From April 9 through April 17, following months of intensive planning, CJP’s Boston-Haifa Connection hosted a team of IDF officers for the first-ever Hatikva Mission, timed to coincide with the emotional period between Yom HaShoah and Israel’s observance of its Memorial and Independence Days. The select group of officers met with thousands of members of the Boston Jewish community in schools, synagogues, and homes; represented the IDF, in uniform, at Faneuil Hall for Boston’s observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 11; and met Massachusetts state representatives at the State House a day before flying home, just in time to recall fallen comrades, friends and relatives on Yom HaZikaron.

Below is the first installment of a four-part look-back on this mission, written by Ken Kaplan.

Marshalling Forces
On a drizzly Friday afternoon, two dozen people crowded the shabby kitchen of a youth hostel in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood. A seemingly random assortment of faded posters was all that adorned the peeling walls. A single ceiling fan struggled to circulate the increasingly warm and humid air. The yellowed window panes gave a view only of grimy brick walls and fire escapes.

Yet a sense of urgency was palpable in the room, an unlikely venue for the last strategy session of a Zionist mission that would moisten eyes, constrict throats, and open minds in dozens of poignant encounters with thousands of Boston-area residents and community leaders, Jews and non-Jews. Among the mission’s many lofty goals: strengthen the unity of the Jewish people, put a human face on Israel’s uniformed defenders, inculcate among American Jewish youth a stronger identification with Israel and Israelis and strengthen their Jewish identity, and groom a generation of future leaders.

At the center of the kitchen, wedged around two narrow tables, were 12 officers from various branches of the Israel Defense Forces – the Navy, Intelligence, and Artillery Corps among them. The 12, looking bright eyed and fresh despite nearly 20 hours of travel, focused their gazes on a succession of impassioned speakers who minced few words in outlining the many challenges the officers would face in their 9 days in Boston.

created at: 2010-08-29The officers, all Haifa natives, had used personal vacation time to make the trip, a long-planned project of CJP’s Boston-Haifa Connection (BHC). They knew they were engaging in a Zionist enterprise, something more than just a week of overseas travel away from their military duties. They knew they were coming to share and to teach. What ultimately surprised all of them was how much they learned, as well, and how what they learned reinforced their own sense of dedication as Israeli officers.  And perhaps even more important, at a time when Israelis’ sense of isolation in the world has been heightened and their confidence shaken, the officers were given a renewed sense that they have the support and affection of Diaspora Jews, as a community and as individuals.

Rony Yedidia, Israel’s deputy consul general to New England, spoke first in the kitchen’s cramped confines. She talked frankly of a “disconnect” between Israeli and American Jewish youth, about a generation of American Jews who cannot imagine a world without Israel and might take it for granted. On the other hand, she said, are Israelis who do not understand the Jewish community outside of Israel. “It is very important,” she told the officers, “for us to join these two parts of one people.”

Rabbi Golan Ben-Horin, an educator and BHC activist from Haifa recruited to help brief the officers, followed, and cut straight to the point. “This mission you are about to carry out,’’ he said, enunciating each word for emphasis, “is as important as anything you would do now in the army. The challenge is huge, and your abilities are appropriate … for the simple reason that you live lives that are so different from those of the people you will be meeting. … Your mission is the mission of Am Yisrael. What is Am Yisrael? Today, that is an open question, more so than at any time in the past. And what is it that links the different branches of Am Yisrael? That is our huge challenge. There lies our existential threat.”

The Volunteers: Debbie, Danny, and Yabee
A bundle of barely contained, wiry energy in the kitchen that day was Debbie Kurinsky, a veteran of several CJP campaigns and Boston co-chair of the Hatikva Mission, who had spent months contacting individuals and organizations in the Boston Jewish community to arrange the officers’ busy schedule. A 9-year supporter of the Boston-Haifa Connection and in her 5th year as a member of CJP’s Israel and Overseas Committee, Kurinsky, an attorney, later reflected on the mission’s many ambitious goals.

