For weeks, scores of Jewish Pittsburghers had been emailing and Skyping with friends in Israel they had not yet met face to face.
All that will change this week, though, as the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh sends its biggest delegation ever to Israel on its Centennial Mega Mission, and travelers are greeted by the residents of their Partnership 2gether sister communities, Karmiel and Misgav.
About six weeks ago, 150 of the 290 Mega participants of the Centennial Mission were matched up with locals from Karmiel and Misgav to forge relationships that, hopefully, would continue this summer and beyond.
“All the people that were matched will be seated together at our first night’s dinner,” said Becca Hurowitz, Centennial Mission manager at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “And Karmiel-Misgav is putting on a huge mega-event for us on our second day there, a carnival where they will be closing off the streets.”
The Centennial Mission is a celebration of the federation’s 100 years of service to the Pittsburgh community, and is Pittsburgh’s first large delegation to the Jewish state since 1993.
People ranging in age from 7 to 80 left Pittsburgh Tuesday, June 19, and will return home Thursday, June 28. Given the close relationship of Jewish Pittsburgh to its sister communities, it seems only fitting that the mission would begin with a two-day stay in Karmiel-Misgav.
“The Pittsburgh Federation’s partnership with Karmiel-Misgav is definitely a very special one,” Hurowitz said. “I don’t know that many other partnerships have the kind of relationship we have. The thing that ties our cities together is the relationships people have. Karmiel/Misgav people say they feel that Pittsburgh is their home in the U.S., and vice versa.”
One highlight of the mission will be when the 290 Pittsburgh participants join hundreds of Karmiel-Misgav residents, young and old, in a flash mob dance for which they have been practicing for weeks. The dance, which will take place on the night of the carnival, will be filmed from a helicopter, according to Hurowitz.
The Karmiel/Misgav festivities will also include a performance by the Jewish-Arab Circus, a “shuk” of local artists, and a lantern-lit tour of the region’s impressive sculpture park.
“For many [U.S.] cities, they visit their partnership cities for three or four hours,” Hurowitz said. “We’re spending two days there (in Karmiel-Misgav). Our mission participants are ultimately going to look back at this as the highlight of their trip.”
The mission, which also includes visits to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the Dead Sea region, offered its participants three tracks, or itineraries, from which to choose: a “first-time” track for those who had never before been to Israel, focusing on sightseeing highlights; a family track, featuring child-friendly activities; and a general track, geared to people who have made previous trips to Israel.
“I lost track of how many times I have been to Israel,” said Meryl Ainsman, who is a co-chair of the Mission, and who has made many trips to Israel as part of her work chairing Partnership 2000, now known as Partnership 2gether. “I think this is my 31st time. But I know I will be doing new things this time.”
Those planning the Centennial Mission came up with activities that would appeal to those who had never before been to Israel, as well as those that would appeal to someone like Ainsman, who travels to Israel frequently.
A few of the trip’s highlights include ATV riding in the Judean Desert, wine-tasting at a winery, a visit to Christian sites in Jerusalem, and descending Mount Masada at dusk by candlelight.
Jennifer Friedman, another of the mission’s co-chairs, has not visited Israel since 1997, and is thrilled to be making the trip with her husband Alan — an Israel first-timer — her children, ages 7 and 9, and 10 more members of her extended family.
“At CDS (Community Day School), my children have been learning about Israel forever, so they are really excited,” Friedman said. “My older daughter is looking forward to going to the [Western] Wall. She’s bringing 26 notes from her CDS classmates.”
“What is really amazing,” Friedman continued, “is that we’ve got this personal experience in Israel with the family while sharing it with the community.”
The Mission will feature meetings with Israeli political leaders, tours of historic and holy landmarks, festive events and celebrations, and visits to programs and organizations supported by the federation, including the Hand in Hand public school serving Arab and Jewish children; Kibbutz Eshbal, where the federation supports an empowerment program for at-risk teenagers and children; and Kishorit, where people with physical, mental, emotional or learning disabilities receive vocational training.
As for Friedman, in addition to experiencing the sites of the country with her family and community, she has something else on her mind as well.
“I haven’t been there in so long,” she said. “I’m ready to eat.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)