Staff members at the Jewish Community Alliance (JCA) in Jacksonville, Fla., recently joined colleagues from the city’s Jewish Family and Community Services, Jewish Federation, and River Garden Hebrew Home on a trip to Israel. The 13 Jewish professionals—CEOs, administrators, directors, educators, and a fitness trainer—who represent the diversity of the community and its agencies and touch all facets of Jewish life in Jacksonville spent eight days together as part of an Israel Learning Seminar. Funding was provided by the Myron Flagler Israel Learning Seminar Endowment Fund.
With the itinerary and content created by JCC Association Center for Israel Engagement, the group was led by tour educator Julian Resnick, whose goal was for participants to understand and fall in love with the land and people of Israel. The trip also sought to promote the positive outcomes when JCCs collaborate with other agencies in the wider community.
Several participants shared these thoughts and reflections upon their return.
JCC Association: What were the goals of the trip, and why were they important to you, both personally and as a JCC professional?
Kerstin Teutonico, Jewish Community Alliance early childhood educator: [B]eing in the land of Israel connected all the “knowing” [from the pre-trip study] with a feeling of how special Israel and its people are that cannot be taught during study groups.
Chris Turner, Jewish Community Alliance membership director: We left with a greater understanding of the culture and people of Israel as well as some incredible first-hand experiences of what it is like there instead of what you see on TV or read online. [T]his helps connect our organization with Israel, broadens the relationship we share with the people and country, and gives us a desire to bring more creativity to the programs and activities to have them tie more closely to Israel.
Amanda Collins Hall, Jewish Community Alliance, youth services director: I wanted to soak up every bit of what Israel had to offer—its history, landscape, traditions, people, food, economy, and more! Not only did I take in all of Israel’s beauty, but I grew personally and professionally. Israel impacted me deeply in a profound way. I came back from Israel a brighter, more open version of myself.
Rachael Ledesma, Jacksonville Jewish Federation early childhood educator: [Among t]he goals of this trip were to bring back what we learned and experienced to our work environment. As a teacher, I can [now] speak to my students about places I’ve visited with much more knowledge after experiencing them for myself.
JCC Association: With so many different travel and tour options in Israel, why was it important and valuable for your experience to be curated and led by JCC Association’s Center for Israel Engagement?
KT: The JCC Association’s Center [for Israel Engagement] connected [us with] Israel on an emotional level. [With] the help of our guide, we were able to experience the land of Israel and its people on a much deeper level.
CT: Having JCC Association’s Center for Israel Engagement curate the experience helps cater the itinerary to areas which are more applicable to [people] who work for a Jewish agency, bring[ing] us closer to Israel in a way we would be able to bring back to our agencies to deepen the relationship.
JCC Association: What was the value of participating in a trip that included professionals from several of Jacksonville’s Jewish organizations traveling together?
Grant Helm, Jewish Community Alliance, fitness trainer: Includ[ing] professionals from several of our Jewish organizations made the overall experience more meaningful. We built memories together that we get to share for a lifetime while also implementing some of the Israeli modalities to our shared work culture.
Natalia Fisher, Jewish Community Alliance, early childhood education director: Going with other professionals from the community was particularly wonderful. It made me aware that I am part of a community that works together to create meaningful relationships with all groups of people.
RL: It was wonderful learning about the role of each person in their agency. We discussed ways we can work together. For example, I discussed with someone from River Garden Hebrew Home ways her residents could communicate with my kindergarten students.
CT: Rarely do we have the chance to work together with someone from a partner agency, and this afforded us the chance to learn together and then adventure together and build bonds as a group.
JCC Association: What benefits did your organization gain by investing in its staff through travel to Israel?
KT: I feel a bond to the people of Israel and can better articulate what it means to be Jewish. I can more easily understand the bond and love Jewish people have with the land of Israel and all its history, traditions, struggles, and values. I am now—more than ever—an advocate and defender of the JCA and all its people.
GH: Going to Israel and fully immersing in the Jewish culture inspired me to be better in all ways for those at the JCA. From creating and innovating new programs to stopping and taking time to listen to members’ life stories, the culture of Israel inspires me through all areas of my life. I [now] feel connected to those who have been before me.
During your visit in Karkur (a town in Israel’s Hadera-Eiron region that partners with 11 southeastern U.S. communities, including Jacksonville, Fla., as part of the Partnership2Gether Global Network), what did you see and/or do that you or your team might wish to explore further and/or implement in programs, activities, fundraising, membership, or other areas to bring Israel home to Jacksonville?
RL: Our group discussed how much we enjoyed speaking with the children to get their perspective. I think it would be important for students at our school, at least the older ones, to learn about Israeli children and their schooling experience.
NF: [T]he two other teachers on the trip [and I] are working to find ways to bring our experience to the school. I think it is more of a mindset that we can bring back—a mindset of perseverance, passion, reflection, and a deeper respect for those we encounter.
GH: The two factors that I learned in Israel that I want to bring back and implement in my life and at our agency [are] the relentless effort to encourage innovation, from the youth to the elderly, and creating farming and agriculture in unused spaces in our environment.
ACH: A 16-year-old shared her experience growing up as an Israeli and how her concerns stemmed from social media. It really blew my mind to hear her speak of the conflict within herself of standing up for her country vs. putting a “social media friendly” face forward. She sees things on social media that aren’t true to her and her life, but she worries about speaking up because of the backlash she may get.
JCC Association: What content and/or other elements of the itinerary made it distinct, valuable, and memorable?
CT: [With e]ach person we encountered, it was as if we were meeting a friend we hadn’t seen in a long time.
ACH: It feels naïve to think I was excited to eat the food and taste the wine and see the sights. Little did I know I would truly feel my way through Israel… all the little moments turning into great moments of transformation, gratitude, and growth.
Photo credit: Jewish Community Alliance, Jacksonville, Fla.