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On summer travels in Israel, Tucsonans delight in people, places, studies

(L-R): Garrett Fenton, Matt Landau, Sophia Yatsenko, Monica Montes, and Linnea Dawson in the Old City of Jerusalem at the Western Wall

This summer season marked the 18th anniversary of Birthright Israel, the program that brings Diaspora Jews, ages 18-26, on a free trip to Israel.

From May 24-June 4, Bus #1545 carried University of Arizona students along with participants from the University of Southern California, Arizona State University, and San Francisco University. Local Tucson travelers included Victor Brett, Sophia Streitfeld, and Lora Temyanko.

Katie Spector, past UA Hillel Foundation Israel engagement coordinator, helped chaperone the group. At an elementary school in Hof Ashkelon in Tucson’s Partnership2Gether region, she enjoyed watching the joy on the travelers’ faces as they interacted and had fun with the young children. Another fortuitous encounter took place after they left the Path to Peace Wall in Netiv Ha’asara. The group had the opportunity to see an Iron Dome installation up close, as a soldier on their Birthright trip was working with the air defense system. This put into perspective what Israeli citizens living close to Gaza experience in their everyday lives.

Temyanko, a UA sophomore majoring in biochemistry, summed up her impressions:

“When I signed up for this trip, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know anyone traveling with me, and had no idea what Israel would be like. The experience over the course of 10 days was incredible. I was welcomed into the Jewish culture with open arms. I can honestly say that Israel has become like a second home to me. The friendships forged on this trip will last a lifetime, having come away with an entirely new family. For all of the above, I am grateful.”

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“Clear Skies Over Jerusalem,” watercolor rendering by Maxx Velde of a photo of the Israeli soldiers on the JFSA/San Diego Birthright trip

From June 18-29, the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona joined the Jewish Federation of San Diego to fill a Birthright bus of college graduates and young professionals. Matt Landau,
JFSA’s director of leadership development, helped staff the trip. Tucsonans included Arianna Brodsky, Mariel Brodsky, Linnea Dawson (now of Portland, Oregon), Garrett Fenton, Monica Montes, Maxx Velde, and Sophia Yatsenko.

The group visited the usual first-time tourist sites. They were scheduled to go to Shaar HaNegev, San Diego’s Partnership sister community in Israel; however, plans were cancelled due to rockets from Gaza fired in the area. On June 27, 6,000 Birthright participants, plus 1,500 Israel Defense Forces soldiers, gathered at the 18th year Mega Event at Sultan’s Pool in Jerusalem for an evening of speeches and concerts.

Velde, a recent UA grad with a degree in graphic design and illustration, captured Israel in prose and art (see accompanying picture): “Israel is an absolutely beautiful country. From the beaches of Tel Aviv, to the Western Wall of Jerusalem, to our 4 a.m. hike up Masada, the sights were phenomenal. It wasn’t the nation alone that made this experience so wonderful, but rather the 52 individuals that, over the course of 10 short days, melded into one big family. We were given the opportunity to travel alongside spectacular Israeli soldiers. Learning more about the nation and its people through their eyes made this journey truly special. I can’t imagine this experience being nearly as special without them.”

. . . .

Rachel Davenpor

Rachel Davenport, a Sahuaro High School senior, attended Young Judaea’s Machon teen summer program. The adventure began with a two-day pre-trip to Tel Yehudah, the Zionist youth movement’s national teen leadership camp in Barryville, New York, before departing for four weeks in Israel. The group consisted of teens from across the United States, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, and Israel. According to Davenport, “This was a summer that made me question my Jewish identity more than ever, but in the best way possible. It was the most incredible summer of my life, learning not only about the Jewish culture, but also the culture of those who we share Israel with


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Danielle Schwartz (left) and Alannah Silverstein (of Florida) plant trees outside of Jerusalem.

Danielle Schwartz, a Tucson Hebrew Academy graduate, University High School senior and active BBYO member, spent June 18-Aug. 1 at Alexander Muss High School in Israel. In May, she received JFSA’s Rabbi Arthur R. Oleisky Outstanding Teen Recognition Award, plus the Beth Weintraub Schoenfeld Memorial Israel Experience Subsidy, both stipends toward her Israel travel. Having been to Israel as a THA eighth grader, she said, “I wanted to go back to Israel because there is no other place that, with my first step off the plane, I knew I was home.”

