(JTA) – From afar it appeared to be a luminescent snake, twinkling in the dusk that was just beginning to cloak the desert mountains framing the Dead Sea.
Upon closer inspection it turned out to be hundreds of Jews from South Florida bearing glow sticks making their way down Masada’s snake path in an Israeli Independence Day celebration.
They were part of the biggest federation mission to Israel in at least a decade, organized by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.
Shortly before their trek down the snake path, the hikers had participated in a ceremony atop Masada that included a prayer for the State of Israel, the singing of “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, and the release of 130 doves. Earlier in the day, many of the participants had been in the Negev development town of Yeruham singing, dancing and partying with the locals from Miami’s Israeli sister city.
“Having a mega-mission enables us to produce events that have a tremendous wow factor,” Jacob Solomon, president and CEO of the Miami federation, told JTA in a telephone interview. “I’m watching this church-like parade down a Roman ramp. You can’t do that with a little mission.”
The 700 participants on the April 22-May 1 mission include both first-time visitors to Israel and federation mission veterans, with participants ranging in age from 22 to 88.
Each day of the mission has its own theme – Jewish peoplehood, tzedakah, tikkun olam, leadership and federation values, to name a few – and the trip includes everything from visits to federation-funded projects supported via the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel to a scheduled April 29 meeting with Israel’s president, Shimon Peres.
There is no Palestinian component to the trip, although some participants are doing site visits to Israeli-Arab projects supported by the federation system, according to Solomon.
Before the trip, about 140 of the participants spent several days in Poland at the site of the Nazi concentration camps.
With such a large group, the Miami mega-mission presents numerous logistical challenges. It took two years to put together, and on the ground in Israel involves 16 buses, 26 staffers and one charter plane (which brought approximately 400 of the participants). Each bus has its own itinerary, and the whole group comes together about half a dozen times during the 10-day trip for so-called mega events.
“The scale is pretty impressive, even for me,” Solomon told JTA.
The purpose of the trip, Solomon said, is to foster community.
“Nothing builds community like a mission,” he said. “The point is to inspire people, to touch people, to engage them. Clearly there is a fundraising objective. But there’s also a human resource dimension that’s equally important. Past mission goers have become campaign chairs, board chairs. We did it as an investment in the future of our community.”