Friday, January 24, 2014

Western Galilee artisans: Tourism off the beaten path

By Geri Shatz, Member of JNF's Makor Speakers Bureau

Hagit Stern. Edna and Eyal Hefer. Tami and Yaron Cohen. Jaris Hadid. Adam Ziv and Alaa Sweetat. Michal and Danny Kalderon.

No, you don't know these names yet. They are those of artisanal entrepreneurs in Israel's Western Galilee, and the quality of their work is original and excellent.  Each workshop is worth a visit, each food should be tasted, and I will tell you just how to do that in a moment.

But first, there is some recent history to relate:.

Johnny Stern, the owner of Stern Winery at Kibbutz Tuvat, and Amnon
Gopher, a tour guide specializing in the Galilee recognized that forming a coalition of local artisans to work in concert to enhance their products and promote their businesses could also help to expose the public to the under-appreciated Western Galilee. They would rely on each other, not government agencies, to create, fund and direct their association. The next steps would be to hire an executive director, whom they found in Michal Shiloah, whose marketing and public relations background was honed at Motorola, and to develop a concept of bringing enough top-rated artisans to the association Western Galilee Now to be able to offer tour guides the ability to craft trips for discerning visitors that maximize the quality of visits to the religiously, historically and culturally diverse region.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Canadian PM Stephen Harper joins Cornerstone Ceremony for Hula Lake Park Visitors Center

“Our environmental policy in Canada focuses on the preservation of green areas,” said the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, at the ceremony, “so it is truly wonderful that we can share this with the State of Israel.” 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

LGBT mission to Israel for Pride Parade!

For the first time ever, Jewish National Fund (JNF) is hosting a very unique mission to Israel for the LGBT community. Taking place from June 5-12, 2014, the Pride of Israel LGBT Mission will embrace the world-famous Tel Aviv Gay Pride Festival while showing participants the colorful side of Israel.

“What most people in the LGBT community don’t realize is that within this community there is still a need for support in both the Jewish community and Israel,” said Howard Bragman, Pride of Israel LGBT Mission Chair. “Participants will come away with an additional sense of pride, not only from the LGBT community, but from learning what Israel has to offer."

Friday, January 17, 2014

Caravan for Democracy: My hope for humanity

By Wesley Varughese, Lawrence University '16

First and foremost, I am thankful and most blessed to have received the opportunity to travel  to Israel with the Caravan for Democracy for the Jewish National Fund. The JNF staff on our trip consists of the following: Yoni, our incredibly knowledgeable, but hilarious tour guide, Rabbi Leor Sinai, our hip, co-tour guide that provided different perspectives of every situation we were placed in throughout the country (while promoting discussion), and Jessica Lebovits, another fantastic staff person guiding us on the trip, who was very familiar with what the Jewish National Fund is doing here in Israel and answering any questions we had about Judaism. We also had our chief of security/emergency aid, and our fantastic driver, passing through tight streets smoothly and giving us pleasant rides throughout the trip - both with smiling faces everyday we saw them. Each one of these staff members impacted us on the trip, and although some were different than others, they each gave us a perspective and a memory that will forever be engrained in our minds, even if we forget their names later on in life.

Rabbi Leor had said a few nights ago, "you've met so many people on this trip: my kids, all the speakers from various organizations, the people serving us food at restaurants, and each of us here on the trip with you. You may not remember all their names, but you will wonder one day how they're doing back in Israel." You make ask yourself, "I wonder how Rabbi Leor's son doing? Did he ever have to join the IDF once he had grown up?" Or the man who talked to us about the Druze, "how is his family doing?" These questions will linger and are already beginning to form in our minds once we've met someone - as we remember who they are subconsciously. It may be dependent on their importance to you, but there will be important people that stuck out to you that you will wonder about. This wondering process is important for when we do our best to explain our experiences to our family and friends. Making personal connections to the stories you tell gives them that much more enjoyment when it's told. And with that, the things you wonder about are the things that were important to you in what you felt on this Caravan for Democracy.

Celebrating Tu B'Shevat -- in Washington D.C.

Ira Bartfield, JNF assistant vice president of community and congregational relations, observes the holiday of Tu B'Shevat by planting a tree at the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture in Washington D.C. Also participating were Matt Nosanchuk from the White House, senior administration members, and senior staff from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service. The ceremony was organized by the administration, underscoring the importance of preserving and protecting of our environment as a Jewish value.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Tu B'Shevat on the farm

Today in Israel, in celebration of Tu B'Shevat, firefighters and fire scouts came together with a special group from the Enosh Hotel. The group started on LOTEM's farm in Emek HaShalom with a Tu B'Shevat tree planting. Then, they baked pita bread on an open fire. An unplanned tour of a firetruck and a talk on fire safety followed, exciting the LOTEM group.  

