Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Trip That Made Me More Of A Mensch

The roof of Tel Aviv's
Yitzhak Rabin Center
evoke the wings of a dove;
Peace, above all.
Three years ago this month, a small post appeared on my federation's website:

Join National Women's Philanthropy of JFNA for Heart2Heart: A Women's Journey to Israel, this February 2010. Pack your bag and share your heart and Israel with women from across the US.

Something about this invitation immediately moved me, unlike other enticements I had seen before. Was it the natural lure of "just for women,” or the comprehensive five day program, manageable for both family and work? Perhaps it was a response to a recurring and gnawing feeling: I was missing out on the Israel experience.

To be sure, it had become privately embarrassing to work as a professional in the Jewish community, knowing I had not been to Israel in 37 years! Back then, I participated in the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA)’s teen tour - seven weeks in the summer of '72. I had few memories of that trip: mostly negative ones of meals of dry schnitzel, lousy bathrooms, and long bus rides to ancient ruins. What was it about today's Israel that excited my colleagues and friends? I felt the sudden urge to find out.

I had hesitations and concerns about this upcoming adventure. My husband and I had always supported our federation, but what was “Women's Philanthropy” and who was involved? No one I knew was going on the trip and I had not traveled alone for 24 years. And, the scariest reason of all? I was afraid to fly! 

At the time, a fulfilling yet exhausting year as the development manager of a Jewish non-profit was coming to an end. It seemed like a good time for a vacation. I asked my boss, a frequent traveler to Israel, who encouraged me to go, as did my husband. The cost of the trip was reasonable, including the pledge for a minimum gift to Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), so I proudly decided I would pay for it all myself. Two days later, I had the distinct honor of being the last woman to sign up, like the 10th person to join a minyan, and, as Moses at Mt. Sinai, na├»ve and unaware of what was to come, I said, Heneni, Here I am.

Heart2Heart changed my life.

The Shabbat morning after I returned, I felt compelled to go to synagogue. My rabbi offered an aliyah and asked me to say a few words to the congregation about my experience. As I spoke in front of the Torah, intense feelings began to well up inside of me and I began to weep, uncontrollably. The time change notwithstanding, I realized then that I was forever transformed and forever grateful.

In ways both personal and professional, I am a different person today because that initial journey challenged  my confidence and ability to “go with the flow” in whatever situation I find myself. My life is enriched by what I have learned about myself in the company of Israeli and American women. I even traveled alone one year and thoroughly enjoyed it! I have brought new and old friends who have loved H2H as much as I have and it has brought us closer together. In  2012, I nurtured a 16 member contingent from my city which visited our sister city, Haifa, a very special day of humble feelings and moving testaments to the power of caring communities.

As one of the few independent development professionals on these trips, I’ve seen firsthand what moves a donor and what she looks for in a cause, teaching me that love of purpose is the first step to supporting a project. And I have met the most extraordinary, diverse, kind and warm women, of all ages and backgrounds: professionals and mothers; the young and young-at-heart; those devoted to Israel; some who donate and volunteer every day of the year, and some who had never heard of “federation.”

Much like the youngsters called “10/2’s” who live for ten months just to go to sleep away camp for two, I am that “51/1” who waits all year for the privilege to participate in this mission. The three weeks I’ve spent in Israel these last three years are etched in my mind and inform my daily life. I willingly share my impressions of our Israeli sisters and brothers, and remember that I and my fellow travelers have made a difference in the lives of people just like us, as we visit the programs and projects our communities support.

I always cared about Israel, but now it is truly part of my soul. For instance, whenever I recount the poignant story of the young female IDF soldier, who traveled on my bus two years ago, and said as we drove her home at the end of a long day and night of magical, meaningful moments, “I always knew I had to do my service for my country; I never knew I was doing it for all of you, too,” I weep tears of true understanding of what Israel and its people mean to me. Yes, I often cry tears of joy and memory in my life…but Israel and these very special journeys have the power to overwhelm me with emotion. It’s extraordinary - and you can’t buy that anywhere.

Heart2Heart also offers a unique and rare opportunity for women. One week out of our busy year of taking care of our families, our homes, our public lives; a single week, when we, ourselves, are taken care of: where we go, what we do, when we eat, is all arranged for us. It is a gift of pure freedom and joy, to share time in Israel in an easy and rewarding way via extraordinary venues, with intelligent, imaginative and invigorating people. The Tel Aviv hotel experience is perfect. Even our tour guides, now my friends also, are remarkable women, and they have left an indelible and distinct impression on me.

