Advocacy2Gether Seminar 2014

Last week I had the honor to participate in the Advocacy2Gether Seminar program in Indianapolis. The seminar was part of the Partnership2Gether branch of The Jewish Agency for Israel. This would be my second experience through Partnership2Gether, the first of which was my Alternative Spring Break trip in March 2013.

About Partnership2Gether

The Partnership2Gether program is a part of The Jewish Agency for Israel whose goal is to connect international Jewish communities directly with communities in Israel. The idea is to create dialogue on issues, challenges, and successes within our respective communities. Once this dialogue is established, communities can then pool their resources, experience, and strengths to act and generate change.

Partnership believes that by establishing links at community level the connections are stronger, dialogue more meaningful, and action more direct. With over 550 communities connected through 45 individual partnerships, Partnership2Gether involves some 300,000 people annually to promote change in local and international Jewish communities. Go us, right?!

About the Central Consortium and Western Galilee Partnership

The partnership that I have been involved in is the one between the Central Consortium of the US and the Western Galilee (PLUS our incredible friends in Budapest, Hungary!!).

In the US, the Central Consortium consists of Louisville, Austin, San Antonio, Omaha, Des Moines, South Bend, N.W. Indiana, Indianapolis, Toledo, Youngstown, Canton, and Dayton.

                

In Israel, the Western Galilee region consists of several communities. Rosh HaNikra, Nahariya, and Acco are some of the communities that I have had and continue to have direct ties with.

I am always fascinated by these maps because when you look at the geographic size of the two regions and then the number of communities that are included you begin to get a feel for the diversity of the Western Galilee. For me, this is a crucial aspect to our partnership because it allows us to look at our Jewish identities and the issues our communities face in a context that is not solely Jewish.

The programs that the Central Consortium and Western Galilee offer are numerous and cover four main objectives; Education, Arts & Community, Medical, and Resource Development. Each of these objectives have their own programs and events, but my experience with the Partnership has been through the Education programs of Alternative Spring Break and Advocacy2Gether (which was the second stage of a TriTeam prgram). While I could go on and on about the programs that the Partnership offers, I want to focus on the Advocacy2Gether program in this post. For my Alternative Spring Break experience, please see my post from last year!

Advocacy2Gether Seminar

Wow, where do I start?! The seminar consisted of delegates from Israel, Hungary, and the United States. Most of the delegates started their experience on that first weekend of May but I was unable to take a full week off of work so I joined on Tuesday evening after work.

As some of you may know, one of my best friends from the ASB experience, Idan, would be at this seminar. In fact, I was going to be spending the week crashing on the couch in his and Hilal’s hotel room. I got in very late on Tuesday night but as soon as I opened that door all I heard was, “BEEEEEEEENNNNNNN!” coming from the other room. I threw my bags down and embraced my best friend. We were both so excited we could hardly speak. I am sure that anyone who didn’t already know us would have thought we had grown up together and even I find it hard to believe we could be so close after having spent one week together over a year ago. But the world and people work in strange ways, and this friendship is just one of many things that I owe to the Partnership, ASB, and Advocacy2Gether.

The seminar was a fairly compact one as far as international guests go. The three Israelis were two men Idan and Hillal, who is Druze, and one woman, Avital. The Hungarians were five women; Noemi, who I had met on my ASB, was joined with Judit, Petra, Barbara (Barbi!), and Aniko. I was the only US delegate not from Indy and even now it is hard to discern which of the Indy crew were delegates, guests, or speakers. But that is the way it should be because it just speaks to the open, close environment that was within the seminar from the first moment on. It was truly incredible to see how, as a group, we seamlessly worked with whoever was joining us for that program or day.

On Wednesday, I was pretty nervous to meet everyone. I knew that many of the delegates had already participated in the TriTeam program and that I was coming into the seminar halfway through. But I was welcomed with kind smiles and open arms which made transitioning into the group very easy. During the day we had programs that addressed the issue of fundraising, how to include the components of the Partnership in our programming, as well as experiences at Hooverwood, the only Jewish nursing home in Indianapolis that is located on the JCC’s campus. The programming was very educational for me and I think that it exposed how differently the three cultures viewed money and fundraising. We talked about different approaches, how to establish that initial reason/connection to give money, as well as gave many resources for further information. The Jewish programming event was interesting because it is a subject that we continually battle with in the community; how do we make sure that all of our events contain Jewish components but keep them fresh/non-intimidating?

