Weintraub Israel Center hosted its second annual multifaith mission to Israel in mid-October. A group of 43 participated in the nine-day journey from Tucson to Tel Aviv and around the nation’s interior. “We believe the most effective way to fulfill our mission to build living bridges is for participants to bring back experiences to share with their circle of friends,” says Oshrat Barel, Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona vice president for community engagement. “It’s all about dialogue and understanding, that we have more in common than differences. It’s important to have multifaith participation.”
JFSA, WIC, and the Tucson Jewish Community Center jointly sponsored the journey with assistance from the JCC national association. Barel, Tucson J President and CEO Todd Rockoff, and WIC Director Amir Eden escorted the group along with Mary Cochran Wolk, M.D., who chaired the mission.
“Our tour educator, Muki Jankelowitz, made our first trip to Israel a wonderful experience. He created a dialogue that helped us understand the history of Israel and its intersection with other religions and cultures. Muki’s talent for storytelling, using archeology and geography, brought biblical and modern times to life without lecturing,” says traveler Jacquelyn Feller. “Emotional moments came out of analytical ones,” adds her husband, Ron Feller.
Other experts on hand to share deeper insights on politics, security, and geopolitical perspectives included local journalist Haviv Gur and Paul Liptz, the director of education at the Anita Saltz International Education Center of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.
“It was exceptional to share this experience with this wonderful group of people,” says Rockoff.
“WIC invests in programming and events here, but one of the most powerful tools to connect our community members to Israel is simply to visit there. WIC strongly believes in building people-to-people bridges between Southern Arizona and Israel,” adds Eden.
“This was a wonderful way to create an experience. It’s one in which I feel connected to being Jewish in the world and an Israeli ally,” confirms traveler Ricki Shore.
The group visited Tel Aviv and Jaffa, Caesarea, the Golan Heights, the Mount of Beatitudes Church on the Kinneret or Sea of Galilee, Golan Heights Winery, Tel Dan Nature Reserve on the Jordan River, Kibbutz Kfar Blum, Masada National Park, and the Dead Sea.
In Jerusalem, they took in the sites in the Old City, the markets, the Western Wall Tunnels, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Lighting Shabbat candles together, the group celebrated Erev Shabbat at the Kotel. “I felt rooted in the culture and history at the wall,” says participant Janice Brundage. The group also celebrated Havdalah together. Visits to the Menachem Begin Museum, Reuven Rubin Art Museum, and the Israel Museum were excursion options, but the entire group spent a moving three hours at Yad Vashem’s Holocaust History Museum.
Continuing the bridge-building mission theme, the group visited Barel’s hometown of Beit She’an, and Kiryat Malachi and Nevtiv Ha’asara in Hof Ashkelon, in the JFSA’s partnership region. At Beit She’an, three community members hosted visitors in their homes to discuss how they and their families arrived in the city, their challenges and aspirations for the future while sharing traditional culture and snacks from their different ethnic heritages.
The Kiryat Malachi community hosted lunch in the matnas (community center) with youth counselors sharing their experiences working locally with one of 65 national chapters of Krimbo Wings, the only inclusive youth movement in Israel for children and youth with and without disabilities. It provides weekly and summer social activities for young people with all types of mental and physical disabilities together with neurotypical peer counselors.
“In Hof Ashkelon and Kiryat Malachi it felt like we were home with family,” says Rockoff. “This is an experience that will be with us individually and collectively forever.” In Hof Ashkelon, local families hosted individual travelers and couples for an evening and dinner in their home. This provided insight into family life, living with the government-required safety shelter in their homes, and seeing how similar their lifestyles are to our own, says one participant.
“The magic of visiting Israel and meeting with our partners in Kiryat Malachi and Hof Ashkelon goes beyond what words can describe,” says Eden.
“I thought I had a good feel for what it was like being Jewish. I had no idea how much I would learn on this trip and take back with me to my work,” adds
Michelle Kroeger, the CFO at Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging.
“After our interaction with the first shinshinim (Israeli teen emissaries) in Tucson, we knew we had to come here to see how 18-year-olds have such commitment to their country,” says Andrea Crane. With her husband, Harry, Crane hosted a Grand Canyon road trip for Leah Avuno, who is also from Kiryat Malachi and is now a commander in the Israeli Defense Forces, when she was an emissary in Tucson in 2016.
To experience tikkun olam (healing the world) in action, the group visited the Save a Child’s Heart humanitarian project at Wolfson Hospital in Holon. The program treats, at no cost, congenital and rheumatic heart disease in children from around the world. Of the 2,200 children treated since 1995, 49 percent come from the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Iraq, and 40 percent came from Africa.
Food was a significant part of the adventure, according to most participants. Beyond expansive buffet breakfast spreads each morning, travelers sampled market food and fresh fruit juices at every opportunity. Impressive group meals at the Golan Heights Winery, the Anna House and the Olive Press in Jerusalem, combined historical aspects with local culinary excellence. A highlight was a cooking competition at Baba Yona Ranch in the Golan area, where group members prepared their own al ha’esh (barbecue) and traditional Israeli bread, salads and sides dishes. For Shabbat dinner, two American men serving in the Israeli Defense Forces and three shinshinim who had previously served in Tucson with WIC’s bridging programs joined the group.
“The food was amazing,” said Dina Rosengarten. “Fresh, brightly colored vegetables tasted like they were just picked. My new favorite foods are shakshouka (a poached egg dish) and sabich (eggplant and egg stuffed pita). The hotel buffet breakfasts had a huge variety. The food inspired me to learn to cook some of these dishes. I’ve already ordered a cookbook and can’t wait to try to replicate some of them.”
“Our time together truly was an experience,” says Cochran. “We learned a bit about the complexities of Israel but had the opportunity to witness first-hand the beauty of the land as well as the devotion of its inhabitants to making their country a success. I think many view this trip as a first and one that will be repeated. We grew as a group and individually as the week progressed and we had time to digest and internalize all we had learned and realized how much more we had to learn.”
“I left with some relationships and bonds that are pretty strong,” agrees Jacquelyn Feller.
“We might have left Israel, for now, but the places, the history, and most important, the people will stay in our hearts forever,” adds Eden.
For information on future multifaith WIC missions to Israel, contact Eden at [email protected]
Debe Campbell and her husband, Gil Alvidrez, participated in the Weintraub
Israel Center mission in October.