‘Amazed and energized’: Jersey 2 Jerusalem, take 2
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‘Amazed and energized’: Jersey 2 Jerusalem, take 2

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Nathaniel, Ian, and Stanley Hittman

JERUSALEM ““ Ordinarily, Presidents Week would find the Lebowitz family of Demarest skiing in Quebec. Instead, Nate and Sandra Lebowitz and their two young sons were among 50 participants in the UJA of Northern New Jersey’s second Jersey to Jerusalem (“J2J2″) trip.

The Jewish Standard talked to members of the group as they were dining at Ammunition Hill here, joined by beneficiaries of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Lone Soldier Program, which receives UJA-NNJ support.

“Sitting here next to a soldier who grew up on the Upper West of Manhattan and came here by himself is incredible,” said Nate Lebowitz, who is active in the New Jersey chapter of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. “I’m so involved in an abstract way, and this is a very special reminder of why am I raising money for the IDF.”

Showing donors where their money goes and showing potential donors how their money would be spent were among the primary goals of J2J2.

“Many parts of this trip are designed to show the participants not only Israel itself but also what various levels of giving can do to help people be involved in Israel,” said Leslie Billet of Englewood, the lay chair of the mission.

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Louis and Beti Rosencwajg

Among the stops she planned was the Ayalim Association’s youth village in the northern city of Akko. In Ayalim villages, recent army and national service veterans devote themselves to developing the Negev and the Galilee through settlement activities, community service, and commercial entrepreneurship.

“Our group was so amazed and energized by these young people with a new version of Zionism,” said Billet.

Led by guide David Hyman – formerly a community shaliach at UJA-NNJ – the J2J2 group visited Tel Aviv, Old Jaffa, Kibbutz En Shemer (home of one of Israel’s most successful cookie factories), Nahariya, Safed, the Golan Heights, Akko, Beit Shean, Jerusalem, Masada, the Dead Sea, Gush Etzion, and a Jewish National Fund forest.

The last stop, where they planted pine trees, was a big hit with 11-year-old Louis Rozencwajg of Paramus and 12-year-old Nathaniel Hittman of Ho-Ho-Kus.

“Planting a tree was meaningful because it’s amazing to see how, while most people are chopping down trees, they’re just growing more and more here,” said Nathaniel, who attends Hebrew school at Temple Beth Or in Washington Township.

“We are really trying to make Israel a real place – not a Disneyland, not ancient artifacts you can’t touch,” said Billet. “A lot of this trip is about ‘touching’ things, eating with a soldier, digging in the dirt, visiting with real people in their living quarters.”

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Sandra and Nate Lebowitz

“It’s overwhelming to actually see everything you’ve been taught about,” said Nathaniel’s dad, Ian. He was invited on this first trip to Israel by his own father, Stanley, of Glen Rock, who went on J2J in 2007.

“The sense of service that everyone has in this country and how they fight on a daily basis for a Jewish state is just inspiring,” Ian Hittman said. “I’ll definitely come back.”

Another first-timer was Jimmy Margulies of Paramus. “I’d never been to Israel, and as an American Jew who had gone to Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah, and raised two children Jewish, coming to Israel was the one missing piece of Jewish involvement that I hadn’t fulfilled,” said Margulies, the award-winning political cartoonist at The Record.

Margulies was joined by his wife, Martha, and her mother, Beatrice Golub. “We were interested in the first J2J, but after the first orientation session, war broke out in Lebanon and we decided not to come. This time, we had already committed when war broke out in Gaza. We said hopefully it will be over soon enough, and we won’t let anything stop us this time.”

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Annelise and Hortense Cohon Photos by Abigail Klein Leichman

Billet said she’d envisioned a much larger group, but the state of the economy – more than the war – made recruiting difficult. In fact, several of the participants had originally expected to come on missions through their synagogues – for example Beti Rozencwajg, who signed up for J2J2 after a trip planned by Cong. Adas Emuno in Leonia was cancelled for lack of registrants.

“We thought we’d be 200 [participants] back in September,” Billet said. “We were down to [the current] 50, and then we had a war in Gaza. And then a bomb hit Nahariya. But nobody canceled. Four days into the trip, it’s so obvious why: this is a very special group of people.”

About half of them had never been to Israel before, including Hortense Cohon of Hackensack. Her granddaughter, Annelise, is studying at Haifa University on a Rotary Scholarship. When Cohon saw a notice about J2J2 in this newspaper, she decided to take part along with Annelise.

“I was never interested in coming to Israel and I hesitated till the last minute,” she admitted. “But it’s been marvelous, the most amazing experience. I would tell others to come on a tour like this and then come back on their own. When I get home, my friends are going to be surprised with me.”

“We’re hoping when everyone goes back they will feel incredibly connected to Israel,” said Billet. “How that will impact their lives, we don’t know yet. I’ve been here six times in five years and I’m getting a different perspective every time I come.”

Lebowitz said the journey “reawakened a Zionism that never went away, and galvanized me. In the States, it’s all about the struggle to make a living and it’s me, me, me and my family. Here it’s something bigger than yourself. It’s all one community.”

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