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by Beth Kissileff
As I write this, commercial flights from the US and Europe to Israel have been suspended; this news made the front page of the Post Gazette today.
This seems unimaginable to me – not to be able to get to Israel? El Al is still flying and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg just flew to Tel Aviv to show his support. There are so many ways America and Israel are connected – what about people trying to get to a funeral or a wedding or a visit to wounded soldiers? A father from Baltimore trying to visit his wounded IDF soldier son was on the flight diverted to Paris. Will kids going to summer programs still be able to have that formative experience? What about all those visiting family?
This sense of intense solidarity with Israel, that our fate as Jews everywhere in the world is inextricably bound up with the fate of the Jewish state and its citizens is not something shared by all Pittsburgh Jews. Among those who have been to Israel, 71% view Israel as an important part of their Jewish identity as compared to 35% of those who have not traveled to Israel. These statistics make it clear that travel to Israel – not just among the 18-26 year old cohort for whom the Birthright Israel program was created – is a significant factor in generating connection to Jewish identity and community as well as to the land and people of Israel.
We are fortunate in Pittsburgh that two thirds of the Jewish population, 67%, say that being Jewish is very important to them. The question then is how to expand these numbers to have more members of the community have that ahavat yisrael, love of Israel as we say in Hebrew, that many of us have already?
The answer seems clear from the numbers: visit! The Federation gives scholarships to 130 teens per year, though this year it was 131. There were 35 need-based scholarships given for a total of $80, 307, and the total amount of scholarship given out was $291,644.
I would love to see an outcome of this survey being subsidies and loans to make it possible for Pittsburgh Jews of all economic strata to travel to our holy land. Perhaps a program could be run where trips to Israel were funded after individuals give a certain number of volunteer hours both before and after the trip? This could generate all sorts of new programs and ways for people to connect to both Israel and the local Jewish community, while having a chance to strengthen their own Jewish identities. The Federation currently does wonderful work subsidizing trips for youth – I have in my family an alum of the Diller program and the Community Day School eighth grade trip. To expand the reach of the power of travel to Israel, the community and Federation system should consider ways to allow those from a broad spectrum of the community to partake of this valuable experience.
Personally, I had not been financially able to travel to Israel for the past seven years and went this past winter to visit my daughter studying there for a year. To afford this, I found work as a freelance journalist, and wrote articles about newer Israel writers, about secular yeshivot and mechinot programs, about literary awards and essays about the experience. Others should consider ways they can have working vacations and use their professional skills while traveling. As a writer, connecting to peers in Israel, finding out what is on their minds, what their struggles and triumphs are, has been one of the most exhilarating experiences of my professional career. I really felt that I was contributing to the country, by letting English speaking readers know about what is really happening in the Jewish State. The feeling of giving and contributing is so much more satisfying than that of only being a tourist, taking in sights.
The Jewish Scorecard shows conclusively the lasting power of visits to Israel. Now it is time to make them possible on as large a scale as feasible!
Beth Kissileff is a Pittsburgh-based writer and the editor of Reading Genesis and a forthcoming novel. She has taught writing, English literature, Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith and Mount Holyoke.
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