Berrie brings non-Jewish leaders to see ‘how life is normal in Israel’

Berrie brings non-Jewish leaders to see ‘how life is normal in Israel’

Philanthropist Angelica Berrie brought nine non-Jewish community leaders to Israel in August. From left, Douglass Duchak, John Smith, Janet Sharma, Berrie, Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Esther Paik Goodhart, Maxine Frampton, and Michael Maron.

United Jewish Communities runs dozens of missions to Israel throughout the year, all geared for the Jewish community. When philanthropist Angelica Berrie planned her mission for Israel’s 60th anniversary, she wanted it to be different. She devised the August trip for non-Jewish communal leaders who had never been to the Jewish state.

The Russell Berrie Foundation sponsored the mission, while UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey handled the logistics. Nine representatives from Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, PSE&G, television news, and other community and political leaders joined Berrie and UJA-NNJ executive vice president Howard Charish on a four-day trip. It included helicopter tours, a visit to UJA-NNJ’s sister city of Nahariya, visits to Christian sites, and an interfaith Shabbat dinner. Berrie, the widow of toy tycoon and philanthropist Russ Berrie, said she wanted everybody to see Israel as it truly is and not as it appears in the headlines.

“These kinds of community leaders have great potential to cross-pollinate with our Jewish community – share ideas, share resources, make a difference in our community,” Berrie said. “There are so many ways we can intersect and make a difference together. We just thought the first step was to take them to Israel.”

The group met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on its first day in the country. Olmert, who had a close relationship with Russ Berrie, told the participants about that bond in his Jerusalem office.

“No one expected that kind of open reception,” Charish said. “There was a sense of closeness that he had for Angelica and Russ that added special feeling to the meeting.”

As the group toured Christian holy sites and met with interfaith leaders, they saw how different parts of Israeli society live and interact with each other.

“What impressed them – and it was terrific to see – was how life is normal in Israel,” Charish said, “that it is not this huge defense situation with only a few people overcrowded by soldiers and the military. These are people living daily lives, bringing up family, going to work, playing, praying.”

On a trip to Ono Academic College, the group met with four religious leaders from the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Druze communities who were studying together in a legal program at the college. The group met also with Bedouins and ate Shabbat dinner with Rabbi David Rosen, president of the International Jewish Committee for Interfaith Consultations.

“The comparison of the Jewish religion and the Catholic religion just came together for me,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37). “It gave me an opportunity to really touch and see and feel and smell the holy land in a way I can’t put into words.”

Noting that Englewood has a large Jewish population, Huttle said, she has been a supporter of Israel and Jewish causes, including UJA-NNJ’s Super Sunday fund-raiser. The trip hasn’t changed her views but has reinforced them, she said.

“I represent a large number of Jewish constituents and I’ve always been an advocate for the needs of the people in my community as a whole,” she said. “But I think it’s given me a greater understanding of the history. Just to have that understanding enhances my sensitivity to the needs of Israel.”

Janet Sharma, executive director of the Volunteer Center of Bergen County in Hackensack, called the trip “really, really awesome.”

“The Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee, all the monuments in Jerusalem, all these things we heard about for centuries – it was just there,” she said.

Despite news reports and concerns from her friends, Sharma said she felt safe in Israel. “I never felt afraid at all,” she said. “You can get run over crossing the street or there can be a suicide bomber here…. You can’t be intimidated by anything like that.”

Sharma would like to see an Israeli-like sense of pride develop in the United States.

“The spirit of civic engagement is just everywhere in Israel,” she said. “Everybody feels so strongly about the country. We kind of forget about that [civic engagement] when it’s not an election year. They are so incredibly proud of what they’ve done with their country. That filters down to everything.”

Berrie is pleased with the reactions to the program and is thinking about a follow-up. “My job was to inspire them to be able to think about Israel in a new way and how it can enrich the community,” she said. “It’s an open learning experience.”

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