In the evening, Idan and Hillal had an incredible opportunity to go to the Pacer’s playoff game so we shifted our plans to accommodate that. The group met an elderly woman, Susan, who was from Hungary and loved speaking with the girls in Hungarian, at a pizza place close to a mall for dinner. A short stint shopping at the mall and then we headed over to a bowling alley which was an absolute blast! I had never seen a bowling alley like this; who knew a DJ and full bar with servers was a thing now? This was an invaluable experience for me, as this was really my first time to get to know the rest of the delegates in a less formal, structured format. And I managed to keep all my teeth, too!

Thursday was a pretty intense day of programming. We had a conversation about the difference between philanthropy and charity in the morning that we tied back into the fundraising conversation from the day before. After a short break and a last-minute run to Graeter’s (we had to celebrate Hungary’s National Ice Cream Day!) we entered into a program about Israel advocacy and the information we need to face the arguments of the anti-Israel movement. While this is a very important issue that we should without a doubt be discussing and preparing for, I did not think that this particular program took the right approach to it; talking about ‘winning’ the argument’ where they really should be talking about ‘participating in dialogue’, behaving like everyone interprets information the same way so the only logical explanation for someone disagreeing with you is that they are uninformed, and failing to recognize that Israel is not perfect (no country in the world is) and sharing facts and topics from both sides of the discussion. The presenters, while knowledgeable, did not have the proper understanding for our group dynamic and were unprepared to leave their pre-planned steps to accommodate our unique program. I also felt that the conversation had been built to target college campus’ in the United States and no one in our group fell into this demographic. We needed active conversation tools about anti-Semitism, not educational facts on anti-Israel. The end of the presentation was much better because we finally got to a bit of role playing over hot-topic conversations but since we had to wade through so much on the front-side this exercise felt rushed. All in all I think it was a very valuable program both for the information it provided and the perspective many of us took away from it for future programming.

That evening was the exact opposite of the day. We separated men and women for the night so all the guys met up with several Jewish leaders from the Indy community at a Mexican restaurant that was hidden in the back of a Latino grocery store. It was a very cool experience and was the closest thing to authentic Mexican food you will get here in the MidWest. Then all of us went back to a home for bourbon and cigars. The night honestly could not have been better. While relaxing and casual, we did cover multiple important topics about education, Israel, the anti-Semitic situation in Budapest, and many others.

Friday was another great day where our programming was much less intense. Our plans got jumbled around a bit that morning due to one of the Hungarians feeling sick (flashbacks to Cinci-Sao Paulo interchange were unavoidable) but soon enough we were off to downtown Indy to explore the ‘circle’ area around the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. We were a bit crunched on time so we explored the market, got our nerd on in a comic book store, ran up to the top of the monument, and then dashed into Rocket Fizz for our candy fix all before jumping back into the car to head to the Children’s Museum.

At the Museum we ate a quick lunch and then had a small tour that culminated in the Museum’s exhibit on three influential children, one of which was Anne Frank. We left the museum to let our international friends have a traditional ‘American’ experience; Costco. Barbi and Petra were not impressed so I took them exploring around the shopping center and we ended up in a McCalister’s where I gave them their first sweet tea experience. They even got a free sweet tea from the cashier. I need to go more places with beautiful Hungarian women more often.

Friday night we went to services at one of the Reform temples in Indy before heading to Michelle’s house for a wonderful Shabbat dinner. This part of the seminar was very meaningful to me because, as a not particularly religious Jew, it was cool to be back in a temple saying the prayers I learned when I became Bar Mitzvah. I was actually really surprised that I remembered everything that I did. The dinner was incredible because it was all of the individuals (and some new ones) who had been in and out of our programs for the past week all gathered in one room. Kids were running around, laughter filled the kitchen and dining room, and the energy in the room was just electric. Here was a group of people from all over the world and different walks of life being brought together by Partnership. Seeing one of the goals of Partnership laid out so obviously in front of me was very heartwarming. It inspired me to believe that we were not just spinning out wheels in the dirt but that, whether we  realize it or not, the Jewish communities around the world are being strengthened by our actions.

Saturday was a long day for many reasons. Not only would it be our last full day together, but we headed out to Camp Guci to truly get down to the goal of this entire seminar; planning what is next. After a nice ceremony outdoors in the morning, we had a brief exercise on allocation that was once again tied back to the fundraising conversation from earlier in the week. It was a very good exercise but once again too rushed for it to really hit home. This was by far the most eye raising program for me so far, as neither of the two groups got anywhere near the reality of the situation.

We then broke out into three different groups to discuss the broad questions of, “What’s next?” My group bounced around several ideas dealing with new programs, suggestions for improvement of existing programs, as well as actions for the future that were not program specific. We landed on a Budapest seminar for which that community would be the primary and sole focus of, not an aside to a trip to Israel. We by no way were discrediting the value of going to Israel and Israel’s role in all of our Jewish lives but believed that if Budapest is going to become a true partner in the Partnership then they need to be treated accordingly. And I couldn’t be more excited about the idea.

