The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Mega Mission to Israel was a marathon that ran like a sprint.
Over nine days, June 13-21, Mission members visited Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Karmiel/Misgav, Haifa, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and Masada.
Stan Levinson, who traveled with his girlfriend, Sue, as one of 244 mission members, called it “a trip of a lifetime.” Levinson has visited Israel four times, three with Federation.
“Nobody does missions” like Pittsburgh’s Federation, Levinson said. “They are just phenomenal, and I really enjoyed it.”
The Mega Mission mixed historical and cultural sites with day trips that illustrated the Federation’s support and partnership in the country.
Attendees were divided into seven buses based on interest and experience. They included first-timers; young adults; family; and main Mission. While the experiences varied by bus, the regions visited were the same for each, and most nights the entire mission gathered for dinner.
After arriving in Tel Aviv, attendees spent time at the Anu Museum of the Jewish People, a new museum that tells the ongoing story of the Jewish people. Mission members then participated in a “Pittsburgh Loves Israel” parade before a Shehecheyanu ceremony, dinner and dance party.
Attendees spent their first full day in the country sampling Israeli beer and whiskey, touring Tel Aviv and visiting the Palmach Museum to learn about the pre-state strike force, later integrated into the Israel Defense Forces.
Of note was a stop at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, created by former Prime Minister and President Shimon Peres. The center works to foster peace and showcases many of the county’s advances through cutting-edge technology.
Tikkun olam was on display during Day 3 of the mission at Federation’s Partnership2Gether region Karmiel/Misgav. Mission attendees had lunch with new olim (immigrants) from Ukraine and volunteered at a variety of sites meant to highlight Federation’s support of the community.
Mission members spent the following day enjoying small group activities, including taking a Taste of the Galilee tour, visiting the Golan Heights and spending time at the Akko Center for Arts and Technology, based on Pittsburgh’s Bidwell Training Center.
The mission arrived in Jerusalem midway through the nine-day journey, celebrating Kabbalat Shabbat at Huldah Gates in the Old City with Kippalive, an Israeli a cappella group.
Shabbat was spent enjoying several different walking tours and speakers, including the Federation’s Foundation Scholar Rabbi Danny Schiff, before a Havdalah celebration led by Congregation Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Seth Adelson.
The third day in Jerusalem began on a somber note as participants visited Yad Vashem before heading to the Dead Sea, touring Masada and riding ATVs or camels.
Other activities during the Mega Mission’s nine days included an optional tour of the Western Wall tunnels, a sound and light show at the Tower of David and a tour of the Burma Road.
Particularly moving for all mission members was a June 15 visit to the Pittsburgh Promenade and Karmiel Memorial to the victims of the massacre at Tree of Life building. Attendees recited Kaddish and visited the trees planted in honor of the 11 victims.
Federation President and CEO Jeff Finkelstein said he was glad mission participants were able to learn about the impactful work of the organization.
“I know that I was inspired, and I feel like everyone else was as well, in learning about the incredible work we make possible in Israel, from resettling Ukrainian Jewish refugees, supporting the Ethiopian Jewish community to succeed in Israeli society, bridging business relationships between Pittsburgh and Israeli businesses, helping non-Jewish and Jewish Israelis with special needs and providing lifesaving emergency care,” he said.
Community Campaign Chair and Mega Mission attendee Ellen Teri Kaplan Goldstein said the mission provided an opportunity to see Israel in a way not typically shown in the evening news.
“We saw in Karmiel mayors building good relations with the Arab communities,” she said. “I think that was just incredible.”
Planning for the Mega Mission began in 2019. It was stalled for a short period because of the pandemic but restarted in 2020, according to Adam Hertzman, Federation’s director of marketing.
COVID protocols were put in place for the mission, he said, and continued to evolve through the Federation’s conversations with a volunteer professional epidemiologist.
Despite the planning, several people contracted the virus during the trip, leaving some frustrated.
Mission attendee Leah Rubenstein said that many on her bus tested positive for COVID-19, and while she understood there was a risk traveling in a large group, she found that the structure of the trip often made it difficult to manage those risks.
“There were many events where people were herded together indoors without any protection,” Rubenstein wrote in a letter to the Chronicle. “The Mega event should have all been outside and socially distanced.”
Hertzman said that despite some getting ill, Federation did plan for the possibility.
“All guests were asked to test before flying,” he said. “On the mission, anyone who had symptoms and anyone who was concerned about contact received rapid tests immediately. Those who tested positive were asked to isolate in hotel rooms, with our tour provider bringing food. A few guests did have to isolate this way, as well as two staff members, toward the very end of the mission. Guests staying together in a room had to isolate together or book a separate room and continue to test the person testing negative. We continued to follow CDC guidelines, which has been our guiding principle throughout. This included adding masking where appropriate.”
Despite the COVID complications, most attendees said they enjoyed their time in Israel.
David Weisberg was a co-captain on one of the family buses. He said the trip was “unbelievable.”
Weisberg’s daughter celebrated her bat mitzvah while in the Jewish state.
“That was really special,” he said, before recalling some of the other activities in which his family participated.
“We rode camels and horses. We took rafts on the Jordan River. We rode ATVs and rappelled the walls of Jerusalem. Those were all highlights that Federation provided that we otherwise wouldn’t have done if this was a regular trip to Israel,” he said.
Young adult bus co-captain Elizabeth Gordon Coslov said the trip has already begun transforming her life.
“It’s left me baking challah for Friday night and teaching my kids about things I learned there,” she said. “We formed lifelong friendships with people from Pittsburgh, Israel and Warsaw, because we had participants on our bus from Karmiel and Warsaw.”
Mega Mission co-chair Jimmy Wagner called the trip “inspirational.”
“It was a great time, but it was more than that. It was wonderful to see how our collective is impacting the organizations that we support not only in our partnership region but throughout the land of Israel,” he said.
While the Mega Mission may be over, the relationships made are not. Federation is planning an Aug. 30 reunion barbecue at Schenley Park. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.