Rabbi Alex Greenbaum spent a year living in Israel during his rabbinic training in the early 1990s, but there are two days of that year that stand out in his memory: Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut.
“I remember those days more than any other,” said Greenbaum, the spiritual leader of Beth El Congregation. “Yom HaZikaron is Memorial Day, and Yom HaAtzmaut is Independence Day. You go from the saddest day of the year to the happiest day of the year in the blink of an eye.”
For 24 hours, Greenbaum noted, sadness permeates the whole country as families remember loved ones who were killed in battle or as victims of terrorism. Then, after sunset, as Yom HaAtzmaut arrives, the Jewish state breaks into celebration.
“Their Independence Day is not just about fireworks,” Greenbaum said. “Israelis are not just celebrating freedom and independence, but their very survival.”
Greenbaum, along with three other local Conservative rabbis, hopes to share the inspiration of Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut with a mission of 40 Jewish Pittsburghers who will travel on a joint congregational tour of Israel this spring. The group will observe the holidays with the community of Karmiel, Pittsburgh’s Partnership2Gether sister city.
Rabbi Chuck Diamond of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of New Light and Rabbi Yaier Lehrer of Adat Shalom, together with Greenbaum, will be leading the 10-day tour that departs Pittsburgh on April 19, 2015. It is the first time the four congregations have organized a tour of Israel together.
“I’ve been wanting to do a congregational trip for a few years,” said Diamond. “Alex and I were sitting around one day, and just said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
For Perlman, the timing of the trip — less than a year after Operation Protective Edge — is significant.
“We wanted to have a mission to Israel after the war in Gaza to show our solidarity with Israel,” Perlman said, adding that he got involved with the trip because he is “a passionate Zionist and jumps at opportunities to introduce people to Israel.”
“It’s a good time for Jewish Pittsburgh to say to Israel, ‘We’re with you, and we care, and you are something we will celebrate forever.’”
While all four rabbis identify as Conservative, they are diverse in ideology as well as personality, which will add to the richness of the joint tour, according to Lehrer.
“We’re all different guys, and that’s a good thing,” Lehrer said. “Everyone comes from a different perspective, and we’ll be able to see things while in Israel through four different filters. It will become a very different educational experience.”
The difference in the spectrum of practices and views of the four rabbis “might make for some interesting discussions,” Perlman said.
Although the itinerary is not yet finalized, highlights of the mission will include Tel Aviv, the Old City of Jaffa, Caesaria, Acco, Tiberias, Jerusalem and Masada.
Organizers have been able to keep the cost of the trip — including land and air — around $4,000 thanks to a grant from the MOFET Institute, an Israeli nonprofit that promotes education. MOFET will provide some learning opportunities for the group while in Israel.
“The trip is geared toward adults and leadership development,” Perlman noted, adding that people who have previously visited Israel would benefit from this mission because of its focus on education, history and archeology.
“It’s appropriate for people who want to bond with the land,” he said.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh has been helpful in arranging the Karmiel portion of the trip, said Diamond, and has provided a grant to help cover some of the costs as well.
The rabbis have been working with Tsipy Gur, executive director of Classrooms Without Borders, in developing the itinerary and other aspects of the tour.
“We have been benefiting from Tsipy’s expertise,” Diamond said, adding that his wife, Mickie Diamond, has been assisting Gur with the planning.
Gur arranged the tour guide for the group, Avi Ben-Hur, scholar-in-residence and director of education for Classrooms Without Borders. Ben-Hur, who made aliya in 1983, served as the director of the Archaeological Seminars School for Israeli Tour Guides for several years. He is on the faculty of the University of Haifa Tourism School and is an examiner for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, in addition to his responsibilities for Classrooms without Borders.
One intention of the joint trip is to build community among the four Conservative congregations that are participating, Lehrer said.
“It’s important for people to get to know each other,” he said. “It’s nice to have a single denomination together, even though there is a lot of diversity within the denomination. But we all identify ourselves as Conservative liturgically and halachically. This builds a Conservative family, as it were.”
Those interested in learning about the trip were able to meet with Ben-Hur at an informational open house on Dec. 7 at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha.
Members of the community who are not affiliated with any of the four participating congregations are welcome to join the mission, Diamond said, but cautioned that space was limited.
“My only fear is that we won’t have a big enough bus,” Greenbaum said.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.