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

by | Mar 30, 2023 | Trending News

A small but mighty group of Federation donors recently returned from a magnificent week-long journey through time and space to ancient and modern Israel.

From Feb. 28 to March 9, participants of the 2023 UJFT Community Mission to Israel wandered
through history, culture, spirituality, and time…soaking in all there was to see, hear, taste, feel and do.
This is the first installment of the story of their trip.


It was an interesting time to be in Israel. With protest marches and blaring headlines decrying the proposals of the newest coalition government…it was often difficult to distinguish between fact and opinion. But what was completely clear to the group, with zero ambiguity, was the fact that the dollars we raise through the Federation’s annual campaign are hard at work, improving lives and changing futures.

Four days in Jerusalem. Sounds like it would be plenty, right? Four days did not begin to scratch the surface of the history, spirituality, and modern-day miracles taking place on each of those days and all others as well. The mission started with an incredible visit to an “Inclusive Community” program, run by our overseas partner, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (or JDC, as we know it).

Under a beautiful berry tree in the Beit Hakarem neighborhood of Jerusalem, we had the chance to meet several senior adults who are activists in their community. We heard their personal stories: how they came to be in Israel (from places like Italy, Australia, South Africa, and elsewhere around the globe); and how volunteering and being involved in their Inclusive Community has enhanced their quality of life. They shared stories about the isolation they felt especially during the early days of COVID, when Israel was on lock-down. One woman shared the story of how she had fallen in her apartment and wasn’t found for days, because no one was out to notice her absence. This made the Inclusive Community not just socially rewarding, but in some cases, lifesaving. And today it remains a lifeline for seniors living alone and gives those involved an elevated sense of purpose.

The Inclusive Communities model, which is being piloted in 36 locations throughout Israel, is a robust support network for vulnerable older adults, increasing their social involvement, resilience, security, and health. Inclusive Communities create a platform for greater integration of older adults in the community, fostering a sense of social solidarity, raising awareness about the needs of older adults in designated neighborhoods, and creating a supportive community network comprised of friends, neighbors, and community members. It increases the impact of local elder care services by bolstering the neighborhood’s connection with local social services overseeing programming for older adults and creating solutions for older adults at risk. Together, these seniors engage in a variety of activities, including yoga, wellness, cooking classes, Italian language classes, dancing, and current events—not so very different from some of our own Tidewater adult activities at the Simon Family JCC.

Day one also found our group at JDC Headquarters for a rare glimpse inside the fascinating JDC archives housed there. Our friend Zvi Feine (now retired after a lifetime of service with JDC) joined the group and added great depth to the stories shared by the JDC archivist. Among the fascinating objects the archivist shared with us were old menus which were designed to teach parents how to feed their children nutritious, well-balanced meals. It taught what to make and how to prepare it. Even today, in JDC parenting classes, similar materials are distributed to new parents.

During a comprehensive briefing on the state of Israel’s newest immigrants from Ukraine and the status of those remaining in Ukraine inside the war zone, it was impressive to see the JDC budget for various areas of service and how it’s changed since the Russian invasion. And it was inspiring to learn about the courageous JDC professionals and volunteers on the ground who continue their lifesaving work, even while putting their own lives at risk, to ensure the health and well-being of their clients.

We enjoyed our tour of the facility, which included a peak at the Miller Garden and lunch in the Sandler/Weitzman Cafeteria.

Our next stop in Jerusalem took us to the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI—supported Megameria Professional Training Program for new Israelis.) Housed with the world-renown Yvel Design Center, this program teaches Ethiopian immigrants a set of skills to achieve financial independence as jewelry designers and artisans. Established in 2010, the program offers a year-long course, after which graduates begin working at Yvel or other jewelry brands. The visit began with a slide show framing the work of the Jewish Agency—historic and contemporary. It also introduced us to a couple of the Megameria graduates who spoke about their own journeys from Ethiopia to Israel and the opportunity that the school provided. The visit was capped off with a tour through the design center, where the group watched (through glass windows) Yvel artisans at work, creating what would end up as pieces from the Megameria collection, as well as those sold under the high-end Yvel label.

We then moved to an archeological and historic site—at Ir David, the City of David. From the excavations to the sweeping vistas on the exterior of the structure, the group learned about the unique aspects of archaeology in Israel and how specialists seek to tie the artifacts they uncover with the Biblical stories we reed in the Tanakh. We also learned that many, many new building projects around the country end up as archaeological sites (much to the chagrin of their developers!).

Later, our Welcome Dinner took place in a small Algerian restaurant in the heart of the Machane Yehuda Market. The intimate meal allowed us to get to know one another better as a group.


Day two of the mission continued with partner visits, as we heard from Dr. Moshe Leiba of ORT. Leiba is the chief pedagogical and R&D officer of World ORT Kadima Mada. In this capacity, Leiba is responsible for all ORT educational activity in Israel, including 12 excellence centers located throughout the country. Catering to more than 5,000 children, these programs integrate experiential learning in diverse curricular and extracurricular activities in the STEAM field. Leiba shared some startling statistics about the state of education in Israel and the gaps between students in the larger cities and those living in the periphery of Israel. He spoke of the need to bridge those gaps with enrichment programs (including several that are funded by our annual campaign) in order for these kids to have a shot at good postings in the IDF, which lead to college admissions and skilled high tech and other jobs in Israeli society. This, he assured us, was the key to breaking the cycles of poverty which exist in the periphery.

