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Behind the Headlines: a Diverse Crowd of Mission-goers Show Solidarity with Jewish State

Joshua Kaplan’s family and friends thought he was crazy to go to Israel.

But Kaplan, 35, of Long Beach, Calif., felt he needed to “do something symbolic” on behalf of Israel.

Rather than join the Israeli army or immigrate to Israel, as previous generations of idealistic Zionists have done, Kaplan answered the call that Israel issued to American Jews following the outbreak of Palestinian violence in late September: He signed up for a five-day “solidarity” mission.

Sharing a bus with people from such places as Orange County, Calif., Seattle, Wash., and Tucson, Ariz., he was one of 900 American Jews visiting the Jewish state last week.

Since late November, Jewish federations and their umbrella group, the United Jewish Communities, have organized almost weekly missions.

The missions seek to bolster Israel’s tourism industry, show Israelis they are not alone and train American Jews to advocate for Israel, both among their acquaintances and to the media.

Last week saw the largest solidarity mission contingent — almost half the total of those who have traveled to Israel since the missions began.

Participants hailed from more than 13 U.S. communities, with Boston — which offered $500 tickets for people under 35 — having the largest representation.

Like Kaplan, most participants said they came out of a desire to do something on Israel’s behalf — and many complained that the U.S. media are biased against Israel.

Some, like Ken Weinberg, executive director of Seattle’s Jewish Family Service, said they wanted to demonstrate that Israel is as important as the domestic concerns of U.S. Jews.

“It’s important to make a statement to my local Jewish community that when I’m out raising money for JFS, I’m not doing it at the expense of Israel,” he said.

Others said they were curious to learn more about the political situation.

Some acknowledged that a large part of the draw was simply that they loved visiting Israel, and with all-inclusive tickets generally under $1,000 – – because they are subsidized by the UJC — the trips were something of a bargain.

If last week’s mission was typical, this wave of missions has attracted a fairly diverse population of Jews who are younger and less involved in their federations than usual missions.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this many Jews and not known many of them,” Steven Edelstein, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Nashville & Middle Tennessee, said as he surveyed the crowd assembled at an air force base for a massive dinner.

“I think it means we got a good cross-section,” Edelstein said. “For Israel to see this many people at one time is a tremendous shot in the arm.”

Of course, the solidarity mission participants represent a tiny percentage of American Jews, who since the outbreak of violence, have canceled travel plans to Israel at the same rate — if not higher — than Christians.

However, UJC officials said they were pleased with turnout for the mission and described it as higher than anticipated.

From the first meal at an air force base between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, it was clear that last week’s mission was not your typical sight-seeing trip.

Dinner was served buffet style in a large, unadorned air force hangar.

Bathroom facilities were provided by a long line of portable toilets.

Then the jet-lagged travelers, joined by hundreds of young Israeli soldiers, adjourned to another hangar for a rock concert.

There, beside an F-16 fighter plane, the crowd of American Jews and Israeli soldiers sang, danced and clambered onto the temporary stage with Shlomi Shabbat, an Israeli group that melds Western rock with Middle Eastern melodies.

The rest of the trip consisted of briefings with top Israeli government and military officials, as well as visits to Partnership 2000 regions.

Partnership 2000 is a program that links American federations with Israeli communities for shared projects and people-to-people exchanges.

“It’s a blessing that you’re coming here,” said Mor Valik, 28, a member of Israel’s air force who attended the Jan. 9 dinner and concert.

Bar Lev-Ran, 26, one of her colleagues and a fellow resident of Tel Aviv, agreed: It’s “excellent that people from outside Israel come to Israel to show they identify with us. They support us and they know all the things that show on the news aren’t right.”

Asked whether a solidarity mission was merely a small gesture on the part of American Jews, Sharona Mazalian, an army spokeswoman at the dinner, said, “Maybe they just come for a few days and won’t do anything else.

“But it will be in their thoughts, and their attitudes will be different. By talking with other people, they can change people’s feelings about Israel.”

For Michal Avrami, 19, a soldier from Netanya, the solidarity mission was a good excuse for getting the night off and attending a free concert.

But she said she also enjoyed the attention from some U.S. Jews.

“We don’t get a lot of support, and when they come they give us a lot of support and say they’re proud of us,” she said.

If Joshua Kaplan’s bus was representative of the larger group, the missions drew a politically diverse crew, not all of whom supported Israel’s policies.

On the way to visit the group’s Partnership 2000 city, Kiryat Malachi, members of Kaplan’s bus argued heatedly with each other.

When the group stopped to look at the Gaza-Israel border near the Erez Crossing, Rabbi Jonathan Lubarsky-Singer of Seattle railed bitterly about the presence of two orange-roofed Jewish settlements — Aleh Sinai and Nisanit – – just over the Gaza line, calling them “an unnecessary, in-your-face” provocation to Palestinians.

Back on the bus, as the group passed a joint Israeli-Palestinian industrial center, another mission participant, Samuel Wechsler of Los Angeles, yelled out, “There is no peace process! All it is is a giveaway process!”

As the scenery turned to orange orchards, a moshav and then the sleepy town of Kiryat Malachi, Wechsler and Joseph Voss, of Seattle, argued about the merits of the peace process.

Once largely a Sephardi development town, Kiryat Malachi now has a large number of Ethiopian immigrants and a sizeable Orthodox, mainly Chabad Lubavitch, community.

It is an economic mix, with shabby low-income housing projects blocks away from modern, orange-roofed villas.

As the group shuttled from lunch to the local community center to various social service agencies, other participants were less certain where they stood politically and said they hoped the trip would give them a better understanding of the issues.

The trip, said Michele Walot, has “been an important influence, but I still don’t think everything Israel does is right.”

Walot, of Orange County, Calif., was walking with the group to the Kiryat Malachi community center, where they were scheduled to pack goody bags for local soldiers and schmooze with local teen-agers.

The teens enthusiastically welcomed the visitors.

“Israel is in a hard situation, and it makes us relaxed and happy to know we’re not alone,” said Vicky Halfon, 15.

Orit Yasu, 17, whose parents emigrated from Ethiopia, said the mission “cheers our soul.”

“We are in a very bad situation, so a little joy helps,” she added.

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