A UJA-Federation of New York mission to Israel planned to coincide with the celebration of Israel’s 65th birthday next month promises to offer participants a somewhat “personalized” tour, coupled with meetings with Israeli political leaders, including President Shimon Peres.
The mission, April 13-19, has already attracted 200 participants and is designed to “appeal to veterans and first timers alike,” according to Jeffrey Stern, who along with his wife, Susan, are one of five couples co-chairing the event.
He said it is the first time UJA-Federation has developed a “personalized” itinerary to “appeal to different interests in order to get the broadest possible range of people to come. Separate itineraries will focus on art, culture, food and wine; business and hi-tech; and history, politics and archeology. Participants will be able to switch between itineraries from one day to the next.”
In addition, there will be events that all participants will attend, such as meetings with Peres; Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky; Israeli political leader Yair Lapid, chairman of Yesh Atid; and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.
There will also be a discussion by a panel of journalists that will include Jodi Rudoren, bureau chief in Israel for The New York Times; and meetings with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Gidi Grinstein, president of the Reut Institute, some of whose work is funded by UJA-Federation.
Elizabeth Rosenwald Varet, who is co-chairing the mission with her husband, Michael, said she wants the participants to see the real Israel, problems and all.
“I don’t want to create a Disneyland experience. I said, ‘Bring up the challenges, let them hear.’ The question is, ‘Are you doing something [about them] or not?’ The point isn’t to sell Israel, it’s to expose the reality. If you’re real, that will count for something.”
The mission is named after Varet’s father, William Rosenwald, the late UJA-Federation leader, whom she recalled as imbuing in his family a passion for Israel.
“I care very much that people love Israel,” she said. “Let them fall a little in love” with the country and the people.
Describing the itinerary, Mark Medin, a senior vice president of UJA-Federation, noted: “We are doing a project with them in Safed using a model in how to build a more comprehensive civil society.” He said the project involves “bringing together local NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and local officials to deal with challenges in the community, such as the economy and the integration of minorities, Arab Israelis and haredi [fervently Orthodox Jews]. We recognize that there are serious challenges facing Israel and we’re trying to model a variety of different programs. With Reut we are developing a macro approach; with small nonprofits we are developing small, embryonic thinking programs.”
Another project on the mission’s itinerary is called Ruach Hadasha (New Spirit), a program that Medin said “brings together young Israelis to focus on strengthening the community by getting them involved in volunteerism. They work with minorities, the underprivileged, haredi and Israeli Arabs to strengthen the fabric of Jerusalem by working to engage them in taking greater ownership of their city.”
Another program that participants will see is called JDC Witness Theater, in which survivors meet throughout the year with high school theater students to tell them how they survived the Holocaust. At the end of the year, the students put on a play in which they act out the survivors’ stories. Medin said the students might decide to “combine the stories into one long play” or act out a series of short vignettes to retell the stories.
“In this program, the students and survivors develop a long-term relationship,” he said.
Pam Wexler, a member of the executive board of UJA-Federation who volunteered with the recruiting, said the mission is “all about deepening relationships with Israel, with the work and the programs UJA supports, and with each other.
“When you go,” she said, “you make friends for life, sharing powerful experiences together.”
Among the participants are five people whose essays in a writing contest on why they wanted to go to Israel won them a free trip, courtesy of UJA-Federation. In all, some 1,500 essays were submitted.
Orientation meetings are set for March 12 and March 14, and those still interested in participating in the mission should contact UJA-Federation.