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JFSA interfaith trip took Tucsonans into Israeli homes, hearts

Graham Hoffman holds a challah for Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona interfaith mission participants celebrating their arrival in Jerusalem on Oct. 30. Photo courtesy Graham Hoffman

On a Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona interfaith mission Oct. 27-Nov. 5, dubbed “Connecting Cultures, Communities, and Hearts,” 28 participants got a taste of Israel’s diversity and complexity, coming away with a new appreciation for the nation’s challenges, but no easy answers.

Members of the group “were touched so deeply. They were affected for a variety of reasons, learning about the faiths and what’s sacred and what’s ordinary. I think that everyone’s lives were changed a little,” says Deborah Howard Jacob, a community volunteer who co-chaired the trip with her husband, pharmaceutical entrepreneur Jeff Jacob. Staff leaders were Jewish educator and author Amy Hirshberg Lederman and Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona CEO Graham Hoffman.

The trip “touched on so many of the faiths there: the Druze and the Bahai, Christian, and Muslim, and the Jewish faith, and how it’s all intertwined,” Jacob says.

One of the trip’s first sessions was with Times of Israel political analyst Haviv Rettig Gur, who “set the stage,” Jacobs says, by describing how the growing divide between Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews, particularly in North America, has its roots in their different origin stories.

Rettig Gur also covered Israeli politics, much on the minds of Israelis who were waiting to see if Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz would succeed at forming a government, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had failed to do after the country’s Sept. 17 election.

Jon Kasle, a communications executive at Raytheon who was visiting Israel for the third time, says many things were surprising on this mission, from the country’s growth in the 12 years since his last visit to the depth and range of cultures in evidence — “the everyday interaction with so many different types of people from around the world.” He was especially impressed by the number of millennials choosing to move to Israel.

But Kasle says the most memorable aspect of the trip was spending time with Israelis in their homes, which “increased our collective understanding of the opportunities and challenges that Israel is facing as a nation, and what it is like to live there now.”

“We had dinner in two different homes, one in Tucson’s partnership region (Kiryat Malachi/Hof Ashkelon), and one with educators at Pardes, the open yeshiva in Jerusalem, for Shabbat dinner in Jerusalem,” Hoffman says. “It was very powerful for the mission participants to be in essence welcomed into someone’s home as a stranger, afforded the opportunity to really sit and speak openly and ask questions and engage” in a way that may not happen on a more typical tourist trip.

Similar experiences included lunch in a Druze village and a meeting with an interfaith couple, Ora and Ihab Balha, a Jewish woman and a Palestinian Arab Muslim man, in Jaffa. “They shared with us the story of their meeting, falling in love, bringing both of their families along to a place of relative engagement with them,” Hoffman says. Ihab had been raised to hate Jews, but at age 20, meeting Jews for the first time, he and his Palestinian friends were drawn into dialogue, and he went on to become a peace activist. He and Ora started “The Orchard of Abraham’s Children,” which now has seven interfaith kindergartens so that their children could be educated in an atmosphere that integrates languages, cultures, and religions.

“The talk with them was fascinating and really meaningful for everyone,” Hoffman says, noting that there are websites about Ora and Ihab’s work, including a TEDx video of them performing Sufi whirling dervish dances.

Kasle cites the group’s visit to the Bialik-Rogozin School in South Tel Aviv, an economically underserved area, as an example of Israel’s diversity. “We saw hundreds of children from many different nations,” he says, including Sudan, Eritrea, and the Philippines, “who had migrated to Israel with their families in recent years, being provided a quality school environment.”

The school closes the opportunity gap for these students, enabling them “to matriculate into the right type of army service so that they’ll be set up career-wise for the future,” says Hoffman, adding that it was “incredibly powerful” to hear many first graders, the children of migrants and refugees, identify themselves as Israelis. Yet Hoffman notes that the school is not perfect in its handling of the challenges these populations present.

