Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove believes that his Park Avenue Synagogue’s eight-day trip to Israel, beginning Sunday evening, will be a record-setter.
“In the history of the state, there has never been a single congregation’s trip of this size,” he told The Jewish Week, noting that 450 congregants will be participating to honor Israel at 70 and the Manhattan congregation’s 136th anniversary.
With four teenagers of his own, the rabbi will spend much of his time on the teen track. The four other tracks range from young families to adult learners, though each group will, according to synagogue officials, celebrate religious pluralism, explore how Jewish values promote inclusion, and offer meetings with IDF lone soldiers as well as senior army officers. There will be discussions on the geopolitical situation and participation in a tikkun olam project like Leket Israel, which provides food for those in need.
Noting that such a high level of Israel engagement runs counter to reports of waning interest in the Jewish state, or higher levels of criticism, among some parts of the liberal Jewish community, Rabbi Cosgrove attributed the enthusiastic response to the trip as signaling “the strong connection the congregation has to Israel, the vitality of the synagogue itself and the feeling that people want to experience Israel with other members” of Park Avenue.
In an effort to offer a broad perspective, the teens will visit Efrat, a West Bank Jewish community, and take part in Palestinian-Israeli dialogue, and the adult learning trip will include Hebron. “We’re not putting anything on hold,” Rabbi Cosgrove said. “We’re trying to break the either/or mold of polarization” regarding attitudes toward Israel today, he said, adding: “You express your support – and your concern – by showing up.”
The congregation has sponsored at least one Israel trip a year for the last 10 years, since Rabbi Cosgrove became senior rabbi. But while those trips targeted specific audiences, this is the first all-congregational trip in 11 years. The last trip had 230 participants.
Congregational leaders say that Israel education and engagement are at the core of the synagogue’s mission and reflect years of hard work in setting cultural, educational and religious priorities. They cited the efforts of Rabbi Charles Savenor, the director of congregational education.
Sixty-one synagogue board members will participate in a Leadership Shabbaton in Israel this weekend, noted synagogue President Natalie Barth. A board meeting will be held in Israel and livestreamed back to the U.S. so that all board members can participate.
“The trip is a moment and catalyst,” said Barth. “We’re excited not just to commemorate these historic occasions, but also to leverage them with an eye towards a future when the relationship between Israel and diaspora will be stronger than ever.”