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Shorashim Mission Gives New Perspective on Israel and the Jewish Community

  • Release date: 1/25/2012

    One way to describe the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City’s Shorashim I executive men's mission to Israel last October is by what it was not. It was not like any mission previously sponsored by the Jewish Federation. It did not include couples or families. Its brief, seven-day itinerary was not pre-determined before participants got involved. It did not rely on standard modes of transportation. And, while history and religion were ever present in the background of the group’s activities, they were not the primary focus.

    One way to describe the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City’s Shorashim I mission to Israel last October is by what it was not.
     
    It was not like any mission previously sponsored by the Jewish Federation. It did not include couples or families. Its brief, seven-day itinerary was not pre-determined before participants got involved. It did not rely on standard modes of transportation. And, while history and religion were ever present in the background of the group’s activities, they were not the primary focus.
     
    The focus instead was to provide a group of 15 men – mostly successful 40-to-60 year old business professionals with varying degrees of connection to the Jewish community, some of whom had never been to Israel – a quick immersion into the Jewish state with the ultimate goal to motivate increased engagement in the Jewish community.
     
    A Measure of Magic
    The idea for a men’s mission was originally proposed in 2008 by then Jewish Federation President Ward Katz, who had heard about similar missions sponsored by Jewish Federations in other cities. About a year ago, after recruiting John Isenberg and Steve Karbank to serve with him as co-chairs, Katz’s vision for Shorashim I began to come together.
     
    Mission chairs and participants Peter Beren, Max Goldman, Edward Goldstein, Glenn Goldstein, Arthur Liebenthal, Aaron March, Michael Rainen, Peter Shapiro, John Starr, Mike Fishman, and Todd Stettner, executive vice president and CEO of Jewish Federation, met three times before departure on October 23 to learn and get to know one another better. The itinerary, which incorporated the best ideas from other cities as well as from participants, was arranged and tweaked up to the last minute by the Jewish Federation’s special campaign projects director and veteran mission planner, Debbie Granoff, Gail Weinberg, financial resource development director, assured everyone’s needs were met before, during and after the mission.
     
    “I had been to Israel many times before, and all trips to Israel are special in their own way,” said Karbank. “But this trip had that measure of magic. “It wasn’t the itinerary, although it was great. It wasn’t the food or the wine or the places we stayed, which were also great. There was something that happened that was really dynamic and wonderful and heartwarming and exciting and thrilling, and I think everyone on the trip felt it.”
     
    Shorashim I’s non-stop schedule offered what proved to be just the right mix of business, political, military, cultural and recreational activities, with the spotlight on people on the cutting edge of Israeli society.
     
    Air, Sea and Land
    The day after arrival, the group rode in jeeps and ATVs to Tel Gezer, following in the footsteps of the fighters in their breakthrough to Jerusalem in 1948. Back in Jerusalem that evening, Major General Mickey Levy took participants on a tour of the ramparts of the Old City and for a visit to Israel Police Force headquarters.
     
    “We went underground into the station,” said Isenberg, “to an area where they had walls of big screen televisions. We saw video of what happened at the Dome of the Rock when the Intifada started 10 years ago. We could see that there isn’t anything that goes on in the area that they don’t know about.”
     
    The second and third days of the trip featured Israel by air, sea and land. “We got helicopter transportation for two days,” said Katz. “That may sound like a total luxury, but it really was necessary to do so much in such a short period of time.”
     
    Traveling from Jerusalem to the Golan Heights in helicopters piloted by ex-military personnel allowed for a birds-eye view of the country’s small size and close proximity to the borders of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Accompanied by an expert in Israeli security, the group enjoyed super fast tornado boat rides along the Mediterranean coast toward Rosh Hanikra and the Lebanese border, followed by another flight to Atlit to participate in a Navy Seal graduation.
     
    “Even though we needed translators to understand what these young men were about to do with their lives, this was a deeply moving experience, especially with the release of Gilad Shalit the previous week,” said Todd Stetter, executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Federation, who accompanied the group on the mission.
     
    Nation of Dedication
    The next morning it was off again in helicopters to an Israeli Defense Forces Training Center in the Negev, where participants were taken on a guided tour of the IDF Urban Combat Center and learned about some of the most complex military challenges facing the IDF today.
     
    “They constructed a whole city on this base that resembled a typical Arab city,” explained Katz. “They even had explosions and the call to prayer on loud speakers, all designed to replicate the kinds of physical and psychological stress that soldiers face in urban warfare.”
     
    One of the places that touched both Karbank and Isenberg deeply was an Ayalim Youth Village. The Ayalim initiative, which receives Jewish Federation support, provides students the opportunity to settle in Israel’s peripheral areas and serve as agents of social change by offering housing and academic scholarships in return for community service.
     
    “The nearly 500 students who currently live in 11 student villages throughout the Negev and Galilee volunteer with more than 20,000 disadvantaged youth,” said Karbank. “It’s a kind of 21st century Zionism and certainly a place where venture philanthropy could help businesses get started.”
     
    Throughout the week, participants were impressed by the talent and dedication of the people they met. The Jewish Federation had included Startup Nation by Dan Senor and Saul Singer in reading material provided before the trip, so a surprise encounter and conversation with one of the book’s heroes, Better Place founder Shai Agassi, in the company showroom felt like interacting with a celebrity. For added excitement, the men got to test drive electric vehicles that Better World leads the world in producing.
     
    Inspired to Connect
    Others were inspired by Raya Strauss Ben-Dror. As co-owner and board member of the Strauss-Elite group, a multi-national organization with almost $1 billion in sales, Ben-Dror represents one of the most influential families of the Israeli business sector. Ben-Dror explained why she decided to step down from business to devote her time to philanthropy. 
     
    Equally memorable were the three wineries the group visited, two in the Golan and one in the Judean Hills. Of the several hundred wineries in Israel, a high percentage are boutique operations making 100,000 bottles or less a year, according to Isenberg, who started Wines Across Israel, which arranges wine tours in Israel.
     
    For Stettner, one of the most rewarding moments occurred on the first full day of the trip. “We met David and Miri Leichman at Tel Gezer for a briefing about the area and shechechayanu,” he said. “Then we rode jeeps into the town of Ramla to meet with young adults from the Keshatot program, which the Jewish Federation helps fund. Someone noticed a plaque recognizing our support on the wall and said, ‘Boy, I didn’t know that we do so much!’”
     
    Isenberg, who’s been to Israel at least 10 times, couldn’t get over that wherever the group went, when they mentioned they were from Kansas City, there was instant recognition and appreciation.
     
    “I don’t know yet if our goal of expanding participation in the Jewish community worked,” he said. “But the meetings we’ve had with participants since getting back have been positive. If we can take those feelings and experiences and turn them into energy to build a stronger Jewish community, it will have been a successful mission.”
     
    For more information about Shorashim or other Israel and overseas missions offered by the Jewish Federation, contact Debbie Granoff at 913.327.8106 or deborahg@jewishkc.org.

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