Editor’s Note: Sheri Lear and her family recently traveled to Israel on a family mission co-sponsored by Adath Jeshurun Congregation and the Minneapolis Jewish Federation.
The thought of traveling anywhere with 18 other families was a little (correction, a lot) out of my comfort zone. As an introvert, I covet my quiet time. And, at the risk of revealing all my phobias at once, I’ll confess that my tendency towards claustrophobia causes me to avoid crowds or anything that’s too stringently organized. Nevertheless, when I began hearing about the Adath Jeshurun Family Israel Experience, an 11-day mission to Israel co-sponsored by the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, it sparked my interest.
The idea of traveling to Israel with our younger children and other families from our Adath community was inviting. My husband Steve, an off-the-chart extrovert, tipped the scale in favor of going. This particular experience seemed too good to pass up. With some trepidation on my part, we signed up. I don’t think we ever made a better decision.
While nothing could have fully prepared all 34 adults and 39 children for what we were about to experience, preparation for our journey began in September 2003 with monthly group meetings facilitated by our mission co-chairs and Federation Staff. The meetings provided an opportunity to not only get better acquainted with one another, but to also engage in some adult study and to prepare our children for the trip. All of those meetings and hard work paid off and I think we’d all agree that seeing Israel through the eyes of our children was magical.
Each day was strategically planned with some “learning time” (museums, exhibits) interspersed with some sheer unadulterated fun, which allowed our children to replace the vision of the Israel they see in the media with a very different Israel. They saw the Israel where you kayak down the Jordan River, take speedboat rides on the Mediterranean, race down waterslides and dance on a disco boat ride on the Kinneret.
On the one hand, it could have been just another great vacation spot, like Mexico, perhaps. But in Mexico, they wouldn’t have had the chance to bake challah in the courtyard of Kibbutz Ein-Shemer near Hadera, where an enthusiastic kibbutnik (and dead-ringer for [the late comedian] Buddy Hackett) shared the story of the founding of the kibbutz by Polish immigrants. They wouldn’t have been able to climb Masada and learn of the sacrifice of our ancestors. In Mexico, a siren doesn’t announce the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath,and the shops don’t close for Shabbat and re-open after sunset on Saturday. A vacation in Mexico wouldn’t have allowed our children to walk in the footsteps of our matriarchs and patriarchs, through the water tunnels at Mey Kedem (Ancient Waters) or underneath the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.
As the trip unfolded, we watched our children gradually grasp the concept of living on a Jewish calendar, on the stage of Jewish history. For 11 days, they felt what it’s like to be part of the majority. Federation’s involvement in the planning of our trip allowed us to witness the close bond that our Minneapolis Jewish community has with Israel. We visited the city of Hadera, our partner city for the PACT (Parents and Children Together) initiative. Through this partnership, our community has helped to develop and support programs aimed at improving the educational opportunities for Ethiopian-Israeli children and their parents, in an effort to bridge educational and cultural gaps. Speaking as an adult, I was so proud to see the positive effects that this joint venture has had on the Hadera community. For our children, however, unaware of the difficult past that brought these Ethiopian children to Israel, it was just a perfect opportunity for a pick-up game of hoops with some new friends. How simple and uncomplicated.
We also visited Israel’s Kinneret Region, which includes Tiberias, the Jordan Valley and the Lower Galilee and is the region that Minneapolis Jewish schools have partnered with through the Federation’s Education Bridge. Through this program, Minneapolis and Israeli students communicate via videoconferences, e-mails and faxes and learn what life is like for Jewish youth in both places. On this trip, many of our children were finally able to meet their Israeli pen-pals, with whom they had been communicating over the past couple of years. After a few painfully awkward adolescent moments, the kids were exchanging e-mail addresses and chatting about sports, music, fashion and other typical teen topics.
And then there was the warm, breezy Monday morning on the balcony of the Mount Zion Hotel, when our dozen or so recent or upcoming B’nai Mitzvot led us in a beautiful Shachrit service. Overlooking the ancient walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, it was a sight hard to re-create in words.
The Federation staff who accompanied us on our trip were not only adept and competent leaders, but their infectious passion for Israel added greatly to our experience. We all felt fortunate to be accompanied by our wonderful Rabbi, who led us in prayer and meaningful discussion, taught us about the best and worst Israeli snack foods, and allowed our children to beat him in poker at the back of the bus.
Oh sure, my neuroses crept up on me here and there. For example, I had to walk up AND down Masada, to avoid being trapped in the crowded cable car, unable to escape. And I had to do deep breathing exercises in the crowded shops on Ben Yehuda Street. But I got through it. What an incredible opportunity this was for us to bond with our children, our Adath community and Israel.
They say that one does not “go to” Jerusalem, one “returns” there. We’re confident that this trip provided our children with the desire to return to this beautiful land on many occasions throughout their lives.