Over breakfast, we got a crash course in Israeli politics. In the afternoon, we visited the "Path To Peace" mosaic on the border wall at Gaza. And at night, we danced a Tel Aviv nightclub.
This summer, my husband David and I joined the JUF Mission to Israel, a somewhat spontaneous decision considering that we didn't know much about JUF.
For a week in July, we, along with two dozen other participants, explored Israel's history and culture. We stood where Israel declared its independence in Tel Aviv, visited the Old City in Jerusalem, and were reminded of the horrors of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem. We welcomed Shabbat from a rooftop overlooking the Western Wall, and we ate at one great restaurant after another.
Anyone can visit Israel, of course, but being part of a JUF mission was uniquely eye-opening. Our friends Risa and Lonnie Nasatir, JUF President, and their connections enabled us to do and see things that simply aren't available to those planning their own trips. For instance, we met with Isaac Herzog, the president of Israel, and Thomas R. Nides, the U.S. ambassador to Israel.
We had the privilege of spending the week with Ofer Bavly, Director General of JUF's Israel Office--and the ultimate teacher. There wasn't a question he couldn't answer about the country or its complicated history and politics. (I thought I would stump him by asking how many women are in the Knesset but, without missing a beat, he told me it averages to about 30).
Before going on the mission, I knew that JUF funded essential services and programs throughout Chicago. I am now in awe of the impact that it also has in Israel, and the respect Israeli leaders have for our Chicago community.
It's easy to think about "supporting Israel" in a vague sense, but we were able to see where the money goes--and the lives our gifts are transforming:
*We met with Lena, who fled Odessa soon after the start of the war in Ukraine. She held back tears as she described the decision to leave with her two young sons. As her younger son watched cartoons on an iPad, we listened to Lena describe how, within a day, she went from having a dinner party with her friends to seeking a way to escape. She and many others made it to Israel with the help of JUF, which has contributed millions to the Ukraine emergency relief efforts through its overseas partners.
*In Kiryat Gat, JUF's Partnership Together Region in southern Israel, we saw children and teenagers playing at Neve Hanna Children's Home, a community for young people who have been removed from their homes due to violence, neglect, and abuse. At Neve Hanna, they are able to grow up in a safe and supportive environment.
*We visited with an Ethiopian immigrant at an Absorption Center who was exhausted yet grateful; he arrived in Israel just days earlier after waiting for 20 years to immigrate.
*And we met with Hila, who lives in Moshav Netiv HaAsara, the closest Israeli town to the Gaza Strip. With rockets regularly fired from Gaza into the moshav, her two children grew up learning to check for the location of a bomb shelter when going to a new friend's home. JUF provides funding for trauma support in the moshav. A few days after we left Israel, the community was again subjected to rocket fire during a 3-day conflict in August between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
David and I had hemmed and hawed about whether to go on the mission. We hadn't budgeted for the trip, and didn't know what to expect. In retrospect, it was one of the best decisions we've ever made. We came away with new friendships, a stronger connection to Israel, and a new respect and understanding of how JUF is making a difference for so many.
Jodi S. Cohen is a Chicago-based reporter for ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. She previously worked at the Chicago Tribune and The Detroit News.