This led to many discussions among mission participants about balancing the way we meet immediate needs (Ukraine and other emergency situations excluded) versus investing in long-term solutions, which can literally change the face of Israel’s future economy and society.

In advance of our visit to Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust Museum), the group met with Holocaust Educator Dr. Rachel Korazim. A freelance Jewish education consultant specializing in curriculum development for Israel and Holocaust education, Korazim was born in Israel, of Hungarian descent. She graduated from Haifa University with an award-winning MA thesis on Holocaust Literature and a doctorate in Jewish education.

Korazim, through an interactive dialogue with the group, provided a unique lens through which to view and experience our visit…reminding us to bear in mind the question of: Why? Why did the Holocaust happen? In the early days of the State of Israel, there were two prevailing schools of thought: one suggested that the Holocaust happened because of Zionism; and the other that the Holocaust occurred because there was no Jewish state. Two ends of an ideologic spectrum, with lots of ideas in between.… And still, today…there is no definitive answer to this question.

Korazim spoke of the “new” Yad Vashem (in contrast to the original museum which had stood for decades) and the need for a new narrative. The original museum had been built on old ideas of shame and victimhood. Even its architecture was dark and depressing. But as the children of survivors grew into adulthood and developed their own ideas about the Holocaust, they determined that the old narrative was inaccurate and unfair and that it needed to change. Hence the new museum with a new way of looking at the Holocaust. And to emerge from the museum to a sweeping vista of the Judean hills was to emerge from a terrible, dark period—into a bastion of light and hope—Tikvah.

Yad Vashem is located on Har Herzl (also known as Har Hazikaron—the Mountain of Remembrance), next to Israel’s national military cemetery. This was by design and illustrates all that the Jewish People suffered to gain a Jewish state and all the sacrifices made (to this day) to ensure that the Jewish state is kept safe and secure. Within the cemetery are several memorials, including a “Memorial for the Last of Kin”—the last members of Holocaust survivor families who died fighting in the IDF. The connections here are unbreakable, as illustrated by the ceremonies which take place on Har Herzl each year—Yom Hashoah at Yad Vashem, Yom Hazikaron, and Yom Ha’atzmaut at Herzl Plaza.

By now, it’s Friday afternoon and time for a trip to the Machane Yehuda Market, where we elbow our way into an iconic restaurant—Azura—for bowls of Kubbe and various other Kurdish and Iraqi delights. After a quick trip for fresh Rugelach at the famous Marzipan in the market, the group returned to the hotel to get ready for Shabbat. Shabbat at the Kotel is like Shabbat no where else on earth. Thousands of Jews from around the globe converge on the smooth cobbled stones of the plaza and make their way down to the Wall to touch the sun-warmed stones and connect with over 5,000 years of Jewish history. Squeezing a note into a crevasse and praying for the well-being of a loved one or friend, one feels a particular spiritual connection.

But even more, when standing together at the South Wall before the start of Shabbat, welcoming the Sabbath Queen (Leha Dodi!) and expressing our love for Jerusalem…it would be nearly impossible NOT to feel close to the people you’re with! And we had the added joy of celebrating two very special birthdays that erev Shabbat at the Kotel.


On the face of it…with everything seemingly closed…Shabbat in Jerusalem would seem to offer very little in the way of program options. Wrong! Our brilliant guide, Zalman Spivak, took us on a wonderful walking tour of the Old City (the Christian and Armenian Quarters) and introduced us to a number of fascinating merchants within. We met Eli whose family photo shop had been housed in the Armenian Quarter since 1947 and whose family had documented the city and its changes throughout the years. His stories were engaging, bringing history to life through black and white photo images! We also met Razouk Tattoo whose family had owned and operated a tattoo parlor in the Christian Quarter. He showed us his books of tattoo images (mostly Christian themed, of course) and spoke of their meaning to those who wore them, especially Christian pilgrims who brought them home as souvenirs of their time in the Holy Land. And we met Bilal Abu Khalaf Tattoo whose family has been in the specialty fabrics business since 1936. and has provided materials for kings and Popes! Truly authentic stories of the Old City of Jerusalem that had it not been for Shabbat, we may never have heard.

The rest of Shabbat was free for individual and smaller group pursuits.We came back together just prior to Havdalah to meet and hear from Micha Feldman, who has worked for the Jewish Agency and other immigration and absorption organizations since 1970. Since 1982, he’s devoted his life to bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel and helping them adjust to Israeli society. Prior to “Operation Solomon”—a massive airlift of Ethiopian Jews—Feldman headed the Jewish Agency mission to Ethiopia as well as the Israeli consul there. He was a chief architect of the airlift which brought 14,310 besieged Jews out of Addis Ababa and into Israel, over the course of a single weekend. Micha speaks fluent Amharic and knows nearly every Ethiopian family in Israel. He is known in the Ethiopian-Israeli community as “Abba Micha.” He shared with us the story of the Ethiopian immigrants—their triumphs and their challenges (which continue to this day). He also gave us a first-hand account of the difficult task of bringing the Ethiopians to Israel and how those challenges continue even until this day. Feldman join us for a beautiful poolside Havdalah service which said farewell to Shabbat and separated it from the rest of the week. Shavua Tov.

 –Amy Zelenka