WOW, WHAT A JOURNEY IT HAS BEEN! Security checkpoints, planes, buses, taxis, slippery Jerusalem stone, wheelchairs, jeeps, tunnels, laughter, tears, COVID, stories, stairs, windmills, Israeli dancing, deserts and desserts, gondola rides, Masada, Dead Sea, shuks, a lost phone, kibbutzes, Zionism, secularism, bomb shelters, Arab-Israeli perspectives and insights, Holocaust survivors, visonaries, graffiti, history, sirens of remembrance, moments of silence, moments of gratitude, sunrises, sunsets, beaches, rugalach, scooter injuries, band-aids, Zofran, a winery, synagogues, churches, Ukrainian refugees, absorption centers, falafel, hummus, shawarma, pita, ice cream, anxiety, exhilaration, ant colonies, fresh oranges, innovation, camaraderie, conversations, reflection, missed flight connections, and so much more.
We stuck together like ants on a mission – many of us were fortunate to experience every second of our scheduled agenda. At the same time, the itinerary took a COVID detour for eight of our friends, who thankfully are all on the mend. And now, we are all going through different phases of re-entry, awaiting one last cohort member’s arrival home this weekend. Some cliff notes from our time in Israel below.
The Itinerary & Curriculum
Over the course of 10 days, we toured 15 cities, had the pleasure of meeting and listening to 23 speakers, and experienced 4 holidays, including Yom HaShoah, Shabbat, Yom Hazikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut. The journey began in Jerusalem and concluded in Neot Kedumim, a nature preserve outside of Tel Aviv.
We truly immersed ourselves in all things – from revisiting how and why the land of Israel is so precious, to more clearly understanding why the Arab and Israeli conflict began in 1948 and why it still exists, to meeting visionaries who have made it their life’s work to pave a path to peace. And, we saw firsthand the incredible innovation and entrepreneurial spirit being unleashed within this startup nation. And of course, the never-ending history of the land and its people reminded us of how important it is to continue to preserve these places and to learn from them and their stories as we look to the future.
Our Beloved, Besheret Staff
Guiding 34 adults across a foreign country during an unprecedented time requires skill, patience, positivity, a nurturing attitude and resilience. Lauren Kaplan assembled a team, including herself, that embodied all of these traits and more. Roni Stern was our Israeli tour guide hero. Not only did he impress us with his passion, knowledge and love for Israel, he made us laugh so hard, we cried. And he stuck with us, never wavering, and constantly coming up with solutions to unexpected challenges. He cared for us like we were family, which also meant pushing our mental and physical limits at times.
Roni, whose grandparents experienced the war in Europe, was born in Israel and grew up during the Intifada. He shared memories from his childhood, including a story of trembling in his parent’s room wearing a gas mask as missiles came from Iraq and his terror in high school when buses and restaurants were blown up on a regular basis. He joined an elite counter-terrorism unit and became a combat soldier for 20-plus years. In Roni’s words, “If there is one thing you get after taking part in a war, it is appreciating life.” In addition to being the best tour guide, he is a father of three and we were fortunate to meet his family, including his lovely wife!
Supporting Roni and Lauren were Or, Eshei and Omar, who provided daily medical and security support. But more than that, they too became our family during our 10 days together. And our extra special Sophie Stillman, a native Minnesotan and HJMDS graduate who served in the Israeli Air Force offered a first-hand narrative from her own experience making Aliyah, living in Tel Aviv, and serving as a lone soldier. The knowledge, vulnerability, personal stories, and wisdom she offered to our group added to our authentic experience. She also has incredible taste in Israeli restaurants if ever you need a recommendation. She now has a community of new HKLI friends in the Twin Cities who will always greet her warmly with open arms.
Most importantly, we are all alive because of Omar, our bus driver. Driving in Israel is a genuine skill. Never has a bus driver left such an impact. Each morning and throughout the day, he greeted us with high fives, candy and conversation. If there is an award for bus driving, Omar takes the gold. He became a fast friend to all of us!
It was hard to say goodbye to these people, who left such an impact on all of us. There is an enormous amount of gratitude when we think of each of them.
A brief word about the food. Before our trip, a cohort member inquired whether there would be healthy food options. Fair to say we were in awe of the flavors, quality and quantity of food we ate throughout our trip. The fresh vegetables, fruits, spreads, olives, cheeses, salads, entrees and more were so delicious! And of course, we indulged in some sweet and savory treats. My husband and I were so in love with the Israeli food that we’ve continued to make dishes from the Jerusalem cookbook since we returned. Thank you to the Minneapolis and St. Paul Federations and Harry Kay Foundation for treating us to an incredible culinary experience to complement our remarkable agenda!
Next Year in Jerusalem?
There is a lot to unpack from this experience, both mentally and physically. While I cannot possibly capture every moment or sentiment, if you’re reading this, I encourage you to reach out to members of our cohort to hear about their personal experiences – we want to share it with you. For each of us, it was unique. I am just one voice of 34, and for me, it was the closest thing to a mini-MBA course of Israel, up close and incredibly personal. A life-changing, eye-opening gift of inspiration, new knowledge, fresh perspective, first-time experiences, new friends, and memories I will forever cherish.
What we saw, who we met, and what we heard and did has me thinking about what’s next and what will we do with the lessons from this trip. While the Israel mission puzzle piece of our HKLI COVID Cohort has concluded, our true mission as Jewish leaders is just beginning, as Adam Garen alluded to in his post on the trip blog. One thing is for sure, 40 of us said Hineni (HERE I AM) when we joined HKLI, and 34 of us were fortunate to do so in Israel. I am confident we will be here doing great things for our Twin Cities Jewish community in years to come.
If our adventure has at all inspired you, I encourage you to experience Israel in 2023. Led by the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, hundreds of people from the Minnesota Jewish community will travel to Israel next April in celebration of a monumental 75 years of Israeli Independence with the Experience Israel 2023 trip. Registration is open. Seize the moment.
This article is sponsored content from the Minneapolis Jewish Federation as part of TC Jewfolk’s Partnership program. For more information, check out our media kit.