Trekking, together: East Bay community trip to Israel builds identity, friendships

At 8 p.m. on Yom HaZikaron, the start of Israel’s Memorial Day, a siren wails in Tel Aviv. On the broad boulevard next to the boardwalk, the sound rises up above the din of traffic and the gently crashing waves of the Mediterranean Sea, 30 yards away.

In the street, cars move swiftly to the curb; their owners climb out and stand next to them for a full minute, eyes cast to the ground.

This isn’t a religious holiday, but among Israelis, it might as well be; the reverence shown for fallen soldiers on this day seems like anything but civic duty. It’s personal: Most people know at least one person who has died in the line of duty.

For one day, Israelis set aside political, social and religious differences and come together to connect and share stories as a community.

In an attempt to do something similar, a group of 142 people from the East Bay Jewish community — ranging in age from their early 20s to late 70s — traveled to Israel from April 10 to 19.

The East Bay Community Trip to Israel, roughly two years in the making, brought together members of 14 congregations and staff from the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, who sponsored the trip in partnership with the JCC of the East Bay and the Jewish Community Relations Council — as well as a few stragglers from the other side of the bay (this reporter included) and elsewhere. About a third were first-time visitors; others had been to Israel a dozen times; others, still, had lived there.

The trip was large-scale not only in scope, but also in its vision.

Terraces in the Judean Hills photo/emma silvers

The hope of organizers was that by exploring Israel together, as a kind of extended family, folks of all kinds — from all corners of the East Bay, from an often politically fragmented Jewish community — would strengthen their attachments to the Jewish state and to each other.

“I’ve led at least 10 congregational trips to Israel over the years, including at least five or six [with Temple Sinai], but this trip is truly innovative,” Rabbi Steven Chester, the trip’s chair, told j. late last year. “It’s a chance to bring together the East Bay’s entire Jewish community — incredibly diverse in terms of observance, in terms of political differences.”

In other words, the trip presented a prime opportunity for “community building,” and in one particular instant in Israel, that phrase morphed from programming-speak into something very real.

It was the evening of Yom HaZikaron, on April 14, steps from the beach, when about 60 trip participants gathered for a memorial service in front of a disco where 21 teenagers were killed by a Hamas suicide bomber in 2001. Parents of some of the bombing victims stood nearby.

Olives at Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market photo/emma silvers

Moments before the siren indicated it was time for the moment of silence, Rabbi Harry Manhoff of San Leandro’s Temple Beth Sholom led the group in prayer. Myrna David, East Bay regional director of the JCRC, offered a poem. Chester placed a wreath of flowers bearing the words “The Jewish Federation of the East Bay” at the site’s memorial plaque.

Then the siren blared, and all cast their eyes downward in unison with the Israeli community around them.

“Some of the parents [of the victims] expressed to me afterward how meaningful that was for them,” said Riva Gambert, director of the Partnership for Israel at the East Bay federation.

It also was one of the most vivid memories for the East Bay travelers, in a week packed with standout moments.

East Bay federation president Claudia Felson (left) joins others trip participants to pick turnips for the needy photo/courtesy of the jewish federation of the east bay

Gambert was instrumental in the trip’s multifaceted planning process over the past two years, while Robbie and Len Cohn were involved as the group’s community chairs.

The journey began in Jerusalem. At a welcome dinner, there was a performance by musicians from an urban kibbutz in Akko affiliated with Dror Israel, the social action movement aimed at improving the educational system in Arab villages and connections between Jewish and Arab youth.

Over the course of 10 days, with roughly half spent in Jerusalem and half in Tel Aviv, participants chose from daylong excursions on four tracks — historical, geopolitical, innovations/green/technology, and arts and culture.

For example, participants could meet with leading Israeli environmentalist Alon Tal for a day of tree-planting while learning about the strides Israel is making in recycling and sustainability, then spend the next day touring Tel Aviv art galleries or visiting rocket shelters in Sderot.

The first morning, before heading out for our excursions, participants sat for a panel discussion on Israel’s changing identity. “At 65, Israel is facing a midlife crisis,” said Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former Knesset member and now the chief rabbi of Norway.

Rabbi Michael Schwartz explains a memorial to bombing victims in Jerusalem photo/emma silvers

Hebrew University professor Reuven Hazan gave an overview of changes to look for in Israeli politics as a result of the 48 new Knesset members recently sworn in.

