Members of two local synagogues recently journeyed to Israel together, embarking on a trip designed to “turn them on” to the Jewish state and the Jewish people.
The Conservative Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville and the Reform Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction originally were planning their own trips, but when the smaller Adath Israel could gather only seven people, Beth Chaim’s Rabbi Eric Wisnia suggested the two synagogues join forces.
So on July 8, a total of 35 members of Beth Chaim and Adath Israel set off together for a two-week visit.
Rabbi Daniel Grossman of Adath Israel was initially concerned that there would be a “sense of two separate groups,” but said instead that “there was a nice sense of community.”
Participants ranged from teenagers to seniors, from first-time visitors to returnees.
Said Beth Chaim member Lori Derman of West Windsor: “It was wonderful to get everyone’s different perspectives.”
The itinerary, said Wisnia, featured something for everybody: kayaking on the Jordan River, floating in the Dead Sea, and a stay at Kibbutz Ein Gev on the Sea of Galilee. Participants also toured the Ayalon Institute — the underground ammunition factory operated by the Palmach in Mandatory Palestine.
“I tend to tailor the trip to fun and food,” said Wisnia. “When I take a trip to Israel with a group of congregants, it’s work for me. My job is to turn these people on to the Jewish state and the Jewish people. So anywhere we go, I always point out to them why we’re going and its connection to Judaism.”
The visitors also performed community service, donating their time to volunteer at the Hazon Yeshaya soup kitchen.
Said Grossman, “There was a nice balance of responsibilities and things to learn about and tourist things of history, culture, and spirituality.”
Beth Chaim director of publicity Elana Berlinger, who first toured Israel 51 years ago, was awed by the progress the young country had made since she last visited.
During Judy Reiss’s first visit, the Western Wall tunnels were just being excavated; the Adath Israel member marveled that she could now explore the entire length of the underground passages.
Grossman said the trip’s itinerary was organized to connect each day to a theme. For example, when the group toured Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial and Museum, and Har Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery, the theme of the day was remembrance. When up in the North, the group focused more on the War of Independence and the Six-Day War.
Though Wisnia led the tour according to his original agenda, he shared some rabbinic duties with Grossman. “Danny has a large mind and a large heart and it was a pleasure to be with him,” said Wisnia.
Derman said it was great to get to know both rabbis on a personal level, while Reiss appreciated both rabbis for being “a great fountain of information and put[ting] what we saw into the perspective of world history.”
Said Beth Chaim congregant Susan Siben of Robbinsville, “I learned more about my own religion and the politics of Israel. I always listened a little but now I really understand what’s going on…. Everything affected us because it was like going home.”