World View

How can you take in the complexity that is modern Israel in a 12-day tour?

You can’t.

But, say alumni and organizers of the annual trip designed for staff of the Jewish Community Centers of San Francisco and the Peninsula -- it’s worth the attempt.

“This trip isn’t a vacation or a perk for JCCSF employees. It’s educational,” says Jhos Singer, who will depart with his third cohort on April 12, along with JCCSF Travel Manager Ariel Goldstein. “We’re trying to give the experience enough breadth of information so that when our employees can come back they can at least ask the right questions, or know there are questions to ask.”

It will be the ninth such group to take the study tour, funded by San Francisco donors Linda and Sandy Gallanter. In making the travel possible for staff who want to go, the Gallanters’ vision is that whatever their job at the JCCSF, and whatever their personal background, the people who work at the centers will in some sense of the word, get to “know” Israel.

“There are so many layers on which you can ‘know’,” says Rachel Brodie, who as the JCCSF’s Chief Jewish Officer co-designs the experience for the travelers.

“I think we just want the group to feel connected to the place, have more curiosity about it, and when they hear about it in the news, to have their ears perk up. To have memories - that can happen in 12 days.  We want them to stay curious and to make that initial connection.”

The itinerary takes them all over the country and varies from year to year.  This year’s route will take the group through sites in Central and Northern Israel, partly because of the beauty of the area in spring. The days and nights are tightly scheduled with visits to people and places, with a small amount of “free time” for the travelers to pursue their individual interests in Israel. They will go where most visitors want to go, such as Masada and ancient archeological sites, but will also gain access to activists, journalists, community organizers and often-unseen facets of Israeli life, through the connections of the JCCA staff in Israel and the trip’s organizers.

Take Friday, April 17, 2015, for example. Awakening in Jerusalem, the group of 18 will start the day with a briefing on the recent Israeli elections with Israeli-Canadian journalist Matti Friedman, author and former reporter with the Jerusalem Bureau of the Associated Press. Then they’ll climb on a bus to the Arab-Israeli town of Ein Nequba, where they will visit the mosque and meet with the imam and other dignitaries. They’ll pile back on the bus for a short ride to another Arab-Israeli town, Ein Rafa, to meet with Dr. Simon Lichman at the Center for Creativity in Education and Cultural Heritage. They’ll find their lunch in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda produce market and eventually head to the Old City to converge with the JCCSF’s Rabbi Batshir Torchio, who by coincidence will be there after leading a B'nai Brith youth group from Poland to Israel. Jhos Singer will join Rabbi Batshir for a Shabbat service at Robinson’s Arch, an area where all genders are welcomed, just outside the Kotel.

And that’s just one day.

It is a conscious aim of the JCCSF trip to help the group interact with a variety of people, including Israeli Arabs, non-white Israelis, and those who are not native English speakers, says Brodie, to understand the diversity of the population and their experiences.

Boys prepare for bar mitzvah services in the Kotel. Photo / Laura Paull

“Our goal is that it’s not a propaganda trip; it’s not a Birthright trip; it’s not a tourist thing. It’s meant to offer grounded experiences for learning,” she says.

Other highlights of this trip include a guided visit to East Jerusalem with a member of Ir Amim, an Israeli non-profit which seeks to inform both Israelis and visitors about the “different narratives” of Arab and Jewish residents. Their aim is to render Jerusalem a more viable and equitable city for the Israelis and Palestinians who share it.

They’ll do a guided Graffiti Tour of Tel Aviv, visit the Rabin Museum and Yad Vashem, and ride bikes around the Hula Nature Reserve in the Galilee.

The JCCSF staff group will be able to take part in the triad of national remembrance days --  Yom HaShoah Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut -- remembering the Holocaust, Memorial Day, and Israeli Independence, respectively.

“This is a first for us and it’s exciting that they will be there for three really critical points in the Israeli calendar. It’s very cool,” Brodie says.

Any employee can apply to take the “Staff Israel Seminar” and about a dozen are selected for each trip, who are joined by about four from the Addison-Penzak, Silicon Valley and Foster City JCCs. Given the diversity of JCC staff, it is expected that each will see Israel through a different lens, and take away different perceptions.

