Eye-opener: JFNA trip runs the gamut of emotions

Eye-opener: JFNA trip runs the gamut of emotions

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, shown here with Meryl Ainsman, was one of many officials to meet with participants of the recent JFNA mission to Georgia, Turkey and Israel. (Photo provided by Meryl Ainsman)
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, shown here with Meryl Ainsman, was one of many officials to meet with participants of the recent JFNA mission to Georgia, Turkey and Israel. (Photo provided by Meryl Ainsman)

Six members of the local chapter of Jewish Federations of North America have just returned from a JFNA organized trip to Tbilisi, Georgia, and Israel. The Pittsburgh chapter also visited Istanbul for two days.

Randy Whitlatch, the incoming young adult chair, described meeting with some of the young leaders in Istanbul to learn about the Jewish community there. Unsurprisingly perhaps, considering the known anti-Semitic proclivities of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Whitlatch learned of their hesitation, and sometimes fear, about speaking openly about their religion. He described a sense that one could be Turkish or Jewish, but not both.

One of the young adult leaders there had even made aliyah and served in the army, but ultimately returned to Istanbul “because she was very committed to rebuilding and strengthening her community,” according to Jessica Brown Smith, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh campaign and financial resource development.

Tbilisi seemed to be the flip side of Istanbul, both in terms of its attitude toward its Jewish population — “no visible, or even invisible, anti-Semitism” according to Whitlatch — and the economic conditions of its people, who live in poverty. The focus of the trip was for Federation members to see their donations in action. Every Federation member said that the most meaningful moment from their time in Tbilisi was being sent to the grocery store with a shopping list and small stipend, after which they took the food to the family or person they had been assigned to visit. Ellen Teri Kaplan Goldstein, the co-chairperson for women’s philanthropy, called the experience “eye opening.”

Whitlatch said that the family he was shopping for had a little boy who that very day was turning 6, and so the Federation members pitched in some of their own money so they could buy him candy, cakes and coloring books. When they arrived at the house, they were unprepared for the level of poverty there. Whitlatch said that, seeing the lack of amenities, he thought of his own son, just the same age as this Georgian boy, and he began to cry, thinking of all the opportunity his son had, and to which this boy was just as entitled. For all the Federation visitors, this chance to see their donations in action was incredibly moving and meaningful.

From Tbilisi, the group carried on to Israel, where, among other things, they met with Dore Gold, an Israeli diplomat and the current president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, to discuss the Iran nuclear deal, which had only just been signed. Meryl Ainsman said that Gold was “very negative” about the deal and that the group was able to discuss some of the finer points with him.

Ainsman also spoke about visiting the memorial on Har Herzl for Ethiopian Jews who had died on the way to Israel. Since it was the one-year anniversary of the conflict in Gaza last summer, she said that the cemetery was packed and that their guide said it was only ever that full on Yom Hazikaron.

For Becca Hurowitz, the highlight was hearing from a young soldier named Itamar, who was involved in Operation Protective Edge last summer. To hear about what he and his friends went through during the conflict was difficult, but to see his poise and strength was a “testament to the Israeli spirit in the face of such adversity.”

Whitlatch enjoyed the discussion with Gold and the visit to the memorial but said that for him, the real highlight was a visit to Sderot, always on the forefront of conflicts with Gaza due to its proximity to the border. He remembered that last summer he couldn’t visit any of southern Israel due to “missiles raining down on the population.” This summer, the group not only visited there, they stayed for a dinner that ended with soldiers, locals and members of the travel group all singing and dancing as one. To experience that happiness and harmony in a city that only a year before had been full of fear and anxiety was a “wonderful, poignant moment,” and Whitlatch said that, looking around him, he thought, “Am Yisrael chai — the Jewish people live.”

Masha Shollar is an intern for The Chronicle. She can be reached at mashas@thejewishchronicle.net.