Back in November, when the war in Iraq was looming, Rabbi Elazar Muskin planned a Passover mission to Israel.
"We didn't know when the war was going to begin and end, but we were determined to go to Israel," said Muskin, the leader of Young Israel of Century City (YICC), speaking about his own mission and a similar one planned by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue on New York's Upper East Side.
The two rabbis had planned their trips separately -- they never even spoke to each other about it -- but they couldn't help but see each other in Jerusalem on the holiday, since they were virtually the only two synagogue groups there.
The April trip was the fourth mission Muskin has led to Israel since 2002, bringing some 200 people to Israel. At a time when tourism has almost flatlined in the Jewish State, missions like Muskin's and Bnei David-Judea's March 25 mission are few and far between, despite the publicity each group generates when it sends one.
Muskin, who has been the leader of YICC for the last 17 years, attributes this situation to a lack of leadership in the Jewish community.
"There is a failure in leadership, otherwise there would be more people going to Israel," Muskin told The Journal from Pearson International Airport in Toronto on the El Al layover to Israel. "You have a community that is stricken with fear.... And if the rabbis would get up as leaders and take missions, you would have people follow."
Muskin says that his own trips have inspired others to go.
"I get calls from other congregations, [asking] 'Rabbi Muskin how do we do these missions?' And I spend an hour on the phone [helping them plan a mission]."
Muskin is not laying blame solely on the rabbis.
"Major national Jewish organizations missed the boat this Pesach. Why was it that there were only two solidarity missions this Pesach in Jerusalem?" He asks vehemently, but in wonder. "I don't know why people don't lead ... but it's a dearth of communal leadership."
For Muskin, who brings his wife and two daughters on all his missions to Israel, it's not a matter of ego to lead these missions, but one of urgency.
The 47-year-old rabbi remembers joining an Israel Bonds mission some years ago.
"They would ask you for your own commitment -- what kind of bond you were buying -- and they asked you, 'Are you leading a group to go to Israel?'"
Muskin remembers thinking it would be silly to lead a mission, since most of his shul members went to Israel on their own.
"Then the Intifada started, and then I realized, they do need me, nobody was going," he said.
Last month's trip was the first time Muskin had been to Israel for the holiday, and accompanied by some 26 people from April 14-April 26, he said it was a special trip. From baking matzah at a factory in Meah She'arim in Jerusalem, to visiting a dairy farm kibbutz in the Jordan Valley (where a former Angeleno lived), the Emunah World Travel-sponsored trip showed people different facets of Israeli life. The bulletproof bus also took the mission to the West Bank, visiting Hebron and Samarian cities like Shiloh, of which the tour guide Era Rappaport had been mayor.
Although the trip reflects Muskin's political views, he doesn't believe it's a political trip.
"They should see the headlines, where it's all happening. When you see it, then make up your mind. See what they're doing in Hebron? Are they really crazy? Is it really worth it?" he asked. "You can't understand what you read in the newspaper until you see it."
Nothing sets off the passionate red-haired rabbi like the subject of Americans visiting Israel. But do his congregants get tired of hearing the same message?
That doesn't faze Muskin, because he believes a rabbi should lead a congregation, not let the congregation lead the rabbi. Anyway, he's not a one-note type of guy. He has addressed and raised money for the Jews of Argentina (where he visited this month with the Board of Rabbis), and plans to focus his energies next on the high price of Jewish education. But as long as Israel is in crisis, he will hammer his congregants with the message that they need to go and show support.
"My balabatim [members] hear about Israel. I tell them 'join me, come, this is the next date, if you can't come now, come next time.' I think people won't go on their own -- I think the only way to get them to go is on a mission."
YICC's next mission to Israel will be from July 27-Aug. 2. For more information, call Emunah World Travel Department, (800) 368-6440, ext. 320 and ask for Carol Finkel.