The groups got back together and we bounced our ideas back and forth against one another for hours. A country-specific seminar to gear up for the Budapest program was my baby for this discussion. Ideas on recruitment, incorporating lessons from programs back into our communities, and even some light logistics of how programs would work were all discussed. We really ran the gambit that afternoon. We eventually called it what it was and were all very happy with the idea generation we had accomplished. A vow to follow through on our ideas was made and then we had some free time before dinner. I got a quick run in but was quickly disheveled by detours surrounding the camp and a loose gravel trail that left my Achilles burning.

That night we celebrated each other and everything that we had shared the past week. We gathered around the fire and shared what it was we were taking away from this experience. Tears were soon in the eyes of many of us, including yours truly, and I think it was a realization for all of us the role we were stepping into not just in Partnership2Gether or our own Jewish communities but the global Jewish experience. We are now leaders in the Jewish movement and have taken on our shoulders some of the weight of moving our people, culture, and beliefs forward. We always use the term ‘Old Guard’ when we talk about traditional beliefs that could be holding back our connection with the modern world and its inhabitants and sitting down around that fire it was plain to see that we are the ‘New Guard,’ who are responsible for taking all that it is to be Jewish and amplifying it in a modern context.

Challenge accepted.

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Funny thing about Beersheba…

As some of you may or may not know, I was recently able to travel back to Israel for ten days through an amazing program called Taglit Birthright. If you want to learn more about the Birthright mission and history just follow this link here but this post will be more directed to my personal experience with it.

There are many different providers for the Birthright trip and for my experience I chose to go with Israel Outdoors, specifically their “Israel by Foot” program that puts a big emphasis on the outdoors and connecting with the land of Israel. It seemed like the perfect program for me seeing as they didn’t have a program that explores the beers of Israel. I had waited a long time to go on this trip because I had always planned on going with one of my good friends from high school and I didn’t think that I was personally ready for the experience. I waited until a point that I felt I would truly get the most out of the program but had to pull the trigger because the trips had age restraints.

While this wasn’t going to be the first time that I went to Israel (I had the opportunity to travel to the Western Galilee area on a service-based spring break trip through Partnership2Gether) I knew going in that this Birthright trip would be much different. Between a significant amount of traveling, the goals of the program, and the obvious fact that I would be there with new people these trips would end up being completely different experiences for me but both extraordinary in their own right.

My trip to Israel lasted ten days and they were some of the most packed days that I have experienced. We arrived in Israel that morning and after getting our bags, meeting the staff, and slowly gathering ourselves onto the bus we headed towards the old city of Yafo where we had an amazing breakfast (set the standard extremely high for the rest of the trip) and explored the ancient ruins and seaside before heading into Tel Aviv. By this time the travel and long day was beginning to catch up with me so unfortunately I wasn’t as tuned into the histories of Tel Aviv and Independence Hall. However I experience my first truly emotional experience when we visited Rabin Square and I stood right where Rabin was standing when he was murdered. The memorial, which is located right where the event occurred and almost looks like it was just thrown into a corner of a building downtown, was very powerful for me and the preserved graffiti from all of the mourners really brought home for me the fact that I was standing in a place where history had been made, even if it had been made for the worse. Completely exhausted we checked into the hotel, cleaned ourselves up, ate, and had our first group meeting to try and get to know each other a little better. By this point I had already begun to get a good grip on who people were but had hardly gotten the opportunity to talk to many of them. Sleep that night was glorious.

Our second day began with a swim in the Mediterranean which was beyond refreshing. From there we had one of our longer drives from the coast out to the Judean desert. On this drive I got my first look at the city of Jerusalem which was very inspiring but I was surprised how affected I was when I saw the wall separating the West Bank from Israel. To see the source of such controversy and division brought up a lot of questions for me. One of the big reasons why I came on Birthright was so that I could form a stronger connection with the land of Israel and up until that point I had yet to see anything that I had a negative connection with but there it was snaking through the desert and all I could think of is why the world would should ever need such an atrocity. Soon we arrived at the hostel and once again went through the routine of cleaning up and eating. After our meeting I sat down with a few people and taught them how to play euchre (which I had just learned about a month before). It was these late night hang outs where the group really started to bond even though we knew each morning was going to come a lot earlier than if we had just gone to bed.

