Visiting 21 sites in six days and holding dozens of conversations is a lot of activities crammed into a less-than-week-long visit to Israel.
But for organizers of the Seymour Epstein Leadership Development Mission, the intense nature of the trip is essential in training young leaders to become the foundation of the Greater MetroWest Jewish community.
The trip, which ran Feb 1-8, was the first in a month-long series of Israel missions coordinated by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ (see separate story). The 12 participants visited familiar locations in Israel but also took part in activities that included visits to archaeological sites and the herding of farm animals.
“It wasn’t hiking to Masada or swimming in the Dead Sea,” said mission chair Jonathan Liss, a West Orange attorney, past president of the federation’s Young Leadership Division, and current chair of its Budget and Finance Committee. “What was unique about it were experiences you just don’t have as a tourist, like meeting with real Israelis, not just tour guides.”
The late Seymour Epstein, whose family and friends helped subsidize the mission, was a Morristown department store owner. He was the first president of United Jewish Federation of Morris and Sussex Counties from 1973 to 1975.
Participants are chosen by a committee from among young active members of the GMW federation. This was the fourth such mission, and Epstein’s widow, Sally, has gone on all of them.
Members of this year’s contingent of Epstein fellows “were outstanding individually and as a group in their willingness to fully participate in a vigorous and stimulating program,” said Sanford Hollander, a friend of Epstein’s from Newton, who, together with his wife, Roz, joined the young leaders on the mission.
“The Greater MetroWest community and the Jewish people will benefit by their future leadership,” said Hollander, who shared his reflections with the group as they traveled in Jerusalem.
The mission stops began in Tel Aviv with a meeting at BINA, an organization working to strengthen Israel as a democratic and pluralistic society. The next day, participants explored ancient history with a visit to Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Landscape Reserve, where they herded flocks of sheep and goats.
“It was fun, but there was a leadership lesson there,” said Liss. “You had to work as a team, because one person cannot move them. We had to work as a group to make the animals go where we wanted them to go, and they did.”
Then it was on to Ramat Eliyahu in Rishon Letzion, which partners with the Greater MetroWest federation. They visited the Feinberg Family Development Center, a project financed in part by the federation, which includes therapy rooms and operates programs for children with special needs.
Mission members also met with some of the 800 families in the city’s Ethiopian community, who take part in vocational training, family management skills, and education programs through the “Atzmaut” (Independence) program.
“Because we do so much in Israel and we were not there for a very long time, we had to see a bunch of people and things we raise money for that the federation funds. One of the main focuses was not only seeing the programs we fund but meeting individuals one-on-one and seeing the breadth of the programs that we do,” Liss explained.
Other parts of the itinerary included a bike ride in the Partnership2Gether Negev community of Ofakim, and a visit to the Bedouin village of Lakiya, where they explored issues of Bedouin employment and education. The federation is among the 100 member organizations of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, which aims to raise awareness about civic equality issues related to Israel’s Arab citizens. The GMW federation’s Israel Center recently formed an Arab Israeli Committee to relate to these issues.
In an e-mail to NJJN, Epstein said that “the highlight of our education was the visit to the Bedouin village of Lakiya to explore issues of education and employment specifically for girls and women.
“We spoke with women who are Israeli Arab citizens and who are struggling to bring education and opportunities for work to the girls and women of the community. I felt the excitement and sense of empowerment in these women,” she wrote.
Epstein also noted how life was “as normal as possible” in Kibbutz Erez, the community near the Gaza border that the Greater MetroWest federation has helped with projects to improve its security.
Mission members also met with participants in the NATIV program for immigrant soldiers and crossed the Green Line to visit Gush Etzion, a large settlement complex on the West Bank and another partner of the federation. “We didn’t get into a discussion about the settlements,” said Liss. “We went there only to see Herodion, the structure that King Herod built as a palace and a fortress.”
Wherever they visited, the travelers spoke with a broad spectrum of Israelis.
“We talked to them about their thoughts about Iran and the PLO and whether we are being effective and thinking about the right issues,” Liss said. “Iran and the PLO are not the front-burner issues right now. The people we met are more concerned about internal issues like income inequality and relations between the ultra-Orthodox and the secular. They are not freaked out about Iran. They accept it as something that has to be dealt with, but it is not something they are living every day.”
“Surprisingly there was not a lot of negativity” toward the peace efforts being made by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, said Liss.
“They think Obama and Kerry may be a little naive, but they also think their hearts are in the right place. They don’t see [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu as their best leader, but they are not ready to throw him out.”