UJFT Mission to Israel A journey of a lifetime in just eight days

by | Jul 14, 2014 | Other News

Seventeen members of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater Summer mission to Israel recently returned from an action-packed and highly emotional visit. The adventure began in Jerusalem, with a breathtaking panoramic view of the city atop of the Tower of David. Mission co-chairs Bonnie and David Brand and Jodi Klebanoff welcomed the group (which included several first-timers in Israel), and together we said Sheheheyanu and drank L’Chaim to the start of what promised to be a wondrous and meaningful journey.

Jerusalem held a number of highlights for the group, including tearful visits at Har Herzl (Israel’s national cemetery) and Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust Museum and Research Center). The group shared a beautiful Kabalat Shabbat with well-known Israeli performer Shuly Natan as the sun set on the walls of the Old City and exchanged hugs and greetings with friends and neighbors from Tidewater, who were in Israel with the Temple Israel mission.

Participant Maggie Erickson: My first glimpses of Jerusalem, visiting the Holocaust memorial and national military cemetery and then welcoming my first Shabbat in Israel with singing and visiting the Wall was my most emotional experience!

Participant Mona Flax: We began our venture to the Wall with a concert by Shuly Natan who sang the song she made popular in 1967, “Yerushalyim Shel Zahav”. I was like a groupie listening to her because after hearing that song when I was 12 years old, I began to learn and perform Israeli music throughout my high school years.

Placing our hands on the smooth stones of the Kotel, we connected in a very physical way to the generations of Jews before us and left our own mark for those who will follow.

Participant Mona Flax: I made my way through the throngs of women and found my place, alone, at The Wall. I placed my right hand on the cool stone. Next to me was a young Orthodox woman who was davening. This was all I heard. The sweet rhythmic repetition of her prayers lifted me to a place that cannot be described. I felt the tears on my cheeks and I wanted to stay forever. Finally, I turned and it was then that I noticed that the throngs of women were my sisters…praying, singing, dancing, glowing.

Participant Jeri Jo Halprin: I was like Alice in Wonderland ( Jeri Jo in Israel). Anyone who knows me also knows that I never had a desire to make the trip to Israel—I didn’t have “the connection.” Well, at the Kotel at the beginning of Shabbat, Jodi and I found our way to the Wall and I felt the electricity. Then the young girls brought us into their circle of song and dance and the rejoicing of Shabbat. Now I get it.

Shabbat dinner introduced the group to Dr. Ofer Merin, head of Emergency and Trauma at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem and chief of IDF Field hospitals. Ofer talked about his team of IDF medical professionals who come together at a moment’s notice to go wherever they are needed. His most recent assignments have taken him to the Syrian border to treat injured victims of Syria’s civil war.

Shabbat ended with text study and Havdalah with our friend and teacher Avraham Infeld. And the text that we studied came not from the Torah (at least not directly), but rather from the Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

The next few days had the group connecting with the land and people of Israel in the Galil and Golan Heights. Setting out from Jerusalem (leaving the excavation site of the City of David behind), we traveled thousands of years in just a few miles, to land on a high-tech airbase, where we met with ATIDIM graduates. From ATIDIM we went back in history to the time of Herod with a sunset visit to the ruins at Caesarea.

Participant Billy Halprin: Prior to visiting Israel, I did not appreciate the eminent danger the country faced each and every day. After viewing the checkpoints throughout Jerusalem and noticing the barrier fencing and realizing how close Israel is surrounded by countries that want to annihilate them, it became real and apparent. When we visited the air force base and listened to the young men who commanded the Blackhawk helicopters or listened to the head engineer at Raphael Industries who discussed the Iron Dome defense system, I got a real understanding of the life and death realities of what it takes to keep Israel safe each and every day. To me that was meaningful, surprising, overwhelming, special and memorable rolled up together. I’m a believer in the necessity to keep Israel safe as our homeland.

Our next visit catapulted us to the future of high tech medicine, which is being taught and researched at the Bar Ilan Medical School and Research Center in Tsfat. Speaking with the young researchers made us all hopeful that better treatments and cures for Jewish genetic diseases are within our grasp.

