By Michael Yaffe
When I was growing up in South Florida, my Hebrew school teachers told me stories about their visits to the Jewish homeland. Seeing the Western Wall first-hand, floating in the Dead Sea, eating kosher McDonalds … it was just a matter of time before I made my trek to that part of the world.
My life was forever changed in 2004 when I went on March of the Living, an annual educational program that brings students from all over the world to Israel and Poland to study the history of the Holocaust and to examine the roots of prejudice, intolerance and hate. Instantly, the idea of Israel became more than just a magical place to visit. I now understood that its existence was vital for the Jewish people.
When I heard of the opportunity to travel with IMPACT, as a “young adult,” several years out of college, I knew I couldn’t pass up the chance to connect with Israel in a different and special way.
After a quick 10-hour flight, our group of 13 arrived at Dan Carmel where we met our fellow mission participants. (There were over 140 young adults from over 10 cities on this Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) National Young Leadership Summer Trip.) We spent time at the port of Haifa and caught a glimpse of the Baha’i Gardens, one of the most beautiful scenes in Israel. We then spent the day in the Galilee, rafting down the Jordan River. That evening we threw a party for the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Meeting these young men and women who protect the state of Israel was very special – their service is something that we in the diaspora can never take for granted.
The next morning, we heard from speakers who opened our eyes to some of the challenges in integration of Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Jews. Traveling to Jerusalem, we saw some of the important work being done for the disabled by the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) such as helping those who feel isolated. We then visited the Druze community, an Arabic-speaking religious minority in which all men serve in the IDF. We learned how the Druze integrate into Israeli society through such paths as Babcom, an Israeli high-tech firm. Finally, after a long bus ride, we caught our first glimpse of the Old City of Jerusalem from a beautiful vantage point on a hill. With wine-filled cups, we had our long-awaited Shehecheyanu (the prayer to be thankful for a new experience).
Jerusalem is truly a remarkable place. Considered a holy city to many different religions, and a center of conflict for millennia, it functions so peacefully when you’re there. We saw the Kotel from different vantage points and then spent the rest of the afternoon at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
Institutions like Yad Vashem play an important role for the future of the Jewish people. We were lucky enough to hear from Rene Quint, a child survivor. I thought to myself that I must not take for granted that we are one of the last generations to hear these first-hand accounts. After the session with the docent that concluded with our own private ceremony at the Valley of Communities, everyone saw the true meaning of the state of Israel.
The next morning, at 2:00 a.m., we awoke to climb Masada. How could pushing our exhausted selves up the snake path at 4:00 a.m. possibly be worth it? All it took was the sun peaking above the mountains across from the Dead Sea to know that it was a vision we would never forget. Our early morning afforded us the time to recommit ourselves to our Jewish roots, which I notice, is something that we lose in the daily hustle of life.
Even though our day started extremely early, our day ended with a Kabbalat Shabbat at the Southern Wall. As the sun set in Jerusalem, we took personal time at the Kotel. With our thoughts and prayers left in the cracks of the wall, we walked to our Shabbat dinner at Beit Shmuel overlooking the Old City.
The next morning, we caught up on some sleep and enjoyed Shabbat. We had the day to ourselves and some, like me, went to the Israel Museum. Others went on the rampart walks of the Old City. After a windy havdallah (I think the candle was lit for a second) service, we were off to the Western Wall tunnels for a night tour.
On Sunday morning, following a panel discussion with Knesset members, we left the capital to make our way to Independence Hall, which used to be an art museum in Tel Aviv. We visited Rabin Square where Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995. Along with others from Baltimore, I went south to Florentin to check out the street art. We were now gaining insight into contemporary Tel Aviv culture.
On the last day of our trip, we got to see what The Associated does to directly impact the lives of people in Ashkelon. We participated in the Baltimore-Ashkelon 10-year partnership mosaic at the Volunteer Center and then visited an Ethiopian absorption center. At the absorption center we learned of the challenges of integrating a people into a whole new society and how much work it takes by so many different people. It truly made me think – if not us, then who?
It’s hard not see, after a trip like this, how important Israel’s existence is for all of us. It is our future. I realize I only saw a piece of our Jewish homeland, but I left feeling more connected and complete than I was just three weeks prior. In order to see the magic that is Israel, you must physically stand there. At the Western Wall. At Masada. At Yad Vashem.
I understand the impact that the Jewish Federation system makes on the people of Israel and know that I am now a part of that. We as Americans, and even more importantly, we as Jews in the diaspora, can do more. Officially this year, Israel’s Jewish population exceeds that of the United States. Israel is the future. I am dedicated to Israel and I am dedicated to our people.