Seven local men spent a week in Israel on what one organizer called a “Birthright for the mature,” visiting tourist sites and getting in touch with their Jewish identities.
Although not affiliated with the international organization that sends young people on trips to Israel, the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project is planning its trips for men and women with similar goals in mind.
Cosponsored by Monmouth Torah Links of Morganville, the local contingent travelled as part of the inaugural men’s event planned by the Maryland-based JWRP. During the past five years, in partnership with 75 local groups like Torah Links, JWRP has helped send some 3,500 women on a total of 20 similar subsidized tours.
Although both organizations are Orthodox-oriented, the trips are open to Jews of all backgrounds.
“The activities ranged from very secular to deeply religious,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Oratz, codirector of Monmouth Torah Links.
Oratz dubbed the program a kind of “Birthright for the mature.” He noted that the JWRP mission is “to reawaken the passion and commitment that have been the legacy of the Jewish people for the last 4,000 years.”
During the Oct. 13-20 trip, the men linked up with groups from all over the country, as well as Canada and Costa Rica. Two buses conveyed the 90 men from the Lebanon border in the north to the Dead Sea and Masada in the south.
“After landing, the first thing we did was to put on tefillin and daven at Ben-Gurion Airport,” said Richard Belfer, 50, of Manalapan.
Belfer, owner of the White Rose Diner in Linden, said there was no push for making aliya or for any particular form of Jewish observance. “Two of my three children are adults and are shomer Shabbos, but that’s not something I’m aiming at right now,” he said. “There was no fuss about the tefillin at the airport, and no one had to do it if he didn’t want to. Rabbi Oratz merely explained it — as he did many other things on the trip — as something Jews do.”
Along the way, the men went to an Army base, visited a mikva in Tsefat, rode all-terrain vehicles through the Judean desert, climbed Masada, sampled vintages at an Israeli winery, interviewed members of Israel’s high-tech industry, and spent hours at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Ruth Baars, JWRP’s director of programs and leadership development, said when recruiting trip candidates, they look for “people who are genuinely interested and who have children under 18 living at home. We want to send people who will not only be inspired while they are there, but who have the potential to carry that inspiration into their families’ daily lives.”
Group member Bruce Bandler said his wife, Colette, had gone on a JWRP trip in 2011, and he was curious about her experience. The Bandlers of Morganville have four children, ranging in age from 10 to 21. For Bandler, 53, director of information technology for ADP, the men’s trip “started at a high level and kept building. Each day was better than the previous one.”
Noting that he now feels a “greater connection to my Jewish identity,” Ira Stein, a 51-year-old podiatrist who lives in Freehold, said one highlight of the trip was sharing Shabbat dinner with a local family.
Neil Seidman, 50, owner of Gold-N-Time Jewelers in Manalapan, had never been to Israel before. He praised the organizers for putting together a compatible group of interesting men, all of whom had a common goal: “to instill strong Jewish values in our children, and not just chicken soup values, but Torah values.”
Baars said that in 2014 Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs has agreed to provide matching funds to help JWRP double the number of trips and participants, and the organization will also become full partners with selected local Jewish federations, beginning in Washington, DC, and Cleveland. In the past, Baars explained, federations were involved only on a limited basis.
The bulk of JWRP funding comes from private donors, family foundations, Jewish philanthropists, and former JWRP travelers, said Baars. “The government connection will enable us to send over 2,000 people in 2014. We are very excited.”