From Bar Ilan, we visited the JAFI Absorption Center in Tsfat, meeting with Micha Feldman and learning the history and challenges facing the Ethiopian Israel community. We visited the Center’s community garden and danced with the kids in the courtyard. That afternoon saw the group visiting seniors at a JDC supported Senior Center in Tsfat. We joined the seniors for a sing along and exercised with them in the gym. And we were struck by the notion that we are touching their lives through our Annual Campaign—providing services for seniors who might otherwise remain isolated.

Participant Maggie Erickson: What an enlightening experience hearing from Micha Feldman and then meeting and hearing the story of the Ethiopian young man and his walk to freedom.

Moving from the Golan to Kiryat Yam on the coast, our day began with a VIP tour of Rafael Industries—manufacturers of the Iron Dome Missile Defense System. Here we were impressed not only by Israeli ingenuity but also by Israeli humanity, as our host described the corporate culture at Rafael, which asks each of its employees to volunteer and give back in their community.

We then visited the Alex and Betty Schoenbaum Science, Educational, Cultural and Sports Campus—part of the ORT Campus in Kiryat Yam. Here we met the new mayor of Kiryat Yam and toured the campus.

The group then visited the JDC-run Center for Young Adults in Kiryat Yam. Thanks to the generous support of Tidewater donors Laura and Jerry Miller, the “CYA in KY,” as it’s known, brings together the Young Leadership of its community (professionals in various industries as well as students and those who’ve recently completed their army service) to brainstorm and plan for how to make and keep their community healthy and strong. Our group was most impressed by their desire to make Kiryat Yam a desirable place to work and live and to raise families together. Tidewater’s YAD is in the planning stages of a P-2-P program with the CYA in KY, and we hope that it is the beginning of a long and beneficial relationship.

Further down the coast we visited the Neve Michael Youth Village, where we planted a garden with the children. As our hostess Hava shared some of their stories, it was impossible not to feel a mix of anger and sadness for these children. But seeing their smiling faces, it was gratifying to know that our community— through its commitment to Neve Michael—offers these children the chance for a safe home and a productive future.

Participant Mona Flax: Neve Michael was an experience that has stayed with me. The way these at risk children are really given a chance in life is a model the United States Court System could and should learn. The selflessness of those working is immeasurable.

On our first morning in Tel Aviv we met Tzipi Zipper—a young American Israeli who became disabled after her military service. Zipper receives services and helps run the Tidewater-funded Center for Independent Living in Tel Aviv. She joined us for breakfast and to share her story with the group and to give us an update on the Center and the state of the disabled in Israel. From here, we visited Tel Aviv University to try and understand what makes Israel “the Start-Up Nation.” As we watched in wonder, a 3-D printer created the scaffold upon which would be built a synthetic heart patch—made to function like real heart tissue and utilizing electrical impulses and stem cells. Again, we gained a sense of hope that treatments and cures for our current illnesses were not too far away.

Harkening back to the beginning of the week and our text study with Avraham Infeld, we finished our mission in Tel Aviv, whose very name means “old” and “new,” at Israel’s Independence Hall, where we heard the (recorded) voice of David Ben Gurion declare a Jewish State, to be called “Israel,” followed by Israel’s national anthem HaTikva. And how fitting an end it was to this mission—filled with awe, remembrance, inspiration, meaning and hope.

Participant Eric Joffe: I thought that the group dynamic was great. I could not have improved on the group had I been able to pick the individuals myself. I enjoyed seeing Israel through the eyes of the first-timers. The mission was an opportunity to see the agencies that receive allocations from the UJFT—in effect seeing where our contributions are being used and I was not disappointed in this. Participant:

Joan Joffee: Even though I have visited Israel many times in the past, the Federation Mission 2014 was more meaningful than anytime before. The places we visited, the people we met and everything we learned on this trip evoked incredible emotions. We were overwhelmed by the way Israel takes care of their elderly, abused children and immigrants. We felt such pride for the medical research, military training, Iron Dome, Start Up Nation etc. It was so rewarding to see where our Campaign dollars go. My parents, German refugees, always taught me how important it is to have a State of Israel and to always give it the support it needs.

by Amy Zelenka