On a typical Birthright Israel trip, Jewish young adults from all over the world spend 10 days touring Israel with several of their Israeli peers. Participants experience Israel firsthand, learning about serving in the Israeli army, attending an Israeli university and the everyday experiences of Israeli young adult culture, while making connections and creating friendships with their brothers and sisters from across the ocean.
Until now, the opportunity to travel Israel with Israelis was usually limited to trips and programs involving young adults, like Birthright, but a recent project—coordinated by Jewish Community Center of Chicago (JCC) in combination with the Jewish United Fund’s (JUF) Partnership 2000 (P2K)—involved a trip described as “Elderhostel meets Birthright,” where Jewish Chicagoans over 55 had the opportunity to experience Israel with a group of their own Israeli peers.
Working in conjunction with the Jewish Agency for Israel, P2K links communities in the Diaspora with communities in Israel, predominantly in the Negev, the Galilee and the Jerusalem areas. Chicago is partnered with Kiryat Gat-Lachish-Shafir, located in Israel’s northern Negev. Through P2K, more than $1.3 million of funding from JUF’s annual campaign supports projects that promote the region’s development, improve the quality of life for its residents and connect them with Chicago Jewry through “people-to-people” programs.
According to Susan Peled, assistant director of JUF’s Israel office, the 14-day trip, which took place in early December, was presented as a combined request—involving JCC of Chicago and P2K as a “people-to-people” program—to the JUF’s P2K steering committee, a group of lay leaders from both Chicago and the Israeli region who meet to plan programming for the partnership. This project was unique in that it involved not only the interaction with Israelis, but also a four-day educational component. The trip, a JCC Travel program, received a grant from the steering committee, which partially subsidized the participation of seven Israeli adults from Kiryat Gat-Lachish-Shafir to travel with nearly 30 Chicagoans. Abby Ashkenazi, Jewish program coordinator at the JCC of Chicago Pritzker Center for Jewish Education, said that including the Israelis in the trip helped make the program so successful.
For the first 10 days, the participants traveled Israel as a regular tour group, seeing the sights, taking in the culture, much like they would on any other trip. The last four days, they were hosted in the region, and studied together with the Israelis at the Yaakov Herzog Center in Shafir. “The first 10 days they were tourists,” Ashkenazi said. “The last four days they were Israelis.”
Peled said the participants really felt integrated into Israeli society. “They were with people who were living history, people who were about the same age as the country,” she said. “They really got to feel like they weren’t just looking at Israel through the windows of a bus.
“[Israel] has been totally personalized for them,” she said. “It’s not just the country, it’s our country.”
This was also a learning experience for the Israelis, Peled said, who learned much about Diaspora Jewry, many changing their perception that all Jews should live in Israel.
Bob Mintz, a participant on the trip, said that though the interaction started out slowly, there was “tremendous bonding between the Chicago contingency and the Israelis.” For him, the outstanding moment of the trip happened during the first Friday night as the group was eating Shabbat dinner.
“I was sitting at one table and six Israelis were sitting at the other,” he said. “They started singing Shabbat songs and I got up from my table and started singing with them. Before you knew it, we had 25 people all standing around singing in Hebrew. That was a defining moment that made this thing cohesive and made everybody great friends.”
Mintz, who had been to Israel twice before, said he and his wife InaBeth jumped on the opportunity to join some of his friends and family on such a special trip.
“What was wonderful about this trip was that it wasn’t just about the past,” he said. “This trip you learned a tremendous amount about the present Israel.” He especially enjoyed attending Shabbat services, visiting Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, learning about the country’s political parties and the educational component at the end of the trip. “Everything that they had expected or hoped for came true on this trip,” he said.
Another participant, Ivan Berk, admits he was reluctant at first to return to Israel, but was intrigued by this trip’s unusual itinerary.
“The trip was probably one of the more important ones I’ve taken,” he said. Berk was also appointed the official journalist of the trip, documenting each activity in a journal that will be distributed to all the participants.
“It was a wonderful experience, he said. “Not only did we learn from people there but we learned from our fellow travelers.”
Many participants, like Berk and Mintz, have established e-mail relationships with the Israelis they met on the trip and JCC of Chicago plans to arrange video conference reunions to continue the educational experience and build on those relationships.
Visit JUF.org for more information about Partnership 2000.
The Jewish Community Center of Chicago (JCC) is a partner in serving our community and receives support from the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. For more information visit www.gojcc.org.