Life-changing journey: JCC staff trip to Israel deepens one mans connection

“I never thought I would make it this far,” Art Lucio said as he stood at the Western Wall in Jerusalem earlier this year.

If you didn’t know Lucio, you probably would have thought he was talking about the long plane ride from San Francisco to Israel. But his co-workers with him on the JCC of San Francisco’s annual staff trip to the Holy Land knew he was actually referring to a very different kind of journey — one that cannot be measured in miles.

Though he’s now a respected employee at the JCCSF, where he has worked in the maintenance department for six years, Lucio, 40, has had a rocky road. Born to migrant workers from Mexico, Lucio was raised Catholic before he dropped out of high school in his hometown of Salinas. He was in and out of jail for most of his 20s.

Ten years ago, he never could have imagined one day feeling so at home in the Jewish community, as well as in the Jewish state.

Things began to turn around for Lucio when he was introduced to the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco through the Jericho Project, which bills itself as “a state-licensed, residential, 12-month program for recovery from substance abuse and criminal behavior.” What was at first a temporary job turned into a permanent position and an ongoing association with the Jewish community that has helped Lucio stay clean and out of trouble.

Ein Avdat in the Negev Desert photo/courtesy of jccsf

“Art’s journey has been so extraordinary,” said Jhos Singer, a maggid (Jewish spiritual leader) and teacher who accompanied Lucio and 11 other JCC employees on the Israel trip in January. “A profound thing has happened for him since he stepped into the JCC. He is accepted as a human being and his past is not important. He has gained a sense of respect and belonging, and that helps him maintain the teshuvah [repentance] he has made,” Singer explained.

The JCC staff trip to Israel, and a series of learning workshops leading up to it, has taken place annually since 2007. Made possible by a grant from Sandy and Linda Gallanter, the 12-day trip is an opportunity for members of the staff of more than 300 — from various backgrounds, including many who are not Jewish — to bond and learn firsthand about Israel and its importance in the JCCSF’s mission.

The itinerary varies each year, but typically includes historic sites, cultural activities, and meetings and study sessions with a wide range of experts. There are also exchanges with the JCCSF’s sister community centers in Holon, and community-building or tzedakah activities. The Peninsula JCC in Foster City also sends along one or two employees each year.

Staff members are accepted through a competitive process, which includes being nominated by a supervisor, followed by a formal application with an essay.

Art Lucio photo/cathleen maclearie

Chris Sundblad, the JCCSF’s director of building operations and Lucio’s boss, said Lucio “was very emotional” when he was selected for the winter 2013 trip. “It signified for him a certain level of acceptance, and it’s a badge he wears proudly,” Sunblad added.

Singer said that from the moment Lucio stepped off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport, Israelis couldn’t stop staring at him. They didn’t know what to make of this bear of a Latino man — he stands 6 feet and weighs 280 pounds — with a conspicuous Hebrew tattoo on his arm.

Lucio is proud to show off his tattoo, which has his full name, Arturo Lucio, spelled out in Hebrew letters. Though he doesn’t speak Hebrew, he considers the tattoo a mark of how much the JCCSF and the San Francisco Jewish community mean to him — and how far he has come.

“When I first came here and they told me it was time to build the sukkah, I asked, ‘What the hell is a sukkah?’ ” Lucio recalled. Now, not only does he know what a sukkah is and when to put it up, but he’s also become the resident Jewish maven among the maintenance staff.

“The guys know to ask me about stuff, because they know I’ve been here so long,” he said. When they ask him about the little black boxes they see some Jews wearing on their foreheads, he explains  that they are tefillin and that if someone is wearing them, it means “He’s more into his religion.”

Lucio is also vigilant about the observance of kashrut among the workers. “I tell the guys, ‘No pork!’ ” he said with a laugh. “It isn’t easy, because Mexicans eat nothing but pork.”


Art Lucio visits a school for boys in Holon with staff from the JCCSF.

Lucio, who is single, lives with a Jewish roommate, and they celebrate what he calls “Chrismukkah.”

“We’ve got the tree and the menorah,” Lucio said. “I light the candles with him each night. I do it for him, because he had a bit of a crisis with his faith, and I am trying to help lead him back.”

Lucio also bought a Star of David necklace in Israel for his roommate. “He wears it all the time,” Lucio said.

“I try to practice the Shabbat thing,” he said. “I turn my phone off for three hours every Sunday. It’s a good way for me to reflect on just being here.”

