By Jeff Hersch, Marketing & Communications Associate at the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey. He is currently in Israel traveling with the Four Corners of Israel community trip.
“Shalom” from Israel! After much anticipation and excitement, we are finally here. It’s already been a truly amazing experience and a sight to see: over 200 Jews from the heart of NJ plus Southern NJ, Somerset, Hunterdon, and Warren, together in the Homeland, many for the first time.
The sentiment on the ground was universal among first-time visitors and returnees alike: excited and ready to explore, all happy to just be in Israel. Many participants were inspired and influenced by their children’s or grandchildren’s experiences on Birthright. Others were eager to revisit familiar sites and learn more about their shared heritage and history.
“I was here [in Israel] in 1970 and 2000,” said Sandy Kuchin. “My three grandkids have been here on Birthright and there’s always just been that thing about Israel. That’s why I came back.”
First-time visitor Andrea Sohnen shared a similar story: “I have triplets and two of them went on Birthright. I got a Federation brochure and didn’t want to regret not going.”
Participants like Sandy Donofrio, who is also seeing Israel for the first time, wanted to connect with the Land she had heard about since she was a kid. “I’m interested in seeing all the places I’ve learned about in Hebrew school when I was younger,” she said. “And my mother, who passed away, always wanted me to come to Israel.”
Her husband, Lenny, wanted to visit for different reasons. “As a non-Jew, I’ve always wanted to come to Israel. Honestly, I’m interested in the country’s war history and I wanted to get a better feel for it.”
Stuart Kanauer, another first-timer, was immediately surprised by the State of Israel.
“I didn’t realize how hilly and built up [Israel] is. It’s really built up. I was expecting a more barren landscape. I knew the cities were big, but I had no idea the outskirts were also so developed.” His excitement continued as he looked out the window of the bus. “I didn’t realize Israel was this advanced. The growth and development here is unbelievable. I’m looking forward to seeing everything. There is definitely a return trip…this is not a one-time visit!”
Other travelers wanted a deeper look into Israel and explore more than what they had previously experienced.
“I was here once and rushed through a quick visit for my nephew’s wedding,” Sharon Glastein shared. “I wanted to come and see more while I can still walk! Being a Jew, I really wanted to experience Israel before I died. Our kids urged us to go after they went on Birthright. I’m looking forward to everything and just happy to be here.”
Raina Grossman wanted to see Israel again for a very specific reason.
“My son wants to join the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). I haven’t been here for 23 years but visiting now will help me make peace with my son joining the army.” She continued, “Visiting Israel again helps me better understand conflicts in a world of growing anti-Israel sentiment. Being here will help me gain a better perspective for developing my own arguments and opinions.”
When it comes to visiting Israel, Roy Tanzman is no rookie. He has been to Israel over 20 times!
“I enjoy it. And I like to see Israel through the eyes of the first-timers. We even brought our grandson this time.” He continued, “I like to see the organizations the Federation funds…a lot has changed here in the last 40 years. What surprises me is the constant building and development, and how peaceful it actually is when you’re here, despite how violent we see it on TV in America.”
It’s no surprise that the Federation’s enthusiasm about this trip encouraged community members to experience the Four Corners of Israel.
“I always wanted to come here for years and years,” first-timer Bruce Solomon revealed. “My kids felt they were ‘at home’ on Birthright and being newly-retired and no more college tuition to pay off, I loved [the Federation’s] approach in connecting Jews in New Jersey with Israel and the broader community. It spoke to me.”
Sharon Dolled’s excitement was reenergized after seeing the Federation’s itinerary for this trip.
“I was in Israel in 1974, but when I read about the Federation’s trip, it was a lot of places I hadn’t seen before,” Dolled said. “And expectations? I’m just excited to be here and see everything.”
While everyone’s reasons for coming to Israel differs, they all share a simple, common goal: learning more about the Homeland of the Jewish People through seeing, tasting, feeling, and experiencing. And the only way to really see Israel, is to be here. As the trip progresses, Israel will speak to them, some in ways they never imagined. See you in Jerusalem!