Sara Bronstein, a Wexner Heritage alumna from San Francisco, is Director of The Israel Travel Initiative of the Israel Center of the Jewish Community Federation (JCF) of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Wailing Wall. Ancient manuscripts. Open-air markets redolent with spices. And, of course, the world’s best falafel. Yes, these were experienced by the 107 participants, including the mayor of San Francisco, in a unique trip this May, Israel@ 60 Mission sponsored by the Israel Center of the JCF San Francisco. But they were not what made this mission unique.
From May 1–8, the group from the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish community joined with Israeli citizens in commemorating Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Day) and Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day for the Fallen and the Victims of Terror) and in celebrating Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Independence Day).The message woven throughout the mission was one of remembering the past while looking to the future, reflecting on what Israel has been and what it will be.
Mission participants included not only many who had never before visited Israel but also many who had not been active in the Bay Area Jewish community. Nearly 50% were making their first visit. For many of them, the experience was powerful: “As a first timer in Israel, it was a transformative and emotional trip for me,” wrote one businessman in responding to a post- mission questionnaire. But even frequent visitors felt that this trip was special: “We have been to Israel many times, but this was a new experience.” Participants were amazed by how much Israel has accomplished, despite the conflict that continues to plague it.
Intended to showcase Israel’s extraordinary achievements over the past 60 years through different lenses and, specifically, to introduce Bay Area business people to the tremendous opportunities for networking, partnerships and investments in Israel, the Israel @ 60 Mission was unlike any other mission. Offering five specialized and exciting tracks to choose from, this mission allowed participants to focus on the area that most interested them. One track provided windows into Israel’s vibrant creativity in the arts and culture, while another explored its archeology and modern history. Three business tracks offered first-hand exposure to Israel’s booming high tech, biotech, and real estate industries. Itineraries for the various tracks led participants on a series of behind-the-scene tours: panel discussions and exclusive meetings with Israeli leaders; and private meetings with art collectors, cutting edge innovators, and VIPs in business. “I wanted to see another side of Israel,” noted a participant, “and being on the business track, I got see a part of Israel that I haven’t experienced previously.”
Whatever track they chose, participants often shared this sentiment:
“This was such a meaningful journey on so many levels for me. Each day was a smorgasbord of information, experiences and feelings. I felt that the viewpoint given was unbiased and covered all aspects of Israel including its history, archeology, politics, culture, religion, art and humanity. The overall result was that I fell completely and totally in love with Israel.”
While participants took separate tracks by day, the entire group attended morning briefings by renowned experts in Israeli politics, security and military issues, and the economy. The icing on the baklava were the evenings devoted to social events at homes if Israelis where participants networked with their Israeli counterparts, local community leaders, and VIPs and enjoyed enriching cultural programs.
Mission participants experienced the power of collective memory when, at the sound of sirens, on Yom Hazikaron the nation joined in two minutes of silent remembrance and tribute. Israel’s decision to follow this day of mourning the very next day with the joyous Yom Ha’Atzmaut awed mission participants by the resilience of the Israeli people.
Like the ripple effect of a pebble tossed in a pond, the mission has created waves. Its most immediate impact was on the participants. They have formed their own new community, strengthened their connection to Israel, and, among those not already active in the Bay Area Jewish community, developed the desire to become involved. These were among the main objectives of Israel @ 60 Mission.
The effect has rippled out into the Bay Area Jewish community. Word about the mission has spread widely in the Bay Area, heightening interest not only in Israel but also in regional Jewish activities and activities specifically benefiting Israel. Many of the mission participants who had not previously been active in the Bay Area Jewish community have become active. In a good way, the mission is the talk of the town! The buzz generated by the Israel @ 60 Mission has generated interest for other missions; many people in the community are asking for information about the next mission because they want to sign up!
Finally, the Israel @60 Mission has had an impact on the community in Israel. The new understanding and insight gained by participants on this trip have motivated many of them to look for ways to help Israel through business investments and support JCF projects in Israel. Several mission participants have already joined Bay Area committees devoted to supporting Israel. As one participant explained, “This trip helped clarify my attitude toward Israel. They really seem to need us.”
A committee of mission participants is now planning ways for the group to stay connected as a community and engage in JCF activities. This committee is also discussing how to strengthen the Jewish identity of mission participants and further deepen their connection with Israel. One woman succinctly expressed her motivation for joining the Israel @ 60 Mission and its outcome: “I wanted to learn and be inspired. Mission accomplished!”