Finally! My first trip to Israel! I can say with no uncertainty that my first experience in Eretz Yisrael was anything but typical. Dead Sea? Nope. Massada? Nope. Tunnels? Well, you get the idea…
Yet, I feel that I came away from this adventure greatly enriched with a strong understanding and love for the land and the people. My travels immersed me in the lives of Israeli Progressive Jews along with their trials and successes.
My first impressions upon arriving were, “the airport is beautiful, clean, and so quiet.” Then it hit me. I really was in Israel! We had landed on a Saturday and the airport was empty because it was Shabbat. As we traveled by taxi I observed that, while the airport was unpopulated, the parks were full. This was a lovely introduction to Israeli life; the rituals that we fight so hard to preserve for ourselves in North America were a part of everyone’s life in Israel. As the trip went on and we met with our Israeli counterparts we saw the other side of the coin, how other customs restrained the lives of Progressive Israelis.
I went to Israel to represent Women of Reform Judaism, as a co-chair for the second Wilkenfeld International Leadership seminar. As WRJ Board members, we met beforehand with WRJ grantees to learn about current challenges and victories. After the seminar I attended the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) Biennial at Kibbutz Shefayim. Although not exactly like our North American Biennials, my feelings of belonging and shared ideology were the same.
As a first time, non-Hebrew speaking American, there was not one moment that I felt like an outsider. It was apparent that IMPJ valued their international track members. We were assigned two staff members, Leebat Weiss and David Bernstein, who informed us like college professors and looked after us like mother hens! Our experience began with ARZA at the Museum of the Jewish people. We were paired up with young attendees from the ARZA Rising Leaders program and the Israeli HaMechina pre-Army youth program. By the time we arrived at the Kibbutz I had many new friends. It was inspiring to talk to North American and Israeli youth with a passion for Progressive Judaism.
Biennial programming began at the opening plenary with remarks from leaders of ARZENU, IMPJ, and the Mechina program. The plenaries were accessible to us via English translation with headphones, and each had aspects representing the international Progressive community, the Youth Movement, and the IMPJ community. There was also an award given to a leading artist of modern Israeli culture. This first session featured a moving presentation of a Torah scroll to Noar Telem, the IMPJ Youth Movement, and the Yotzer Or (Giver of Light) award to singer/composer David Broza. It was wonderful to see the focus on Youth and to broaden our horizons with snippets of Israeli song, dance, and literature through the award ceremonies at each plenary.
International attendees were offered two different workshops at each session in English. I learned from Knesset members, different generations of Progressive female leaders in a panel moderated by our own Vice President of Advocacy, Marketing & Communications, Jane Taves, healthcare professionals’ intent on forging Jewish-Arab relationships through compassion and healing, and Progressive singer/songwriters. In between there was terrific food, song and dance, and much laughter and friendship.
Throughout it all we were cared for and valued by IMPJ staff through reserved sections, English translation, group recognition (i.e. - Jane was given an Aliyah representing WRJ at Shabbat services), and verbally expressed gratitude for our presence. Although my initial experiences were different than most, I too can say I feel like I have a second home in Israel, and I can't wait to go back one day.
Madi Hoesten has been an active member of Congregation Kol Tikvah Sisterhood in Parkland, Florida, since moving to Florida in 1999. She has been on her sisterhood and her temple board in some capacity since joining the sisterhood. After serving on the Southeast District Board as an Area Director, Vice President of Marketing and Communication, 1st Vice President, and then President, she is currently the Immediate Past President of her district. Madi is also a member of the North American Board of Women of Reform Judaism, and is the current Vice President of Affiliate Services.