Sossena Getachew, Controller in the JCCSF finance department, has a personal interest in the group’s visit to the Absorption Center for Ethiopian Jews in Mevasseret. She was born in Addis Ababa and spent her girlhood in Ethiopia, immigrating to the United States at age 12.

“I’m very interested to meet them, as I still speak the language, Amara,” Getachew says. “You hear many different things about how it is going for them in Israel. So I will be glad to see it for myself and to be able to talk with them.”

She’s also “open to seeing everything the country has to offer, how people live, all the different cultures,” Sossena says.  Although her own family is Christian Orthodox, “Israel was always talked about as this mysterious place, a once-in-a-lifetime place to see. I know there is a lot of history there, and when it becomes something I can actually see, feel, and experience, I know it will be even more interesting.”

“I think travel is the best education,” Regina Aguilar agrees. A runner and athlete, Aguilar began working at the JCCSF three years ago as an administrative assistant in the Youth Athletics program. Coming from a Bay Area Latino family of the Christian faith, she took advantage of the optional “Jewishing” class that is offered to staff to learn more about the legacy and traditions of Judaism.

“I have actually been learning a lot about myself as well as about the Jewish ways of thinking and doing. It has opened up my heart a bit. Going to Israel will bring all this learning full circle,” Aguilar says.

“I don’t think I can make this trip without being emotional. It’s good that I can take this journey with people I like and trust.”

She is glad that her roommate on the trip will be Gayle Effron, JCCSF Assistant Camps and Family Programs Manager, who has lived in Israel before and speaks Hebrew.

“I don’t want to miss anything!” Aguilar says.

Ken Brandt says that the chance to get to know the colleagues he helps as a tech Support Specialist at the JCCSF is a plus for him. He has been to the Middle East before, in a very different context. Over a decade ago, he was in Iraq and Afghanistan with the US Marine Corps. Now he is earning a degree in business management while working in the JCCSF’s IT team. He is especially looking forward to the group’s tour of one of Tel Aviv’s labs for young entrepreneurs.

“I would have wanted to visit Israel someday anyway, for the ancient sites, the history, the people -- and the food” -- a cuisine he learned to love on his previous trips to the region – he says.

“But of course Israel is a center for high tech innovation, which is my field.”

Ora Ebrahini is another ‘seminarian’ with experience of the Middle East. Ebrahini, a teacher in the Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos, was born and raised in Iran, and came to California with her husband in 1980. Her grandfather was a rabbi in Iran, and she has previously visited Israel with her family, some of whom remain there.

“This trip will give me a different angle on Israel, I’m sure,” she says. “I work with little kids and would like to come back with activities or information about Israel that we can use, or my co-teachers can use.”

For JCCSF Marketing Studio Manager Alexa Hayes, the impact on her job will be subtle but important.

“I’m hoping to gain a better understanding of how Israel connects to all our programs at the JCCSF,” she offers.

Aside from that, she is just eager to learn about different cultures, places, “how people live their lives,” she says.

'I’m excited to hike Masada. Not so sure about sleeping in a Bedouin tent.' - Alexa Hayes

Masada in the morning. Photo / Laura Paull

“You don’t often get to immerse yourself like this in an unfamiliar country. We’ll be going to places I wouldn’t necessarily find if I were to travel by myself.”

And food. Mention the street food in Israel, and “I’m so excited to eat!” says this daughter of a Greek family that has always enjoyed food.

In preparation for the historical, political, and social layers of Israeli life, the group has been reading My Promised Land, by Israeli journalist Ari Shavit. The book unravels some of the complexities that are inseparable from Israel and the region.

Sossena has done the homework, too. But, she says “Actually being there will have more impact on me than any book.”

Having led two previous staff groups to Israel, Jhos Singer knows that the experiences can be both exciting and unsettling. But his hopes for the group do not seem unreasonable.

“I want them to come back in a state of respectful confusion, knowing that people in that part of the world are living in political chaos every single day, and that whoever they are and whatever their position, they are all trying to make it a better world, although in different ways, and not always agreeing,” he says. “If we come back humbled and inspired by anything we’ve seen, I’ll feel we’ve done our job.”