A major reality check came for Kevin Manning when a young mother who lives on a moshav near the Gaza Strip spoke about what everyday life is like with rockets flying overhead and a constant sense of fear for her family.
“When she goes to Jerusalem and tells them they don’t have to be afraid, they ask, ‘Why should we not be afraid in Jerusalem?’ ” said Manning, president of Stevenson University, in a phone call from Israel. “It just struck us as Americans … we just don’t have these experiences. We’re not living literally in a war zone, where you have to manage the children and the bunkers and the rescue situation on a day-to-day basis.”
Manning was in Israel for the first time on the Weinberg Foundation’s Israel Mission, which departed the U.S. on May 17 and returned on May 26. It was the group’s largest mission to date, with 30 participants. The trip has been sponsored by various groups in Jewish Baltimore almost every year since 1981; the Weinberg Foundation began funding the trip in 2001 and took over trip operations in 2007.
The group consisted mostly of Maryland residents, with others from Hawaii, Alaska and California, and the trip was led by Rachel Monroe, president and CEO of the Weinberg Foundation.
The foundation said the mission of the trip was to give participants a better understanding of the complex realities of the Middle East through first-hand experiences.
“The focus leading up to and throughout the mission trip is to provide a serious, scholarly, exploration of the issues and events which have shaped and continue to shape Israel and the region,” a statement from the foundation said.
Just in the first two days of the trip, Manning, his wife, Sara, and the other participants drove to the Israeli-Lebanese border to learn about the history between the two countries, drove to the Golan Heights to learn about the history between Israel and Syria and to tour the Golan Heights Winery and visited two historic Christian sites. After just a short time, Manning said he was left with the impression that the country has “a lot of enthusiasm and ambitions,” in addition to a complicated history.
“The thing that impresses me the most … is how extraordinarily complicated the relationships between these countries are,” he said. “Many of these conflicts have been going on for many, many years and they have to do with geography, water, religion, ideology, politics. There’s so many things that occur simultaneously, it’s very hard to sort them all out.”
In the days that followed, the mission group learned about the challenges Israel faces with its various populations from Israeli newspaper Haaretz editor-at-large Aluf Benn, visited the Google campus in Tel Aviv to learn about the technological innovation coming out of Israel, went to Ramallah to hear from a representative from the Palestinian Authority and visited two new Jewish West Bank settlements.
Another emotional moment came on the day when the group learned about the work of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The group went to a school in Ashkelon, Baltimore’s sister city, where about 30 Ethiopian students — the JDC works in particular with Israel’s large Ethiopian immigrant population — were being tutored.
“It was a very poignant kind of experience for us,” Manning said. “It was good to put a face on the education system.”
The group heard from political and intelligence experts, who were able to further explain Israel’s place in the Middle East and how the Israeli people deal with upheaval.
“Our perception of Israel from a distance is never equal to a reality,” Manning said. “From what we’ve heard from the Jewish families and the officials here, they just move on. They’re so accustomed to this way of life they keep building buildings and keep building skyscrapers.”
Manning visited the Academic College of Tel Aviv Yaffo, where he met with college president and psychology professor Nehemia Friedland. He said he had a productive 90-minute exchange with Friedland, and found similarities with enrollment goals and budget considerations between Stevenson and the Tel Aviv school. The Israeli college is part of an expansion of 20 institutions sponsored by the government to provide higher education for underserved populations, Manning said.
The last few days of the trip included visits to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem; Shabbat in the capital’s Old City, where Manning ate dinner with two lone soldiers from London and Detroit; and a trip to Masada.
For Manning, the educational trip has provided some valuable insight into the country’s history, geopolitical situation as well as the excitement among its citizens.
“It’s not a mature country in a good sense,” he said. “A lot of building, a lot of construction, a lot of hope.”