And here’s the most amazing discovery of all:

Last year, I realized that trip I took in the ‘70s (and the one you may have gone on then, too) was the “Dead Tour.” What do I mean? In those days, you saw the Cave of Machpelah (the tomb of the Patriarchs), the Dead Sea, where the crucified Jesus had laid in state, Ben Gurion's Sde Boker memorial....and cemetery after cemetery of dead heroes. Perhaps this is why I never established a connection. Today you visit living, pulsating Israel, interacting with its people and feeling its energy: the skyscrapers and the sages; the industry and the incredible restaurants with delicious, perfectly flavored offerings - not a schnitzel in sight!; the politics, and the plethora of shopping, art galleries, music venues; and of course, all the wondrous beauty of the Mediterranean, the Carmel Mountains and the vegetation now watered in the Negev. You are filled, much like a vessel is with wine, with excitement, alluring sounds, and sights you could never imagine. And the food, oh, the FOOD – from Machana Yehuda (the market in Jerusalem) to the trendiest restaurants, to a Druze home, to an enormous Bedouin tent, somewhere in the South, resplendent with colorful floor pillows, kosher dinner…and belly dancing. Of course, what happens in a Bedouin tent stays in a Bedouin tent!

Remember when I said I didn’t know what Women’s Philanthropy was? Today, I give an annual gift in my own name and I am a member of my local WP board of directors.

I was one of the first to register for this year’s Heart2Heart4.  You have just a few more days to say, Heneni, Here I am. Come with me and be transformed.  I look forward to seeing you in Eretz Israel. Shalom!

Here is the Heart2Heart Link:

 For more of my impressions of Israel:
After the first trip: http://www.bethemensch.blogspot.com/2010/03/grace-in-sky.html
After the second: http://www.bethemensch.blogspot.com/2011/05/power-of-one.html

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Making The World A Better Place, One Crisis At A Time

Recently, I had the honor of hearing Dr. Ofer Merin, Deputy Director-General of Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem and the Director of surgical operations for the IDF Field Hospital, at Boston's Combined Jewish Philanthropies' (CJP) Health Professions Group Annual Breakfast. Dr. Merin spoke passionately as he shared a moving slideshow of the hospital’s time in Haiti and Japan after these countries’ devastating earthquakes. He had 400 medical personnel in the ballroom of the Park Plaza Hotel listening intently. The pride was palpable, as everyone understood the extent of Dr. Merin's efforts in the face of such calamity.

Coincidentally, while taking part in three annual winter trips to Israel, I became a friend of Dr. Merin's wife, Ora, who organizes trips from the Israel side for American Jewish federations (JFNA), of which CJP is one. At breakfast one morning, in the dining room of our hotel, here's what she told us (paraphrased) - 100 American women - about her husband's work. We were visiting at the end of the 2nd week of the Haiti recovery, February 2010:

Dr. Merin had been urging the IDF for many years to create a field hospital for humanitarian purposes. He felt that Israel knew disaster relief so well, of course, and this was an opportunity, nay, a duty, to help, which of course would also lend itself to positive feelings and PR from around the world. When he finally received the OK, it took Dr. Merin two years to assemble the appropriate staff and materials, culled from the full nation’s resources.

Not two weeks after the hospital was completed and personnel, procedures and protocols set, the earthquake in Haiti occurred. Israel was the first country, with the first hospital, within 48 hours, on the scene. During the long flight, the doctors and staff continued to prepare for what they might encounter, and included discussions of life and death decisions and self-support tactics they would all need. Many of us watched CNN during their non-stop coverage in the early days and weeks of this disaster. 

One scene Ora described I will never forget:

Dr. Merin had brought along two incubators, knowing that women may have gone into pre-mature labor because of the earthquake’s tremors. At first, many of his colleagues and superiors had questioned their need and the use of such precious resources to secure them. Then, the first baby was born, and in front of the usually skeptical Anderson Cooper and the visibly moved medical reporter Elizabeth Cohen, the Haitian mother exclaimed the baby's name would be...Israel.

That morning in Tel Aviv, as Dr. Merin’s wife, Ora, recounted these and other efforts Dr. Merin and his colleagues’ were making for the people of Haiti, Ora’s phone rang. It was her husband, having just arrived in Israel after a two week stay in Haiti. The room exploded in applause, and there wasn’t a dry eye, including those of the multi-national hotel waitstaff.

Dr. Merin is considered an Israeli national treasure…but so too his fellow citizens, who help the world in so many ways. I am constantly amazed at what I witness in Israel….

Here is another story about Dr. Merin, from the New England Journal of Medicine.