Upon their return home from the recent JUF Young Leadership Division (YLD) Summer Mission to Israel, friends Ben Halbig, YLD Board Member and Vice President, and Emily Schwimmer, reflected on their visit. For Halbig, the mission marked his fourth trip to the Jewish State, while this was Schwimmer's first ever journey to Israel.
Ben Halbig: Hey Emily, I can't believe we have been back from Israel for several weeks. Even though it was my fourth time in Israel, it felt like I was really seeing the country for the first time. It was so incredible getting to know you and the 13 other people from our amazing Chicago crew as we discovered JUF's impact in Israel together as a YLD group. Every day brought one incredible story after another! I know this was your very first time in Israel -- I'm curious to hear what you thought of the mission?
Emily Schwimmer: Hey Ben, I knew this trip was going to change my life. As I've been processing everything since being back, I couldn't imagine the lasting impact it would have on me. Of course, the food was amazing -- falafel will never taste the same -- but I never expected to bond so closely with our group from JUF's Young Leadership Division. I was also deeply touched by our visit to the Sahi agency, [which empowers young people to help others]. What an incredible organization -- to meet the kids face to face and see how truly happy they are to be involved made me grin from ear to ear. You mentioned that even though you had been to Israel a few times before our mission, you felt like you were seeing the country for the first time. What was different about this trip for you? Did anything surprise you?
Ben: I think the most surprising aspect of this mission for me was how we faced very real problems facing Israelis in 2017. But we also saw the amazing work that our partnership agencies and organizations are taking on to address these problems.
We heard from the Arab-Israeli women of Machpach-Taghir about how they are working together not only to help empower each other and the next generation of women, but also to help advocate on behalf of the needs of their community to the government.
We heard from the elderly Ethiopian Jews in JUF's Kiryat Gat Partnership Together region about feeling at home at home in Israel by working the land together at the Atkalit-Hineini cooperative farm, despite initially experiencing feelings of isolation and loneliness arriving in Israel in the early 1990s from Ethiopia.
The most emotional part of the trip for me was hearing from the Israeli couples who spoke so beautifully about the fight to bring civil marriage to Israel. So what was surprising for you about this trip?
Emily: Seeing Israel for the first time and visiting with people and organizations that are bridging the gap between racial and gender inequality was inspiring. This trip gave me a better understanding of how safe Israel is, and how much good is happening there to preserve the country and its people. I also found it so fascinating to hear those couples' stories of their marriage hurdles. Unfortunately, I am often blind to others struggles, given I live so freely in America. It broke my heart to hear about how a gay couple had to travel to Mexico to wed and knowing their marriage will never be seen legal in Israel by the Rabbinate.
Overall, the trip exceeded my expectations! Between friends and family urging me to visit Israel for so many years, I never fully understood the reason behind their persistence until I touched down on Israeli soil. I am already planning my next trip back. Being that this was your fourth trip, was there anything you would have added to the trip? What will you miss now that you're back home?
Ben: I can't think of anything I would have done differently. This mission was totally different than my previous trips to Israel because we spent so much time as a YLD group learning about JUF's impact in Israel instead of sight-seeing. The next time I go to Israel, I'd love to spend more time learning -- and talking -- about Israeli politics and society. What have you taken back to Chicago with you?
Emily: From Israel, I've brought home my new willingness to step out of my comfort zone. I began 2017 with a new outlook on life and getting involved with YLD through this trip was that first step. I didn't know a single person, but immediately felt like we were bonded for life. I want to stay involved with the YLD community. I want to learn, educate, grow, and push myself to find ways to connect with the Jewish community here in Chicago. I can't wait to go back someday soon.