Carrie and Jonathan Jaffe couldn’t help but marvel at the bond between the Israeli and American Jewish communities. They had just left Arad, where they met children from the Jewish Agency for Israel’s (JAFI) Youth Futures program for at-risk children, having taken part in a beautification project for the Halamish elementary school.
“It was absolutely incredible to see the tangible evidence of the give-and-take dynamic between Israel and federation,” Carrie, a Scotch Plains resident, said. “Most significantly, I realize how very much we need each other. Obviously, federation supplies Israel with much needed resources, but our endeavors succeed only because the residents on the ground in Israel are there to do the heavy lifting — the day-to-day work that makes the deserts bloom and the cities thrive.”
The Jaffes were two of 475 participants in federation’s commUNITY mission to Israel from Oct. 14-22; travelers ranged in age from 35 to 91.
“This mission was designed to instill pride in klal Yisrael [Jewish people] and in Eretz Yisrael [land of Israel],” said Amy Wagner Biloon, federation’s chief community engagement officer. “I think our goal was to create a deeper connection, and I think the people on the mission got a deeper connection to our federation and how our dollars have had an impact.”
She added, “Someone shared with us that he never was a Zionist before coming on the mission, but now he is. There was something about being in Israel with this large group and going through this shared experience that was really life-changing.”
As first-time visitors to the Jewish state, the Jaffes decided to attend even though it meant they would have to fly to Israel the day after their son’s bar mitzvah at Congregation B’nai Israel in Scotch Plains. “The timing wasn’t exactly ideal, but we realized it was too amazing a trip that could never be replicated and it would have truly been a missed opportunity,” Carrie said.
Until the trip, Jaffe said she had “put my pinky toe” into being active with federation, but the mission opened her eyes to “how much good is being done by people who donate their time, money, and resources.”
She witnessed the commitment from Israelis, as well.
“Having Israel survive, thrive, and flourish has to be paramount,” she said. “Now I have to go back and figure out what I can do professionally to be with the people in Israel.”
Another mission participant, Howard Tepper of Livingston, already had a deep connection to the Jewish state.
“I have been going to Israel annually for at least 40 years and it has given me a certain perspective and exposure to a lot of people,” said Tepper, chair of the Ness Fund of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest, which supports economic development in the Negev region.
This trip was particularly impressive, he said. “There was such spirit, such ruach with singing and dancing on Shabbat. It was so heartwarming to see people in their 80s, people with disabilities, with walkers and wheelchairs, participate and experience Israel.”
Tepper said his work with the Ness Fund has “given me a sense of responsibility as I see the country changing. We have been involved and our fingerprint and footprint helped to make those changes. It’s wonderful to go to Israel for the first time, but you need someone who’s been going 20 or 40 years to give perspective on how our dollars are helping.”
That said, he’s still a little jealous of the newbies.
“I always envy people on their first trip because I know it will be life-changing for them, as it was for me,” he said.
The commUNITY mission was federation’s largest in the last 20 years, according to chair Jane Wilf of Livingston. There were six vice chairs, and it took 12 buses to shuttle the participants, which included community rabbis and Jewish professionals, around the country.
“I was honored when they asked me to chair because I always wanted to chair a mission of this magnitude,” she said, noting that in addition to her, numerous people worked on the planning “day in and day out.”
“This was a community effort and we came back as a stronger community, no question,” she said.
Biloon said Wilf’s vision was “instrumental in every choice we made, whether it was about programming or messaging. Her warmth and caring for every single person’s experience guided every single decision.”
Every day was designed “with intention,” Biloon said, and included visits to programs of Greater MetroWest-funded partnership organizations, including JAFI and American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).
For instance, mission members participated in a wheelchair basketball game at the Alternative Health Zone, a program of the JDC, which provides recreational experiences for adults with autism and developmental disabilities.
One of the trip highlights, according to Biloon, was a day-long visit to federation partner communities in the Negev, including Kibbutz Erez, Ofakim/Merchavim, and Arad.
“That was a day we saw the tremendous impact of federation on our partners in our communities in Israel,” she said. “We really were able to understand the lives these people lead. [The Israelis] came to understand the impact we have on their lives and that they also feel a deep connection to us.”
Special programming included an emotional ceremony at Ammunition Hill featuring “Jerusalem of Gold” singer Shuli Natan and a “Salute to the Israel Defense Forces” party at a naval base near Haifa. Of course, the trip also incorporated staples such as the Western Wall, Yad Vashem, Masada, and the Dead Sea.
Gov. Phil Murphy made a surprise visit to a Havdalah ceremony at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem. Murphy also visited the “Four Corners of Israel” mission as well, which was comprised of members from the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ and the Jewish Federations of Southern NJ and Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren Counties.
Tepper said everyone should go to Israel, ideally on a mission.
“As Jews, it’s a comfort to go with a community,” he said. “You come away with a personal experience and relationship that’s hard to explain. It’s a sense of community and camaraderie. You understand what community is and what community is doing.”
Snapshots from CommUNITY Mission to Israel