Arabic instructor Maha Yacoub (left) and pupil Ken Brandis in Jerusalem

One of the highlights of the six-week AMHSI program was visiting Masada. According to Schwartz, “we spent almost the entire day studying about and exploring the ruins. Near the end, we participated in a symbolic ritual where we screamed into the valley below – ‘Shenit Metzada lo tipol’ – meaning ‘Masada will never fall again.’ The saying is meant to signify that we (the Jewish people) will never let Israel fall to the enemy as Masada did in 73 C.E. Hearing the words echo back was extremely powerful and remains a moment that I’ll never forget.”

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Ken Brandis, now of Mesa, Arizona, spent June 3-July 21 in our homeland. The first four weeks, he lived on Kibbutz Mashabei Sade in the Negev Highland area, studying Modern Hebrew and kibbutz life. During this time, he visited with his daughter, Naomi Bineli, her husband, Guy, and their son, Nadav, of Chandler, Arizona, who were in Israel at the same time, spending three weeks with Guy’s family in Bat Yam. Guy was born in Georgia in the former Soviet Union but grew up Israel, serving in the IDF. Brandis connected with Ira Kerem, a former liaison in Israel for our Partnership2Gether region. He also met with Vered Otmy, a papier-mâché artist from Hof Ashkelon. In 2012, Otmy visited Tucson with other Israeli artists; she has a brother living on the kibbutz where Brandis was staying.

Brandis hiked and explored the surrounding area in the Negev, including viewing the Ashalim solar tower, the world’s largest at 750 feet, which provides about one percent of Israel’s electricity consumption. In June, from Kibbutz Magen in the northwestern part of the Negev near the border with the Gaza Strip, he witnessed fires in the fields caused by balloons sent from Gaza.

For the last two weeks of his sojourn, our traveler resided in Akko, taking a beginner course in Modern Standard Arabic from multi-lingual Palestinian Christian educator Maha Yacoub. Over one weekend, the Arabic class, composed of students from all over the globe, visited Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Dead Sea, Ein Gedi, and Jericho. Shalom and salaam.

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Ryan Green (right) with Carly Oseran, a recent UA graduate who was traveling on a Birthright trip. The two met by chance outside Shuk HaCarmel (the Carmel Market) in Tel Aviv.

Ryan Green is an ASU junior in Barrett, the Honors College, studying finance and business data analytics. From the last week in May until the first week in August, he was an intern through Onward Israel’s finance and economics program. This was the inaugural year of the program. He worked at BSS (Ben Simon Sussman) Capital, which helps pension and insurance funds invest their money in foreign firms. His responsibilities included due diligence on potential firms, creating client presentations, and making various spreadsheets for company use. Our intern lived in an apartment with other interns in Ramat Gan and enjoyed Tel Aviv life, as well as trips to Jerusalem and the Negev.

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The last time we wrote about Yochanan (“Nan”) Gibly was summer 2016, when he attended AMHSI.

This past summer, he traveled on a Birthright Free Spirit trip. In his words: “Birthright was the experience of a lifetime, making lifelong friends. Unlike the usual 10-day trips, on this 12-day journey, the group spent two Sabbaths with each other. Our itinerary was packed. We traveled to the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea, to the old city of David, built over 2,000 years ago, to the modern city of Tel Aviv. These experiences were intertwined with amazing stories about the different sites. We had the opportunity to interact with Israelis our age who serve in the military. These soldiers, who I am glad to be able to call my friends, spent five days with our group, and created such a wonderful experience for us by just being themselves and helping us realize what living in Israel was like.”

Yochanan Gibly (right) with fellow Birthright participants on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem

Gibly’s Birthright experience was followed by a one-month ulpan (Hebrew immersion program) at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has now started his sophomore year study abroad program through ASU at Hebrew University. Nan is excited to be able to live in the dorms and spend fall semester, six months there, not only learning but being a part of Israeli life.

During the 2016-17 school year, Gibly was the local winner of the “Better2Write” annual writing competition offered by the national Better Together program. He wrote about his experience in Tracing Roots & Building Trees, an intergenerational program that encourages meaningful relationships between Jewish teens and residents of Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging. Gibly used his scholarship award from the competition toward this semester’s tuition.

Time to share

It’s back to school, the High Holidays, and P.S. from September through May. Keep me posted about your human interest activities. I’m all ears — 319-1112. L’shalom.