Afterward, the firescouts and firefighters went for a hike on the inclusive trail in Nahal HaShofet, where they were greeted by Raz, LOTEM's national service volunteer. Raz shared that he was paralyzed at the age of 8 and that is when he began to hike in Nahal HaShofet. The group was very moved by Raz's story and enthusiasm. He explained to the group that would not to go into the details of his accident because he wants to keep the time that the group would spend at Nahal HaShofet a fun and positive experience.  

The day was such a wonderful success -- the LOTEM group was so excited about the firefighters, and the firefighters were so moved by both the group and their experience with Raz on the hike. This will most certainly become an annual event.

Happy Tu B'shevat!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Reflections on Caravan for Democracy

By Quanshay Henderson, Morgan State University

It has been a little over a week since I have been in Israel, and yet a part of me feels like I’m still there. I’m not sure why this is the case, but I don’t mind it at all. My experience there has taught me the remarkable power of hope and perseverance. A country composed primarily of swamp lands and deserts was able to develop into one of the leading entrepreneurial economies in the world! And I was, given the opportunity to experience the nation of Israel with my own eyes. A little more than half way through the trip, I realized that the story of Israel was the story of me. I am a girl of humble beginnings, but I know that this certainly does not determine my future or the future of others whose beginnings seem dim. The story of Israel says that there is hope no matter how unpromising something appears to be. I have taken that spirit of hope back with me to help make my campus and community a better place. My heart trusts that I will return to Israel someday, and I cannot wait to see how much the country has grown since my last visit.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Caravan for Democracy day 9: A new beginning

By Chelsea Laguerre, University of North Florida

The End.

The dictionary defines "the end" as a conclusion, the final part of something. As we spend our last day in Israel, it's seems logical to believe this is the end of our experience in the Holy Land. Even though we will be leaving this place, my fellow travelers and I believe this is actually the beginning of something much bigger than us. We have seen and learned a lot here in a short amount of time, resulting in many walls being broken and some beliefs questioned. Our group is so unique and diverse with interests in politics, history, environmental and international studies, and health. All of us came on this Caravan for Democracy trip for a reason specific to ourselves but were gratefully surprised that the epiphanies/realizations we experienced were not in the ways we expected.

Sitting here in the Negev desert with not only fellow travelers but new friends, I listen to the passion this group has about making a change and showing their campuses that there is a human face to both Israel and Palestine. Our last day we traveled back to the place where it all began, Jerusalem. We visited one of the largest and most elegant YMCAs I have ever seen. The architecture, like most buildings in Israel, was built with such complexity and purpose . There were three buildings, the main tower which can be seen from any direction, was engraved with the six winged angel that brought the good news of Christ. On each side of the tower, above the windows, were scriptures written in Hebrew and English. The rooms within the walls of the YMCA were just as elegant and beautiful as the outside but the mission was much more wonderful. The Jerusalem YMCA is a place where anyone can come and participate in many activities, no matter their race or religion, leaving all hate and prejudices at the door. Considering Jerusalem is the city where every single religion in this area is represented, I was not surprised at this idea but awed.

Following the tour, we were introduced to our first speaker, a representative of the ministry of foreign affairs. She discussed a little about the technological rise of Israel based on entrepreneurship. This was very interesting because earlier this morning we took personality quizzes which showed the producers, administrators, entrepreneurs, and integrators in our group. We had several people labeled as entrepreneurs and having a speaker talk about the products of these type of leaders was inspiring.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Caravan for Democracy, day 8: A 'life-changing' experience

By Kathleen Quillian, Flagler University 

When my professor emailed me the application for Caravan for Democracy, I really thought nothing of it. After reading about the trip I felt I did not fit the profile of the students they were searching for. I am not involved in politics or student government on my campus. So I just set the email aside and went along trying to survive my heavy workload of video production classes.

Days went on and the application deadline was quickly approaching I made my decision not to apply. In class, my professor would not stop bothering me about the application. She really got under my skin when she said, "What kind of journalist are you, who doesn't want a free trip abroad? Turn this into a journalistic opportunity." After that statement there was no way I was not applying.

