When Rabbi Michael Pont was planning the Dec. 20-31 congregational mission to Israel — his first since becoming religious leader at Marlboro Jewish Center five years ago — his aim was to have “something for everyone.”
He said that goal was achieved when the group of 25 — spanning from early teens to senior citizens — took part in the wide ranging trip. “Of the 25, two-thirds of them were seeing Israel for the first time,” said Pont. “Nineteen of the 25 were part of these multi-generational families.”
The trip took in many tourist sites — the Kotel, Masada, and museums — but, Pont said, among the less-known sites the group visited was Ammunition Hill National Memorial in Jerusalem, captured from Jordan during the 1967 war and pivotal in reuniting Jerusalem.
Pont said now that the synagogue has had a successful Israeli mission, he hopes to take others every other year.
“Israel is one of the best ways, if not the best way, to strengthen someone’s Jewish identity,” he said. “That was one of my goals and a motivating factor in wanting to go.”
For Steve Solomon of Freehold — who was accompanied by his wife, Brenda; three sons, Terence, 21, Garrett, 19, and Jordan, 15; his mother, Fran Solomon of Monroe; and mother-in-law, Roz Schor of Delray Beach, Fla. — going to Israel was something they had been planning for years. He described the trip as “an amazing experience” with “a lot of good talks and lectures.”
“One thing that stood out to me was that this is really the homeland of the Jewish people,” said Solomon. “I observed that everyone on the trip knew somebody in Israel, whether it was friends, family. My wife’s nephew and his wife live there. It was like a small Jewish community.
“We all experienced it and saw firsthand this is really our homeland and we shared a bond with other Jews.”
Of his sons, only Terence had been to Israel with Birthright, but even he saw things he hadn’t experienced on his first trip.
A highlight for Solomon was going to the Western Wall where Pont led Friday night services followed by a private egalitarian service.
“It was amazing to see everyone praying, every type of Jew, along with soldiers,” said Solomon.
Joel Mandelbaum was accompanied by his wife, Randee, 15-year-old twins, Hallie and Jared, and his parents, Howard and Susan Mandelbaum. He said they went because, “we wanted our kids to have a connection to the rabbi and something they would always remember.”
“It was a b’nei mitzva gift to my children from my parents,” he said. “This was my fifth trip, my parents’ 11th trip, but my wife and kids had never been before. It exceeded everyone’s expectations. In fact, both during the trip and after the trip my children were asking when we would be going back to Israel. They are already looking forward to Birthright, when they can go without their parents.”
Highlights for Mandelbaum included a service at Robinson’s Arch, where several MJC children got called to the Torah; Masada, and the Golan Heights. A standout activity for him took place in Safed, where they had a dialogue with kabalist artist Avraham Lowenthal, who was a high school classmate of Pont’s in Michigan. “He explained his art, and it was pretty cool,” said Mandelbaum.
But it was the changing face of Israel that most impressed him and gave him pride, said Mandelbaum. “There’s been so much development. There were cranes and new buildings and new cities. I hadn’t been there since 1993, and it had changed so much.”