To those living here, seeing the bustling country come to a complete stop on Holocaust Remembrance Day is a somber but routine sight. For visitors, however, especially ones not of the Jewish faith, it elicited quite a punch.
“They were very overwhelmed by emotion when they saw the world stand still,” said Sheryl Buchholtz, chair of Jewish National Fund-USA’s Interfaith Mission about what happened during the group’s first day in Israel.
“We overlooked the Tel Aviv Promenade and saw the main highway; to see people not talk for two minutes… there were tears flowing down their faces,” Interfaith touring is uncharted territory for the Jewish National Fund, and as CEO Russell F. Robinson explains, the benefits for providing such a trip are many.
“It opens up a tent to people who want to travel to Israel but for whom the concept may seem daunting: where do you stay, where do you go, is it safe? All the questions people have when they travel to a place for the first time – in Israel those questions can be more pronounced. Our trip allows that tent to open up to people who maybe wouldn’t come. This trip has Christians and Jews and mixed marriages; it’s a safe space in which to travel and visit. It helps enhance our connection to them and their connection to Israel.”
The trip is the second Interfaith Mission that the Jewish National Fund has offered, with the third already in its planning stages owing to the program’s instant success.
“You get to see Israel and the sites, but traveling the country through the Jewish National Fund lens enables you to see it through the eyes of people who have a 4,000- year connection to the land and are investing in what this land is becoming today,” Robinson added.
Participants bore witness to that direct connection on their very first day when they were given an in-person brush with Israeli history during a tour of the home of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, conducted by his grandson, Alon Ben-Gurion.
Alon painted a picture of a man ahead of his time whose thirst for knowledge was limitless. From being able to read poetry in ancient Greek to predicting the horrors of the Holocaust years before that tragic event, he spoke of a grandfather whose soul burned for the Jewish state.
“Israel is a miracle,” Alon told The Jerusalem Post after the tour. “Seventy years is a testament to the pioneers of Israel and the strength of the Jewish people. Putting aside our politics, we have made enormous strides over the years. After 2,000 years in the Diaspora, when you read the history of pioneers like my grandfather and what they went through, to see what Israel has become is something to be proud of.”
With its initiatives to develop the North and South of Israel, Jewish National Fund is keeping Ben-Gurion’s pioneer spirit alive. In many ways, Alon Ben-Gurion, who works closely with the organization, is a living embodiment of how that vision has evolved today.
“We all remember the blue pushke box,” he said with a smile. “I grew up putting grushim [spare change] in the box every Friday.
“Today, though, JNF does far more. They work to invest in the development of the Negev and the Galilee. My grandfather believed the Negev was the cradle and future of Israel. He moved to Sde Boker in 1953 and to see what has happened to that region since is amazing. Beersheba has a dynamic mayor; the city is vibrant and growing,” he marveled. “Jewish National Fund is indeed fulfilling the dreams of David Ben-Gurion.”
As the descendant of a man who united people in a time of great discord, Alon Ben-Gurion found it gratifying to tell his grandfather’s story to a group of Jews and non- Jews, many of whom were hearing of his legacy for the first time.
“It’s interesting to hear from his grandson who can actually talk about it and know he wasn’t just a dream,” he explained. “It gives people a good feeling.”
Dr. Nikki Fedele, a participant on the trip, agreed.
“It was inspirational to tour this iconic house with Ben-Gurion’s grandson and see the twinkle in his eye as he told his family’s story,” she said.
She was joined by her husband, Dr. Don Chase, whose trip to the Holy Land was a coming home of sorts. As the son of a diplomat whose father served as the US consul general to Israel in 1952, Chase, who currently lives in Boston, spent the first couple of years of his life in Haifa.
Though Chase was only two when his family left for Turkey in 1954, both he and his wife share an innate curiosity for Israel and what it represents to all Abrahamic faiths thanks to his father’s stories and Fedele’s Catholic upbringing.
“My family had very fond memories of living in Haifa and they were here shortly after Israel’s independence,” said Chase. “It was interesting to hear his oral history of being here during that point in time. My father passed away a year and a half ago and he was amazed by the transformation of the country.” Chase plans on visiting his old childhood home in the North after this mission concludes.
For those who were new to Israel, visiting Ben-Gurion’s house provided a solid primer for the week ahead. From visiting the ancient ruins of Caesarea to attending a ceremony in Jerusalem commemorating the Israeli fallen soldiers at Ammunition Hill on Remembrance Day to tasting wine at Lotem Organic Winery, the group was exposed to a balanced mix of historical sites and the work Jewish National Fund does across the nation.
It was an enlightening experience for Robert Millen, a Catholic whose affinity for the Jewish people and Israeli culture runs deep.
“I’ve always been Jew-curious,” joked Millen, “and I’ve always been intrigued by the historical significance of this place. Going on a trip like this and exploring what Israel means to all religions is important. It’s inspirational.”
“Yes, Israel is a tourist destination, but people come here for something more – a look, a moment, a feel, a taste, a thought,” Robinson said of the group. “To hear their stories and why they came – Jewish, Christian, agnostic – and gather them all together, is an amazing way to mark the country’s 70th anniversary.
“But it’s also an amazing moment every single day, and that’s why more people should come and experience these moments for themselves.”
This article was written in cooperation with JNF-USA.