JDC Entwine and The Well offer local group a deeper look at Israel during a seven-day trip of a lifetime.
Featured photo by Rachel Matz
Late this November, Rabbi Dan Horwitz of The Well invited 17 Metro Detroit participants to experience Israel with JDC Entwine, the young adult division of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Also known as “The Joint,” JDC is the largest Jewish humanitarian organization, working in 70 countries to uplift lives and strengthen communities.
The common thread among our Inside Israel group was a desire to experience Israel not just through the eyes of a tourist. All of us were hungry to learn about the country’s complex cultural, social and economic challenges.
As we learned about JDC’s efforts, more than one Israeli we encountered said “it’s complicated” when describing Israel’s hardships. While JDC provided a better picture of the complex issues in Israel, that sentence reverberated throughout our seven-day journey.
Our trip was led by Jessica Katz, a Metro Detroiter finishing her year as a JDC Entwine Ralph I. Goldman (RIG) Fellow, and Shachar Beer, a native Jerusalemite and operations manager for JDC Entwine’s Israel programs. Each day, we became more aware of Israel’s complex issues by exploring JDC-led programs.
Sunday, Nov. 24
After arriving in Jerusalem, we convened at our hotel. Despite the jet lag, I was excited to start the journey and get acquainted with members of the group.
We first set kavanot (intentions) for the trip in small groups. I chose to keep an open mind and to not hesitate to ask questions.
Monday, Nov. 25
On our first full day in Israel, we dove right into learning “the what, why and how” of JDC. I had heard of JDC peripherally, but had little knowledge of its mission and impact.
We first heard from Eliot Goldstein, JDC’s executive director of resource development. He collaborates with local Jewish Federations, donors and businesses to help JDC meet its financial goals.
Shachar followed with a crash-course on JDC, saying the organization’s mission in Israel is to help close some of the big socioeconomic gaps in the country.
Some major facts (as of 2017) Shachar outlined stood out:
• 1 in 4 people in Israel make minimum wage
• 50 percent of those considered poor have a job (mostly Haredi Jews and Arabs)
• 900,000 people in Israel live with disabilities. Disability pension is minimal.
• 1 in 3 children in Israel live under the poverty line
We then toured the historic Beit Hansen, a former hospital for people with Hansen’s disease, which in the past, had a negative stigma and was often referred to as “leprosy.” I appreciated that the hospital and its staff gave the residents a purpose in life, seeing them beyond their illness.
I was able to put facts we learned about youth-at-risk into perspective as we stopped by Susan’s House, a welcoming workplace for youth ages 15-18 who struggle with learning disabilities, mental health concerns, trauma, substance abuse issues or have disruptive home lives.
The teens work at Susan’s House three days a week creating pottery, glass art and jewelry. I loved meeting some of the teens, who were passionate about their craft. I could tell this place fosters self-empowerment and gives them a sense of community.
Tuesday, Nov. 26
This day was by far the most impactful for me as we delved into the lives of Arab Israelis through a visit to East Jerusalem. We met with Michal Ben Dov, director of strategic partnerships for JDC-ELKA, JDC’s Institute for Leadership and Governance, which works to bring Israeli leaders together to achieve sustainable impact across all sectors of the country.
I was initially struck by the glaring socioeconomic gaps in East Jerusalem. Residents there, primarily all Palestinians, were denied basic needs such as garbage disposal, good education, welfare and basic services for around 50 years.
Michal shared it wasn’t until 2014 during the “Stabbing Intifada” that the state of Israel and the city of Jerusalem understood it must deal with the blatant disparities in Jerusalem.
Despite some progress through the JDC and government entities, the rate of poverty remains at about 76 percent. Michal pointed out that people have compared East Jerusalem to troubled areas in Detroit.
While there, we visited a grade school and learned about JDC-supported educational programs. We also heard from an Arab Israeli woman named Heba, a JDC-ELKA employee who took it upon herself to find work and put herself through college.
Heba’s story better illustrated the gaps in education between the Arab and Jewish sectors, but also emphasized a rise of Arab Israeli women over men in obtaining good education and high-tech jobs.
Following an intense day of learning, we finished on a high note with an interactive culinary tour at Shuk Machane Yehuda, where we sampled everything from sushi to khachapuri, a Georgian cheese and egg bread.
Wednesday, Nov. 27
The journey through Jerusalem continued as we made our first stop at JDC’s ESHEL “Up 60+” program, geared toward retired seniors. I was surprised to learn if you’re working in the public sector in Israel, you are required to retire by age 67 for men and 62 for women.
We heard from some seniors in the program, including a native Detroiter, Idele Ross. She also happens to be a former freelance writer for the Jewish News!
We were then schooled on the JDC TEVET program, which develops programs, models and innovative approaches to employment for Haredi teens. The program heads engage with yeshivahs around Israel to help young men interested in higher education achieve academic goals in conjunction with their Torah studies. My biggest takeaway was how the program helps guide young men to discover their true passions.
We then headed for Be’er Sheva, where we engaged with JDC’s “Friends for Healthy Living” program geared toward people with disabilities. It felt great to break a sweat as we learned how to play Goalball, a game for those with visual impairments (and yes, we were blindfolded)!
