'Once in a lifetime' - one year later

PHOTO: From left, Rabbi Gary Oren, Emelia Orvieto, and trip co-chair Priscilla Kostner celebrate Orvieto's bat mitzvah ceremony at the Kotel in Jerusalem. (Jewish Review file photo)

The Jewish Review
A year ago, 200 Portlanders headed out on what proved to be the adventure of a lifetime. 
All clad in matching blue shirts, the participants in the PDX>>Israel 2023 mission had been anticipating the adventure – some for as many as four years. The journey was an amazing experience for almost all involved, and a transformative one for a few.
For Kara Orvieto, who had been interested in the trip since it had been announced late in 2018, the delay worked out well. Her daughter would have been 10 during the originally scheduled dates in 2020 – lining her up to be 13 in 2023, when the trip finally set off. 
“It was a once in a lifetime thing,” Orvieto said. “All the stars aligned for this to happen.”
Orvieto’s daughter celebrated becoming bat mitzvah on the trip. Rabbi Gary Oren of Congregation Shaarie Torah, where the family are members, was there for her ceremony at the Kotel in Jerusalem. She wore a talit that she had picked out in Tzfat earlier in the trip. 
“We were surrounded by lovely community members and some of our friends that are like family to us,” Orvieto said. It was reminiscent of Orvieto’s own bat mitzvah ceremony in 1993, celebrated when she was 23 years old atop Masada.
“My daughter always heard that story,” she continued. “So when we were talking when she was 11 and 12, that’s how it was in her mind; she would do it in Israel, just like mom did.”
Steve Friedman’s son had been planning an Israel bar mitzvah for the trip’s originally scheduled dates with Friedman's daughter, then 11, and his mother. While his mother couldn’t make the rescheduled trip and his son’s bar mitzvah had passed, he was still able to share a special experience with his son.
“That was the first time he’s ever put on tefillin, and I took video of it and have pictures of it and watching him perform the ceremony with [Rabbi Chayim Mishulovin], wrapping him in tefillin at the Western Wall in Jerusalem was simply incredible,” Friedman said. “Amazing and a father’s dream come true.”
It was a profound moment for his son, as well. 
“He was a little bit overwhelmed,” Friedman said. “It was pretty spiritual, pretty amazing, that you could do something of that magnitude at such a holy place.”
Friedman first visited Israel in 1979, and while this excusion was shorter than the 44 days he spent in the country back then, it was profound for him to be able to share the Jewish homeland with his children. 
“They may have an inkling to go back sooner than I did,” he said.
The trip was also a powerful experience for Amanda Netter’s two children. They has planned to travel as something of a bar mitzvah present to their oldest son, Max, who became bar mitzvah in 2019. It became a bigger experience when the trip finally left in 2023, as Amanda’s in-laws were able to join along with the rest of the family – three generations together in the Jewish homeland. It was her in-laws’ first time in Israel. 
“It was a blessing because they got to go with us and experience Israel,” she said.
One particularly memorable moment came with that Amanda, her husband, Steven, and both of her sons on a tour of the tunnels under Jerusalem. The tour led all the way up the foundations of the Kotel.
“It was just so special to see my boys walk up and touch the wall and just to see how they felt,” Amanda recalled. “I’m tearing up right now just remembering it.”
They bought souvenirs – Magen David necklaces for both their sons, a tallit for their younger son, Ari, to use at his bar mitzvah ceremony. The pursuit of one other souvenir led to another special connection to the Jewish community for Max.
The family shared a bus with Federation President and CEO Marc Blattner. Like many of the Federation staff on the trip, he was sporting a jacket embroidered with the Federation’s logo. 
“[Max said,] ‘Marc, I really like your jacket. How can I get one of those jackets?’ And Marc said, ‘Well, you have to work for Federation,’” Amanda recalled. “Max said, ‘OK well, how do I work for Federation?’”
Over dinner with Federation Chief Development Officer Wendy Kahn in Tel Aviv, an internship was arranged for Max that summer. Max spent the summer learning about and assisting Federation operations throughout the organization. Amanda recalls his last day.
“Max’s last day, he came home and he was smiling ear to ear,” Amanda recalled. “I said, ‘Wait, you’re wearing a Federation jacket.’” 
Blattner met with Max at the conclusion of his time at Federation and handed him his company-issue jacket. 
“He wears it all the time,” Amanda said. “He loves it.”
Another trip member developed a much closer relationship with the Federation on returning home, but as a board member. Greg Retsinas is the news director at KGW-TV in Portland. Just a month before the trip left, he happened into Blattner, Federation Chief Allocations and Engagement Officer Caron Blau Rothstein and Federation Director of Community Relations Bob Horenstein, who were at the station to talk about an unrelated subject. The trip came up and it struck Retsinas as the perfect opportunity to see a part of the world – and explore a part of his own identity – that he had always been curious about. 
The people of Israel left an indelible impression.
“With all the conflicts there and with the history and the divisions that exist there among a lot of people, there’s a lot of people in Israel who are working to make it a place of peace,” Retsinas recalled. “We could see that.”
While Retsinas connected deeply with Israel, he also forged connections with the Jewish community here in Portland. Those connections have endured; since returning, Retsinas has joined the Climate Action Committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council, as well as the Federation’s Board of Directors. 
“I’d known very few people in the local Jewish community prior to this trip, and the chance to go with nearly 200 of them for a week getaway made for a chance to meet many of them, spend more time with them, get to know them a little bit better,” he said. “I have not had reason to tap into that side of my personal back story and this gave me a chance to start to open the door to that.”
A planned follow-up trip, specifically geared to families, has been postponed due to ongoing events. Friedman expects it will be sometime before his children return to Israel, making the time they had there all the more meaningful.
“As a father, the greatest experience you can have is going to Israel with your kids and experiencing the Jewish homeland with your family,” he said.


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