Eight Jewish community leaders spent the second week of 2001 showing the community’s support for its brothers and sisters in Israel. Although some admit they went on the trip because they felt obliged, they all returned with a shared sense of mission.
“Israel was clearly hurting, both psychologically and financially. When a loved one hurts, you hurt too. That’s how I felt in Israel this time,” said Carol Gown. “I also felt truly needed and wanted, which was a new way for me to relate to Israel and for Israel to relate to me. I realized on this trip, more than on any other, how deeply I care about Israel, with all her problems, warts and internal conflicts.”
The Seattle leadership mission also included Barry Goren, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle; Ken Weinberg, executive director of Jewish Family Service; Rabbi Dan Bridge, executive director of Hillel at the University of Washington; Rabbi Scott Sperling of Temple De Hirsch Sinai; Rabbi Jonathan Singer of Temple Beth Am; and Joseph Voss and Michele Rosen, volunteer leaders in the community.
They were among 900 North American Jewish in Israel that week on a special United Jewish Communities (UJC) Solidarity Mission. The contingent, representing 70 Jewish communities across the continent, was the largest group of North American Jews on a UJC-sponsored Solidarity Mission since the latest conflict between Israelis and Palestinians began last year.
“I decided to participate in the mission as a representative of the Reform Jewish community, to show that we support Israel, that she is not isolated, and that we care deeply about her protection and her future,” said Rabbi Jonathan Singer. “If my coming would help to invigorate the spirit of just one Israeli, then it would be worthwhile, and I believe that it was.”
In an e-mail recounting his impressions of the mission, Singer wrote of the contrast between this visit and a past experience living in Israel for three and a half years, during the bombing of buses and the breakout of the Lebanese war, among other difficulties. “I have never seen Israel so depressed. Shops were struggling to stay open. Until our arrival only 14 people were staying in the King David Hotel,” he said.
Tourism has decreased by 90 percent and other sectors of the economy, such as construction and agriculture, which both rely heavily on Palestinian workers, have been adversely affected by the current violent situation in the territories.
Adds Barry Goren, “I have never been to Israel when the streets, hotels and restaurants felt so empty. There is a feeling of confusion and uncertainty in the air because of the unraveling of the peace process and the upcoming election. No one knows what the future will bring.”
Michele Rosen said Israel in January 2001 was an entirely different country from the place she visited four months earlier. “Not only has this intifada put a huge economic burden on the Isreali economy, it has more importantly demoralized the country. People are really sick at heart.”
Ken Weinberg said he participated in the mission because he wanted to show that his support for Israel was more than a check. “We are one people and when one of us is under siege, all of us are,” he said. He and others contrasted the news reports about what is happening in the territories with their own experiences within the more established sections of the country. “There is no reason to be afraid of going to Israel — it is safe to be there and remains a wonderful and meaningful place to spend time,” Weinberg said.
Several of the leadership mission participants told the story of their visit to Seattle’s sister community, Kiryat Malachi, when asked to share one experience that illustrates how they felt about the mission. The settlement town, which was poor to begin with, has been devastated by the current economic situation brought on by the intifada. The group spent part of an afternoon in the town’s community center, meeting with young people representing a variety of organizations, such as scouts and the local youth choir, Dor Sheni, which has performed in Seattle. “These were kids from a variety of immigrant backgrounds: Ethiopian, Russian, North African, among others. Their hopes, eloquently and fervently expressed, for finding the way to a future of peace and security for both Jews and Palestinians was a tremendous inspiration to me,” said Sperling.
The group attended a dedication ceremony for a new playground for the children of Kiryat Malachi. After singing to their new friends from Seattle, the children presented each of them with a flower. “All of this took place within just a few kilometers of the border of Israel and Gaza,” Weinberg recalled. “The Israelis cannot let these children live in danger of their lives. Peace must be achieved, but it must be a peace in which these children can play in that wonderful new playground without fear and concern. These are not new ideas for me, but I have new insight and resolve after this trip.”
Gown said she was impressed with the vitality of the Israeli democracy and the willingness of Israelis “to engage in an intense and often painful dialogue about the ‘situation.’ ” She noted how Israeli newspapers carry articles every day that are critical of the actions of Israeli soldiers or of the policy of containing Palestinians in their villages. “The Israeli press is free to criticize aspects of Israeli life in a way that demonstrates the health and vitality of the country’s democracy. As I read those articles, I compared it to Israel’s peace partners, where such self-criticism and self-reflection is not tolerated,” Gown said.
Bridge said he had several opportunities to talk to students studying in Israel or participating in Birthright Israel trips. “In spite of the news reports and some parental worries, they have stayed in Israel and are living fairly normal lives like most Israelis, taking buses and going to [the] Mahane Yehuda [market],” Bridge said. “They are a bit more circumspect than students in past years about some of the places and times they travel, however. One student, Josh Jacobs, said that he’s both ‘grateful and sorry’ that this year is so different from others, reflecting the reality of travel limitations but also feeling very much a part of the Israel experience.”
Singer said he expected this kind of different Israel experience could continue for a long time. He encouraged all parts of the greater Seattle Jewish community to “come together, right and left, religiously traditional or liberal, and stand as one in our support of an Israel that does not want to rule over her neighbors, but does want to live together in peace.”