping at the local grocery store, eating at the local restaurants, and enjoying the local ice cream. We attended the Opening Ceremony of the Maccabiah Games, meeting people from across America and the world. This experience was unlike any other. Last summer, I had the awesome opportunity to visit Israel with my family, but there is something about being able to experience this with teens your own age that is amazing and special.”

Amalia, a Mountain View High School senior: “If you’d asked me before I left for Israel if I was a complete person, I would have said, “Of course!” As it turns out, I wasn’t. It’s like there was a piece of me missing… That piece was Israel. This past week, we met a man who lives on a kibbutz and had left everything behind in America to join the IDF, knowing that Israel needed him and he needed Israel. Later that day, somebody asked my teacher why he chose to make aliyah, leaving his family behind in America. He answered that it would be better for his children to be raised with the community in Israel. It’s not easy to leave behind everything you ever knew and come to a new place. But sometimes there’s just something missing, something you don’t even know is missing. You can live a complete and happy life without it, but you’ll be happier and more complete with it. It’s the reason I’ll be coming back here one day. It’s the missing piece I found, just like the man on the kibbutz, my teacher and a lot of other people. It’s home.”

Nathan, a University High School senior: “Being chosen for this fellowship, while not only an honor, is an exciting chance to widen my point of view about Israel. The idea of being surrounded by people passionate about this country we all love, but full of different experiences, relationships with Judaism and Israel, and overall opinions is very exciting. I am excited to learn directly in Israel … and learn how to advocate for Israel from a point of knowledge. As I begin this year serving as NFTY (Reform Jewish youth movement) Southwest president, I want to build connections with people across the United States and those outside the Reform community. I am excited to meet other leaders in the Jewish community so we can learn from each other and share ideas, bringing what I learn back to my region. I am honored to have been chosen to be a part of the team that represents Arizona and a legacy of teens passionate about Israel who can advocate for our Jewish home.”

Max, a University High School senior: “After our trip to the replica of ancient Jerusalem and the Dead Sea Scrolls, the next day, we were headed to a sunrise on Masada and a gorgeous hike down. After the hike, we cooled off a bit, because even a Tucson kid can appreciate a break from the desert. Then we floated in the Dead Sea before taking a cold shower and enjoying a much awaited lunch. Later we enjoyed a barbecue and Fourth of July party back on campus to wrap up an eventful tiyul (“trip”). Although the atmosphere here is different on Independence Day, the friends that I got to spend time with made the day particularly special. We even had a spur of the moment idea to start a Coke and Pepsi game to celebrate the 4th. This took us back to our middle school days when we would play Coke and Pepsi at all of the b’nai mitzvah parties.”


(L-R): Ben, Sophie, and Kris Silverman at the Western Wall

From July 1-Aug. 1, Max’s parents, Ben and Kris Silverman, and sister, Sophie, toured Israel. The Silvermans had hosted Shinshin Bar Alkaher, one of two teen emissaries from Israel, during the second part of this past academic year. This gratifying experience was part of their motivation for this trip.

Ben, Kris, and Sophie spent their first three days in our Partnership region, thanks to arrangements made through the Weintraub Israel Center. They stayed in the home of South Africans who made aliyah and live on Moshav Netiv HaAsara in Hof Ashkelon near Gaza. They visited the border wall, Peace Wall, and youth center called “Puzzle,” named for the student-led program where the city’s youth come together like pieces of a puzzle. They met with many residents and connected with Tucsonan Aimee Katz who was teaching English to third and fourth graders in Kiryat Malachi this summer. The threesome enjoyed dinner with Aimee at Chef Maya Klein’s house. Maya and other Israeli chefs from our Partnership region traveled to Tucson two years ago to showcase their culinary skills. Overall, Ben appreciated seeing firsthand where our overseas dollars are spent, having served on the JFSA planning and allocations committee and now as JFSA treasurer.

For the next 12 days, Ben, Kris, and Sophie were joined by Ben’s brother and family from California and mother from Florida. The group traversed the country with Ayelet Tours. On Monday, July 23, Sophie, who became a bat mitzvah in Tucson last January, had a “second bat mitzvah” at Robinson’s Arch in Jerusalem. Max joined his family in Jerusalem for their first Shabbat, and they met him on his AMHSI campus in Hod HaSharon for the second Shabbat of their journey.

Time to share

With Rosh Hashanah approaching, keep me posted in this New Year ­— 319-1112. A happy, healthy one for all. L’shalom.