There we were, sitting in a circle on the second floor library of the Bait v’Gan (or, “vegan,” as the translation read on the welcome sign) Guest House. The circle – the quintessential Jewish shape, according to Yossi, our fearless madrich (guide, in Hebrew) – provided stability, unity, and support for an emotionally fragile (and, in some cases, tearful) group. As it was our last morning together, I looked around our circle at all the amazing individuals I had spent a week with, leaving me inspired by their thoughtfulness, passion, and desire to strengthen the DC Jewish community.
Reflections brought smiles, laughter, and tears as we considered the wide range of organizations we had visited, people we had met with, and relationships which had developed within our group throughout our whirlwind trip. It became clear to me that, far from only a land brimming with the history of the Jewish people, Israel is a land of the Jewish present, and a land which, through our site visits, we learned is primed to have a dynamic future to which we are excited to contribute.
After the closing session at the vegan house, we traveled to Beit Shemesh, Washington’s “Partnership 2000” city. It was here where we saw the foundation of this dynamic future (not without first returning to our favorite lunch spot: the Mivaseret mall’s food court). At a school in Ein Kerem, we were greeted by the sounds of soccer cleats on tile floors and laughter from teenage girls, Arab-Israeli and Jewish-Israeli alike. These girls are part of the Peres Center for Peace’s co-existence program, which seeks to build friendship and trust between young Palestinians and Israelis through sports activities (in addition to four other focus areas). Although these girls don’t always share the same language, their shared experiences and an overlapping cultural vocabulary became readily apparent. When the Arab teens from Ein Rafa arrived, they were greeted with hugs and smiles from the Israelis: it was clear that the program was working.
We were taught how to say “pass me the ball” in Arabic and Hebrew, as well as how to introduce ourselves trilingually in anticipation of the soccer games ahead of us. Unfortunately, my team lost 1-0 on a heartbreaking last-second goal. Congrats to the Benovitz/Lilly/Bortnick team and your amazing goalie, Sonia (an Ein Keremite), on the victory. The losing team (which also included an Engel, Manchester, and Heller) had to do the Macarena when time ran out. Luckily, we had practiced this dance multiple times during the week, including at the Ethiopian absorption center on the first day (for lessons, please consult Jeremy Rosen, Federation’s Young Leadership Co-chair).
Once the tears of defeat had been swept from our faces, all four teams gathered to discuss the lessons we had learned, as well as take plenty of pictures and swap information for our pending Facebook friendships. Before leaving, we were given small soaps made by a local company established to employ autistic adults. Given the strenuousness of our final activity, we couldn’t have received a more considerate gift.
The final activity, you might ask? Bike riding on the Burma Road in Beit Shemesh, the same road used to transport supplies to Jerusalem’s Jewish residents during the 1948 War of Independence. Fortunately, we saved the most sweat-provoking activity of the week for the hottest afternoon of the week and hours before our flight home. Thank you to Partnership 2000 for the soap. If only there were showers. Mazel tov to Seth Engel for winning the race to the finish. A great time was had by all, especially (albeit, sadly) because we knew a good night’s sleep was on the horizon.
From Beit Shemesh, we trekked to Moshav Luzit for dinner Chez Zohara. This culinary wizard (no disrespect meant to Chef Jeff, with whom we cooked earlier in the week at the Jerusalem Culinary Academy) welcomed us into her home for salatim (salads), chicken, fish, brisket, couscous, bread, wine, lemonade with the cutest pug east of the Potomac River. We shared this wonderful meal and last afternoon with a group of Israeli peers. Emily Benovitz, our resident Kentuckian, wrote this haiku following our Moroccan last supper:
So heavy in my belly
Now we have to fly?
Zohara’s cooking left us well-satiated (thanks, Emily) and ready for the 12 hour flight home (though 8 out of 25 in the group extended their stays). Needless to say, none of us were ready to fly to DC after such an empowering trip. We return home eager to act on all that we learned and experienced throughout Israel. There is no way we can possibly express our gratitude to The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, Mark and Audrey Solomon, and Bruce and Karen Levenson, for the trip of a lifetime. We were given an extraordinary opportunity. Now, we look forward to giving back to the DC community – and the Jewish community, writ large – in ways as meaningful and inspiring as the gift we received ourselves.
Ben Freedman, Washington, DC