How Was this Israel Trip Different than All Others?

This post was originally shared in the URJ Camp Newman blog.

As we approach Pesach when we ask ourselves, “How is this night different from all other nights?” I found myself wondering this same thing before taking off with a group of Bay Area Jewish professionals and lay leaders to Israel – “How will this trip be different from all my journeys to Israel?” I’m a Camp Director. I know what goes into an organized trip to the Holy Land. I thought I knew exactly what I was in for. I have never been happier to be wrong. Here’s what surprised me on this life-changing trip for the Irving Rabin Community Building Mission, which was conceived by Varda Rabin and organized by the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation:

I was able to be a participant, a camper –

I was honored to join amazing colleagues and partners from the San Francisco Bay Area. I had forgotten what it’s like to soak in an experience from the participant perspective, to be able to be present and not in charge. It was a gift.

I experienced immersive learning, living with Jewish professionals & lay leaders –

We all gained a much greater understanding and awareness of the talent, passion and extraordinary missions that exist in our Bay Area Jewish community; the trip will surely become a catalyst for future community collaboration.

I was a witness time and again to more hopeful, progressive voices –

We visited with many individuals and organizations committed to pluralism, building community, equal opportunity, and progressive values. Our tradition to care for the poor, the needy, the widow and the orphan was fully expressed and exemplified by these heroic, everyday citizens. We heard messages of hope, stories of redemption and a commitment to building a better Israel for today and future generations. They modeled the value of “generation to generation,” L’dor V’dor, acknowledging that their efforts might not bear fruit until after their own lifetimes. Even some Haredei shared with us their glimpse of a more tolerant future, a hopeful sign that change is coming from within and that new, more tolerant narratives are emerging, such as an acknowledgement of women’s rights.

And the many moments that touched me to the core –

  • Observing the newly erected Hamas flags a ¼ of a mile away from Netiv Ha’asarah, a moshav bordering the gaza strip; hearing the stories of parents feeling the vibrations of new terror tunnels being built under their earth, their homes, their children’s playgrounds.
  • Walking the land and witnessing the reciprocal gifts that agriculture, cultivation, and stewardship bestow. From the vastness of the Negev to the 100-square-foot backyard gardens in poor Jerusalem neighborhoods, I saw how this relationship provides both sustenance and sacred space.
  • Touching a walled portion of the security fence near Bethlehem, with hundreds of Palestinians returning from a day’s work in Israel through security terminals just hundreds of feet away from us. Some were mothers holding their children. Imagining the following day when we would touch the Western Wall. Observing the many faces of the Wall – security, oppression, protection, boundary, hope, fear. Thinking about the walls of humanity that have been built, fallen and rebuilt again.
  • Watching Arab and Jewish youth perform classical music together at the Polyphony Conservatory in Nazareth. When asked how these youth and their families respond to heightened tensions, their response was “they just get closer.”
  • Catching the eyes of children – in the playgrounds of the terror-filled Moshav Netiv Ha’asarah; in the streets of Meah Shearim, Hareidi children dressed for Purim; in the music halls of Arab and Jewish youth violinist – all reflected common faces of humanity, striving towards physical, emotional, spiritual safety and love.

L’chaim – to life over terror and fear

There were numerous terror attacks during our week in Israel, including the murder of an American college student in Jaffa, exactly where I had sat on a bench two days prior. With each act of terror, I could feel myself, others in our group and the collective nation pause in fear, worry and grief. Moments later, I could feel us embracing life, holding it even tighter and strengthening our pursuit of a brighter future. The expression L’chaim, “to life,” was pervasive everywhere – in the masses celebrating late at night in Machene Yehuda, among the couples going for romantic evening walks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; in the restaurants filled with reveling friends and families. Life was being lived.

Thank you, Israel, in spite of your many imperfections, for remaining a light unto the nations.

Thank you to the amazing people I met and got to know better on this trip – for your wisdom, teachings, and ruach.

Thank you, Varda Rabin, for your passion, warmth, vision, and leadership (and to your family: it was a pleasure meeting all of you!).

Thank you Danny, Wendy, Julie, Barak, Ishai and your team for leading an experience of a lifetime … all to be continued.

Ruben Arquilevich is the executive director of URJ Camp Newman.

The Irving Rabin Community Building Mission is a pilot program of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund in partnership with Varda Rabin, with the intention of extending the program throughout the region. The goals are community building and deepening relationships among community partners. 


March 15, 2016


Ruben Arquilevich