By Rabbi Jodie Gordon / Hevreh of Southern Berkshire
As we boarded our flight bound for Tel Aviv, one of my students asked me, “How many times have you been to Israel?” I paused and thought – and answered honestly, “I don’t remember. More than ten times? Fewer than twenty?”
The question stayed with me as our pilot announced our initial descent into Tel Aviv, and like the students and chaperones, I found myself eagerly looking out the window at the city coming into view below. How many times do we have to travel someplace before it feels familiar? How many times before it feels “like home”? How many times must we go someplace before we feel we’ve seen and done it all – that we’re maybe, a little bored of going there?
These questions reminded me of a famous essay by travel writer Pico Ayer, who writes: “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again — to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”
This past February, I had the distinct honor and privilege to travel to Israel with Hevreh’s Pre-Confirmation Class, which included six students and four parents. As this trip has evolved into its second year, it has truly become a family experience: the opportunity for a group of parents and young teens to discover, together and apart, all of the beauties and complexities of the modern State of Israel. The eight days we spend together traveling around Israel are, of course, amazing: the sights, sounds, smells and of tastes of Israel weave a sort of magic around the group. Both students and parents came with a hunger and curiosity to explore and encounter, and with that openness, the trip unfolded beautifully.
What we have created isn’t rocket science: there are literally hundreds of ways to travel to Israel for our young people, among them semester in Israel study programs, summer teen tours. Soon enough, they’ll be eligible for Birthright Israel trips.
So, what makes this trip so uniquely impactful?
The answer is relationships. This trip is grounded in a relationship that has been cultivated and funded by the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires. The experience of spending time in the Berkshires’ Partnership2gether community of Afula-Gilboa anchors the experience in a way that elevates the trip from tour to encounter.
I want to share a vignette of the trip that really brings to life the vibrant connection that has been forged between our Berkshires community and the wonderful people in Afula-Gilboa.
Karen Brustein was born in Brazil and made Aliyah to Israel when she was young, settling with her family at Kibbutz Jezreel. Karen and I met last year when, in her capacity as a program coordinator for the Partnership and as a resident of the kibbutz where we were staying, she took us on a walking tour of the kibbutz. This past year, Karen and I worked closely in the six months leading up to our visit to plan an intentional encounter between their B’nai Mitzvah group and our visiting students.
The evening we spent together was wonderful: the students introduced themselves and with the help of me and their madrikhim, we were able to bridge the language gaps. They sat together in small groups and talked about everything from what subjects they study in school, to what they hope to be when they grow up, to which they prefer: shwarma or falafel. They made dinner together, preparing pizzas in a traditional taboon oven outside on a crisp February night. At some point, Karen and I found ourselves standing on the side of the room, watching as parents from the kibbutz and the Hevreh parent chaperones sat and laughed, and the teens ran around on the mirpesset outside the community room. It was truly a warm and meaningful encounter: but the real moment of connection came as the table was being cleared and the official program was wrapping up.
“Rabbi Gordon—are we allowed to keep hanging out with the kids from the kibbutz? They asked if we could go play basketball with them.”
And so at nearly 10 p.m. at night, six kids from the Berkshires and ten kids from a kibbutz in central Israel made their way to a basketball court. They returned exultant and red-cheeked an hour later, at their appointed curfew, exclaiming that this had been “the best night ever.”
This phrase, “the best night ever” would become a refrain throughout the week, due in large part to the hospitality and openness of our Partnership coordinators, Achiya Ben-Ari and Naveh Yogev, and our Kibbutz Jezreel hosts, Rahel Piekarski and Karen Brustein. They put their hearts into planning a visit for us that allowed our group to get beneath the surface of a tour. The night after the first “best night ever,” our group was hosted by Itzik, who runs Moadon Sandwich, or the “Sandwich Club," which this year received a $3,000 grant from our Federation.
Five nights a week, Itzik welcomes 50 teens to the Afula community center. Itzik is of Moroccan descent, with gray-blue eyes that sparkle when he laughs. Itzik himself is a recovering addict and dedicates his life to serving those who might otherwise be on the margins. He works with prisoners, as well as with this population of teens with varying levels of challenges in their home lives. They play X-Box and foosball, work on homework – and then make a big dinner for themselves before they get to work. This gathering is called the Sandwich Club because each night, they make over 200 bagged lunches for children in Afula who need supplemental food.
The program was inspired by a teen who had been hanging out in Itzik’s teen Moadon (club) and packed up some of his dinner that night to bring home. Noticing that the teen hadn’t finished his dinner, Itzik asked, and was told that the boy wanted to bring the extra food home for his brother. Now, they provide more than one thousand extra meals each week to Afula schoolchildren. Our Hevreh group joined them to help make those lunches and were then treated to a full-on party: in preparation for our visit, their group had decorated their community hall, prepared a special dinner, and even had a musical presentation. On the bus on the way back to the kibbutz that night our teens asked if there was any way to go back and visit with the Sandwich Club group again before we left – and just then, I got a message on my phone from the mom of one of the teens from the kibbutz: “Can the Hevreh kids come hang out on the basketball court tonight?”
Truly, the best night ever.
Aria Grossman, one of our teen travelers remarked “Throughout this trip, we have been astounded by the warm and generous people who have hosted and helped us along the way. Israel truly is a magical place.”
Israel is a small country with oversized possibilities for engagement: our itinerary was jam-packed with opportunities for us to learn Israeli history, understand modern Israeli innovation, engage with Jewish life in Israel today, and so much more. Adam Kronenberg, another traveler reflected: “We learned about the history of the land and of the Jews from thousands of years ago to the founding of the State of Israel in modern times. Being in a place where I shared so much in common with the people around me made me feel like I had been waiting to be here my entire life. Everyone is truly grateful for the experience and the Federation helped make it possible.”
Reflecting back on the words of Pico Ayer, this was truly a trip that helped each of us to open our hearts and our eyes, and to find ourselves anew.
Rabbi Jodie Gordon is a rabbi and educational director at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington.