The J was thrilled to send two staff members and two teen athletes to Israel this spring and summer, as Myranda Tetzlaff, Director of CampJCC and Youth, was part of the national Jewish Community Center Association’s inaugural Martin Pear Fellowship, which enables JCC professionals to build and strengthen connections between their JCC communities and Israel, and Ethan Cohen, Assistant Director of Youth Engagement and Special Events, accompanied Sammy Bernstein and Cole Bush to Israel as part of the JCC Maccabi Games, an Olympic-style competition for Jewish teens. Follow along on their trips below!
Welcome to Israel
Myranda: Straight off the plane, we went to Neot Kedumim, Israel’s biblical nature reserve, where we began with brunch and the Shehechiyanu (blessing of gratitude on arriving in Israel). During our time at the park, we made zaatar, learned about water systems, and we planted trees– planting one in honor of Martin Pear (this fellowship’s namesake).
Ethan: Our trip started off with a bang at the JCC Maccabi Games! I’ve been to the Maccabi Games five times (three as an athlete and two as staff) but I had never participated in the Games in Israel before, so it was cool to see them happen not in North America, and this was also the first Maccabi I’d been to where people from my delegation medaled in team sports (Sammy’s basketball team that I coached won silver, and Cole’s soccer team won gold; both teams were comprised of teens from all over the U.S. and the world).
Sammy: I loved bonding with my team and the Games in general. Meeting people and making friends from all around the world really made it a great experience.
Cole: I loved meeting new people and making really strong friendships with people from all around the world. Learning from and playing with amazing soccer players and winning gold with my team was incredible!
Myranda: We read Scripture as a group in the old city of Jaffa, then spent the next day in Tel Aviv proper. Our all-encompassing tour included a guided walk and discussion about the notion of Jewish peoplehood through the story of the building of Tel Aviv, beginning with a walk through the city’s earliest neighborhoods, including Neve Tzedek and Rothschild Boulevard. Following this, we embarked on a “Rainbow Tour” and learned about the history of the LBGTQIA+ community in Israel. We spent time in the Carmel Markets, shopping and eating for a couple of hours, and ended with learning about entrepreneurship opportunities in Israel. We had also started our fellowship back in January by learning about The Photo House, so it seemed fitting to take a moment to visit the gallery, which is one of Israel’s most extensive private archives of historical photographs.
Ethan: Getting to go back to Tel Aviv after living there from January to July 2017 was really cool. To see the city again and see how things have changed in the last five years was cool. I even got to go see my old apartment and go to where my old office was at Kfar Maccabiah (my office was gone but they have replaced it with a beautiful new office/museum building). Tel Aviv is such a beautiful city and to get to spend time there and relax on the beach was really nice after the eight days of games in Haifa.
Sammy: I loved going through the markets in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv was just a really cool city to get to explore.
The Negev (Desert)
Myranda: We rode a cable car up to Masada, then ventured down to the Dead Sea! That was followed by exploring the Judean desert on self-driving ATVs, which was followed by a drumming circle with dinner at Canaanite restaurant. This felt like the most tourist-like day we had during the whole trip!
Ethan: The Bedouin Tents was my favorite part of the trip. To get to go out in the desert and ride camels and experience life in the desert was amazing. They had great food and dancing and was a great time! Although it was an early morning, I think the only way to do Masada is to do it at sunrise the way we did it. I had never done a sunrise hike before, and the views were incredible as well as it not being too hot to walk up. After that, we cooled off in the Dead Sea.
Cole: I loved staying up all night at the Bedouin tents and exploring the desert around it.
The North (Galilee/Golan)
Myranda: The next section of the trip was centered around the sense of belonging and community building. We started the day doing exercises with experts from the Varda Institute and then visited matnas (community center) in Benyamina. This was one of my favorite activities of the whole trip as we got to see firsthand what school and after school care looks like in Israel. We were able to break out into small groups based on our area of expertise and observe, ask questions, etc. with professionals in Israel to get to know how programming works for them.
