L.A. Jews connect in Israel

JERUSALEM — Of the 400 Jewish community members who traveled to Israel on a week-long trip in late October to celebrate the 100th anniversary of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, many had already visited the country dozens of times, although some had never set foot on Israeli soil.

A diverse mix of participants from the L.A. region, whose ages spanned several decades, toured the country in 14 separate groups with different, albeit sometimes overlapping, itineraries. While everyone on the mission became acquainted with the many worthy Israeli projects supported by the L.A. Federation, some groups focused on Jewish identity; others were more directed toward philanthropy or social action.

The groups linked up for special events, including the dedication of a new community center at Ayalim Village, a project designed to build and strengthen Israeli communities in the north and south regions of the country. The evening included a barbecue under the stars at the student-run village in the Negev.  

“There are 400 people here of all ages. We have a Birthright bus, a bus of young Russians, major philanthropists,” Federation president and CEO Jay Sanderson enthused as he gazed at the crowd at the mission’s closing event, which featured remarks by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni.

What united the groups, Sanderson said, was the desire to connect with Israelis and to learn from them, as well as from one another.

For the older, established community members, the mission “also showed our commitment to engage young people,” both in Israel and the United States, Sanderson said.

The social action track was especially popular among younger participants.

“We tried to go to places most tourists don’t go, places that show how Israelis use innovation to tackle difficult problems,” said Dan Gold, who led the group. This included spending a day visiting south Tel Aviv social-service agencies that assist poor Israelis, foreign workers and refugees. They also visited a solar thermal plant, helped remove litter from a valley and picked beets for Leket, Israel’s largest food bank.   

Alicia Harris, 34, a teacher at Crescenta Valley High School, was on the social action trip. Harris said she was inspired by her visit to the Bialik-Rogosin School, where dozens of refugee children are being educated and nurtured.  

“Kids are kids everywhere, but when you hear what these kids have gone through, it’s amazing,” said Harris, a first-time visitor to Israel. “I’d like to come back and volunteer there.

“I was probably the most detached Jewishly of anyone in my group,” she said, “but Shabbat services, the Western Wall, dinner in the desert were poignant moments. Now, I feel a desire to be connected with other Jews once I get back to L.A.”

Harris related how, when she asked her fellow group members where she could find an uplifting prayer service in Los Angeles similar to ones she experienced in Israel, “Someone said, ‘Come with me next week!’ ”

As a result of the trip, she said, “I feel more of a desire to be connected.”

Although Cindy Feit, 28, had visited the Jewish state several times in the past, and even lived in Israel for 10 months, she said there was “something special” about exploring the country with fellow Angelenos.

“Before, I was always with groups of people from all over the place. This time, the benefit is that we can maintain the connections we’ve made on the trip back home.”

Feit said her group is already planning an L.A. reunion Chanukah party.

Cindy Wu-Freedman decided to come on the mission not only to see Israel for the first time, but to strengthen her husband’s connection to Judaism.

“I want to have a sense of God in my own home,” Wu-Freedman, a Jew by Choice, said, noting that her Jewish husband, Jason, had almost no tangible connection to the Jewish community until she began to study the religion.   

“It’s been hard to convince my husband to go to synagogue, and it’s hard to be Jewish on your own,” she said.   

“I’ve been pretty much a non-practicing Jew. I took being Jewish for granted,” Jason Freedman admitted. “But Cindy’s conversion sparked a renaissance in my life.”

Coming to Israel for the first time “has completed the puzzle somehow,” he said. “I’d definitely like to be more active in the Jewish community in L.A. Going to shul, seeking out opportunities to meet more Jews and to be proactively pro-Israel.”

Several mission participants already engaged in full-time Jewish community work back home said they felt recharged by the enthusiasm of those on their first-ever trip to Israel.  

“Our group had a very high percentage of first-timers,” noted Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, senior rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a Reform congregation. “It’s been personally gratifying to see old sites through new eyes.”