WINNIPEG — Two years ago, Ron Evans, the former grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the current chief of Norway House Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, visited Israel for the first time.
Although he had to cut his trip short after just three days because of a family emergency, Evans was inspired by what he saw. “In Israel, I saw such a young country that has come so far in just a few years,” he said.
“The Jewish People are an ancient people who have overcome tremendous adversity and have become very successful. They have been able to maintain their culture and heritage while, at the same time, embracing the modern world. Our youth have much to learn from that.”
Evans was determined to share his Israel experience with his community. To that end, in co-operation with the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, he organized a Young Leadership Mission to Israel from Norway House, a community of about 5,000 to 6,000 people 456 kilometres by air north of Winnipeg.
“This is the first mission to Israel of this kind in Canada,” said Shelley Faintuch, the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg’s community relations director and local director of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, who helped plan the itinerary and accompanied the group of 30 young people from Norway House and a band councillor on the trip to Israel. They left on April 29.
“The focus of the mission was on leadership development,” Faintuch said. “The goals were to teach these young people – through seeing the example of Israel – to take responsibility for developing programs and initiatives in their community.
“Even though this was supposed to be an educational program rather than just a tour, we showed them Israel from top to bottom.”
For most of the young people, and possibly all of them, this was the first time they had ever been overseas, Faintuch said. Their first stop in Israel was at Better Place, the company behind Israel’s first electric car manufacturer.
“We wanted to show that Israelis and aboriginal peoples share a sense of responsibility for taking care of the earth,” she said.
The mission participants saw Israel in all of its religious and ethnic diversity. Among the people they met were young Israeli leaders in the north; Druze villagers; an Ethiopian-born Israeli police officer; David Weinberg, Israel office director of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs; and Bassam Eid, the longtime director of the Palestine Human Rights Monitoring Group.
The aboriginal youths ate at an Arab restaurant, stood on the border near Lebanon, stuffed papers in the cracks in the wall at the Kotel, participated in an archeological dig and learned something of the long history of the Jewish People, visited the former British detention camp at Atlit, stood on Masada and absorbed the atmosphere of Yad Vashem.
“Yad Vashem was a very emotional experience for the group members,” Faintuch said. “One individual said that he never really understood the Jewish People until visiting Yad Vashem.”
For recreation, Faintuch noted, the visitors were taken rafting and to the ice rink at Metullah, where they did some skating and helped some of the Israeli skaters.
The Christian part of the tour included visits to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Garden of Gethsemane and Christian holy sites around the Sea of Galilee.
A special moment for Faintuch was when her son, Zev, met the young Canadians in Jerusalem and showed the visitors some of Jerusalem’s nightlife. He also spoke to them about his decision to come to Israel and volunteer to serve in the Israeli Army.
The group returned to Winnipeg on May 6.
“The highlight of this mission for me,” Evans said, “was in seeing the changes in our young people on a daily basis. They were in awe of Israel and all the places we visited. Everyone in our group wants to go back to Israel.”
Evans said he is planning to take a group of potential young leaders from his community to Israel every year for the next nine years and more.
“We have already started our fundraising for our mission next spring,” he said.