Bill Kelley, an executive at Diamond Ventures, Inc., was fascinated by the layers of history the trip revealed. As a real estate developer, he found the mechanics of the earliest construction in old Jerusalem, “back in the day when it was just chiseling rocks with manpower,” especially intriguing.

The rate of current development is “unbelievable,” he says. “I’ve never in my life seen so many cranes.”

An “army brat” who stayed connected to the military as a board member of the Davis-Monthan 50, a civilian support group for the Air Force base, Kelley was inspired by Israel’s mandatory military service for men and women, particularly after a Shabbat home hospitality dinner where he met a couple and their three daughters who were either currently in the Israel Defense Forces or already had served. The three young women spoke highly of the experience and how it will help them going forward in life.

As one of a number of Christians in the Tucson contingent, Kelley says it was “very emotional walking in the steps of Jesus” in Jerusalem and visiting the Sea of Galilee where Jesus preached. He recalls visiting a church near the sea when a group of kids from Norway came in and started to sing. “It was just lovely,” he says, echoing off the ceiling of the circular sanctuary.

Another once-in-a-lifetime experience was walking up the Masada trail with his wife, Jamie, skipping the tram that took the rest of the group to the top. “I was winded,” Kelley admits, but the historical perspective made the climb worth it.

Eighteen participants extended their trip with a three-day sojourn in Jordan, which included the Petra archaeological site; Wadi Rum, the valley where “Lawrence of Arabia” was filmed; and Wadi Musa, where it is said Moses struck water from a rock. “The Jordan piece was unique, being able to explore in nature” after the intensity of the Israel trip, Jacob says.

Lederman, who wrote about the mission in her Reflections column (“Israel is a nuanced, complicated country, as JFSA interfaith trip affirms,” AJP 11/22/19), stayed on a few more days to visit family in Israel. She spoke to the AJP from Jerusalem Nov. 12, the day hundreds of rockets were fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip after Israel killed an Islamic Jihad leader.

“It’s surreal,” she said. “We know that’s going on, and yet, people are just doing life.” Schools were closed, but people were going to restaurants and otherwise carrying on as normal.

Lederman says she learned from the group’s tour guide, a “soulful, highly educated” young woman, “that the newer generation of Israeli’s is so exhausted and so committed at the same time.”

“They don’t want to have to work so hard at creating an image for the rest of the world. They just want to live,” she says.

Both Israelis and Palestinians the mission participants met, she says, “see the conflict more as a conflict between the governments, not the people.”

“We talked to people who were born into the struggle … and they didn’t ask for it.” she says. “They’re now several generations into it and how they view it is different from the generations that came before.  I think that was very eye-opening for all of us.”

Despite so much that would seem to drain Israelis, Lederman adds, “There is such a thriving, vibrant, electric, energetic society. There’s so much building going on, so much cultural development, so many start-ups, ideas that are becoming industries.”

The group visited a border crossing near Bethlehem with Blue and White Human Rights, a part of the Institute for Zionist Strategies. Blue and White was created as a Zionistic ideal, to enable individuals to support Palestinian rights and dignity and strengthen Israel as a just and worthy society.  Together with Blue and White, the group walked through each of the stages of the security screening Palestinians must cross each day to enter Israel from the West Bank for work. Blue and White has worked with Israeli border police and others to reduce the wait for Palestinian workers coming into Israel from hours to about seven to 15 minutes, Hoffman says.

They also met with a group called Shorashim (Roots), which brings together Palestinians living in the West Bank and Jewish settlers to try to build a framework for mutual understanding and cooperation, Hoffman says. He is keenly aware that when you sit on the beach in Tel Aviv, or in a Jerusalem café, enjoying the safety and freedom Israel affords its people, “as a part of the existence of this thriving first-world democracy, on some level we must also remember the compromised rights and quality of life in the West Bank and Gaza.”

“You have to constantly grapple with the fact that these things are paradoxes that are increasingly problematic and difficult,” Hoffman says. “And yet you can’t expect any Israeli mother to accept sending her children to a kindergarten under the threat of rocket attack.”