It’s good when major anniversaries coincide.
This year marks Israel’s 75th anniversary, and it’s the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest’s 100th birthday.
(To be clear, there wasn’t an agency with exactly that name 100 years ago; the federation has grown and changed as it incorporated new areas. But the first Jewish federation, set up in what later came to be called MetroWest to help support, educate, and engage Jewish families, is a full century old now.)
In early July, 500 people from MetroWest flew to Israel and filled 12 buses as they toured the country, exploring both what the federation had done for Israel and what Israel had done for the Jewish community, its citizens, and the world.
Some of the travelers had been to Israel before; some had been there so many times that they’d lost count. For others, the trip was either a first visit or the first in decades.
Here are some of those visitors, and their reactions to the trip.
When Ethan and Linda Denkensohn of Scotch Plains disembarked at Ben-Gurion Airport, it was their first trip to Israel.
Ethan’s connections to the Jewish world were eclectic until the trip. He identifies as Reform, he said, adding, “we do not belong to a shul; we’ve been associated with Chabad; we’ve sent our children there, and participated informally.” He had not been affiliated with the federation before the trip, although “my mother, in Naples, Florida, talks about it,” he said.
But he’d always been “very intrigued about going to Israel. My peers and my friends and relatives have raved about it through the years. Our children are in sleepaway camp now, so we have a window to go in. The trip was advertised. It looked interesting. And we had friends who were going on the trip, including several who live on our block.”
There was so much pushing in the direction of taking the trip that it probably would have felt wrong not to have done it. So Ethan and Linda went.
“It was fabulous,” Ethan said. “I am decently well-traveled, I am involved in the event business” — he’s the COO and director of content strategy for Dynamic Global Events — “and it exceeded my expectations, from an organization perspective, from an activity perspective, from a fun and learning and socialization perspective. It all exceeded my expectations.”
Ethan was open to new experiences, and he benefited both from that openness and from his traveling companions, who had been to Israel many times. Tel Aviv, where the trip began, “reminded me a little bit of Hoboken; it had a little bit of a Brooklyn Heights kind of vibe, near the water,” he said. “There were a lot of young professionals, hip and trendy retail.
“And then we went to Jerusalem.
“I’ve heard people talk about the cities that have really captivated them, Paris, or Tokyo, or New York,” he said. “I rarely heard people say that about Jerusalem — but I thought it was really cool. The food, the culture, the people. I worked in New York for over 20 years, and because of that I think I acclimated pretty well to the Israeli temperament and behavior.”
He had a powerful experience in Jerusalem, he said. “I had a close friend in college who moved to Israel. Long story sort, he became very devout, got married, and had five children.”
His friend, Gershon Burd, drowned in the Red Sea on his 40th birthday, 10 years ago, Ethan said; the two men no longer had been in close touch by then, but Ethan missed him. He was an unusual person, someone others found to be inspirational.
“I’d heard from my network of fraternity friends at Indiana — we were ZBT — that there was a building dedicated to him,” Ethan continued. “He had made a big impact during his time in Israel. So one night, we were walking in the Old City, and I told my friends about him. I said that it would be wonderful if I could see the building, and they said sure. So I was walking with a group of about 10, 15 people, I saw the building, and I got emotional.
“The group walked away and gave me a little time by myself, and I cried, something that I just don’t do.”
There’s something about Jerusalem that brings emotion to the surface.
Ethan had another kind of powerful experience when his bus went up to the border with Lebanon, and the tour guide — here is as good a place as any to say that each person interviewed for this story had a different tour guide, and each one raved about his or her guide — talked about geopolitics.
“There was an army base behind us in the distance,” Ethan said. “We were standing there, getting the tour, and we noticed that a couple standing on the other side of the border were staring at us and taking pictures of us. I zoomed in and took a picture too.
“A few minutes later a convoy, some small army trucks, pulled behind us, and they told our tour guide that we’d have to move away. Everything was fine, they said. Don’t worry. Just move away.
“So our group was moved off that hill, and the geopolitical discussion continued.
“Some of the people in our group were getting a little uneasy, and I was kind of captivated by the moment. I’ve been watching and reading the news my entire life, and you feel it when it’s real, and it’s right in front of you.”
Frank and Jane Langendorff of Short Hills also were on the trip.
Frank, who is a printer — “I’m a big fan of ink on paper” — is a member of Bnai Jeshurun in Short Hills; he grew up in West Orange, and his family belonged to Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange. He hasn’t been active in the federation, he said, but “I look forward to being more active now,” after the trip.
This was his second visit to Israel. The first was in 1981. “It was 42 years ago, and I was 16 at the time,” Frank said. “At the time, if you graduated from Oheb Shalom’s Hebrew high school, the temple would underwrite two-thirds of a six-week trip, which was guided by Camp Ramah.
“It was awesome. It was one of the best summers of my life. I don’t know why I never went back. I guess I never had a reason to go.
“But I think that this time, I was spurred by my friends, who went on the MetroWest mission led by Jane and Mark Wilf five years ago. They all raved about how meaningful and wonderful and educational that trip was.
“So without even knowing what the itinerary for this trip was going to be, I decided to go. I thought it was the right thing to do.”
The cities are denser than they had been 42 years ago, he said; he also knows that he’s seeing different things, and also looking through different eyes.
He was moved by seeing where the federation’s money is spent. “They took us to an Ethiopian absorption center, and to a rehabilitation village for people with severe brain disabilities, people who can’t care for themselves. The worst of the worst. We had a chance to play drums and sing with them. We were able to bring a smile to their faces for an hour, and it made us feel good.
“We went to a senior day center, where instead of kids it was older people who needed our attention. We had lunch with the mayor of that area, who was so thankful for our support.
“When you’re 16, you don’t have lunch with the mayor.
“And then we met with the president of Israel. He addressed us. That wouldn’t happen when you were 16.
“The one statement that I can’t get out of my head was from a brigadier general who spoke to us at the border at the Golan Heights. He said that something will happen within the next two years. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, is 92 years old. Something will happen, and there will be a significant change.”
The trip was “incredibly moving,” Frank said. “There was so much song. So much dancing. Every day there was something meaningful and something festive. You felt a real connection to Israel. Probably one of the most important things I take from it is ‘am Yisrael chai.’”
He elaborated by talking about Mark Wilf.
Mr. Wilf, who lives in Livingston with his wife, Jane, is not only a businessman and philanthropist, active in the community, and the president of the Minnesota Vikings, he’s also chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel and former chair of the Jewish Federations of North America; Jane Wilf is chairing the federation’s centennial celebrations.
“Mark Wilf was on our bus,” Frank said. “He famously ends all his speeches with ‘am Yisrael chai.’” The people of Israel live.
“So — am Yisrael chai,” he said.
Arielle Ness of Hillside is part of the community of the JEC school in Elizabeth. She and her husband, Brian, have four children; their two sons graduated from JEC High School, their older daughter graduated from Bruriah, and their younger daughter is about to start there. Brian Ness is on the JEC board, and the family is deeply ensconced in the local Orthodox community in Union County.
Arielle’s been to Israel often, she said. “I spent a year there on a gap year program in 1995-96, and I’ve been there many times with my husband.
“This was the second time that I was on a JFGMW mission,” she continued. “That first one, in 2021, was a solidarity trip, and lasted only 72 hours. That was a lovely experience. And we’ve had many family trips with tour guides.
“But this was a whole new one. It was about being part of something that was bigger than me.”
The unexpected — and probably unplannable — magic element in Arielle’s trip was the bonding that happened on her bus. “Bus 4!” she said. “We had the best tour guide. And everyone on our bus — Bus 4! — fell in love with each other.
“It was exceptional. There was a Reform rabbi, with a few members of his temple” — that’s Rabbi Laurence Groffman of Temple Sholom of West Essex — “a Conservative rabbi, with a number of members from his synagogue” — Rabbi Ari Lucas of Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell — “and then our Orthodox group, with the rabbi who is the head of the JEC, Rabbi Pinchas Shapiro.”
Before the trip, Arielle said, everyone was a bit worried about the other groups who’d be on their bus. Each group expected that relations with the other groups would be cordial but distant. “We were all somewhat nervous about being on a bus with other types of Jews,” she said. “That was so sad for us.”
But luckily those assumptions were wrong. “I’m still on a high from it,” Arielle said. “There was something magical about being part of something bigger than yourself. We were there to support Israel.
“I am the child of a Holocaust survivor, so I know that deep down we are all the same. We are all Jews. And I think that’s what other people also got out of this. We are not what to be scared of.
“Bus 4! Everyone was talking to each other. We asked each other questions, but there were no judgments. Our WhatsApp chat hasn’t stopped. We are waiting for the reunion. We have total respect and admiration for each other.”
In fact, Arielle said, when there was free time for meals, the entire bus, about 50 people, trooped off to eat together. “And when we got back to the hotel, we all sat in the lobby together, every night, until 1 o’clock.
“It was real magic.”
Rachel Braun Scherl of West Orange has been to Israel “many many times,” she said. “My husband, Zev, had been there most recently six weeks ago.”
She’s a writer, speaker, thought leader, entrepreneur, and the managing partner and co-founder of Spark, a consulting firm.
She was fascinated by “seeing Israel through the eyes of people who didn’t have a real relationships with Israel; hadn’t been there ever, or for a very long time,” she said. “It was amazing watching people connect to the country.”
Also, she said, “we got to see, in very profound ways, how the money we raise literally has changed people’s lives.
“We went to a facility for severely physically, mentally, and cognitively impaired people, most of them children, many of them in wheelchairs,” she said. “The man who runs it was a highly decorated IDF soldier, and he really built this place around the idea that no one should be left behind, and that it has to include the most vulnerable people.”
“There also was a bus of people who are the recipients of federation funds from JESPY House,” she continued; South Orange-based JESPY House, a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, works with people with intellectual and development disabilities. “Apparently this is the first time we are aware of that the federation had brought recipient communities, people who are the beneficiaries of donors’ investments, with them.
The 500 MetroWest travelers were “a group of people, each of whom had a very different set of experiences and expectations,” Rachel said. “It is amazing that the folks at federation are able to find a way to make the trip meaningful to everybody, from a person who has never been to Israel to a person who has been there 30 times.” From somebody who is neurotypical to someone who is not.
And even from someone who is Jewish to someone who is not. “There was a couple who was Christian on our bus,” Rachel said; they came with Jewish friends. “It was so good to see how warmly they were embraced, how new the experiences they had in Israel were, and how much perspective they provided.
Her rabbi, Samuel Klibanoff of Congregation Etz Chaim in Livingston, was on the trip too. “We had a Friday night dinner in Israel that was particularly meaningful,” because it gave everyone at the table the chance to talk about their connections to Judaism. “There were people there from all walks of life; people who didn’t grow up Jewish, married someone Jewish, or never spent much time thinking about their Judaism or integrating it into their lives.”
This trip is likely to have changed that.
“If you started out with nothing, you came away with something,” Rachel summed up. “If you started with something, it became deeper.
“There’s something that happens when an experience is shared,” she continued. “I loved sleepaway camp,” and this trip reminded her of those summers. “On the last night of camp, everybody sings and cries and promises that you will stay in touch forever.
“There were these moments on this trip. I will look at the world and at Israel in a different way now. This trip strengthened our MetroWest commitment simultaneous with reinforcing our relationship with Israel.
“It was an extraordinary trip,” Rachel concluded. “I think that everybody who came back seems changed by it.”