By Lara Curtis
SPRINGFIELD – In February I participated in “Heart to Heart 6,” a five-day mission to Israel exclusively for women, organized by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). It was the first time I had travelled on a group mission for women under the auspices of the Federation. There were 100 participants from all over the country of all ages and backgrounds, 16 of whom were traveling to Israel for the first time.
I took the trip with some of my relatives who share my love and concern for Israel and for the Jewish world: my mother-in-law Brenda Curtis, sister-in-law Sarah Richmond, and cousin Ann Pava, chair of National Women’s Philanthropy of JFNA and who was instrumental in organizing this trip.
The central topic of the mission was “The Aftermath of Operation Protective Edge.” We heard from several notable speakers. Miri Eisen, a retired colonel in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and a foreign affairs expert analyzed the complex identity of Israel as a modern Jewish democracy in the Middle East. Talia Levanon, director of the Israel Trauma Coalition, discussed the post-traumatic effects of the conflict in Israel, as well as her work to assist Jews in France in establishing a trauma recovery center in Paris. Dr. Ofer Merin, a cardiac surgeon in charge of IDF field hospitals, discussed ways Israel provides emergency humanitarian services to those in need of urgent medical attention after natural disasters. He described how Israel assisted Japan in 2011 after the tsunami, and how it brought vital aid to Haiti after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake and to the Philippines in 2014 after a tsunami left many without power or running water.
We heard from women of the Israeli army and wives of soldiers who shared personal accounts of their most difficult experiences during Operation Protective Edge. For me, one of the most poignant moments of the mission was the testimony of Bat-Galim Shaer, the mother of Gilad Shaer, one of the three teenaged boys murdered last summer. She joined us at the beginning of our Tu B’Shevat seder and spoke for several minutes. Her visit was meaningful and unforgettable, and a reminder that the tragic death of her son and the two other boys unified many women and mothers in Western Massachusetts who participated in the “Bring Back Our Boys” campaign. We were deeply concerned about the boys’ fate, as we hoped and prayed every day that they would be found alive.
We visited an army base near the border of the Gaza Strip and residents nearby who live in a communal village. One of the residents from the village volunteers to drive Palestinians from Gaza to Israeli hospitals when they need medical attention. A mother and daughter from this same village whose homes were destroyed during the Gaza conflict frequently drive across the Gaza border to bring residents of Gaza to and from their medical appointments in Israel.
We also visited a village north of the Dead Sea where young women are trained in pre-military academic programs sponsored in partnership with the Jewish Agency. At Sapir College near Sderot, a college director and member of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) discussed the physical challenges and administrative issues that students with disabilities in Israel must face and emphasized that the partnership between the college and the JDC is absolutely critical to helping them.
In Tel Aviv we heard from some of Israel’s most prominent fashion designers and visited the headquarters of fashion and textile designers, including “Tooshaaya,” a small but well-known clothing and accessories factory that produces a unique eco-friendly line. We also met an art critic who explained the meaning of works by graffiti artists of Tel Aviv, and Yaron Bob, an artist living near the Gaza Strip who transforms instruments of death into objets d’art using metal fragments of missiles that have landed in Israel.
Traveling with us was Rabbi Shira Stutman, who conducted a bat mitzvah in the Herodian Palace in the Old City for 24 mission participants who had never had a bat mitzvah. The ceremony was moving and spiritual, and each woman said a few words about why she felt grateful to have a bat mitzvah and strengthen her ties to Judaism.
While our days were educational and informative, our evenings were comprised of elegant dinners and live music; we participated in traditional Israeli folk dancing to celebrate our return or first-time visit to Israel. We also celebrated our participation in “Heart to Heart 6,” which I suggest is a remarkable mission for all women connected to the Federation, who long to know more about Jewish life in Israel, as well as in their own communities.
Lara R. Curtis is steering committee program chair of Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts.