Mission returns from Israel with new appreciation for the work of Federation and partners

by | May 4, 2023 | Trending News

A small but mighty group of Federation donors participated in the 2023 UJFT Community Mission to Israel, February 28 through March 9.  During the week-long journey, they wandered through history, culture, and time. . .  soaking in all there was to see, hear, taste, feel.

This is the second installment of the story of their trip. The first installment appeared in the April 3 issue of Jewish News.


Sunday morning saw our group depart Jerusalem, with our first stop at the Gush Etzion Heritage Center, nestled in the Judean Hills, some 15 minutes south of Jerusalem. Gush Etzion is a group of Israeli settlements whose history goes back to the 1920s. One of these settlements is Kibbutz Kfar Etzion. A heritage center and museum that chronicle the area’s history and especially the bloody battles waged on Gush Etzion and its supply lines by the Arab legion in 1948. After the final battle, during which most of the kibbutz’s male defenders were killed, the area remained empty of Jews until after the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel recaptured the area. Next to the museum is a memorial garden with a Lone Oak Tree. The garden is dedicated to the defenders of the kibbutz and an archive that compiles findings and documents having to do with Gush Etzion. Inside, a multi-media exhibit describes the Jewish settlement project in the region from the 1920s to present day.

From greater Jerusalem, our bus turned north, and we headed to Neve Michael, one of our Federation’s beneficiary organizations in Israel. Neve Michael is a residential home for children at-risk – a warm and caring environment for more than 300 children aged three to 18 who are not able to stay with their biological families. The children come from all over Israel. They are victims of neglect and physical and sexual abuse. Many have witnessed acts of violence. All of the children are raised in family units by a married couple with their own children, creating a loving family atmosphere, and modelling a healthy family environment for children who may never have known one before. The on-premises elementary school, run under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, allows local and Neve Michael children to study together. We were met upon arrival by our long-time friend Have Levene. She led us on a tour of the campus, starting with the cafeteria, where the kids were up to their elbows in glue and streamers and various arts and crafts – preparing for their Purim Carnival. We walked through the school – also decked out for the holiday – and visited the gift room –filled with toys, games, and other gifts that every and any child would love to receive. For many of these kids, it is the first time they are given a birthday gift, or a prize for achieving. We marveled at the way the merchandise in this “store” room was displayed – allowing the gift recipients to select their own prize with great dignity and meaning.

From Neve Michael, we continued north to our destination of Kibbutz Kfar Blum in the Upper Galilee, founded in 1943 by the Labor Zionist Habonim youth movement. We checked in at the Kibbutz’s hotel and settled in for a pre-dinner cocktail and discussion about what we had seen, felt, and experienced so far. With temperatures in the low 70’s it was not the “bonfire weather” we had anticipated, but we enjoyed receiving our “Mission Blankies” anyway. Our rooms were in a quiet building set within a beautiful park-like landscape – creating the perfect environment for a good night’s sleep. And we needed it! Busy day to follow!


Monday morning (early!) we met with Brigadier General Ilan Lavi (IDF retired) for a group briefing on the geopolitics of the region. It was a fascinating presentation on the challenges facing the IDF to secure Israel’s borders (eliminate terror tunnels, surveil activities on the borders with Lebanon and Syria, etc.). General Lavi spoke of the close tactical relationship between the US armed forces and those of the IDF, and the mutual benefit that each receives from joint training exercises and shared techniques and technologies.

He also spoke about the complex problem of IDF bombings and collateral damages. Lebanon, he explained, is a failed economy with rampant poverty. Many families do not have access to their money (if they even have funds saved in their bank accounts) to meet their most basic needs. If approached by someone offering a few hundred dollars to store some crates in their basement, they face a dilemma: Take the money and feed the family? Or don’t take the money and watch your neighbors eat. Those who take the money and store the unknown products unwittingly (or having decided that it was worth the risk) make themselves a target for an IDF rocket, seeking to eliminate a weapons cache. This is collateral (civilian) damage – very different from the way that the Russians are currently targeting civilian buildings and infrastructure to effect as much damage and loss of life as possible in their own campaign against Ukraine. It’s easy to conflate the loss of human life by an armed force, but incredibly important to be able to distinguish the true motives and complex circumstances surrounding it.

