In the belief that nothing gets Jews more involved in their community than a trip to Israel or seeing a Jewish community in distress, UJA-Federation is revamping its missions programs to give participants a deeper understanding of the communities they visit and the work of the philanthropy there.
“UJA-Federation has run missions very successfully for many years,” said Karen Adler, who with her husband, Laurence Greenwald, co-chairs UJA-Federation’s Missions Department. “But there was a feeling on the part of many that we could do a better job and reach a broader audience.”
She said in the last year, a committee seeking to revitalize the missions program concluded that the best way to forge a commitment to Jews in distress “is to take people there and let them see for themselves.”
“I think other Jewish communities and the relationships we can develop with them fascinate many of us,” Adler said. “If we can develop relationships with Jews in other parts of the world, then we have made a bond.”
Maidelle Goodman Benamy, who became director of the missions program a year ago, said one way to provide mission participants with a better understanding of what they are visiting is to call upon several local experts. In the past, she said, missions might have heard from one speaker about the Middle East peace process, for instance. But in the future they might hear from a several speakers presenting different viewpoints, giving participants more substantive analyses.
Another example of how missions might provide participants with a fuller understanding of what they are seeing, Greenwald noted, would come from a visit to Zipori, a Roman Jewish city in northern Israel in which large mosaics have been uncovered.
“It’s an interesting community because Romans and Christians lived there together,” he said. “One can visit a place like that and learn a great deal about our Jewish history and then apply those lessons to today.
“In northern Israel today, UJA-Federation supports many projects in communities where Israeli Jews and Arabs live together on the same land. The same principles of the past apply today.”
And those lessons will no longer be drawn in a “happenstance” way like in the past, said Greenwald, a lawyer.
Adler, a real estate developer, noted that UJA-Federation funds are being spent in Zipori to help young women immigrants from the former Soviet Union learn how to work on the archeological dig there.
“We also support a number of programs for Ethiopians who have come out of the army and have to study for the bagrut [the college admission exam],” she said.
“Ethiopian immigrants have not had the educational advantages of [native] Israelis and have a very difficult time passing the exam,” her husband pointed out. “So UJA-Federation is funding programs to tutor them, so they will be able to pass the exams and move on to college.”
Adler observed that UJA-Federation has funded the tutoring program for a number of years, “but we didn’t spotlight it or take our missions to see it. Now we will be arranging for our mission participants to meet the young people who are being tutored.”
Another difference between the missions of the past and future will be how they visit sites, Adler said.
“Twenty years ago I went on a mission and they took us to an old age home,” she recalled. “They just walked us through it to show what UJA-Federation supports. But now our missions will spend a few hours there, helping the residents to make arts and crafts projects, for instance. The whole notion will be New Yorkers volunteering to have a connection with Israelis by doing something with them.”
Benamy said there is also a push to “get more people to go on more missions to more places than ever before. Israel will always remain the backbone of our missions, but what makes us different from a travel agency are our goals: to help educate people about the issues facing the global Jewish community, to help foster people-to-people interactions between Jews around the world, and to showcase where our campaign dollars are being spent — as well as to allow people to have fun.”
As a result, Benamy said the missions program is being expanded to different countries in South America — Argentina is now a prime location — and to Cuba, to where UJA-Federation is planning its third mission.
“The former Soviet Union is becoming increasingly popular, as is Eastern Europe, such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic,” she said. “We are also planning a mission to Morocco.”
Benamy said that although her department does its best to include a stop in Israel, that is not always possible. “Sometimes a group has only four days,” she said. “You can’t go to Argentina or the former Soviet Union and then make a stop in Israel. But on the trip to Morocco, we plan to visit Israel.”
Benamy said that because “more and more people are looking for a spiritual experience” on missions to Israel, missions may no longer leave Saturday as free time.
“We are looking to create a Shabbat experience for people so that when they come home, they bring with them bits and pieces of what they experienced,” she explained. “We don’t want to be too religious for those who are not as observant, and yet we want to be sensitive to the needs of the more observant.”
She said that at a time when many Jews are turning to Eastern religions for spiritual meaning, “we would like them to know that Judaism has a spiritual dimension, too. So we will be looking to create programs that build on the natural mysticism of Safed, the seat of Jewish mysticism, so that people can experience it.”
Chad Shandler, 28, of Manhattan co-chaired a singles mission to Israel last summer that attracted 350 people from the East Coast. He said the beauty of these missions is that participants get to “meet new people and take an organized tour of unfamiliar places. There is a lot of history and knowledge to be gained from going there and the UJA-Federation missions have first-rate guides, they stay at first-rate hotels and they provide you with other amenities you don’t necessarily get if you traveled on your own.”
On a singles mission, he added, “there is always the expectation that you will meet someone to take home to mom and dad.”
Benamy said her department wants to “continue to build fabulously exciting visits to the programs we fund and to have [mission participants] interact with the recipients of the services supported by our campaign dollars. We don’t want people to just see the countries through the windows of a bus.”