As their 10-day tour of Israel began to wind down, 75 members of the Monmouth and Middlesex Jewish federation communities gathered in the desert city of Arad to see firsthand the impact of their efforts on their partnership community.
On the 50th anniversary of Arad’s founding, the visitors planted rows of eucalyptus and pine trees, leaving their mark on the Negev town just as Israel has left a lasting impression on their lives, many said.
More than half of the mission participants, who ranged in age from 30 to 85, were first-time visitors to Israel. A diverse cross-section was exactly what Jewish Federation of Monmouth County executive director Keith Krivitzky had in mind when he and mission chair Lauren Reich of Manalapan began planning the trip.
Modeled as a sort of Birthright Israel trip for adults, the mission included Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and unaffiliated Jews, mostly from Marlboro, Manalapan, Middletown, and Ocean Township. Seven mission members represented the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County. The trip, held Oct. 29-Nov. 6, left New Jersey a day before Hurricane Sandy hit the state.
NJJN’s Israel correspondent joined the group for a day trip to Arad on Nov. 4. “Our goal was to give people a window into Israel and an array of experiences that go beyond typical touristy experiences,” Krivitzky said as their tour buses weaved through desert cliffs. “We wanted to leave them more knowledgeable, yet hungry for more.”
The mission was “one of the best experiences of my life,” said Reich. “It exceeded our expectations in terms of how inspired and connected this diverse group of people became.” Elana Herskowitz, the Monmouth federation’s development director, also helped staff the trip.
For Cheryl Markbreiter of Ocean Township, secretary of the Monmouth federation’s executive board, seeing Israel for the third time was even more stimulating while witnessing it through the eyes of first-timers. “There were many moments where people were moved to tears. It’s amazing how everyone is sharing their emotions,” she said. “Many of them had no idea federation dollars help support important projects in Israel. People are coming up to me and asking how they can get involved back home.”
Rabbi Lisa Malik of Temple Beth Ahm in Aberdeen was joined on the mission by 14 of her congregants and their family members. When the group arrived in Jerusalem for Shabbat, Malik led a Sheheheyanu, or thanksgiving, ceremony from Mount Scopus, which many described as the most moving experience of the mission.
“I wanted to personally see Israel through the eyes of our community members, in the same way I share other smahot with them,” Malik said. “It’s been very eye-opening for them and for me.”
For first-time visitor to Israel 85-year-old Daniel Gallop of Eatontown, the country was filled with snapshot moments. Highlights included a traditional lunch in a Bedouin tent, and riding shotgun on a camel with Malik.
As the camel bucked forward through the Negev sand, Gallop gripped the saddle, alternating between giggles and gasps. “There have been many times on this trip that I wish my mother could have been with me,” he said. “This is one of them.”
For Dena and Rick Price of Marlboro, the mission gave them a chance to see Israel for the first time while also spending quality time with their son, Ian, who moved there in 2011 to enlist as a “lone soldier” in the Israel Defense Forces. Ian, 24, joined his parents as often as he could during the mission. “It’s like dayenu,” his mother told NJJN. “If all we got was to see him, it would have been enough.”
Ian first got hooked on the country during a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip at age 19. A month after completing his degree at Rutgers, he made aliya. He joined the Nahal Brigade combat unit, extending his service from the required six months for olim to three years. “I felt uncomfortable receiving new immigrant benefits without contributing to the country just like regular Israelis do,” he said.
The trip brought back a flood of memories for Elliott Brown of Marlboro. Brown made aliya in 1982 and spent the first five months in Arad with the World Union of Jewish Students program. After three-and-a-half years in Israel, he returned to the States to practice law. “My motivation was to get back to Israel to visit. I never intended for 20 years to have passed,” said Brown, who was joined on the trip by his father, Alvin, from Boca Raton, Fla.
Arad has virtually been transformed since his student days there, thanks in part to the support from the cluster of NJ and Delaware federations that is channeled to the desert city through the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership 2Gether program.
But Brown’s ties there remain. When the mission arrived in Arad, he made a few inquiries about an old friend who ran the local tennis center. Arad’s Jewish Agency staff located the friend by phone, and the former tennis pals reunited in person before the tour bus headed back to Jerusalem.
In Arad, participants also had the opportunity to meet a group of young Israelis who will be hosted by the Monmouth Jewish community in the spring through the Gesher teen exchange program. Beth Ahm will be one of the hosts, Malik said.
“The purpose of having a partnership with a sister city is to create tangible relationships so that Israel is more than just a concept to Americans,” said Monmouth federation president Joe Hollander, who was joined on the trip by his parents, Roz and Sandy. “This trip is just a small period of time. It’s the personal relationships that happen as a result of the mission that will carry on.”
During the mission, the group also visited a Jewish Agency Amigour project in Bat Yam. Amigour provides apartments at nominal costs for thousands of disadvantaged people. They also visited Net@Netanya, a Jewish Agency program that trains disadvantaged youth in computer technology. The itinerary also included a visit to an American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee project called Maavarim, which helps Israelis in the rural Negev and Galilee develop marketable skills as agriculture work has become less viable.
Lewis Wetstein of Interlaken, who was on the mission with his wife, Nancy, said he is committed to Israel because his father was. “This whole trip is meaningful for me. I’d like to see the same kind of commitment in my children, and to know that when I die, my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be connected to their Jewish identities,” he said.
For Myrna Fox of Manalapan, the mission helped her realize a lifelong dream to visit Israel. “Not knowing the language or the lay of the land, I wasn’t able to go by myself,” she said. “This trip turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.” Being in Israel, she said, made her feel that she was “among family.”
The mission marked the 22nd trip, give or take a few, to Israel for Monmouth federation board member Bob St. Lifer of Colts Neck. “No matter how many times you come here you still get a special feeling,” he said. “When you visit Israel, it’s like coming home. And I like to go home — lots and lots of times.”