On one level, she said, the mission was “an exercise in Israel advocacy, an effort to put a human face on the Israeli officer, and to give members of the community, Jewish and non-Jewish, the opportunity to have personal interactions with these officers, to learn about who they are and what they do, and how what they do is so important to the existence of the State of Israel … and to dispel some myths and maybe some not-so-positive views that people otherwise might have or just the misunderstandings that they may have because they never had the opportunity to speak to Israeli officers.”

Kurinsky said the planners also anticipated, correctly, that the mission would have a profound impact on the soldiers themselves, creating an opportunity for a deeper exploration of their own Jewish identity.

The whole trip, she said, was very much in line with CJP’s latest strategic plan, part of which seeks to create stronger ties with Israel and to build the next generation of leadership.

“I have been involved with many exchanges over the years, and I have met many groups, and I have to say what surprised me and what impressed me the most was how extraordinary a group of young leaders this was and how much personal growth there was.”

Weeks before the trip, she said, in advance meetings, the officers were told what the aims of the mission were, but it “really didn’t resonate. … They just didn’t get it until they were here, and part of it, and actually in a room” with the various audiences and “realized how important it was.”   By the end of trip, she said, “they were explaining to us what the goals of the mission were. And they said it, and they meant it.”

created at: 2010-08-29Kurinsky said some of the goals were first articulated in a letter last July from Haifa co-chair Danny Nishlis, who owns and manages Radio Haifa. As the mission later was winding down with a debriefing at the CJP, Nishlis expressed delight at the “bonus” value the officers were bringing home.

After 20 years of Haifa getting support from the Jewish community in Boston, he said, it was “time for us to reach into our own pockets, especially during these difficult times” and “contribute something to show that the partnership does not go only one way. And we can contribute, contribute in matters of strengthening the ties between Haifa and the Boston community, strengthening Jewish identity, especially among young kids, strengthening knowledge about Israel, the will to come and visit Israel, etc. “

 “I also think the ties that were formed with students, with pupils in schools, with members of synagogue communities, helps strengthen the connection. But I was also surprised to see the changes among the officers, changes in their perception of the Jewish community in America, a changed perception in the love for Israel, giving to Israel, membership in the Jewish community, in Jewish organizations, volunteering, the connection to Haifa.

“This is something we had no idea existed! For them, Israel stands alone in the world against everyone. And suddenly they see that there is someone here caring, supporting, loving, volunteering, donating, fund-raising. This was beyond my expectations. A bonus that I hadn’t thought of. This was the first time since the creation of the Boston-Haifa Connection that the State of Israel, the government, gave more than 2/3 of the budget for this mission. The army was involved, and the Jewish community in Boston. And who benefitted the most? Israel advocacy. And in May we are meeting to begin putting together the next delegation.”

Another key volunteer from Haifa was Yoav “Yabee” Keren, a former lieutenant-colonel in the Israeli army reserves and the former head of Scouts in Haifa who was the officers’ father, mother, and constant companion during the mission. It was his job to worry about everything, and throughout the visit he sought, at times nervously, to shelter the officers from any whiff of protests or controversy. But by the end of the week his excitement at the mission’s successes was bubbling over.

Walking briskly from the CJP office to the Massachusetts State House on the mission’s last full day, Keren talked about being recruited by Nishlis. “It’s a way of life. Doing something for work and something for the soul. … And I need to do something else every time. So when Danny called me and said, “Yabee, I know about you. Come to Boston-Haifa and be the chair of Building Bridges, and put together a delegation for the mission. It made me so happy. It took me about five minutes to say, OK, I’m coming.”

Keren emphasized the importance of giving Bostonians, Jews and non-Jews, an image of Israeli officers not seen on television news broadcasts, out of uniform, without guns. “This is the face of the human being behind the uniform, behind the gun. It was wonderful,” he said excitedly. “If I can share this idea with the IDF Spokesman, with the IDF people who decided on this delegation, I would want that every Jewish Federation could do it. It’s important.”