Several West Virginia Jews from the Huntington area dialed in to a conference call last week, anxious to learn if their mission to Israel — several months in the works — was still on.
It was, they learned, pending a cease-fire, which was soon declared.
So 25 Jews from small Federation communities — 18 from Huntington alone — left Monday morning for the Jewish state.
For Linda Pickholtz Klein, a Pittsburgh native, Huntington resident and mission chair, the trip, which runs from Nov. 26 through Dec. 6, and also includes Jews from Wilmington, N.C., and Cheyenne, Wyo., is first and foremost about West Virginia Jews, particularly members of B’nai Shalom Congregation in Huntington.
Asked if she considers it a West Virginia mission, Pickholtz Klein said, “We absolutely do.”
In fact, the idea for the mission took root this past January when a leading Huntington Jewish family discussed ways to interest local Jews in traveling to Israel.
The Weisberg family heavily subsidized the cost of the trip for the Huntington participants.
“Joan Weisberg and her daughter, Martha Weisberg Barvin, who lives in Houston, were musing over how no one had been to Israel from Huntington for a long time, and how could they encourage people to go,” Pickholtz Klein said.
By the end of January, Martha called Martin Greenberg, executive director of the Network of Independent Communities for the Jewish Federations of North America, which covers Huntington, and said she wanted to buy half a bus for a mission.
That was all Greenberg needed to know. “As soon as I heard about it, I flew down to Huntington to meet with Martha Barvin … met with Art [Weisberg], I met with the whole family and we designed it right then and there,” he said. “Art” was Arthur Weisberg, 88, a Huntington businessman and philanthropist and patriarch of the Weisberg family that heavily subsidized trip. He died last week, days before the mission left.
Even though the trip is on, “we go with sadness because Art Weisberg passed away,” Pickholtz Klein said.
A Federation mission comprised mostly of West Virginia Jews may be a first, according to Greenberg. “There’s never been one before that I’m aware of.”
I think it’s a very special trip,” he continued. “It’s bringing first-time [visitors] who have not been to Israel, and people who haven’t been there in 25 years.”
The mission will visit Dimona, which serves as the Partnership2gether city in Israel for Network of Independent Communities.
“One thing our going demonstrates is that life goes on,” Greenberg said. “Israelis have been essentially under threat since the beginning of the state and they have developed a remarkable ability to live life to the fullest under the circumstances.
“We’re bringing hugs to our Israeli brothers and sisters,” he added, “and we’re expecting to get a lot back.”
At first, the mission lined up 44 participants from Huntington; Wilmington; Cheyenne; Huron, Ohio; and Kalamazoo, Mich.
“Because it’s been organized through the JFNA Small Communities, it was opened to them as well,” Pickoltz Klein said.
Some dropped out after the fighting began, but a substantial number remained committed even as they waited for word of a cease-fire.
“We had a conference call last Tuesday with Marty.
“We were told if there was not a cease-fire we would not go,” Pickholtz Klein said. “We were very pleased when we had 18 from our greater Huntington community and 25 in total.”
One of the participants is Rabbi Jean E. Eglinton, the second-year spiritual leader of B’nai Shalom, who used the mission as an education tool in her Shabbat “Eat Pray Learn” classes.
“Everybody is very excited to go; the only anxiety is [about] 10 hours on an airplane. They’re really just thrilled to be doing this,” Pickholtz Klein said. “It’s not only an opportunity for us to learn more about Israel, but it is also an opportunity for us to show some solidarity with the people over there.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)