Five Bergen County women visited Israel earlier this month as part of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Heart to Heart mission. The mission included 68 women from 19 communities across the country.
In addition to four packed days visiting projects funded by JFNA and partner organizations such as the Jewish Agency for Israel, World ORT, and the Joint Distribution Committee, some of the local participants spent time in Nahariya, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s P2G Partnership City in the north.
“It was a special visit, as we were able to spend some quality time with the folks on the ground who run the programs that are directly supported by JFNNJ,” said Dana Post Adler of Tenafly, a board member of JFNNJ and the National Women’s Philanthropy Board of Jewish Federations of North America and co-president of the Women’s Philanthropy Board of JFNNJ.
“We had an emotional visit at the training center within Nahariya’s firehouse, where we presented one fireman, Gil Barsano, with a photograph and plaque of his son Adar, who was killed in action during Operation Protective Edge and who had also been a volunteer firefighter in Nahariya,” Ms. Adler reported. The training center was funded by JFNNJ.
“We visited Bayit Cham — Warm House — where we met two successful young women who had used the services of the home when they were considered ‘youth at risk’ during their teenage years. We met with a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who told us her story at the survivors group that our dollars support, and we toured a small food pantry and thrift shop for needy families. Having lunch by the Mediterranean with the P2G leadership and the deputy mayor, my friend Orna Starkmann, is always a special treat.”
Ms. Adler recruited the other local participants. One of them, Lisa Hecht of Tenafly, had never been to Israel before.
“The best part of the trip for me was seeing Israel through my dear friend Lisa’s eyes for the first time — davening at the Kotel, walking through the Old City, and soaking up the connection that we all have to the history of our people,” Ms. Adler said. “I also hope that she was impressed by all the good work we do through our federation.”
Ms. Hecht said she indeed was impressed by projects such as Masira, a JDC program to help integrate and empower disabled Arab-Israelis in their communities; the Ethiopian National Project, which runs a variety of support programs for Ethiopian-Israeli youth and adults, and JAFI’s emergency assistance to families in the Jerusalem area who lost their homes in the November forest fires.
“I got to see and do many things, and meet many people that I wouldn’t have had I been on a tourist trip,” she said. “Being with Dana on this very special journey was like having my own personal scholar in residence.”
Ms. Hecht said her most moving experience was being asked to lead the Shehecheyanu prayer with three other first-timers as their bus reached Jerusalem at sunset. “I will always remember that moment: my first trip to Israel, arriving in Jerusalem — the City of Gold — and reciting this ancient prayer surrounded by so many amazing women.”
It was the fifth Heart to Heart Mission for Gale S. Bindelglass of Franklin Lakes, and her 13th trip to Israel in 11 years. She said that on every trip she comes away “thoroughly impressed by the spiritual, agricultural, and technical wonderment” of Israel and feels “romantically in love with this complicated and glorious land.”
On last year’s mission she marked her adult bat mitzvah alongside Russian women “who spent a lot of their lives not even knowing they were Jewish,” she said. This year she held one of the four poles of the chuppah over a group of Ethiopian-Israeli b’not mitzvah.
Ms. Bindelglass has many communal affiliations: past co-president of Women’s Philanthropy, immediate past chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council, past chair of the Brotherhood Sisterhood Interfaith Committee, member of the Holocaust Memorial Committee, and board member of JFNNJ and Jewish Family Service of Northern New Jersey. She built a teaching kitchen in her home to host outreach events for the Jewish community revolving around her philosophy of “food, love, and gratitude.”
That’s why one of her favorite experiences during Heart to Heart was cooking alongside grandmothers in Petach Tikvah who earn an income preparing traditional Moroccan, Tunisian, and Iraqi dishes for needy neighborhood children, a program the federation supports through JAFI and JDC.
“While enjoying the lunch we all made together, quite to my surprise after spending real quality time talking with the chefs running the event … I was tapped on the shoulder, asked to stand up, and they bestowed me with their apron,” Ms. Bindelglass said. “I was basically named Top Chef of a group of 70 women, and they asked me to go home to my teaching kitchen, cook in their apron, and email them photos. To me, this was very exciting and affirmational.”
Franci Steinberg of Tenafly, a member of the Women’s Philanthropy Board, said she saw Heart to Heart as an opportunity to visit Israel “not as a first-time visitor or to see the usual sights, but to see Israel from another viewpoint and to see how Jews in America help Israel.”
Ms. Steinberg said one highlight was watching the parents at the Ethiopian group bat mitzvah. “These families were beaming with joy, and I will never forget the pride and smiles on their faces as they watched their daughters,” she said. “They have come a long way in their lives, and it was so wonderful to share this day with them and their families.”
Suzette Diamond of Cresskill, a JFNNJ board member, said she participated in Heart to Heart to see the impact of donor dollars firsthand, and she was not disappointed.
“Our first morning in Jerusalem we visited an oncologist at what used to be his home before a forest fire over Thanksgiving weekend completely burned everything they owned,” Ms. Diamond said. “They are three generations living in one home — he and his wife, daughter and son-in-law, and their two children. Luckily they escaped without injury, but also with no time to take anything with them, including their shoes.”
By the Monday morning after the fire, funds collected by JAFI from partners including JFNA were presented to this physician and about 600 other families affected by the fires.
“With hugs and checks, federation was physically there for our Israeli brothers and sisters who suffered in these forest fires, providing love and money to buy immediate necessities,” Ms. Diamons said. “Once you travel on a mission, you realize the impact we have in other communities.”
Ms. Adler noted that even a short mission like Heart to Heart is enough to dispel mistaken impressions about Israel.
“Israel is so many wonderful things, and unfortunately what we read and see in the news is often distorted and wrong,” she said. “My biggest message is to go, and go often. See for yourself what the country is like, learn the precarious geography, sample the fabulous food, speak to the people.
“Trust me, you’ll feel like you’re home.”