DIY Israel Meet-Up draws like-minded adventurers

Like many Jewish baby boomers, my wife, Ilene Serlin, and I have visited Israel over the past decades and cultivated a kinship to the land and people. We wanted to share with others the Israel we knew, believing that too many Jews miss the opportunity to “do” Israel actively rather than just “see” Israel passively through organized visits to the usual sites.

Working through our synagogue, Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, we developed a different kind of group trip. We used social media and an innovative website to recruit participants and create an affordable trip based on a themed itinerary of hiking and unusual off-road site visits.

We called the May trip an Israel Meet-Up, in the tradition of popular online communities that bring together like-minded people for specified activities. We created a framework in which participants would fly to Israel on their own and find their own lodgings, but would then sign up for organized daily activities, enjoying the companionship of fellow visitors to bond with during the Israel experience.

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation partnered with us to arrange meetings with some of their grantee organizations in Israel so we could understand how our community is actively contributing to a more inclusive and pluralistic society. In addition, Israelis traveled with us on the ground, as participants and guides.

The hiking component of the trip brought us in close contact with the actual land of Israel. Hiking the Judean Hills, we saw a flowering plant with red berries called Blood of the Maccabees, which has become the symbol of Yom HaZikaron, the Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers and terror victims. The legend is that the plant grows wherever a drop of blood has been spilled. Reminders of the price for Israeli Jewish sovereignty, in history and now, are everywhere.

Climbing to the monument of the battle of Castel outside Jerusalem, we could see how the hilltops populated by Arab villagers in Mandate Palestine enabled them to choke off Jerusalem during the War of Independence in 1948. Those hills were designated as Arab territory according to the 1947 U.N. partition plan, which was accepted by Israel and rejected by the Arab nations. After three Israeli convoys were attacked and destroyed, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion gave the order to conquer the hills. Castel was the first and most important fortification that was conquered in order to keep the road to Jerusalem open.

This marked a radical change in the Israeli mindset. When attacked, Israeli defense would not just accept borders and restrictions devised by the international community and ignored by adversaries. Defense became offense in order to better Israel’s position. Many Israelis adopt this Castel strategy today in regard to the Golan, Jerusalem and the West Bank.

In the Jerusalem hills, we hiked down the steep trail through the Sataf Ancient Agricultural Reserve, which was re-created by the Jewish National Fund. The terraced gardens show how irrigation was engineered throughout history and how important eco-agriculture, conservation and recycling are in modern Israel, carrying forth the ancient tradition of tending the land. Hundreds of children of all ages were with us on the trail. Schools in Israel require field trips to historic sites, and we could see Israeli kids connecting to the land just as we were.

The miracle was not just that the Israelis have found a way to use limited water resources to help the land flourish, but that those boisterous Jewish children were so at ease because their ancestors had fled persecution to settle in a land where children could live freely.

One federation grantee we visited was Neurim, a social service program that operates in 14 Druze villages. It seeks to integrate young Druze into Israeli society by encouraging artistic expression.

Rana Ghanem Zeeneldeen and Motkal Halabi, Neurim professional staffers, accompanied us though Daliat-al-Karmel, a large Druze village near Haifa, and its community center. They took us into rooms where young girls and boys were engaged in cultural and artistic activities supervised by caring adults who nurtured their talent and imagination. We were inspired by the dedication of the Druze to retain their culture, while striving to contribute to a better Israeli society.

One of the Meet-Up participants, Bonnie Weiss, a Kol Shofar congregant who lives in Larkspur, expressed what my wife and I had hoped to accomplish with this trip. She wrote: “Your goal was for us to see the Israel that people don’t usually see and to develop a heart connection and passion for Israel and its people. You were totally successful in your vision … . I come away wiser, deeper, more thoughtful and certainly more connected.”

Experiential Israel trips can build community here and improve our connection to Israelis in a special, unforgettable way. Through the example of this Meet-Up, my wife and I seek to persuade other congregations and federations to think outside the box in planning Israel trips, recognizing that there are many ways for groups to visit Israel in a Zionist-oriented way.

Jeff Saperstein of Mill Valley is a longtime volunteer in the Jewish community and a former marketing director for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. He chairs the Bridges to Israel speakers’ series at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.