Connecting Jewish people in the Diaspora to Israel through personal visits and strengthening the belief in klal Yisrael - one people - are the main thrusts of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Center for Israel and Overseas.
"By fostering people-to-people contacts, missions have opened our eyes to the land, history and spirit of Israel," said longtime communal leader Gary Ehrlbaum. "In recent years, due to war and terrorism, Jews have stayed away, but now they have started to return."
Erlbaum is co-chair with Scott Isdaner of Federation's Center for Israel and Overseas. While the center has four areas of focus - supporting Israel, aiding vulnerable Jews overseas, addressing global food insecurity and caring for victims of terror - Erlbaum and Isdaner aim to inspire the local community to become connected globally, and to support Israel through missions and advocacy.
"I truly believe that nothing connects people to Israel more than the experience of being in Israel," said Isdaner.
In fact, it was on Isdaner's first trip to Israel, a 1999 Federation Zachor (Hebrew for "remember") Mission to Lithuania, the Ukraine and Israel that a personal transformation took place.
Upon returning to Philadelphia filled with "a sense of awe" by the extraordinary needs of Jews around the world and the reality that donations do make a difference, Isdaner set out to ensure that "we not only serve Jews in need, but do so while ensuring their dignity.
"I truly became far more connected to the larger causes and issues," said Isdaner, which included a heightened awareness of his personal responsibility to preserve and protect the Jewish homeland.
Expanding the Outreach
According to the center's director, Jeri Zimmerman, strengthening the global Jewish community and offering multiple travel opportunities to Israel and overseas communities for various age groups are clear-cut goals.
"We are working to develop missions that focus on both community-building and fundraising," she said. "We are expanding our outreach to populations such as teens and young adults, and are partnering with local organizations to design a variety of programs."
In terms of advocacy, Peter Rosenberg, chair of the center's Israel Advocacy Task Force, believes unequivocally that support for Israel is essential from the entire Jewish community: "We have now reached a point in time when Israel is under attack in the media, and for most Jews, Israel doesn't have the same visceral priority as it did a generation ago.
"Unless we want others to define how Israel is perceived," he continued, "then all Jews must play a role in ensuring that it remains a viable, safe, secure and democratic state. Israel needs us, and we need Israel. If we don't have a strong connection to Israel, then our identity as Jews in America will further dissipate."
Said Erlbaum: "We hope to encourage our community to spend time in Israel, breathe the air, rediscover their roots and bring meaning to their lives."
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