MONTREAL — Arlene Abramovitch decided to give herself an 80th birthday present: her first trip to Israel.
Abramovitch will be among the 570 members of the Montreal Jewish community participating in Federation CJA’s Mega Mission to Israel from May 14 to 23. It’s the largest trip the federation has organized in almost two decades.
Close to 150 of the participants have never been to Israel before and their average age is 61. Overall, participants range in age from 18 to 91.
The federation’s goal was to attract as large and as broad a cross section of the community to experience Israel together in an intense, but enjoyable way.
The mission has been more than two years in the planning.
Abramovitch said her late husband, Henry, a physician, had not been well for a long time and never wanted to travel that far. Their three children, who attended Herzliah High School, each went on that school’s annual trip after Grade 9.
Early last year, while Henry was in Maimonides Geriatric Centre, his wife noticed a sign in the Jewish Public Library about the Mega Mission and the idea of going was planted.
“I thought it would give me something to look forward to after a hard year,” she said, “something to cheer me up.”
Her husband died in April 2013.
It was a leap because she has not been active in CJA or any community organizations. She does not know anyone on her bus – one of 14 – and simply chose “lucky number 7” because it is led by Gail Adelson-Marcovitz, co-chair of the mission with Jonathan Wener.
“I didn’t care; I just thought I would meet people,” she said. “Everything seemed so well organized, so I thought they’ll take care of me, I don’t have to worry.”
But her eldest daughter, Ingrid, in New York, was not so keen on her mother going by herself and decided to accompany her.
“Then my other daughter Susan in Toronto said she would come, and of course, then my son Seth in Los Angeles said he would have to go,” she said. So, the trip has become a family outing.
Abramovitch was among the more than 400 participants who gathered at the federation on April 30 for a final pre-departure briefing. Afterward, they listened to a talk by Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, author of the acclaimed new book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.
“The mission was absolutely open to all in the community,” said Lesli Green, the federation’s communications director.
“In fact, one of our important goals was to have the broadest possible cross-section of our community present. We are pleased that we have achieved this goal.”
The last mission on this scale was in 1996, and was also led by Wener, chair and CEO of the national real estate developer Canderel.
In addition to the wide age range, Green pointed out that multiple synagogues and diverse Jewish backgrounds and affiliations are represented, and many, like Abramovitch, have not been involved in the federation before.
The basic cost of the trip, which has been subsidized by the federation, was $4,000, based on double occupancy. An optional trip to Poland before Israel was offered.
“There was no minimum donation [to CJA] to participate,” Green said. “However, during the mission, participants will be privately asked to consider a meaningful donation of the CJA campaign for 2014.”
CJA general chair Stephen Bronfman and his wife Claudine are among the mission participants, as well as federation president Susan Laxer who called the two years staff and volunteers have put into organizing it “an investment in community building” that, it is hoped, will produce new leaders.
Time in Israel is divided between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, with a side trip to Be’er Sheva, the federation’s sister city in the Negev. Meetings are scheduled with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon.
Fourteen participants – one from each bus drawn at random during the April 30 briefing – will be guests at a private gathering with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A variety of experts on Israeli politics and economy, as well as Jewish culture, will speak throughout the week. The first Shabbat dinner will be at the brand new Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
Among the speakers is Quebec-born Nadine Baudot-Trajtenberg who became deputy governor of the Bank of Israel in March.
Two days are set aside for “personal tracks,” in which participants could choose from a variety of programs – both educational and recreational – that interest them. “Israel 101,” Abramovitch’s choice, is designed for first-timers.
Updates throughout the mission will be available online. A professional photographer and videographer will document the journey. Participants may post their observations and pictures on Twitter at #MtlMegaMission and those back home can also follow at www.montrealmegamission.com. All tour hotels and buses will have complimentary Wi-Fi.