Going into a solidarity mission to Israel organized by the Jewish Federations of North America, Sherrie Savett, Sharon Kestenbaum, Tracy Ginsburg and Gail Norry all knew that Israel faced immense challenges.
But even with that knowledge, the journey opened their eyes and deepened their commitment — emotionally and financially — to supporting the Jewish state through their work with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
A few weeks ago, Savett, Kestenbaum, Ginsburg and Norry, who are all active in Jewish Federation, joined more than 30 other Federation donors, leaders and volunteers from across the United States for the mission. The four-day educational trip included a meeting with Knesset members and visits to several communities.
This year’s mission took place after the latest Israel-Palestine conflict, in which Israeli citizens hid in safe rooms and bomb shelters during heavy rocket fire. The intention was to give the group a deeper understanding of the oft-tragic situation in the Jewish state.
And there was no sugarcoating the narrative.
They met with the parents of a 5-year-old boy, Ido Avigal, who was killed by a rocket on May 12 in Sderot. They visited a kibbutz, Kfar Aza, near Gaza that faced heavy rocket fire during previous conflicts, too. They even visited a community center trying to bring people together in Lod, a city that saw rioting between Arabs and Jews during the crisis.
“It’s mind-boggling how the Israelis deal with all this adversity,” Ginsburg said. “They are an incredible people.”
By the end of the trip, the participants were no longer in shock over the intractable conflict. Instead, they were hopeful about future relations between the Jewish and Arab citizens within Israel’s borders.
As Knesset members told the group, the current body has more Arab members, 14, than any previous government.
“It was inspiring to see that there is an effort to make sure that everyone has a place at the table,” Kestenbaum noted.
In Lod, an Arab woman named Lazinaty told them that she was working to bring Arabs and Jews together for conversations. Lazinaty said she was dismayed when people in her tiny apartment complex were lighting each other’s cars on fire during the conflict.
“We don’t have a true appreciation for how devastating a conflict like this is for the entire country,” said Norry, who is co-chair of the Jewish Federation’s board of directors.
“Everybody is affected.”
Savett, who is Jewish Federation’s campaign chair, said that American Jews often forget, or don’t even realize in the first place, that more than 20% of the Israeli population is Arab. They live in the same cities and towns as Israelis. They are all citizens of Israel, and they have a remarkable ability to resume their lives after days and weeks of rocket fire.
“People have the goal that they should live peacefully together,” Savett said. “Everyone from Knesset members to people in kibbutzim.”
Norry has been to Israel more than 50 times. But this trip left her with a better feeling about the future than any of her previous visits.
“Knowing that there’s a coalition that’s more diverse than ever is exciting,” Norry said. “Including an Arab party.”
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