Lucio was born in the United States, but his parents came from Mexico as migrant agricultural workers, picking strawberries in California, cotton in Texas and potatoes in Idaho. The family settled in Salinas when Art was a toddler.

Their neighborhood was characterized by a lot of gang and drug activity. Lucio said the pull of the gangs was strong — many of his friends were in them, plus his parents worked long hours and weren’t at home. But he said he did not participate in gang violence or crime, largely because of the positive influence of an uncle who spent a lot of time with the kids.

But at age 18, Lucio dropped out of Salinas High School, and within three years he had done his first stint in jail, though he didn’t want to get into any specifics on the types of crimes he was committing. Also, he said he doesn’t regret not graduating from high school; rather, he views himself as a good example for people who don’t graduate, showing that you can make it in life if you keep fighting for yourself.

Visting the Western Wall are (from left) Jhos Singer, Art Lucio, Matt Johnson, Ariel Goldstein and Seth Hazen.

Lucio isn’t a practicing Catholic anymore, but says that  he believes in God and experienced some spine-tingling spiritual moments while in Israel. “I could feel the presence of God,” he said of his walk around Jerusalem’s Old City, where he was especially moved during his visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on a Sunday. “It was so beautiful,” he said.

Brennan Walsh, who until recently was the JCCSF’s customer service manager, noted that the trip seemed to affect Lucio more profoundly than it did other staff members. The two men were roommates on the trip, and every night they would rehash events of the day.

“Art didn’t take the trip for granted,” Walsh said. “It was very intense and the pace was go, go, go, and Art did get tired. However, he kept a high level of engagement and enthusiasm,” Walsh said.

Walsh observed that it seemed as though Lucio shaped the experience for the others. “He shared pure and heartfelt responses in our group discussions, and this helped the others go deeper.”

Israel was a huge surprise for Lucio. “I thought I’d see camels and people walking around in long robes,” he said. “It wasn’t what I expected. It’s a modern country.”

Lucio shows his camel-wrangling skills as Michele Pfeifer (left) and Tina Pascual-Dequina take a ride in Mamsheet in the Negev Desert.

One of the hardest parts of the trip for Lucio was the group’s visit to Yad Vashem, the center for Holocaust documentation, education, research and commemoration. It was his first opportunity to learn about the Holocaust, and it overwhelmed him to the point of tears. “I literally broke down,” he said.

On a lighter note, Lucio made sure to sample the foods of Israel, but he discovered that he didn’t like certain types of street food. “Shwarma is not my thing,” he said.

He did manage to find a restaurant called Mexicana in Tel Aviv, but ended up disappointed by its attempt to serve authentic Mexican food, the kind of cuisine he grew up eating.

While the flautas and tortilla soup didn’t measure up, experiencing Shabbat in Israel was a real treat.

“Cars are practically running you over on weekdays, and then the streets are suddenly empty on Shabbat. It was a real Shabbat,” he said. “I remember that it was like that on Christmas morning when I was a kid.”

Lucio made the trip to Israel for his entire family as much as for himself. His relatives gave him notes with wishes and prayers to place in between the stones of the Kotel. He said his two older brothers and younger sister are very proud of who he has become, and now they like to spend time with him. They look to him as a father figure, even though he is the youngest brother.

The group visits Jaffa, with Tel Aviv skyline in background. photos/courtesy of jccsf

“Art is clearly looking for a permanent change in his life,” Sundblad said. “He’s proven himself. He’s a hard worker and wants to grow in his position [currently he is managing the remodel of the women’s locker room]. He clearly embraces more than just the paycheck.”

The trip and his job at the JCC have helped Lucio fulfill a promise he made to his mother in the hospital shortly before she passed away a decade ago. He told her he would turn his life around.

He said he’s sorry that she isn’t around to see his transformation, but he felt her presence before and during the Israel trip. He flew to Israel on Jan. 13, which was the anniversary of her death, and his visit to the Kotel four days later was on the anniversary of her burial.

“My mom would be very proud of me,” Lucio said.

Lucio left Israel feeling a special connection to the place. He hopes to someday return for another visit. In the meantime, there is another Jewish place he belongs.

“The JCC has given me a second chance in life,” he said.

“I finally belong somewhere. This is my home,” he added. “In fact, I feel more at home at the JCC than I do even in my own home.”

on the cover

JCCSF staff member Art Lucio  photo/cathleeen maclearie

Renee Ghert-Zand
Renee Ghert-Zand

Renee Ghert-Zand is a Jerusalem-based freelance journalist. She made aliyah from Palo Alto with her family in June 2014.