|The Ahavath Torah mission participants gather at Herodion, in Gush Etzion, the ruins of Herod’s palace. PHOTO COURTESY MICHAEL WILDES|
Organized missions to Israel during and after January’s Operation Cast Lead are a different animal from the solidarity missions of the first and second intifadas, or Arab uprisings, in 1987-1992 and 2000-2006.
Back then, groups organized by American synagogues, philanthropic organizations, and day schools aimed to bolster the sagging Israeli tourist industry and show support to its citizens. These extended family-oriented missions dwindled toward the end of the second intifada.
Today’s model is mostly smaller groups made up of leaders of organizations – such as the Jewish National Fund and Magen David Adom – that stay for shorter periods of time and have pinpointed agendas that include enhancing their own bonds.
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood’s Cong. Ahavath Torah said the shul sponsored its first mission in 1991. A second group of about 30 people landed a few months later just as Scud missiles were falling on Israel. By contrast, the Orthodox synagogue’s most recent mission was more brief, less structured, and attracted 21 men, as opposed to families or couples as in earlier missions.
“This trip was unique because our missions used to be primarily when no one was coming to Israel,” said Goldin. “Now everybody tends to go on their own, so it’s a big deal to get a group together. Some of the participants made their own travel arrangements and stayed in their own apartments rather than in the hotel. Many stayed on longer and not everyone came to every part of the four-day program.”
In addition, this time Goldin acknowledged that among the trip’s primary goals was fostering stronger ties between the participants.
“An integral part of every trip has been the bonding within the group,” said Goldin. “In a community of 750-odd families it’s so easy to socialize only with your own group. When you go through intense experiences like this, it is also a wonderful opportunity for the rabbi to speak with the members of the mission informally about things we normally just don’t get a chance to talk about.”
The social aspect was not an afterthought for participants, either.
“My expectation was to do things I hadn’t done before, with a group of close friends,” said congregation president Kenny Eckstein. “It was a great success, really a great bonding experience for people who don’t get an opportunity to spend significant quality time together with their rabbi.”
Goldin said that during Shabbat meals he and his congregants discussed spiritual issues that the previous days had brought to the fore, including the importance of prayer and synagogue attendance.
“Their experiences inspired them to think about critical issues here in Israel,” he said, “and the intensity of the experiences also got them thinking about their own issues.”
Rabbi Seth Mandell, an American immigrant who accompanied the men, said he was moved to observe the Englewood visitors interacting and growing closer to one another over the course of the four days.
“A mission connects the participants in a stronger way, and renews their friendships,” said Mandell. “In addition to strengthening the communities they visited, it clearly strengthens the community of those who came.”