Intense trip planning under way in East Bay: Journey to Israel aims to be a community-builder

What do you get when you put congregants and clergy from 14 synagogues, a federation, a JCC and 150 members of the Bay Area’s Jewish community together on an airplane to Israel?

For one, probably, a more talkative plane ride than most folks will take in their lifetimes.

But for participants on the East Bay Community Trip to Israel — a massive, nine-day Israel journey that will take place April 10 to 19, 2013 — conversations had while getting to the Jewish state will be just the beginning.

Rabbi Steve Chester in Jerusalem

The trip’s itinerary is not the norm. There are separate tracks that allow participants to pick from a multitude of experiences each day — from political to high-tech to historical.

And in an effort to reflect the diversity of the Jewish community, the trip is designed for first-timers as well as those visiting Israel for the 10th or 20th time.

The trip is being organized by the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, in partnership with the JCC of the East Bay and more than a dozen East Bay congregations.

“Going to Israel as a community has so many advantages, provides so many opportunities that individuals rarely get on their own,” said Riva Gambert, director of the federation’s Partnership for Israel. “For one, there are chances to meet influential leaders, scholars, politicians, etc. … but perhaps more importantly, there’s such a sense of excitement about doing this together. The hope is that this energy and the connections people make during the trip will carry over and help us to keep building community in the East Bay.”

Gambert said that so far, more than 80 people have signed up for the trip’s 150 to 200 slots. It’s open to anyone, though subsidies are available only for those who live or work in the East Bay federation’s region, which also includes Napa County.

A tourist poses with Israeli soldiers near David Ben-Gurion’s grave

On the trip website, the different options are laid out in detail. There are excursions based on five tracks: arts and culture; geopolitical landscape; historic Israel; green and high-tech innovations; and social action. Also, there is a separate itinerary for a young adults group, open to those ages 25 to 45, organized by EastBayJews.

Two optional trip extensions are available, one to Jordan (April 18-21) and one to Poland that is still in the planning stages; Gambert said the federation website will have details in the coming weeks. Another extension to Spain (April 18-29), a partnership with Lehrhaus Judaica, is already sold out.

The trip to Petra, Jordan, and the “spice route” will be led by Rabbi Steve Chester, rabbi emeritus of Oakland’s Temple Sinai. He is serving as chairman of the overall Israel trip, as well.

Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem

“I’ve led at least 10-plus congregational trips to Israel over the years, including at least five or six [with Temple Sinai], but this trip is truly innovative,” said Chester, who retired from the pulpit two years ago.

“This is a chance to bring together the East Bay’s entire Jewish community, which is a community that’s incredibly diverse in terms of observance, in terms of political differences,” he continued. “Some people have been to Israel many times, others never. But there’s something for everyone. One day you could learn about architecture, the next day have a conversation with someone you never would have otherwise … It’s incredibly exciting.”

Land costs for the basic trip range from about $2,400 to $2,900 per person, double occupancy. Subsidies of up to $750 are available to people who live or work in the East Bay or Napa. Those going on the EastBayJews excursion, with a land cost of $2,050, can apply for a subsidy of up to $1,050. Airfare costs are not included, but trip organizers are offering the services of a travel agent to help make reservations.

a shop in Jerusalem

Organizers say planning has been a giant undertaking — not only with regard to the trip itself, but also the dozen pre-trip information sessions and meetings at various East Bay locations that include films and speakers. Nine of these events will occur between Oct. 21 and Oct. 30; most are free, and the few events with admission fees will be free for trip registrants.

A full schedule of pre-trip classes is available on the website, but here is a small sampling:

On Oct. 21, Gambert will be speaking at Walnut Creek’s Congregation B’nai Shalom during an event spotlighting Israel visionary Theodor Herzl. On Oct. 25, the David Brower Center in Berkeley will screen two documentaries: “The Invisible Men” (about three gay Palestinians seeking refuge in Tel Aviv) and “The Name My Mother Gave Me” (which follows a group of Israeli 18-year-olds born in Ethiopia and the former USSR).


An outdoor café in Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek

Gambert said all of the events, which have myriad sponsors, will include information about the trip for prospective travelers.


“But the other part is helping people to create relationships, meet new friends and acquaintances,” she said. “This trip is all about bringing the East Bay together to make this community stronger. Ideally, we can start making those connections before people even get on the plane.”

East Bay Community Trip to Israel For information about registration, itineraries, subsidies and pre-trip events, visit or call (510) 318-6453.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.