A delegation of young adults recently returned from “Israel Next 2019,” a Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh mission to Israel. The highly subsidized June 30-July 10 endeavor afforded nearly 20 participants a chance to explore religious and cultural sites, make new friends and gain greater insight into Federation’s efforts abroad.
“It was a fantastic trip,” said Alex Goodstein, a South Hills resident and mission co-chair. “It was definitely nice to get to experience Israel for both the historical and religious aspects, and also to get to see a lot of modern-day Israel in Tel Aviv, and from the Jerusalem side to see how everybody from all different religions live in the city and everything that comes with it.”
What made this trip unique were the participants and “the wide range of observance levels of Judaism,” said mission staffer Sara Spanjer, Federation’s young adult division director.
At each stop, the group conversed on deep and meaningful topics, and in so doing, grew closer, she explained.
Visits to Rachel’s tomb and the Kotel offered moving experiences.
While visiting the former, “on the women’s side there were women there who pulled a few of our group members aside and had them say a line and repeat the line.” That was new for many in the group and generated great reflection “on the history of the Jewish people,” said Spanjer. “I would say the same for the Kotel.”
In visiting the Western Wall, “people really wanted to spend time, and they wrote thoughtful notes to put in the Wall for themselves and for friends and family.” The group was “definitely moved by the importance of the Kotel,” she added.
Amplifying the experience were constant reminders of closeness. On Friday night, mission members ate dinner at Federation Foundation Scholar Rabbi Danny Schiff’s Jerusalem home, and during the week, the group toured Karmiel and visited “the memorial that our partnership city placed to remember those 11 that were murdered [at Tree of Life],” said Spanjer.
While in Karmiel, the young adults also saw some of the three-day Karmiel Dance Festival, a global gathering of nearly 250,000 dance aficionados.
Goodstein said he “didn’t partake in any dances,” but was able to see the headlining concert on July 3.
Though the group was not there on July 5, Federation interest remained as Maria Caruso and dancers from her Bodiography company provided the festival’s final performance at Karmiel Cultural Hall.
Bodiography’s visit to Karmiel was due to the Federation’s Partnership2Gether relationship between Pittsburgh and the Karmiel/Misgav region, explained Federation’s overseas planning associate Debbie Swartz.
Discovering Federation’s specific commitment to the Jewish state was insightful, said Stacey Horvitz, a Squirrel Hill resident and mission co-chair. “We were able to go to places in Israel, different locations and facilities where Federation dollars go to, and we could see where that money is going and how it’s being used in the real world.”
Attaining this understanding was “significant because whenever any organization is asking for money you are kind of hesitant, but to be able to go to the facility and see how the money is being used,” it changes your appreciation, she added.
“I think you hear about it often but by going on these missions you get a firsthand look to see what’s happening in more of an experiential way,” echoed Spanjer. “You are able to understand the impact that Pittsburgh Jewry has in Israel, and it creates a special connection as well. It makes our worlds a lot closer and brings our communities a lot closer together.”
Horvitz agreed with the mission’s ability to build community, but placed focus on the participants.
“I went to Jewish day schools and I went to Allderdice for high school, and since high school I haven’t really been in a Jewish community or had a Jewish surrounding so it’s been kind of hard to meet people in that way,” said Horvitz. “A trip like this helps you form a community that you can’t do outside of a group trip or a group cohort, because in your life, with work, it’s difficult to make time to meet people and form close relationships.”
For many young adults finding connection can be difficult. The demographic is often “looking for smaller groups to connect with within the community,” said Spanjer, who in overseeing Federation’s young adult division helps bring together those aged 22 to 45.
Federation is “a place to be involved” and provides a space where young adults can “hopefully stay throughout their lives,” she continued. Participating in missions or committees, or being involved philanthropically in the community or in local synagogues, are all ways Federation can help people can connect.
Goodstein and Horvitz both praised Federation’s offering and subsidization of the trip.
Not including flights, expenses were around $700 per person. Stays included those at “four- and five-star hotels with great locations,” said Spanjer.
Because of this experience, “one of my goals upon returning is to be more proactive and plan events and not just wait for things to pop up,” noted Horvitz. In the meantime, “I will continue to look for other Federation trips to Israel and elsewhere, and stay involved.”
Participating in the mission was an eye-opening experience, continued Horvitz. “If they are doing a trip somewhere else in the world I would love to go with and see what other impact Federation is having in the world.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.