Young Jewish leaders see different side of Israel during OnBoard mission
Cherry Hill resident Alison Shapiro’s trip to Israel five years ago was everything she had hoped and expected of a first visit to the Jewish homeland. Her love of the land intensified while hiking to the top of Masada, floating on the Dead Sea, and davening at the Wall.
Her second trip in February, however, was nothing like that one.
As one of six South Jersey residents on a mission meant to expose lay leaders to Israel’s innovative non-profit organizations, she met people and had experiences that didn’t always jibe with her prior knowledge and beliefs. Inspirational activists included a Palestinian woman devoted to helping Arab Israeli victims of domestic abuse and a Haredi woman building bridges between Jewish and Arab women who share neighborhoods but might otherwise never make eye contact. A special needs educator, Shapiro’s mind continues to revisit the group’s unnerving blackout dinner, in which all participants ate a meal in pitch darkness to simulate what a blind person experiences.
“It was nothing like I expected but better than I could have anticipated— and truly the trip of a lifetime,” said Shapiro, whose sponsoring organization was her synagogue, Temple Beth Sholom. The trip was the capstone of the 18- month Legacy Heritage OnBoard Program. As part of the second cohort to participate, the six joined some 20 others from Philadelphia metropolitan area organizations engaged in both individual and group learning experiences they will surely drawn on in shaping the future for Jewish institutions. Besides Shapiro, Missy Wayne participated from TBS. Matthew Podolnick and Melissa Grossman were representatives of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey. Politz Day School sponsored Shealtiel Weinberg and Molly Bindell.
Jennifer Dubrow Weiss, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey, said OnBoard is a unique opportunity to invest in tomorrow’s leaders today.
“This program is strengthening our community for the future and providing leadership for generations to come,” said Weiss. “I am so grateful to OnBoard and all of the participants for the work they are doing and for including agencies in South Jersey in their cohort.”
While the six had different clarifying experiences, all agreed that the most valuable aspect of the program was the connections they felt towards each other and collective epiphany that Jewish communal agencies must form deeper partnerships to remain viable and grow.
“It was an incredible experience to connect with, become friends with, and to understand people and different modes of Judaism,” said Weinberg, whose father and grandfather are Orthodox rabbis in his native Manhattan. “I felt I had the opportunity to do Jewish learning way out of my comfort zone.”
Grossman noted the irony of going to Israel to better understand one’s own community.
“We went to understand the structure of successful NGOs (non-profit organizations) but that’s not what their leaders wanted to talk about,” she said. “They wanted to talk about their vision and their ideas. My big takeaway so far was how the organizations had a shared existence as opposed to a co-existence with other organizations working with limited resources. This is very relevant in our own backyard, where we have to learn how to grow by using our resources more effectively,” she added.
Podolnick said he was so impressed with a high school they visited in Tel Aviv for immigrants from 27 different countries and diverse religious backgrounds. He is already working on creating connections between the kids and South Jersey teens through his role as Federation’s chair of the Department of Jewish Education.
“A lot of time our children live in bubbles,” Podolnick said. “We all have good intentions but there is little opportunity for our kids to develop relationships with kids from very different backgrounds.”
Bindell said she did not expect to experience such intense emotions visiting nonprofit organizations. And yet the politics of Israel could not help but infuse most conversations about the missions of these groups, she said.
“A lot of the organizations we met with strive for social justice goals, and making resources equally available to Israeli Jews and Arabs,” noted Bindell, a graduate student in ecology at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. “It was powerful. Despite the fact that often my politics didn’t agree with their politics, what I got out of it is the need to be more open minded. A lot of time we might have the same intentions and same basic goals but are just coming from different backgrounds and approaches.”
For Wayne, it was both uncomfortable and inspiring to see how successful non-profits are addressing inequalities and issues that she never realized existed—or perhaps didn’t want to know about.
“My idealized view of Israel may have been shattered,” Wayne said. “But I think it is so much better to be able to see what’s real: The good, the bad and the ugly, and to see what people are doing about it.”