Noa Sattath, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, touched on Anat Hoffman’s October 2012 arrest at the Western Wall and the strides being made for women, and also stressed the importance of speaking honestly about the Jewish state.

“I like the saying ‘Love is what remains after you know the truth,’ ” she said. “In order to change, we need to acknowledge our strengths and weaknesses and learn from them.”

In addition to more typical organized-trip-to-Israel fare, there also were many offerings that most casual Jerusalem tourists likely never see.

A class photo: The East Bay Community Trip in Jerusalem photo/courtesy of the jewish federation of the east bay

On April 12, Rabbi Michael Schwartz, formerly of Rabbis for Human Rights, led a guided tour of East Jerusalem; discussion along the way included an in-depth look at the tensions around the security barrier between Israel and the West Bank.

Schwartz spoke to the importance of terminology: “You’ll hear politicians refer to the ‘Jerusalem envelope,’ ” he said. “It’s a nice way of sounding inclusive without actually touching the issue … whether you call it a security fence or a separation barrier or a wall, etc., is always political.”

(Back on the bus, Shir, one of the young educators from Dror Israel, said that no matter what she calls the barrier, she’s always conscious of her word choices when discussing it. “Nothing feels right,” she lamented.)

Near a checkpoint, the group left the bus to view the security wall from close up. Schwartz asked the participants to set aside politics for a moment and consider the psychological effects of the barrier for Palestinians who live in the West Bank. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the security fence is gray,” he said. “There are no simple answers here.”

Sheri Lockshin and Michele Waxman

Piling back on the bus, we made our way over the Green Line and into an Arab village, guided by a Palestinian activist Schwartz had partnered with through Friends of the Earth Middle East — a joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian NGO aimed at solving regional environmental problems — to hear about how the challenge of sharing and cleaning up water sources is bringing people together from all sides of the conflict. (Schwartz serves as a development director for the organization.) We walked around to get an up-close look at pristine Roman pools, and learned about the terraces believed to have been maintained and irrigated by residents of the Judean Hills for 2,000 years — an early farming system on which their way of life relied.

We stopped for lunch in the village; a resident affiliated with the nonprofit opened his home for a meal of falafel, hummus and mujadara (lentils, rice and onions). A week after returning home, Sally Kauffman Flinchbaugh, director of the JCC of the East Bay, said that afternoon is still vivid in her mind.

“Aside from learning about what Friends of the Earth is trying to do, which I found really interesting, I was honestly shocked to have someone there open up their home to us and feed us lunch,” she said. “I mean, what a gift.”

And while political views around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ranged widely among trip participants — reflecting the wide spectrum of viewpoints in the Bay Area’s Jewish community — the animosity some have come to expect when the topic is broached was noticeably absent.

Jay and Susan Jaffe

“I think the agenda, the diversity of excursions and of the speakers was in itself a reflection of our ability to imagine and think about Israel in nuanced and complicated ways, to move beyond a more simplistic understanding of it,” said Rabbi Yoel Kahn, of Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El. (Kahn was one of six local rabbis on the trip, as was East Bay federation CEO Rabbi James Brandt.)

“I heard many participants appreciating [that diversity], saying ‘You know what? This [the peace process] is really complicated,’ ” Kahn said.

Kahn said he was happy to see the travelers experiencing a “more nuanced understanding of borders and boundaries, and also religious issues, as well,” and he noted the concerted effort to acknowledge American Jews’ pluralistic view of the conflict.

He did lament, however, that there wasn’t an actual forum for such discussion during the trip. “I did hear comments from people who thought that others could have benefited from that.”

Len and Robbie Cohn

Throughout it all, there were no verbal sparring matches on any hot-button issues. “I think there were some hard moments for people, but everyone was respectful,” Kahn said.

Such a level of respect, Kahn added, should not be overlooked. It’s a sign of positive change in the Jewish community, he said.

“For me personally, it reflects maturity and growth in the Jewish community that one excursion option in Tel Aviv was to a gay and lesbian resource center,” — that a trip to Hoshen, Israel’s largest LGBT nonprofit, “was something the federation would plan. Nowadays it might seem like a no-brainer, but if you look back just 20 or 30 years ago, that’s a big switch for the Jewish community. We’ve come a long way.”

