Early Yom Rishon, I trekked up to the Dan Panorama Hotel on the Carmel Mountain in Haifa to meet some new friends. When I reached my destination, I was in a room full of people, most whom I had never met, who were all speaking English. For the first time in my near-seven months in Israel, I was able to walk up to a conversation and enter it without first identifying myself as an English speaker or an American—nearly everyone in my vicinity were both! For throughout the past week, the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) serving the Greater Boston community held their annual Boston-Haifa Connection steering committee conference in Haifa. It began on Sunday and ended Wednesday night, with different activities, events, and dinner gatherings. Boston community volunteers, board and staff from the CJP Boston-Haifa Connection held meetings, mingled and toured the city with Haifa volunteers, board and staff alike. In celebration of their commitments and achievements, the Boston-Haifa Connection also gathered to propose and project new ideas for future programs and ventures. True to their mission, the meetings and initiatives encompassed the themes of Tikun Olam and welfare, Jewish identity, and young leadership opportunities.
On this Sunday morning in particular, twelve IDF officers sat solemnly in the meeting room, fully awake and perfectly groomed in their crisp uniforms. I, on the other hand, had still not had my first cup of coffee and thus ran to the breakfast table to grab some caffeine and revel in the exchange of English. From the conversations being shared, I began to learn about why these soldiers were here, and about the journey they were preparing to embark on. Near experts in their fields, these officers’ demeanors illustrated that they were preparing to enter a very different kind of battlefield than what they were accustomed to.
The officers in the room were gathered in preparation for a Haifa-Boston Connection initiative called Hatikva, which means “The Hope” in Hebrew and is also very fittingly the name of Israel’s national anthem. The mission, involving a significant amount of preparation on both sides of the Haifa-Boston Connection, brings active Israel Defense Force (IDF) officers to the United States to tour Massachusetts. For one week in April-May, IDF officers visit Greater Boston, participating in events and activities surrounding Israeli identity and experiences in the military. The soldiers attend and give presentations at local synagogues and conference halls, are welcomed into the private homes of Massachusetts’s residents for home hospitality, and are involved in the community commemoration of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), meeting with survivors of the Holocaust. The soldiers will visit Jewish day schools, an air force base, engage in Shabbat and Kabbalat Shabbat services, and meet with the Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick in the State House.
Every soldier on the Hatikva mission holds the highly revered status of officer, and all officers hail from different units and bases—some are pilots, others oversee the control of naval bases, and one officer is even responsible for some of the work of Israel’s Iron Dome defense shield system.
The Hatikva delegation is under the umbrella of Living Bridges Committees in Boston and in Haifa ,and is currently embarking on its third mission trip. One of Hatikva’s many goals is to connect Boston and Haifa residents in a very personal way. “If there is a crisis in Israel, the Haifa-Boston Connection doesn’t want Boston citizens to be merely reading the papers,” volunteer leader Debbie Kurinsky expressed. “We want them to pick up the phone and call their friends they now know in Israel.” By “bringing Israel to America” and encouraging IDF soldiers to share their stories with members of the Jewish and non-Jewish communities in the Boston area, the Hatikva mission sets out to develop and foster connections between Israel and the Diaspora, and offers Americans a more authentic understanding of Israeli people and society. “We’re interested in future continuity, and making sure the Jewish people are here and present for generations to come,” Debbie reflected.
When it came time for the soldiers to share a few of their own words, most comments were not about themselves but rather their appreciation for being accepted on this year’s mission. Their steering away from stories of themselves demonstrated a sincere modesty, and it was obvious these officers were looking for a journey that would open their minds and offer them new insight and understanding of a world outside of Israel.
Of all the officers in the room, Shenhav Ruttner was particularly excited to share her story. Twenty-five year old Naval Control Officer participating in this year’s Hatikva mission to Boston, Shenhav currently oversees the operations of a naval base in Haifa.
While this mission will be Shenhav’s first visit to the States, her short stint as a soldier on a Taglit-Birthright trip granted her the opportunity to have had some previous experience with Jewish Americans. And although both she and her participants shared obvious investments in Judaism and Israel, their geographical and cultural differences proved to be more substantial than she could have imagined. “Our few days together made it clear to me how much we didn’t know about one another, and how much we had to learn,” Shenhav confessed. Like all of the officers participating in Hatikva’s third delegation, Shenhav’s optimism and excitement displayed a genuine open-mindedness and uninhibited curiosity for the journey ahead.