When I received the email that I made it to the second round where I would be interviewed it really did not see in that there was any possibility of me going to Israel. Now I realized I am going to have to do some research so I don't not bomb this interview. Before I did any research it came to my attention that all I knew about Israel was all my Jewish friends would go on birthright. My friends could never find the words to describe their experience in Israel; most said I just would never understand. Of course from being a news junkie I would read news stories, yet never in a lot of depth. I found my ignorance about Israel shocking and embarrassing.

When I first discovered I was going to Israel I don't think it really set in until the day I met the Caravan for Democracy group at the airport. The weeks leading up to the trip I decided I would take camera gear and make a documentary while I was over there-when am I going to be in the Middle East again?  I decided I would try to interview local Israelis to get their opinion on how they would like their country to be portrayed on the media. In my opinion the media only discusses Israel when it involves something with a negative stigma attached. Before I left, I decided that I would like to capture the Israel that the media does not report.  

Caravan, day 7: From the scars of war, inspiration

By Nicholas Vladimir Macek

Ernest Hemingway once wrote, "The world is a beautiful place and worth the fighting for, and I hate very much to leave it." The Middle East knows much about beauty and fighting, for better or worse, but our experience in Sderot  revealed part of the human condition unexpected to most of us. While most of our time with the Caravan for Democracy through Israel was met with breathtaking sights -- Masada, Tel Aviv, Galilee -- the tragedy of Sderot's reality was exceptionally difficult to accept. More than anything, the impact of a constant threat on the lives of children was humbling. The population of the city with bomb shelters marred an otherwise peaceful city.

From the scars of war, however, emerged an inspiring reality. Not one steel-reinforced, concrete shelter looked as such. Thanks to JNF and Artists 4 Israel, each was adorned with graffiti and street art. Back in the States, it seems no two people agree on whether graffiti is legitimate art or not. It rose up from the hip hop movement of the 1970s and '80s in New York City, hip hop being a tool for youth to resist against oppression and beautify the cement and steel projects they lived in. It was a method to resist dehumanization with creativity and imagination, two truly human characteristics. 
Caravan participants on the climbing wall at the Sderot indoor playground.

In Sderot, the painting of the bomb shelters, while different from traditional graffiti culture, embraces these virtues. Oppressed by violence, the city rose up with creativity; dehumanized into targets, they expressed their humanity; burdened with brutalist bomb shelters, they made their environment colorful, beautiful, livable. 

As moving as our visit to Sderot was, and as sad as it was to see how children's lives are devastated by conflict, the resistance of the residents of Sderot to depression was uplifting, and definitely an inspiring thought to bring home with us.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Caravan, day 6: Jerusalem, a place of hope

By David Isaiah Arreola, Flagler College

I'd first like to express my unending appreciation to the Jewish National Fund donors and Shorashim tours, especially our guide Yoni, for arranging a holistic and diverse educational experience in Israel. Their confidence in the youth of America to venture to a new world with an open mind equals my own and this is evident by an organized itinerary that encouraged questions and vigorous deliberation. My appreciation of this shared value is immeasurable. 

Our world is one of tumult with an innumerable array of factors either abating or aggravating the old and new conflicts of our age. In Israel, as in the United States and around the world, this is evident when walking the streets and deciphering stories. However, one must look past the appearances to uncover these conflicts, because everything looks normal. The people wear western style clothing and shop at designer outlets. Ethnically diverse friend groups laugh in the streets and happily exchange pleasantries on the sabbath. You wouldn't know that war has periodically come to this land and that a majority of her sons and daughters have served to defend her militarily. Everything appears normal.  

Caravan participants at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem. 
Yet, there are traces of history that betray this normalcy. There are remnants of struggles passed. Evacuated houses atop the Golan Heights reminds us of war in 1967. Crowded, government commissioned apartment units near city centers continue to echo Israel's overwhelming immigration flood following her Declaration of Independence which threatened to overbear her young government and society. The ancient desert fortress of Masada, a historical and cultural talisman for Israelis, is now crawling with European and American tourists, indicating that the old Zionist fanaticism once attributed to the ancient mound and the country as a whole is being wiped by modern minds in the melting pot of Israel. Carefully placed Militant-Deterrent Security fences are a reminder of the geopolitical forces that rage between political leaders--irrespective of the genuine cohabitation between Palestinians and Israelis I witnessed in the crowded streets of Jerusalem. 

Caravan, day 5: 'Wow, just wow'

By Melanie Benit, University of Louisiana at Lafayette

Today, I tasted a small bite of the essence of what it means to be a Jew in the land of Israel. I saw where they came from and their daily life -- both the fear and the hope, the sorrow and the joy.