Sarah Magliaro and Brian Landes

The idea of being open to multiple narratives about Israel — and to the possibility that the most deeply ingrained ones should, in fact, grow and change from one generation to the next — was an undercurrent that ran through excursions to even the most iconic, storied sites.

On top of Masada, for instance, Rabbi Manhoff was happy to hear an explanation of the differing theories behind the mountain’s history. The story of mass suicide taught in most Israeli schoolbooks since the 1960s, we learned, has since been challenged by archaeological evidence — and the symbolism of a people willing to die rather than become slaves cannot necessarily be taken at face value, said our guide from Da’at, an education and tourism company.

Manhoff said he planned to bring the different takes on Masada to his monthly “history Shabbat” at Beth Sholom.

Zach Landres-Schnur and Loal Isaacs

He also said he appreciated the opportunity to do social action on the trip. He and his daughter, Rinat, were part of a group that chose an excursion around Tel Aviv that started with a dialogue with Joseph Gitler, founder of Leket Israel, a national food bank that distributes surplus food to the needy. The group harvested turnips and other crops for a village near the city of Gedera and met with Friends by Nature, which works to improve opportunities for at-risk immigrants and first-generation Israelis of Ethiopian origin.

Having lived in Israel in the late ’80s, and having visited many times since, Manhoff said the trip’s social action, environmental and technology-focused offerings made it unique.

“Getting to explore all these different modern elements of society instead of doing the historical things, it was a very different trip for me, which I appreciated,” he said.

By contrast, first-time visitor Sarah Magliaro said she came home feeling that she’d gotten a very different view of Israel than she would have if she had been with a regular tour group.

Federation CEO Rabbi Jim Brandt takes a photo on Masada

“I had no idea what to expect,” said Magliaro, 30, who moved to Walnut Creek about two years ago and joined Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, which sent a contingent led by Rabbi Judy Shanks. (A similar, sizeable group from Oakland’s Temple Sinai was led by Rabbi Andrew Straus.)

During her first few days home, Magliaro said she kept drifting back to different moments from the journey.

“It’s interesting, because I had something of an expectation about how I was going to feel at the Kotel and I didn’t feel that way at all,” she said. “But other things far surpassed my imagination. Going to Yad Vashem honestly made me feel proud to be part of a people that has stood the test of time throughout thousands of years no matter what the world has thrown at us. And I got that feeling just being in the land — driving through the desert, meeting Israelis, being immersed in the culture made me feel a lot more connected than I was expecting.”

Joanne Peterson and Richard Sutkin

Another highlight for Magliaro was visiting Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and meeting Rabbi Naamah Kelman, now the school’s dean, who in 1992 became the first female rabbi to be ordained in Israel.

“It was so meaningful to hear her talk about the push for gender equality, and the way small incremental progress is like tiny pebbles filling up a vase,” said Magliaro. “She’s literally a sign of progress, so it was a blessing” to hear her speak.

As a fairly recent Bay Area transplant, Magliaro also said it was valuable to meet people from around the Jewish community she likely wouldn’t otherwise meet.

EastBayJews, a relatively new young adult community within the federation, didn’t quite attract the numbers organizers had hoped for. But the small group of those in their 20s and 30s was fairly tight-knit by the trip’s end. Loal Isaacs of the federation said he was planning a reunion for this group in the coming months.

Rabbi Yoel Kahn leads a tour to Jerusalem’s Old City photo/emma silvers

As for the rest of the community, Rabbi Kahn said he was so inspired by his visit to the Bina Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture in Tel Aviv that his Berkeley congregation will be partnering with it in the coming months.

Gambert said multiple reunions and other events are in the works for all of the travelers over the next six months. She also said federation staff will be meeting with rabbis to discuss how else they might keep the trip’s momentum going.

“Hopefully the energy we saw on the trip, the interest in Israel and just the excitement that people expressed about doing this kind of thing together will carry through once everyone is home,” she said.

Learning about the Alexander River clean-up project photo/emma silvers

As for the next one? It will take some planning but, she said, “We definitely have another trip like this in our future.”

Or, as Kahn put it, “Several people have told me they can’t wait to go back. I think it’s fair to say everyone on the trip came away with a deepened understanding of Israel in all its dimensions.

“We know one mitzvah leads to another,” he added. “I think one trip leads to another as well.”


J. staff writer Emma Silvers joined the East Bay Community Trip to Israel in April.


on the cover
photo/emma silvers
On Masada

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.