For the 40-plus first-time visitors to Israel, the experience of traveling with other members of Congregation Neve Shalom was enhanced by having most of their costs paid for by the synagogue.
The group, selected by lottery, traveled with Rabbi Gerald Zelizer Aug. 20-31, experiencing Shabbat at the Kotel and touring other sites. They brought with them a Torah scroll to donate to Sukkat Shalom in Ramat Yishai, a Masorti (Conservative) synagogue south of Haifa.
From an original pool of 150, 45 were selected — two couldn’t make it — ranging in age from nine to 83. Each put in about $1,000 of their own money while Neve Shalom kicked in more than $3,000 per person.
The money came from an endowment fund from Congregation Adath Israel of Woodbridge, which merged about three years ago with the Metuchen synagogue.
“We decided everybody should go to Israel once in their life.” said Zelizer.
Endowment committee chair Jonathan Hersch of Edison said, “We were challenged to find some exciting educational experience, and the committee felt this would be inspirational.
“Unfortunately, a lot of adults, and even a lot of seniors, have never been to Israel and there’s nothing like Birthright” — which provides free trips to Israel for young people — “for them. I really feel we’ve done something here.”
Estelle Marcus, who was president of the 99-year-old Adath Israel at the time of the merger, had her name drawn in the lottery and had the honor of carrying in the Torah scroll, which had come over from her former shul, during the presentation at Sukkat Shalom.
“It was such as nice moment to come in holding and dancing with the Torah,” she said. “It is something to always remember.”
But it was just one of many wonderful memories for the Woodbridge resident, including visiting the sister who moved to Israel 17 years ago for the first time, and Shabbat near the Kotel.
Cathy Salomon-Geardino of Woodbridge — who was accompanied by her sons Teddy, 11, and nine-year-old twins Joey and Spencer — described the trip as “beyond amazing.”
She said another synagogue member had given her family dollar bills to give to tzedaka in Israel. “Joey decided to give his charity to an older woman who was selling the red threads,” said Salomon-Geardino. “He braided them and has been wearing them ever since.” (Red threads in kabalistic tradition are worn to keep away the “evil eye.”)
“One of things Rabbi Zelizer said,” Salomon-Geardino added, “was that this trip was like making an investment in the congregation. It was really like a gift to all of us, and I’ve come back with a stronger commitment to Judaism.”
Donna Coen O’Gorman, who traveled with her daughter, Rachel, who turned 13 on Oct. 9, described the trip as “the adventure of a lifetime.” The Edison resident said she was particularly gratified to see Rachel immerse herself in the Israeli experience, including assisting Zelizer in conducting Shabbat services in Tel Aviv in preparation for her bat mitzva.
Rachel said the Israel experience was “very cool,” adding, “I would definitely like to go back.”