Over the 12 years that members of the Orangetown Jewish Center have been going to Israel just before Thanksgiving, spending an intense five days working, giving, learning, and growing, some elements have remained the same, and some always are different.
The trip began in 2006, right after Hurricane Katrina — a disaster to which four community members responded not only with a desire to help, but with actual physical labor. A group went to New Orleans to work on cleanup.
“Jeff Steinberg, one of our members, came to me and said, ‘I am going to New Orleans, and I feel that we also should be going to Israel,’” the synagogue’s rabbi, Craig Scheff, said. “And so on Yom Kippur that year, I got on the bimah, and to my own wife’s surprise, I said, ‘I am going to Israel in November to help rebuild the North,’” which had been affected by the war with Lebanon that summer.
The week before Thanksgiving seemed to be just the right time.
Now, all these years later, there is a core group who has been on most of the trips; this year, of the 17 people who were there the whole time and the five who joined for parts of it, many had been on at least 11 of the 12. Some, on the other hand, were there for the first time; newcomers always are welcome.
“What is most remarkable about this trip is that it is entirely geared toward giving,” Rabbi Scheff said. “We do not visit with officials. We do not get recognition. This is hands-on work. We get our hands dirty.”
Every year, the group goes to Kfar Ahava, a place for “at-risk children who are placed with foster families in this village, which is outside Haifa,” he said. “Thirteen children are placed with each family; all the parents make sure that the children get up every morning and go off to school, and that they’re fed at lunchtime, and that they do their chores. It’s an amazing place.”
It also has emergency facilities, and it offers therapy and evaluations that the courts accept when it acts on long-term placement, he added.
The other places where the Orange-town group works change every year. “This year, we participated in a Jewish National Fund project called Hashomer Hachadash,” he said. It’s an organization that works with farmers in remote areas, helping provide them with the security they need. It often works with young people doing their year of national service, and “it gives leadership lessons to these young people, and teaches them about the love of the land and the history of the state,” Rabbi Scheff said. “We picked grapes and cleaned up grapevines to provide room for the new grapes to grow in the year ahead.”
They also went to a memorial at Beit Lid, just outside Netanya. It is the site of a 1995 mass killing. “It was built in memory of the 21 soldiers and one civilian who were killed at the bus stop there, back at the beginning of the time when suicide bombers were blowing themselves up at bus stations,” Rabbi Scheff said.
“It is a magnificent and somewhat jarring memorial.
“It is a ladder, with 22 sculptures lining it. It is large; it extends into the sky, and it is not supported by anything. It is ramrod straight, set at an angle.” As photographs show, it is stark and stunning.
“We helped decorate some of the mosaics that surround the sculpture, and we did it with the help of some of the children from Kfar Ahava, who joined us there,” Rabbi Scheff said.
He hopes that next November, as the trip celebrates its bar mitzvah year, everyone who ever has been on any of the trips will join it, as well as new people who will be moved by the experience.
There are many advantages to this model, Rabbi Scheff said. “The people on the trip, who are from their 40s to their 70s, feel so close to each other. They are sharing a mission — and by that I mean a higher purpose. They are sharing vulnerabilities, doing things that they are not necessarily comfortable doing. Things like farming, or like working with children with disabilities.
“By the end of the five days, we are all like family. And the relationships stay strong during the year.
“Another advantage is that people are seeing Israel from a different perspective, a perspective that tourists don’t usually see, and that a federation trip will not necessarily give you. Even our congregational family trips don’t have this intensity.
“This is a model for other communities,” he concluded. “Israelis always are blown away when they hear what we are doing. They say you must be crazy to come here in this way” — it’s neither particularly cheap nor physically easy to go to Israel for such a short time, and to give up sightseeing and shopping for work — “and they can’t thank us enough for giving so generously, without any expectation of getting anything back.”