The third day was one of my favorite because we got to enjoy our first hike. My idea of what a hike would be on this trip was quickly corrected. I had gone in expecting and prepared for hikes that I had become accustomed to in New Zealand but these would be much more casual. Once I corrected for this I allowed myself to just get lost in the desert landscape. We hiked through the oasis of Ein Gedi alongside several freshwater springs that had formed throughout the rockface. We got to stop and swim in a few of them and our tour guide, Maya, really showed how much she knew about the culture and history of Israel as she always had stories and information for us. After the hike we traveling to the Dead Sea where I mudded up and went for a casual float. Thankfully I had no lingering knicks or cuts but I was one of the unfortunate souls who tried to move from their back to their stomach too quickly and got a mouth full of water (which was 33% salt) for my effort. Yuck. That night we camped out in the desert and after the most delicious lentil soup I have ever tasted we set up a fire and did our best at 40 person karaoke where I may or may not have revealed an extensive knowledge of Disney lyrics.

Thursday morning came early and not just because we had spent the night singing around the fire but because our wakeup was at 3:30am. I cant really say that I was awake when I took down the tent, trudged over for what I would call more of a midnight snack than breakfast, and stumbled onto the bus. However by the time we arrived at our destination at the ancient palace fortress of Masada I was ready to go. Even at that hour of the morning the Jew inside of me was excited to see such a unique landmark of my heritage and the nerd inside of me was fascinated to get a look at the best preserved Roman siege in the entire world. The reason why we had started so early is so that we could watch the sunrise over the Jordan mountains and Dead Sea valley. Not only was the trek to the top of the mountain a nice challenge but it was completely worth getting up so early to witness something so beautiful. Masada itself was fascinating and Maya took us through the store houses, Roman bath (ironic, huh?), water cistern, and the palace. It was in the water cistern that she told us the significance of Masada and why it had become such a huge landmark for the Jewish people because really the story of Masada itself is pretty dark and controversial. But Maya made it very clear that the reason why Masada is celebrated is because we are still here. And guess who isn’t? From Masada we returned back to Jerusalem where we would spend the next three days. We didn’t do much for the rest of the day but that night was our one night out on the town. The area we went to was extremely touristy but it was still a great night out and really let the group further bond together.

Friday, we finally MET OUR ISRAELI PEERS! After a short welcome session, Maya took us to an overlook where we could see almost the entire city. Then we went on a short tour of the city on our way to the Western Wall. Even knowing far in advance that we would be going, I was not prepared in the slightest and I don’t think that anyone ever can be. Just sitting here now thinking back on what it was like to move across the square towards the wall has me in goosebumps. I had yet to stand in a place that had such a massive amount of historical significance paired with an intense personal connection and the combination was actually slightly overwhelming. There were only two times where I was the very last person to show up when it was time to regroup and this was one of them. And I will be back again. After the Western Wall, Maya took us on a tour underneath the ancient City of David during which we were actually in the ancient tunnels that they used for their water supply. Really a fascinating architectural achievement and it was something completely different than anything that I had done before. We also got time to explore the main market which was absolutely fascinating with all of the food, gifts, and more food. I could have spent hours there. Our day ended early because of the Shabbat holiday and before dinner we all took a moment to recollect on something that had truly impacted us but we may not have vocalized. It was a very special moment that really turned us from a group of strangers into a mishpucha.

Saturday was interesting simply because I was experiencing what it was like to be in a city where Shabbat was officially observed. That morning we walked to the The Israel Museum and I kept joking that it felt like a zombie apocalypse because we may have seen 10 cars the entire time. There was no one on the streets, no cars, and all the stores were closed. The museum itself was one of the best that I have been in. Our tour guide had a very Israeli sense of humor which rubbed some people the wrong way and I have come to the conclusion that one of my biggest pet peeves is when I am rushed through a museum but I loved this outing because there was just so.much.stuff. Art, synagogues that had been completely relocated from other parts of the world, Judaica relics, and a Dead Sea Scroll exhibit which was a personal favorite. I opted to stay at the museum for a few more hours with some other members of the group and afterwards we spent the rest of the day relaxing around the hotel.

The rest of the trip is kind of a blur (especially now that it has been almost two months since I was there). I do know that we had a wonderful hike in the Galilee that was by far my favorite of the trip. It was a full day of wonderful landscapes and a fantastic hiking partner in Lital that culminated in a sense of true accomplishment. The feeling was a bit short lived however as we almost immediately had to say goodbye to our Israeli peers. This was very hard because not only did it feel incredibly rushed but these were people who had legitimately become family. I don’t think I will ever get used to saying goodbyes.

This trip could not have been any different from my first experience in Israel and I honestly don’t know how to explain the difference other than that it would be similar to comparing apples and oranges. On the outside they might look similar but the experience underneath were totally different. My birthright trip was spent with people I will never forget and who I truly do hope to keep in my life not only as friends and connections across the world but as a michpucha who I will always be a part of.

I do apologize for the delay of this post. I hope you all enjoy it regardless.