There are as many reasons to visit Israel as there are people who make the trip. Some want to establish a deeper connection with an ancient homeland; others are excited to explore a unique modern nation.
As part of a massive trip this fall that is being coordinated by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Rabbi Don Goor wants to do even more than that. He wants to send a message.
“It ... makes a statement in Israel that the Los Angeles community cares about Israel on a large scale,” said Goor, of Temple Judea in Tarzana and West Hills, who will lead one of the groups on the October trip.
The Los Angeles Community Mission to Israel will celebrate Federation’s centennial and aims to bring together hundreds of Angelenos from a variety of synagogues and organizations. It’s the first time a community trip of this size has been attempted in Los Angeles in nearly 15 years.
Federation President Jay Sanderson explained that the trip is for the entire community, in all its diverse segments. It also will provide unique access to special places and people in Israel.
People on the trip will have the chance “to have experiences that they could not normally have on their own,” Sanderson said. “There are going to be private tours of military bases; there are going to be meetings with high-level Israeli Knesset members and politicians, and VIP tours of boutique wineries. We are going to probably be having an exclusive evening at the Israel Museum where it’s closed to everybody but us.”
There are different itineraries, or tracks, to suit different interests, but all participants will share several key components. The entire group will begin in Tel Aviv, where they will enjoy a gala event at Tel Aviv University featuring a variety of performances by Israeli artists.
Next, they will reconvene in the Southern Negev, just miles from where David Ben-Gurion once lived. During a concert, bonfire and barbecue, they will peek into Israel’s future by spending time with Ayalim, a group of young activists dedicated to building new communities in the desert.
The trip will wrap up in Jerusalem with a visit to the Western Wall and a closing event with President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, schedules permitting.
Along the way, there will be opportunities to highlight Federation-funded projects such as schools and youth villages, according to Lynette and Derek Brown of Encino, vice chairs for the mission who will be co-leading the Valley Alliance Major Gifts Track.
“It’s so people can see where their money is going,” Lynette said.
But that’s only part of the reason she’d like to see people go. With hundreds expected to take part, she anticipates a powerful emotional experience.
“Can you imagine all these people ... standing at the Kotel on Friday night?” she said. “It just gives me goose bumps to think about it. It’s such a wonderful thing to do together.”
There’s always a reason to visit Israel, Derek said. “For me, it’s always like a feeling of being home, of having a feeling where I belong.”
But an enormous trip like this is extra special. “The whole idea is to create a community spirit,” he said.
Howard Lesner, executive director of Sinai Temple in Westwood, said his congregation is excited about being a part of the trip.
“We feel that we want to be part of a larger community in this celebration and show our support for the work that The Federation has done and continues to do,” he said.
When the Los Angeles Community Mission to Israel kicks off this fall, each group can build upon a basic itinerary to follow its unique interests. Here are some of the basic itinerary highlights:
Oct. 23: Nonstop, overnight El Al flight to Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Oct. 24: Drive through Tel Aviv. Opening dinner.
Oct. 25-26: Touring track options include the Yitzhak Rabin Center and the Palmach Museum. There will be Federation project site visits as well as a cultural event with the Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Partnership.
Oct. 27-28: In Jerusalem, visit the Western Wall and experience Kabbalat Shabbat there. Touring track options include the Jerusalem hills, the Jewish Quarter in the Old City, Mount Zion, Yad Vashem and the Mount Herzl Museum.
Oct. 29: Shabbat in Jerusalem. Optional tours to the newly renovated Israel Museum. Afternoon study or walking tour.
Oct. 30: Touring track options include Ein Avdat and digs and caves at Beit Guvrin. There will be a mega event and barbecue dinner in the Southern Negev with young people creating the new Israel in the desert. Late return to Jerusalem.
Oct. 31: Visit Federation project sites. More touring track options include Masada and the Dead Sea. Farewell dinner with dignitaries that are expected to include the president and prime minister.
Nov. 1: Arrive in the United States.
These groups are among those taking part in the community mission: Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay; Kehillat Israel; Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue; Shomrei Torah Synagogue; Simon Wiesenthal Center; Sinai Temple; Stephen S. Wise Temple; Temple Judea; Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
Among the other groups signed up for the Oct. 23 to Nov. 1 trip are Temple Judea, Shomrei Torah Synagogue, Stephen S. Wise Temple, Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Rabbi Eli Herscher of Stephen S. Wise Temple said taking part in a community trip like this makes a statement about the love, commitment and support for Israel that L.A. Jews have in a way that no temple mission ever could.
“The reason that I and Stephen Wise Temple responded was because of a deep sense that we are part of something greater than just our congregation,” he said. “A temple mission is meant to create a deeper experience and connection with members of the congregation to Israel. A community mission I think is meant to make a larger statement as well by virtue of the numbers who participate.”
Goor’s Reform congregation in the San Fernando Valley usually takes three trips of its own to Israel every year, but Goor thought it was important to be part of this communal one as well.
The track he will lead is inspired by his love for Jewish learning and contemporary trends. Goor expects to visit wineries, taste olive oil and spend time at Kol HaOt in Jerusalem, which looks at Jewish values through art.
Rabbi Richard Camras of Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills hopes to give participants an insider’s guide to the country, particularly in the area of technology. He said his planned itinerary will take its inspiration from the best-selling book “Start-up Nation,” which highlights Israel’s technological prowess.
“I want to give people a closer look at some of the innovation that is happening in Israel right now that is not only shaping the Jewish world but is impacting the larger world,” he said.
To that end, Camras would love to try and take visitors to places like the Intel plant in Jerusalem or Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., which is one of the largest generic drug companies in the world. Behind all of this impressive technological advancement can be found a very Jewish purpose — healing the world.
“Israel is at the center of making that happen in biotechnology, in science and in energy,” Camras said.
Among the other tracks being organized are several by The Jewish Federation Valley Alliance. Those include a men’s track, a women’s track and one for major philanthropists.
For Federation, this will be the grand culmination of a year of celebratory events.
“This community has been blessed by The Jewish Federation,” Sanderson said. “Over the last 100 years, this Federation has raised billions of dollars for work here in Los Angeles, around the world and in Israel.”
The entity began in 1911, when seven Jewish social service agencies decided to unite their fundraising efforts into a central body. The model evolved over the years into today’s organization, which has a nearly $50 million annual budget.
Of course, it’s important to look forward as much as it is to look back, Sanderson said.
“We have three focused areas that we’re looking at: caring for Jews in need here and abroad, engaging in our community, and then the area that we’re putting most of our attention in, which is ensuring the Jewish future for our children and grandchildren.”
“The focal point of the Federation going forward,” he concluded, “is to make sure that we keep having 100-year celebrations.”