Israel connections: UA students on Birthright, Tucson friend returns for simcha

Tucson Birthright Israel travelers, from left, Charlie Block, Maddy Barrow, Morghan Sonderer, Rayna Schwartz, Milena Starobinskaya, and Eli Soyfer at the Netiv HaAsara Path to Peace wall.

Wildcats go to Israel

According to the Birthright Israel Foundation, Birthright Israel began with a simple idea — to offer young Jewish adults a life-changing trip to Israel and in doing so, transform the Jewish future. Thanks to generous donations, Birthright Israel has given tens of thousands of young Jewish adults the gift of a 10-day journey to the Jewish homeland each year.

From Dec. 17 to 28, a busload of 40 students embarked on the winter Birthright journey. The group was composed mainly of University of Arizona students, plus some from Arizona State University, Harvard University, University of Southern California, Northern Arizona University, and the University of Puget Sound. Tucson travelers included Maddy Barrow, Charlie Block, Rayna Schwartz, Morghan Sonderer, Eli Soyfer, and Milena Starobinskaya. UA Hillel staff who accompanied the group included Katie Spector, coordinator for Israel engagement, and Hadar Perez, Jewish Agency for Israel fellow.

Besides touring the country, eight students plus Katie celebrated their b’nai mitzvah during a ceremony on Shabbat in Jerusalem.

Katie’s thoughts on becoming a bat mitzvah: “I grew up in a mixed family home, where neither of my parents wanted to force me into a religion. I always identified as Jewish but never had a bat mitzvah. It has been on my mind for many years. Being able to do it with my students was a privilege. The whole experience involved much emotion. I was happy that my students had the opportunity to do theirs, while I also felt like a proud Jewish mother getting to watch and celebrate this simcha with them.”

Morghan, who graduated last month with a major in animal science (specialty in equine) and a minor in business administration, gave this trip overview: “Traveling on Birthright Bus #1474, I made lifetime friends, laughed daily, and learned so much about my Jewish culture. We traversed from the top of Mount Hermon to the Kfar Hanokdim Bedouin Encampment in the Negev Desert. Having my bat mitzvah in Jerusalem was an amazing, touching experience, one that will help shape my life forever. Our knowledgeable guide answered any question we posed to him. We were lucky to be able to travel with the eight soldiers on our bus for the entire 10 days, which made for meaningful interactions. Most of all, thank you to our wonderful group leaders, Katie and Hadar. The trip helped make memories and allowed us to further understand our lives!”

Maddy, an NAU sophomore majoring in anthropology with minors in Spanish and ethnic studies, summed up her impressions: “My Birthright experience was more beautiful than expected. I had journeyed to Israel at age 15 on the March of the Living with a dozen other teens from Tucson. Having been there on such serious terms prior to this trip, I was excited to have the opportunity to travel on Birthright and experience the country for a second time in such a light-hearted, fun-filled manner. Whether it was watching the sunrise in the Negev, hiking to the top of Masada, or dancing after the Shehecheyanu prayer on Mount Scopus, each experience filled me with more love and joy than the next. The land of Israel provides a unique and beautiful energy and I am grateful for the memories and amazing friendships that this trip manifested.”

Lisa Silverman, left, traveled from Israel to attend the wedding of her friend Jodi Bain.

New Year’s Eve nuptials

Weddings bring family and friends together and the marriage of Jodi Bain and John Sundt was no exception. On Dec. 31, Jodi and John exchanged vows under the chuppah at La Paloma Country Club with Rabbi Stephanie Aaron officiating. In attendance was native Tucsonan Lisa Silverman, who traveled the farthest, flying in from her home in Modi’in, Israel, for the occasion. Jodi and Lisa met through B’nai B’rith Girls, Wald Chapter, in 1989. They attended B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp: International Leadership Training Conference in 1990, followed by the March of the Living the next year. Lisa participated in the wedding ceremony, reading a recitation in Hebrew and English.

When asked about her life in our homeland since making aliyah with her family in 2014, Lisa said, “Life in Israel is incredibly meaningful. I get to work with social change organizations that are altering the face of Israel and building her future. While my husband Josh’s job takes him around the world analyzing financial technology companies, he is regularly pulled into conversations about advancing Israeli technology and entrepreneurship. Our four children are Israelis and that statement makes me glow. They work intensely, play intensely and have big expectations for themselves and the world around them. Like Sabras and saguaros [the term “sabra” for a native Israeli Jew comes from the Hebrew word for prickly pear cactus], they’ve developed these strong and sometimes spiky exteriors and they’re warm and giving when you get to know them.”

Lisa concluded: “Life in Israel is not easy. We are reminded regularly that this is a country in its adolescence and that comes with growing pains. However, it’s enthralling to be a part of that transformation.”

Time to share

It’s your turn. Keep me posted of your activities – 319-1112. L’shalom.