Let’s face it: when one has expectations, they’re not always met, let alone exceeded. As the old Yiddish adage says: “Mann tracht, un Gott lacht” – “Man plans, and God Laughs.”
The three of us, who are so fortunate to have been chosen as the chairs of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s recent Centennial Journey to Israel, had high expectations and, as lofty as they were, they were surpassed during this remarkable eight-day experience.
From Nov. 1-8, we travelled as one close-knit and passionate Jewish community from the Greater Toronto Area and were exposed to the incredible people and achievements of Israel, by gaining exclusive access – access that only an organization like UJA Federation can muster – to some of the country’s greatest treasures.
While the journey was planned to celebrate UJA Federation’s 100th anniversary, as well the organization’s 25th year of its transformative partnerships with the people of the Eilat region – as well as our work in the communities of Sderot, Bat Yam and Kfar Gvirol – the journey quickly became a celebration of community and Jewish Toronto’s remarkable love for, and bond with, the people of Israel.
From the sounds and the sights of the Old City, to the unmistakable scents of the Shuk, even those who had been to Israel numerous times before would tell us that, while they thought they had seen and done everything they could in Israel, they had discovered something new about themselves during this journey. Many expressed that they felt as though they were seeing the country in a whole new way.
Whether it was ushering in Shabbat beneath the walls of the Old City, or Havdallah services under a full moon; this journey transcended religious and political beliefs, as everyone – old or young; religious or not so much – attended these celebrations simply to be part of this new community of friends.
And the best part of all was the fact that during most days, participants would be pursuing one of eight specialized tracks, discovering Israel in a way that most appealed to them, but each and every night, they would reunite and discuss their day with each other, so nobody felt like they were missing out on anything. And, whether one group’s day included something as rudimentary as a hike up Masada or floating in the Dead Sea, or as cutting-edge as being addressed by the “rock star” CEO of Soda Stream, it was just unreal. We had all of Israel’s top presenters bring our participants up to speed on the worlds of technology, business, politics and the military, among others. Literally no stone went unturned.
“this journey transcended religious and political beliefs, as everyone – attended these celebrations simply to be part of this new community of friends”
Since returning home to Toronto, we’ve all been asked by friends and family to name a highlight from the trip. But the truth is that there are just too many highlights from which to choose.
Whether it was our remarkable day at Yad Vashem, our time spent with the children of Kfar Givrol, each of whom wore T-shirts reading, “I love Toronto … ask me how UJA changed my life,” our amazing under-40 contingent who, among other things, helped the children of Bat Yam prepare gift packages for the men and women of the Israeli Defence Forces or Jerusalem Mayor Nir Birkat telling us that he doesn’t know of any other federation that does as much for Israel as Toronto’s federation, everything about this unique and truly inspiring journey was a highlight.
“the journey quickly became a celebration of community and Jewish Toronto’s remarkable love for, and bond with, the people of Israel”
When it was time to pack up and head back to the Great White North, rather than saying “goodbye” to Israel, our participants instead bid her a hearty “l’hitraot,” or “see you again.”
Goodbyes are hard; l’hitraots are easier.
Perhaps Rabbi Aaron Flanzraich of Toronto’s Beth Shalom Congregation – who, along with Cantor Eric Moses, Rabbi Yael Splansky, Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, Rabbi Jarrod Grover and Rabbi David Seed, all went above and beyond to make this journey the spiritual juggernaut it was – said it best during his Shabbat address: “This journey to Israel was not about simply being there; it was about feeling it.”
And trust us, the 350 men and women aboard UJA Federation’s Centennial Journey to Israel did just that. They felt their own unique connection to Israel; they felt a bond with her people; they felt her natural splendour; they felt her warmth; and they felt her inherent hospitality. None of us will soon forget this special time in this special place, with our new friends from what is a very special community.
L’hitraot, Israel. Thanks for everything. See you again soon!
Steve Ain, Rosanne Ain and Marcy Abramsky are the chairs of UJA’s Centennial Journey to Israel.