We then ended the day with a fun competition with the Hapoel Be’er Sheva Unified Soccer Team. The team is all-inclusive, allowing men with all abilities to participate.
As we high-fived one another after our tied game, a player approached me, gesturing to the soccer field and said, “This is the real Israel.” He emphasized there is more to Israel than what you hear about through news outlets. That statement stuck with me for the remainder of the trip, allowing me to fully see Israel through an expanded lens.
Thursday, Nov. 28
Today, we headed to the local courthouse to learn about JDC’s Community Courts Program.
The goal is to reduce the “revolving door” pattern of returning offenders by engaging them in an 18-month rehabilitation program. I was impressed with its 65 percent success rate and that despite it being a challenging commitment, many people sit on a waitlist until they can get accepted.
We ended the day with a vibrant Thanksgiving meal with Detroit Federation affiliates including Yoav Raban and Detroit expats Eden Adler, who works in Israel’s tech industry, and Avi Mendelson, a JDC Entwine Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Israel. It was interesting to hear how former Detroiters have adapted to Israeli life.
Friday, Nov. 29
On Friday morning, we departed for Neveh Hadassah Youth Village. There are 45 youth villages throughout Israel, often housing young people experiencing challenging family circumstances.
At Neveh Hadassah, we met with young people engaged in their agricultural program. They learn how to harvest produce they sell to high-tech sector businesses in Tel Aviv.
I enjoyed hearing from residents Uri and Mark, who were vocal about their engagement with the gardening program, as well as their passions for video games and music. What was most striking was their level of resilience after facing hardships at such a young age.
That evening, we experienced a music-filled Shabbat service and attended Shabbat dinners with JDC-affiliated hosts.
My host, Avi Mendelson, invited friends from Israel, Detroit, London and New York. Despite just meeting them, I felt connected as we talked about everything from experiences in the IDF to life goals and aspirations.
Saturday, Nov. 30
By day seven, I was feeling a mess of emotions. There were so many aspects of the trip still circling my mind.
Our final day included a vibrant dinner and ended with assiyah, where we shared the meaningful aspects of the trip and discussed how to apply our learning within our Detroit community and globally.
I shared how I valued gaining more understanding of the inner workings of Israeli life, for Israelis and Palestinians of all ages and religious affiliations. Again, I realize “it’s complicated,” but I now come away with more insight regarding social and political complexities.
During this trip, I also developed a stronger connection with Judaism and Israel as a whole.
My final takeaway is that engaging in tikkun olam doesn’t end after this trip — there is still more work to be done. And, thanks to Rabbi Dan and The Well, we look forward to meeting over the next 12 months to find ways to channel our learning toward helping fellow Jewish people.
Thank you to the Blumenstein Jewish Experience Fund for helping to subsidize the cost of this trip for participants.
More Reactions to the Trip:
“Coming home from this trip, I have a stronger sense of pride regarding my Jewish faith than ever before. I come home with a vision to continue the conversation and educate Detroit about the programs in Israel. I plan to find programs in the Detroit area that are like those we visited in Israel and asking myself, ‘How can I get involved?’”
— Rachel Kestenberg, Birmingham
“Supporting Arab-Israeli students on a path toward higher education and gainful employment, guiding seniors to a fulfilling and fiscally responsible retirement, creating employment opportunities in the Ultra-Orthodox community and fostering independence for people with disabilities are only a few of “The Joint’s” initiatives that spoke to my heart. I learned that humanity and dignity are at the heart of the organization, and I learned I have so much more to learn! Hopefully, you will find me leading, participating in and supporting global Judaism.
— Renee Liberman, Royal Oak
“As we saw the many areas the JDC was involved in, I realized my family was directly impacted by the JDC in assisting them with their immigration from the Former Soviet Union to the United States. This personal connection is one I was not expecting. I was very moved to see all the programs the JDC has established to help both Jews and non-Jews alike. I look forward to sharing my passion for this organization through Shabbat dinners, fundraisers and local volunteer opportunities (with ties to Israel).”
— Semonna Matz, Bloomfield Hills
“Compared to my previous trip to Israel, this trip was more eye-opening and perspective-changing. One of the more powerful experiences was visiting an Arab-Israeli school in East Jerusalem. We heard empowering stories from educational consultants and from a student about how they have the tools and resources to learn Hebrew, get into college and gain the skills they need to get jobs. It was great to see the government and organizations so invested in making Israel a better place for all, despite religious or political differences. Seeing this positivity made me proud of my Jewish identity and about our place in a global world.”
— Evan Samuels, Franklin
“I thought the laboratory-like model that JDC has of being able to pilot, optimize, and then partner with the government was a system to be envious of. In Michigan we’re spending our time trying to prevent our schools and infrastructure from being privatized. I wish we could admit to ourselves in the United States that government is often one of the most effective ways to help people and copy the Israeli model here.”
— Garrett Dixon, Ypsilanti
“I enjoyed meeting a diverse group of young-adult Jews from the Detroit area. As a group, we not only had fun together during our travels but shared many thoughtful discussions about our experiences. We learned a great deal about JDC, and the present and historical impact it has had on Israel. I would recommend this trip to anyone in the community who is interested in meeting others and learning about JDC and Israel.”
— Emiko Hayashi, Novi