On the last night of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Israel Centennial Mega Mission, the participants gathered by the sea in Tel Aviv to say goodbye.
Enjoying dinner outside of their hotel, they ate, drank and talked as the sun set over the Mediterranean, filling the water and sky with a soft orange glow.
The setting had all the makings of a party, but the mood was subdued. It was time to go home. But each participant, whether they were making their first trip or their 21st, knew this one was something special.
Any trip takes planning — numbers and logistics and maps and reservations. But for the Mega Mission, which just returned to Pittsburgh late last week, the planning was staggering: nearly 300 people, eight days, six buses.
“This mission was like planning a different wedding every day for 10 days, each with 300 guests,” said Becca Hurowitz, Centennial Mission manager. “All that planning and envisioning and dreaming is gone,” she said. “You get to the moment and you’re so anxious, you need to tell yourself to step back and enjoy it. You get to the last night, and you just don’t want it to end.”
Looking back on the trip, which wound all over Israel from June 19 to 28, the 290 Pittsburghers won’t remember the logistics. It’s the stories and the memories that will last.
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Few stories carry as much weight as Paul Fireman’s. He joined the mission for his family — most of whom he didn’t know.
While Fireman wanted to give his kids, Annah and Leah, a taste of Israel, he felt ecstatic to connect with an entire branch of his family tree that he had never met.
Sitting at a table by the sea, after his afternoon meeting, Fireman excitedly poured over his newly corrected family tree, scribbling on a big, white page.
“Growing up, my grandmother always told me stories about how she was separated from her sister,” he said. “I grew up only knowing there was a part of my family here in Israel. When I knew I was coming to Israel, I knew I’d finally have a chance to meet them.”
Fireman’s grandmother — Sarah Caplan Fireman — emigrated from Lithuania to Pittsburgh in 1909, leaving behind her parents and sister, who eventually left Europe for Israel. As soon as Fireman signed his family up for the mission, he set to work. His parents hadn’t been in touch with the Israeli family for three decades — a dead end.
Luckily, an American cousin had an email, and the ball was rolling. Soon, Fireman made contact with Leora, the granddaughter of his grandmother’s sister, Haya. On the mission’s last day, equipped with his family tree and a camera, they finally met.
“They embraced me,” said Fireman, beaming. “I now have this total connection.”
Fireman joined his newfound second cousin Leora in her Tel Aviv apartment with Leora’s mother, Eliza. For the afternoon, they shared stories.
“I learned that my grandmother mailed her sister a washing machine from Pittsburgh in the 1930s,” he laughed. “Her sister wrote that she was doing all this laundry by hand in Tel Aviv. Her family thought the machine was the greatest new thing!”
Fireman also learned that his grandmother’s sister was named Haya, not Ida, as his family had previously believed.
“Even the Criterion had her name wrong,” said Fireman, referencing the story written by The Jewish Criterion upon his grandmother’s arrival in the city. “We finally set the record straight.”
“The way Eliza kissed me reminded me of my grandmother,” he said. “I’m coming back. I need to figure this all out. There are so many more people for me to meet. I’ve got 50 new cousins written on this sheet.”
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Other stories abound in the crowd of 290.
Elaine Krasik will remember the event thrown at an IDF base near Jerusalem the night prior to the final farewell. Soldiers from the base joined the mission for a huge celebration, with dinner, music and dancing. The two groups meshed immediately — soldiers beamed as they lifted Pittsburgh children on their shoulders. Pittsburghers and Israelis danced arm in arm, singing along to the words of Jewish songs ingrained in everyone’s mind. Krasik smiled ear to ear, dancing in a crowd of soldiers.
“When we got to the base, we knew these were the people protecting us and ensuring our future. Sure, we live in the U.S.; we’re removed. But they are ensuring the future of the whole Jewish people,” said Krasik. “We all wanted to hug them, and I love to dance a ton!”
Richard and Wanda Goodman will remember their anniversary, celebrated like never before. The Goodmans, who never before visited Israel, were called up to the stage at the base in honor of their 48th year together — the crowd of hundreds exploded in joyous cheering.
“We grew up in the hills of West Virginia. This is the farthest place we ever thought we’d be celebrating an anniversary,” said Richard. “How many people can say they had an anniversary party quite like this?”
Bev Block and Scott Seewald will remember the food — that they made themselves.
Both Block and Seewald, on the mission with their husband and wife, respectively, spent the 10 days on the young adult bus. As each group had a different itinerary, the young adult bus spent an afternoon in a cooking competition with at-risk youth in a youth center in south Tel Aviv, an area of Israel currently struggling to enforce limits on illegal immigration.
“We were in a tiny room without air conditioning, with a bunch of burners and stovetops and knives,” laughed Block. “We weren’t sure what was going to happen.”
Split into teams, the kids and young adults were given a secret ingredient — potatoes — and asked to make five dishes together. Speaking English, however, was not something everyone shared in common.
“It was certainly difficult,” said Seewald. “In fact, it was balagan; it was hectic. But it was important for us to see. So much of the trip was focused on traditional Israel, the history and culture. But staying at this huge, ridiculous hotel, it was so important that we got to see the other side [with the youth event].”
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The mission organizers created their own stories, but many set their focus on stories yet to come.
“This trip really changes things; we’ve seen it happen before,” said mission co-chair David Ainsman. “People now have new connections to Pittsburgh community and in Israel. People will start volunteering with different agencies. They become aware that, to a greater degree, they’re responsible for each other. They’ll act upon that.”
Watching his fellow Pittsburghers dance with Israeli soldiers at the IDF base, Ainsman grinned.
“This is joy,” he said, gazing at the crowd. “I spent so much of my energy trying to accomplish all this. And I’m witnessing it occur. To recognize that I’m just a speck, but that even a speck could help this community grow — that’s my story. That’s what I’ll tell people about.”
(The Chronicle will publish a series of stories about mission participants in the coming weeks. Justin Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com.)