More than 100 people from central New Jersey trekked, prayed, learned, and bonded during what Keith Krivitzky, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County, called the largest Jewish mission to Israel since the Israel-Gaza conflict this summer.
The Central Jersey Journey to Israel, Oct. 27 to Nov. 3, was a joint trip by the Monmouth federation and the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, which are anticipating a merger as early as Jan. 1.
The mission offered two tracks: the Highlights Tour for first-timers (or those who haven’t visited Israel in many years); and the Mavens’ Tour, tailored to insiders. Participants ranged in age from 40 to 85.
NJJN met up with the entire mission mid-way through their stay on the penthouse of the Dan Panorama Hotel in Jerusalem for a “Sheheheyanu” ceremony (a special-occasion blessing marking their arrival in the holy city). Participants lined up eagerly to share their experiences with NJJN.
“This land is a miracle, and we have had the privilege to share in that miracle,” said Marlene Herman of Edison, who chaired the mission’s Middlesex contingent. “We are living, breathing, and experiencing it together.”
Rabbi Lisa Malik of Temple Beth Ahm in Aberdeen led the Sheheheyanu overlooking the Old City. “Saying this blessing heightens our sense of awareness of the world around us and reminds us that God continues to make miracles here,” she said. “We want to leave you wanting more, and encourage you to return one day.”
The Jewish Federation of Ocean County also partnered on the mission.
During the trip, both tracks converged at sites supported by the federations, including Amigour Bat Yam, a project of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which subsidizes apartments for disadvantaged new immigrants and single-parent families. The mission included a stop in Arad/Tamar, the federations’ sister communities through JAFI’s Partnership 2Gether program.
Other highlights included a lecture by Alon Pinkas, foreign relations expert and former Israeli consul to New York; an update on Israel’s security situation by Lt. General (Ret) Miri Eisen; and a visit with a commando unit at Kerem Maharal training field in the Carmel region.
“We make sure our missions have outstanding, hands-on interaction. It’s a model that really works, plus we keep experimenting with offering various tracks and options for future trips,” said Krivitzky. “One of the most meaningful parts for me is the conversations we have with participants about what impacted them most about Israel, and how they can share that impact with others on their return to New Jersey.”
Monmouth chairs were Lauren Reich and JoAnn Abraham, both of Manalapan.
For Susan Antman, executive director of the Middlesex federation, visiting the sister city of Arad was particularly poignant.
“The last time I was here was 10 years ago with a Middlesex mission. Because of the passion and generosity of our community, we helped fund an ER, a school library, and after-school programs,” she said. “While we stood on top of a hill to dedicate a rose garden during this mission, I saw the playground we helped create 10 years ago. It’s wonderful to be part of this energy and growth.”
Monmouth federation president Sheryl Grutman, who has visited Israel 13 times, described this mission as the most adventurous. “We saw breathtaking views of the Golan Heights and took a jeep tour through the countryside. We went to an army base close to the Syrian border and watched soldiers practice anti-terrorist drills.”
Thirteen women from the mission participated in a bat mitzva ceremony in Jerusalem led by Malik. For participant Carol Siegel, 72, the ceremony and the mission marked many firsts for her.
“My parents never had the opportunity to go to Israel, so I am the first generation to visit here,” said Siegel, who recently moved from Little Silver to Florida. “At the bat mitzva, I read from the Torah, put my hands on the scroll, kissed the tallit, and led a prayer. I waited a long time to do these things, and it was very moving.”
For Joel Kreizman of Ocean Township, the mission helped provide insight into political issues he grapples with. “There are things that Israel does that displease me, just like there are things that displease me about America, but I am still very loyal to both. I decided that before I let my feelings get too advanced in any direction I ought to visit Israel. The speeches have been wonderful; the lecturers were very balanced and intellectual, which is important to me.”
From the moment she got off the plane, Janice Feldman of Bedminster said she felt a powerful spiritual bond. “The history, the scenery, and the passion of the Israeli people are overwhelming. I feel like everything that is unfolding on this trip has been predestined for me, and all I have to do is experience it.”