On the JCF Israel at 50 mission, delegates will celebrate — and work

Ruth Reffkin's earliest memory is of people dancing in the street in Tel Aviv, celebrating Israel's newfound independence. The current campaign chair of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay was then a child of 3.

That's why the second-generation sabra, who moved to the United States in 1952, is so excited about her upcoming trip to Israel.

Alan Rothenberg doesn't go back quite that far. But since his first trip to Israel in 1982, on a San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation mission, the current JCF president has returned more than a dozen times.

Rothenberg and Reffkin plan to dance in the streets with another 120 Bay Area Jews and the people of Israel to celebrate the Jewish state's 50th birthday.

Nearly 100 members of the group will depart Wednesday with Rothenberg on the JCF's mission, where they'll be combining festivities with work.

"We'll have our April board meeting there for the first time in our federation's history, and our Israel and Overseas Committee will meet with their Israel-based colleagues, our Amuta," said Rothenberg.

The group, which is composed mainly of board and committee members, will also examine the programs the JCF funds, both through direct grants and United Jewish Appeal, to see how local contributions are put to work.

Funding priorities have changed in the last few years, Rothenberg said, and he expects them to continue to change.

"We will meet with leadership in politics, the economy, communities and areas of human concern and look at Israel's needs to determine how they fit in with our community's priorities." Programs promoting pluralism and tolerance, already primary on the JCF agenda, may well continue to take precedence, he noted.

Home hospitality — meeting with Israelis in their homes — tops the agenda for both delegations. The JCF travelers will spend time in Kiryat Shmona and the Upper Galilee, their partner area, and many will visit Israelis they have hosted in the Bay Area. The East Bay group plans to spend time in Safed, the town known for its mysticism.

The delegates will also be able to sample the kind of experience their children have when they sign up for a Koret trip to Israel. Nitzan Aviv and Yossi Cohen-Meidan, who direct the teen trips, will go along to give them a firsthand look.

Reffkin plans to experience again the excitement, happiness and joy of 50 years ago.

"I think we tend to forget what a miracle Israel is," she said. "I still think it's a miracle that we have a homeland and I'd like us to appreciate it and nurture it and safeguard it — even when we don't agree with it."