For decades I dreamed of what my first trip to Israel would be like. I expected to go with my family. Maybe our best friends would travel with us. Perhaps my cousins . . . But as it turned out, the first time my feet touched ground in the Promised Land I was with a group of women, most of whom I’d never met.
When my dear friend proposed I join the mission she was chairing, my first thought was, “How could I go to Israel without my family?” And yet, I was intrigued. It was an opportunity for me to do something meaningful and adventurous - to take the trip of a lifetime and a tour planned by experts. The only decisions I would have to make would be which shoes to wear and what to eat from the breakfast buffet. My kind of trip! And that was how I came to be part of the Jewish Federation Valley Alliance Women’s Mission to Israel.
One of the primary purposes of our mission was to give women who make an individual gift to the Federation an opportunity to see exactly where their dollars are making a difference in Israel. But it was so much more than that. The experience turned out to be a rich, inspiring, enlightening journey that impacted not only those of us who were visiting Israel but also, I’m quite certain, the Israelis with whom we met.
It would sound cliché to say the trip changed my life. But the ten days I spent in Israel with this group of smart, generous, and extraordinarily fun women did change me.
As a writer, I find ideas and uncover stories at every turn. A brief encounter or incident or conversation can inspire an entirely new project or give a shot of adrenaline to one that sits dormant in a long forgotten file. My trip to Israel presented me with more inspiration than I could keep track of - the young Hasidic women who work at a cutting-edge technology company; the New York lawyer who made Aliyah and now is the director of Kfar Tikvah – a community village for adults with special needs; the man at the “shuk” in Tel Aviv who sold me spices I’d never heard of; the dusty archeologist who escorted us deep into the caves of Beit-Guvrin where we dug in dirt undisturbed for more than 2000 years; lunch and bread baking in the home of a woman from Morocco who overcame years of hardship and personal tragedy and now owns an ethnic catering company. I made pages of notes to bring home and add to my already lengthy list of stories waiting to be written.
A mission with the Jewish Federation offers travelers the opportunity to see Israel through the eyes of Israelis, each with their own story of how they ended up living where they live and doing what they do. One of my more memorable days occurred at the halfway point of our tour. It was a warm, sunny morning when we departed Tel Aviv and headed south. Stopping in the center of the Negev, we visited Ayalim at Yerucham, one of fourteen student villages designed to strengthen communities and encourage young adults to build lives in Israel. Walking up a path of stone steps, I met a woman, Ilana, when her dog took a liking to me (or more likely to the scent of my dogs on my sneakers). She was so friendly and appreciative that we had come to see the work and progress taking place in her village. As one of our hosts, Ilana welcomed a group of us into her home – a cozy apartment built with the help of Federation dollars. As we sipped sweet tea and nibbled cookies and giant dates, Ilana described how she came to live in the Ayalim village, her life in the community, and her work developing projects and programs aimed at benefiting children who live in the surrounding neighborhood. Something about this beautiful woman touched me – her sincerity, graciousness, and optimism. She expressed so much enthusiasm and hope for the future – not only for herself but also for the children she works with. I could have stayed and chatted with her for hours, but our bus driver and tour guide were waiting. Ilana and I exchanged emails and have kept in touch ever since.
After I returned home, many people have asked, “What was your favorite part? What did you love the best? What place was the most spectacular?” Such questions are impossible to answer. Stepping into the warm Mediterranean Sea, viewing the memorials at Yad Vashem, touching the dovecotes at Masada, traveling underneath the old city into the Western Wall Tunnels, seeing my cousin who lives in Jerusalem for the first time in nearly ten years, walking with friends to the Kotel at sunset on Shabbat, meeting so many fascinating, incredible people . . . there can be no one favorite – everything is a favorite!
I can’t wait to return to Israel. And I hope to go back many times. Perhaps it was basheret that my first trip to the Holy Land was with a group of dedicated women who took me under their collective wing and shared their love for the country and the people who live there. I learned from my traveling companions and from the wonderful men and women we met throughout the trip the importance of our work and our commitment. I saw first hand how we are making a difference. We are women helping women and Jews supporting Jews – at home, in Israel, and all over the world.
Julie Mayerson Brown is a writer and author from Palos Verdes. Her novel, “The Long Dance Home,” was published by World Nouveau and is available in bookstores and on Amazon.com.