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Touching the land of Israel

On Jim Sluyter’s recent trip to Israel, the president and CEO of The J visited the Western Wall.

Last month, I had the pleasure of leading a group of eight staff from our local J on a professional development trip to Israel. The last time our J sent a group to Israel was more than 21 years ago. Our group joined 24 other J professionals, primarily from Richmond, Virginia, and Wilmington, Delaware. The experience, as all travelers to Israel can no doubt attest to, was spectacular.  

As someone who prides himself on being knowledgeable about world events, politics, geography and history, I was stunned at just how much I didn’t know about the State of Israel. I was in awe of the tranquility of the desert, the beauty of the Mediterranean Sea, the mystical nature of the Dead Sea and Masada, and the diversity and history found in Jerusalem. One can view these sites on a map, but you can’t truly appreciate the magic until you’re there in person. It may be common knowledge that Israel is roughly the size of New Jersey. But, when you stand on a hill in the Judean desert, and by night can observe the lights of both Jerusalem and Amman, Jordan, it becomes clear just how small Israel is and why issues such as security and peace negotiations are so critical.

Since returning from Israel, dozens of individuals have asked me what was my “favorite part of the trip.” I’m very pleased to share. Yet, this question is quite challenging! Do I really have to name just one thing?  So many experiences were all special, unique and memorable! How can you compare the 5,000-plus years of history and culture in Jerusalem to the modernity and progressiveness of Tel Aviv? How can you choose between the intrigue that comes from experiencing the vastness of the desert to the majesty of the mountains in the north? Or, select which is better — the liveliness and spirit on the Mediterranean, or the thought-provoking void of life in the Dead Sea?  

So, if I must answer the question I’ll give it my best attempt. My best take-away from this trip to Israel was the truly deeper understanding of the land, the people and the culture I obtained. The trip, you see, was more than a sightseeing tour. The well-conceived itinerary was designed to allow participants to experience exactly what the State of Israel was, and is.  

When seeking to understand what the State of Israel is today, you rapidly learn that this is no easy task. In the United States, we inhabit a country that has existed for a little more than 240 years. Even going back to Plymouth Rock, we have about 400 years of history. Jerusalem, on the other hand, was founded more than 5,000 years ago. Thus, there’s an almost inconceivable amount of history to grasp. 

In some regards, the trip was exhausting, as I often wondered just how much knowledge I would be able to retain from the multitude of ponderings we had with our tour educator. The discussions were at some points very sad, as when we visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. At other points, the educational conversations were both informative and inspirational, as we learned the history of Tel Aviv and how this city rose from “nothing.” And, many times, the topics were stimulating as we struggled through controversial subjects including the politics of the Wall, settlements, security issues and the ongoing peace process (or lack thereof).

We not only traveled the land; we “touched” the land,” because, as our Tour Educator Abraham Silver would often remind us … you won’t truly understand Israel until you’ve “touched” and experienced it first-hand. He indeed was right. Whether it was touching the Western Wall, taking a dip in the Dead Sea, hiking up Masada, playing in the desert or simply picking sweet potatoes for the homeless, we learned to appreciate the land, and the State of Israel, in a significant, memorable and inspiring manner. 

The whole purpose of this kind of trip for J staff was to deepen the connection we have with the mission of The J. Our mission in part states that we are to enrich our diverse community by cultivating an inclusive environment built upon Jewish values, heritage and culture. No matter whether you are Jewish or not, that connection to Jewish values, heritage and culture can only be strengthened by visiting the only Jewish state in the world. A place where you understand that Judaism is a religion, yes, but it is also a peoplehood, a culture and a way of life. A place where you learn that, for many, their way of thinking has been shaped by thousands of years of conflict, oppression, deliverance and celebration. 

For our non-Jewish staff, this trip helped them understand and more fully appreciate Jewish heritage and culture, and for our Jewish staff this trip helped strengthen their connection to Judaism in much the same manner that Birthright strengthens the Jewish identity of thousands of Jewish teens each year.

On a personal level, I can say without a doubt that the trip impacted me in a profound way.  

Hundreds of questions remain for me, but the one that is foremost on my mind is, when do I get to go back?

Jim Sluyter is president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City.