A highly revered officer and seriously dedicated soldier in the Israeli Defense Force, Shenhav’s enthusiasm was unmistakably evident in her voice, as much as she was trying to keep her cool. “I know so little about American Jews, so everything will be a brand new experience.”
Among all of the topics of conversation and talking points throughout the day, most officers were equally interested in learning more about the differences between practicing Judaism in Israel versus in America, and more specifically about what it’s like to be Jewish in Israel versus being Jewish in the Diaspora. The officers also shared concerns regarding Americans’ perceptions of Israel and especially the Israeli army. Likewise, it seemed that Boston-Haifa was concerned about similar themes, because the seminar was organized heavily around perception and representation.
The day was full of mini-tutorials, including two workshops facilitated by speakers who tried to prepare the officers for unforeseen experiences in Boston. Like their commanding officers on their own army bases, in the short time they had these two speakers worked to get the IDF soldiers ready for more of an emotional and mental battle.
The two speakers both used varying tactics to push the officers in a safe environment in order to prepare them for potential real life challenges. They participated in activities that taught them how to be more culturally sensitive and verbally inclusive, and learned the importance of creating dissonance with others. Since the American and foreign perspective and press coverage of Israel can be at times drastically different than life on the ground here in the holy land, Israeli citizens visiting America are bound to experience endless questioning or interrogative curiosity at times. And since that statement is terribly underemphasized, the speakers spent a good part of their presentations on this specific topic.
The two speakers prodded the officers in the room to be aware of possible inquiry, such as difficult questions about Gaza and Iran, and the discomfort in the room was painful at times. But the officers rose above, choosing their words carefully and acknowledging subjectivity of all parties present. Although jostled generously by devil’s advocates, the officers never reacted aggressively to the uninformed questions that were being suggested to them.
Hatikva officers were reminded of some essential and indelible advice that morning: to be conscious of cultural differences, to know definitions and choose the right words (more of a difficult endeavor than can be imagined since English is not these officer’s first language), to always bring people to uncertainty, and to remember to be representative of their country.
Closing the seminar were four Israeli’s who participated in the previous Hatikva missions, who generously offered the officers some experiential advice. “You don’t know what the country or the culture is like until you’ve been there,” Gal Mizrachi shared. “I can’t even compare what my assumptions were before I was in Boston to what I feel today, a year later,” she admitted. All four of the visitors advised the officers to be prepared with small stories of their time in the army, possible small souvenirs, and what they jokingly—but sternly—agreed on as a collective: bring nice clothes to go out in at night—Israeli and American nightlife garb are noticeably different!
The long but eventful day closed with a dinner at the Dan Carmel Hotel, where hundreds of Haifa and Boston residents came to celebrate and see the officers off. Haifa Boston Directors and even the Mayor shared his thanks and his appreciation for all the hard work being put into the Connection.
Anyone curious to learn more or looking to become involved with the Haifa-Boston Connection, CJP, or the Boston or Haifa Jewish community, please contact CJP or the Connection and express your interest. The CJP does wonderful work and is only able to do such work because of its dedicated staff and selfless volunteers. Please join them in solidarity!
The CJP Bostonians recently flew back this week, and to be honest a very real part of me wishes I could have joined them. Meeting and mingling with community volunteers, staff and board of the CJP incited my extreme ache for Boston, for future career opportunities, and for my family and friends.
Alas, I would have never accepted a ticket back to Logan Airport, not yet at least. Not everyone can say they are a minute walk away from the surging sea foam waves of the Mediterranean Sea, the drool-inducing scent warm of pita and hummus from the Arab village of Wadi Nisnas, or have the sight of the Carmel Mountain outside their window. I am in, what I believe, is one of the most tremendous and stunningly beautiful cities in Israel, and I wouldn’t change the past three months in Haifa for the world.
So much of the Boston-Haifa Connection’s work is for the state of Israel, for its safety, existence, to see that it continues to embody cultural richness and that it is always working towards moments of equality and justness. I am proud to be representing the Boston community in Haifa, and honored to be realizing the benefits of the Haifa-Boston Connection. While its own organization, OTZMA is just another program, like Hatikva, that is under the HBC’s Living Bridges initiative. My time in Israel is very sadly growing short but it is not over yet. I am looking forward to the next leg of OTZMA, where I will be residing in Jerusalem and working for the New Israel Fund. I will continue to blog there, and I look forward to covering the Hatikva mission during its Boston trip, from April 27 to May 3. Lehitra’ot!