Following this heavy conversation, our group needed a stretch and some fresh air, so we headed off to the Tel Dan Nature Reserve (one of Israel’s National Parks) to walk the trails and learn about the history of the region and the important water sources of Israel. The Park was created in 1969 to preserve the area (which contains the source of the River Dan) in the face of growing Israeli water demands. Rain falling and snow caps melting on Mount Hermon are the original source of the springs. The water mixes with the mountain’s limestone rock and creates carbolic acid which melts the lime. Water trickles though the resulting crevices into the ground. When it can descend no further it flows on a level called the aquifer until it finds a spot where it can break out of the rock. Tel Dan is also famous for its impressive archaeological digs, which cover two main periods: the time when it was a Canaanite city named Laish, about 4,000 years ago, and the era when it was inhabited by descendants of the tribe of Dan and given a new name. Enroute to the park’s exit, we stopped at the Tel Dan Canaanite Arched Gate, which has been described as an architectural “rough draft” of the form perfected some 1,500 years later by the Romans. The mud-brick gate was constructed in the second millennium B.C. as a defense for the Canaanite city of Laish. It was a truly impressive site to behold and left us in no doubt of its archaeological significance.

Having communed with nature and history, back on the bus we got. Yalla! – Cheerfully met by our mission driver, William, we headed to our next stop – a JDC site visit at Kibbutz Yiftach, near the Lebanese border and Kiryat Shmona. There we met up with our friend Barbara Dudley (whose family make their home on the Kibbutz) as well as our JDC professionals and one of the Kibbutz farmers engaged in a JDC program known as Digi-Basta. The program provides training to vulnerable small produce farmers – helping them shift their business models to adopt direct-to-consumer marketing and modern working methods. These strategies can help them weather the threats of a challenging economy and decline in local agriculture. Through a three-month course, farmers learn entrepreneurship and business skills, proactive sales models, digital marketing, and much more –the tools and skills needed to shift to a 21st century business model.

From bus to tractor we went – heading out to the fields of the kibbutz to admire the flowering orchards of pear trees, fields of vegetables, and even various wheats and grains grown on the farm. We sat in the middle of the fields and learned about the challenges facing small farmers in Israel and their hopes for a more lucrative crop future (including the possibility of growing vanilla beans – currently only farmed in Madagascar, Mexico, and Tahiti). We were treated to farm grown samples of salads and fresh baked sour dough bread before heading off to our next adventure.

It was inspiring to hear from the young farmer and kibbutzniks about their hopes and dreams, and it made us truly appreciate that their love for the land of Israel was deep and visceral and rooted in the soil (literally), and that whatever they can do to make the land flourish, they will do. Living in the periphery has its challenges, but each of them seemed willing and happy to face them.

In typical Mission fashion, we arrived at our next meal still full from the last. But who can be in wine country and not visit a winery? In the heart of the Upper Galilee, along the slopes of Admon Mountain, is an inspiring family winery that has raised the standard of Israeli wine to a new level. Adir Winery produces award-winning wines which reflect the ideal conditions in which their grapes are grown and harvested. They are a “gift of nature, grown from the love of the earth, nurtured by the warm Mediterranean sun and produced with the utmost care and commitment to uncompromising quality.”

From Adir we headed to Tsfat, to visit the synagogues there, learn the history of each, and enjoy a bit of shopping in the artist colony. But we could not tour or shop for long, as Purim was approaching, and we had masks to don and groggers to prime! The spirit of Purim was thick in the air as we walked the narrow, cobbled streets of Tsfat and up and down its many (did I say many? I mean a lot of…) steps, making our way to the Megillah reading at the “Chabad by the Galleries” service. Surrounded by new friends and adorable children in Purim costume, we enjoyed a very fast reading of the Purim story with lots of raucous stomping and noisemaking whenever the name of Haman was mentioned. We laughed and laughed each time to a certain noisemaking rubber pig let out a particularly notable snort!

Exhausted from once again winning the battle over evil, and with a light rain beginning to fall, we made our way back to the bus, took off our masks, and wended our way back to the hotel for dinner and a well-earned sleep. Another busy day tomorrow! Purim Sameach and Lila Tov!

In case you missed the first installment of the 2023 UJFT Community Mission to Israel, go to JewishNewsVa.org and search Community Mission.

-Amy Zelenka