We then departed for a guided visit to the extensive excavations at Tsippori, which was the center of Jewish religious and spiritual life under Roman rule. We debated contemporary topics in the manner of traditional court in the ancient Sanhedrin. To end the day, we went to Hurfeish, a Druze village in the Galilee, to participate in a cooking workshop at the home of a local resident. We learned about their family and food 🙂 It was an amazing experience. I got to enjoy rolling a rice mixture into grape leaves and stuffing zucchini with rice.
To continue our journey with communities and exploring different ideologies, the next day we met with Mohammad Darawshe, director of strategy at Givat Haviva – The Center for Shared Society and he spoke with us about challenges in the community and evolution of community building in areas where the communities just do not seem to have the same priorities. We had lunch in Akko and met up with our Western Gallilee Partnership there to get to know each other and talk about future partnerships! We walked around Old City in Akko and learned about the uneasy part of living there and the importance of community and change while living in conflict. We ended this day meeting up with educator and actor Robbie Gringras at his home on Kibbutz Tuval and saw a performance of his solo show The Gate. This was a great reunion, as we had spent four days with Robbie in New Jersey during our first in-person fellowship meeting where he was our main educator during the conference.
Ethan: The north was really cool, getting to learn about the mystics of Tzfat and getting to explore the city a little bit. The best thing we did in the north was rafting and floating down the Jordan River. The water was really cold, but it was a lot of fun.
Myranda: In Jerusalem, we did a guided tour through the Old City, spent many hours in the Western Wall tunnels, and spent time in the evening before Shabbat at the Kotel (Western Wall). We then had Shabbat dinner with Rabbi Ian and Dr. Rachel Pear at their home. On Shabbat itself, we had some time to ourselves, so I met up with 2020 Shinshinit Maya Hirshberg! When the group gathered again, we learned about current events and some of the major challenges Israel is currently facing from journalist Haviv Gur, before taking a leisurely stroll through Jerusalem in small groups to get more personal with some of our leaders on the trip. They walked us through parts of Jerusalem that connect to them personally and shared their story with us.
We did several site visits in Jerusalem, including to Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Center and its Children’s Memorial. In an effort to learn about inclusion and diversity in Israel, we took a visit to a nonprofit organization that supports and empowers individuals with disabilities and their families in Israel. We visited the Maaleh School of Film and Television to view short films reflecting the complexities of Israeli society and a meeting with a film producer. We stopped at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, for a guided visit to selected exhibits including the Wing for Jewish Art and Life and ended the night going to Ha’ela Winery for our last dinner together, where camp professionals made paper plate awards and presented them during our last meal.
Ethan: There is so much history in Jerusalem, and it is the intersection of so many different religions and historic empires that there is so much to learn about there. For starters, visiting the Kotel and the B’nai Mitzvahs that we had there made it a really cool experience. Also, getting to see the tunnels under the Kotel was really cool, getting to see all of the history that lies beneath your feet. The Holocaust Museum and Mt. Hertzl (cemetery for Israeli soldiers) were also great experiences to learn about the history of our people and how much they have sacrificed to make sure that Israel is a country and is protected.
There was a lot going on while we were in Israel, including a major vote on legislation that has the potential to change Israeli politics. Throughout our trip we saw people on the streets with Israeli flags protesting the government and making their voices heard on both sides of the argument. Things really reached a peak as we got to Jerusalem to end our trip. Our hotel in Jerusalem was a block away from the Knesset so we were right in the thick of things as the vote on the legislation happened two days before our departure. We had to alter our itinerary in Jerusalem and even had to walk through the end of one of the protests to get back to our hotel. It was crazy to see all the people on the streets and all of the tents in the park. Everything you saw on TV I could see out of my hotel window. We were there to witness history and we will see where the country goes from here.
Sammy: I felt more connected to Judaism after visiting Jerusalem, which I’m really grateful for.