It began with visiting Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum. I did not walk out the same way I walked in. I have had many lessons and watched several movies about WWII. I have seen the atrocities which pull at my heartstrings each and every time. This time was different. Rather than focus on the images of the mutilated bodies, our guide had us think of what was overcome. Then it hit me, WWII ended in 1945. The Jewish state of Israel was established in 1948. That's a three-year difference. Three. Years. After approximately 6 million Jewish people were slaughtered, around one-third of their population, these same people managed to rebirth a nation. Wow, just wow.

After this epiphany, we went briefly to the open market and saw the everyday hustle and bustle of the locals and tourists amongst the medley of herbs, pastries, and produce. I find their daily life is full.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Caravan, day 4: Sensitivity and prudence needed

By Katherine Clifton, Princeton University 

Though we’re not even halfway through the Caravan for Democracy program, we have been blown away by how much we have learned, seen, and done, how far we have traveled, and how many incredible individuals we have had the privilege of meeting. Today primarily revolved around exploring the Old City of Jerusalem, and I (and hopefully others) will blog about that in a separate entry. However, it started with an unexpected and fascinating discussion as we departed Tel Aviv.

Yoni, our engaging tour guide, introduced us to what he called the "backyard of Tel Aviv." This "backyard" largely -- he suggested entirely -- consists of immigrants, most of whom emigrated from Sudan and Eritrea around 2005 to escape genocide. Bedouins, nomads of the Sinai desert, charged each of these refugees $1,000-$2,000 to transport them across the desert after which they walked into Israel. 60,000 immigrants arrived in a short period of time and their presence was "felt right away," according to Yoni. The state of Israel has never had an official immigration policy, which really surprised our group coming from a country with a complicated, evolving, and disputed, but very real immigration policy. Therefore, these immigrants created an unforeseeable dilemma.

International law prohibits rejecting immigrants seeking asylum, but there is a clause that wrinkles this complex fabric stating that if refugees come from an enemy country to the home country, the home country does not have to take them in. Sudan has in the past and possibly still assists Iran by bringing weapons into the Gaza Strip so Israel technically did not have to accept the Sudanese immigrants. However, since they came from countries ridden with Genocide sans human rights, Israel did allow them to stay. Still, the illegal immigrants continue to have trouble making a living since they are not Israeli citizens so any work is illegal without access to work permits. Yoni gave examples of typical jobs such as construction and washing dishes. When we drove through the neighborhood they live in, he pointed out a group of men sitting at a store front, and told us some of them were probably waiting to be hired illegally and cheaply for the day to assist with a number of menial jobs.

Caravan, day 3: Fishers of (Wo)men

By Jeffrey Caso, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service

Just two days ago (although it seems like a lot longer), Caravan for Democracy arrived at its first historical site: the Church of the Beatitudes. Since then, some of Jesus's words, from the Sermon on the Mount, have been resonating with me over the course of this adventure: "And He saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." This memory begs the question of the relevance of these "fishers of men" in contemporary Israel.Church of the Beatitudes, Israel
This evening, we had the opportunity to engage in a conversation with a former member of the Knesset, Dr. Einat Wilf. In one of her remarks, she broke down the plight of women in Israel into three distinct categories of conflict: (1) 21st century challenges, (2) 20th century challenges, and (3) 10th century challenges. In Israel, there are many examples in which the concept of tradition becomes a limiting factor -- among those mentioned by Dr. Wilf: segregation among the ultra-Orthodox, and polygamy among the Bedouins. About the ultra-Orthodox, Dr. Wilf said, "Am I allowed, as a liberal feminist, to tell another woman that she's wrong?" The conclusion she came to was in the affirmative -- that a line must be drawn between tradition and modernity.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Caravan, day 2: The diversity of Israel

Jacob Ledbetter, University of Alabama at Birmingham

In the United States, we always hear about the problems in Israel and the Middle East as a whole.  With news reports full of geopolitical threats and conflicts, we never hear about what's going right in the country and the region as a whole. Over the past two days, our tour has gotten a glimpse of the amazing things happening here in Israel and the great diversity that the country contains in so many aspects -- religious, racial, economic, culinary, cultural, etc.  From Biblical sites and religious kibbutzes to modern cities and emerging technologies, Israel has truly exceeded my expectations and proven to be a truly diverse nation.

We started the trip on tours of the Mount of Beatitudes, Sea of Galilee, and the city of Capurnaum. For many of us who grew up in religious American families, seeing Biblical sites truly made the scriptures come alive. Being able to see the mountain where Jesus preached and feel the walls of the synagogue that Jesus attended was such an incredible experience that can only be gained by visiting Israel.