Seeing Israel With New Eyes

I have been to Israel innumerable times. I lived there as a high school student, again as a college student, and for two years as a graduate student. Currently, I am completing a fellowship at the Shalom Hartman Institute that has brought me to Israel to engage in intensive study each of the last three years. And, for the past 30 years, I have led congregational youth, adult, and family trips to Israel. In Hebrew, I am what is called a vateek – an experienced old-timer, i.e. “a veteran.”

Earlier this year, I worked with other Jewish community leaders advising the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and the Mayor’s Office as they worked on plans for an impactful Israel experience for a public-private delegation. When I was asked to accompany Mayor Muriel Bowser on that historic trip to Israel this past June, I was honored, but I had little expectation that I would see or experience anything new. What took place during that short (5-day!), fast-moving trip, however, gave me a new perspective. I saw Israel as I had never seen her before and gained an even greater respect for our Mayor and the community leaders with whom I traveled.

The trip focused on connecting D.C. and Israel through trade and economic development. More than 40 government and community leaders participated, including DC Councilmembers Anita Bonds and Brandon Todd. I was proud to travel with some of our area’s finest professional Jewish leaders including Alan Ronkin, Regional Director of AJC; Ron Halber, Executive Director of the JCRC; and Carole Zawatsky, CEO of the Edlavitch DCJCC. We were also joined by Wanda Durant of The Kevin Durant Charity Foundation and Sandra Norman who represented Redskins’ cornerback Josh Norman’s Starz24 Foundation, two powerful women who shared innovations from their community work here in D.C. and learned about some of Israel’s societal challenges. Among the half dozen government officials and leaders from a variety of private businesses and nonprofit organizations, I was the only member of the clergy to travel with this group.

We saw the best of Israeli society and met innovators and government leaders. Mayor Bowser spoke during Israel’s Cyber Week, one of the world largest tech gatherings. She met with the mayor of Tel Aviv, a man who has held that office for 25 years, as well as Haifa’s brand-new mayor – the first woman to hold that title. While in Haifa, we also witnessed a new partnership form between Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C. (represented by its President and CEO Dr. Kurt Newman) and the Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa, an exchange that will benefit both institutions. During our tour of Rambam, we saw how they had transformed part of an underground parking garage into a trauma center and full operating room – the Sammy Ofer Fortified Underground Emergency Hospital. The innovation and reality of such a need were not lost on us.

It was fascinating to see Israel through the eyes of business leaders, government officials, and community organizers. They came away from this trip with one of the most positive perspectives of Israel’s strengths I have ever witnessed. In fairness, I often attend think tank-type events that deal with intense and difficult questions of Jewish identity, the widening rift between the Jewish people’s two homes – America and Israel, and of course, the complex political issues to which there seems to be no end.

We visited the holy sites of Jews, Christians, and Muslims – all less than 1,000 feet from one another. The power of proximity and the effort to preserve the sanctity, dignity, and security of each was evident. Each site included a carefully crafted conversation to help first-time visitors understand the complexity and the beauty of modern-day Israel. There were no apologies or sugar-coated presentations. Each of our guides simply brought forth the best of Israeli society. The shared struggles of housing, immigration, security, education, and business development were discussed openly and honestly, which resulted in a deep respect for Israel by all of the delegates.

Alan Ronkin, who helped craft the program, was incredibly insightful in explaining today’s reality to the newcomers in our delegation. Throughout the trip, Ron Halber was quick to clarify and share how the complex issues can easily be misunderstood or framed for political purposes. Carol Zawatsky is a consummate professional. Her warmth and personal stories of her family’s relationship to Israel had a strong impact on the delegation. The experience and expertise of these three Jewish professionals was well-received and greatly appreciated by the delegation.

Most of the time, we stood with pride for Israel, as her innovative nature and resilience were self-evident each step of the journey. The power of the past and the hope for the future were never more evident than when we saw with our own eyes her global impact on technology, medicine, and security.

There were so many things about this trip that touched me. I was moved as I walked through Yad Vashem with Mayor Bowser who was deeply affected by the experience and lit a flame of Yizkor in a ceremony in the famous Hall of Remembrance. I was proud of our city leaders as they – with open minds and sensitive hearts – explored, questioned, and, I believe, ultimately fell in love with this miracle called Israel. I was equally proud of Richard Lake, a lifelong WHC member and member of the trip delegation, who helped bring the trip to fruition and Louis and Martine Dubin who have had a lifelong relationship with our Congregation and took time from their personal trip to join us and share their pride and love of Israel with the group over dinner. Mayor Bowser and Vincent Orange, D.C. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO, did us proud in every way with impeccable planning, vision, and attention to detail.

The ancient words of Rabbi Ben Bag Bag: “Chaffoch, chaffoch – Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it,” rang true as I saw Israel with new eyes and even greater pride!

Shalom from Jerusalem!