Bergenites take part in mass mission to Israel
It’s not unusual for synagogues and Jewish organizations to sponsor trips to Israel. But the recent mission of Chabad of Fort Lee was out of the ordinary in that it was part of a national mission encompassing travelers from 30 American communities.
Rabbi Meir Konikov, who founded Chabad of Fort Lee in 1996 and now presides over a flourishing synagogue, preschool, Hebrew school, and programs for Russian Jews, explained that the Israel mission grew out of a course offered by the Lubavitch movement’s Jewish Learning Institute at nearly 400 Chabad houses all over the world.
Rabbi Meir Konikov dances with Israeli soldiers during a visit to an army base.
"Instead of every Chabad rabbi preparing his own courses, JLI provides the curriculum for three courses each year, so that, in unison, 400 rabbis are teaching the same course at the same time. The beauty of this is that if you are traveling, you can pick up that week’s course wherever you are," said Konikov. "In Bergen County, about ’50 people are signed up. Last fall, the course was ‘Land and Spirit,’ about Israel, and that led to the idea for a trip."
JLI arranged what Konikov calls "a very powerful trip, with 30 Jewish communities coming together, able to interact and feel the spirit of Israel through the eyes of the Chabad movement and the Chabad approach."
Konikov said he has led missions to Israel in the past, but this was the first time Chabad-affiliated Jews collectively traveled together. From March ‘4 to 31, the group had guided tours of significant and historic locales covered in the course, such as the Golan Heights, the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), Tomb of Rachel, Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, the grave of Maimonides in Tiberias, the Western Wall, and Hebron. "Our group broke the sales record at the community souvenir store in Hebron," Konikov reported.
After taking a Jewish Learning Institute course about Israel, these Bergenites traveled with Chabad of Fort Lee to see it.
Each local group was seated with participants from other locations on tour buses. The Fort Lee contingent traveled with groups from Memphis, Houston, and Boca Raton. Although the trip was open even to those who hadn’t taken the JLI course, it resonated particularly with those who had, like Sherry Blatman of Fort Lee.
Blatman said she decided to make the trip as a bonding experience with her two grown daughters. "Every moment on the trip I thought, ‘This is my high point,’ but there was always something of equal magnitude around the corner," said Blatman.
However, her true high point came at the end, when the JLI participants came to an army base for a barbecue and party with about 300 soldiers. "They were all dancing and singing, wrapped up in the celebration of the moment," said Blatman. "You look at some of them, and realize how they’re just 18 or 19, but they’ve become adults because of what they face head-on at an age when American kids are going to proms. These people are defending a country and become men and women very quickly." There is a clip of the event at http://youtube.com/watch?v=HNQKs0ZthkU.
The army base stop had been arranged by Rabbi Mendy Ofel, who was shot in a terrorist attack seven years ago on Purim. "To his mazal [luck], the Purim costume he was wearing was that of an Israeli general," Konikov related. "[As a result,] helicopters were dispatched to help save his life. He made a resolution, as his life was being saved, that his mission in life would be to become a Chabad rabbi for Israeli soldiers. He received special clearance to all army bases, including the right to bring guests."
In the midst of the singing and dancing, Blatman noticed one soldier whose reactions moved her deeply. "I asked him for his e-mail address so I could contact him and we have been in touch," said Blatman. Her friend Alice Lekht, also on the mission, discovered that the young man was from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, as is she. "They started talking, and now he has two ‘mothers,’" said Blatman, who has sent the soldier care packages.
"My husband gave me some money to spend in Israel on something of value, and I thought this was a way of doing what he suggested on a more personal level," she said.
Konikov addressed the troops during the barbecue. "These young soldiers come from very different homes, and are very different one from another," he said. "Some are loving and gentle, others are aggressive and tough. Each soldier has strengths and weaknesses, but they have chosen to look deeper into themselves and their peers, to ignore their differences in order to fulfill their mission of protecting the land of Israel and the people of Israel. We too are so different from one another; we choose our social groups and affiliate with selected friends. We must learn from these soldiers to look beyond our differences and unite to fulfill our life’s mission."