Ever been to Israel? If not, why? And if so, you know how truly magnificent the country is to see, explore, and experience.

Last week, I joined with 16 others on the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland’s Connect to Israel Mission. This one week experience included 12 first-timers, several others who had not been there in 20+ years, and a few who have been there more recently. The Mission went beyond your typical historical sites as we heard from incredible speakers and saw new and interesting projects taking place.

Each time I visit I am amazed by the growth and development in the country. The road infrastructure (including a new tunnel through the mountains in Haifa), the public transit system in Jerusalem, and construction all over the country is truly remarkable. More interesting, however, was our visit to A Better Place, the world’s leading electrical vehicle (EV) services provider. A Better Place is creating a network across Israel (and soon other countries, as well) of battery charging and battery exchange stations for those who use electrical vehicles. We even had the opportunity to test drive the new electric cars – you may never experience a smoother ride or quicker acceleration. Shai Agassi and his team have truly developed an incredible concept, and, perhaps one day this non-oil dependent car will be a mainstay in Portland and the rest of the world.

On the political front, the topic of Iran continues to make front page news. Surprisingly, the mood in the country was very upbeat and positive, despite the uncertainty about Iran. We met with several government leaders, including two from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (one we were not allowed to photograph for security reasons) and Ambassador (ret.) Alon Pinkus, for insider briefings. Each shared their own perspective on the tense situation with the most common response to our questions being “no comment.” Only the Israeli government knows what they will do, yet we came away with the understanding that every option is “on the table.”

We had the opportunity to have lunch at an army base on the Golan Heights where we met soldiers ages 18-21, including Andrew, an American born “lone soldier” (came to Israel on his own to join the army) from outside Toledo, Ohio. Andrew shared his own personal story and his experiences in the IDF. Later, over Shabbat dinner, we met several other “lone soldiers,” including Portland’s own, Libby Weiss. To hear these young people explain their personal motivations for going to Israel to serve in the IDF was inspiring and moving.

But the highlight for me was seeing firsthand the projects that the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland funds in Israel. We visited the Neve Michael Youth Village, home to hundreds of children (55% are from Ethiopia) from broken homes and homes where they were physically and emotionally abused. Portland has provided a pet shelter where the children learn to take care of the animals as part of their therapy. We also saw the new “playground/fitness equipment” our community purchased for students at the Goldstein Youth Village in Jerusalem. This playground was built to provide an exercise space for autistic children at the youth village, yet it has become so much more. It is literally a gathering place for the 600 young people (many are from the Former Soviet Union and moved to Israel at ages 14-16 without their parents to start a new life) who live and/or study at the campus. In both villages we are providing a safe and enriching environment for hundreds of children.

The lone soldiers, children from Ethiopia and the Former Soviet Union (as well as other countries) living at these youth villages, and multiple other social service programs around the country are made possible by your generous contribution to Federation’s Annual Campaign. The Portland Jewish community should be proud of its efforts in bringing people to Israel and for providing “safety net” services for those in need.

Let me just say that this was an amazing journey for the 17 people! Space does not permit me to share everything, but rest assured our itinerary provided a broad look at Israel today. And you know what -- we also realize there is even more to see on future trips.

So, my real message to you -- whether you have been to Israel before or not -- GOAnd visit again! You will continue to be amazed and proud.

Shabbat shalom.


PS – Federation is launching a market study of the East Side Jewish community’s needs. The survey (funded through a Community Impact Grant) will be launched on February 28 at www.portlandjewishsurvey.com. Please share this link with everyone you know who lives on the east side of town. We want to get as many responses as possible as we plan for our community’s future.


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