By Ben Feinberg
When given the opportunity to go to Israel prior, I told people I wasn’t interested. I would say I didn’t care or it wasn’t important, but the truth is I was anxious and scared. Growing up with anxiety and short gut syndrome, I was paralyzed by the thought of traveling with others on a schedule and not knowing if the places we were going had bathrooms easily accessible. So up until now, it just never happened.
Visiting Israel for the first time was more powerful than I could have imagined. I went with the intention of challenging my fears and, through the experience, gained greater insight, stronger connection and a clearer sense of purpose. We squeezed a lot out of seven days ranging from The Western Wall (The Kotel) and the Dead Sea to a real-time view of the actual ambucycle (at United Hatzalah) -- donated by the Lehigh Valley Jewish community -- in use saving a life.
While I really enjoyed each part, three visits in particular stuck with me. First, the Holocaust Museum (Yad Vashem). The new building was beautifully designed with tall, narrow ceilings and walls of concrete with limited and selective natural lighting. The design purposely guided visitors to only one direction, stepping from beginning to end. As we got to the final exhibit in the Hall of Remembrance, there were 600 faces displayed as a way to feel the magnitude of 6 million. I looked at a picture of a 4-year-old girl smiling, as our tour guide ended with the following line: ”What do these faces have in common? They were all killed … just because they were Jewish.” In that moment it didn’t feel so distant, in fact it felt painfully close. As I imagined those faces swapped with ones close to home, it didn’t matter if you were ultra-orthodox or non-practicing; I could feel it like it was happening now.
Second, United Hatzalah. The Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley donated an ambucycle (ambulance on a motorcycle) and we got a private tour of the facilities that deploy them. In Jerusalem, ambulances can’t access many roads due to narrow, tight spaces. Conversely, the ambucycle can not only get there, but quicker too. They have achieved the ability to respond to a hospital call in 90 seconds in some areas and their coverage is expanding as donations come in. The service is also 100 percent free to the patient! The entire organization is run by volunteers who, in addition to primary jobs, are active (similar to a Lyft/Uber driver) to respond immediately. It was really amazing to see the actual ambucycle donated by our community already in use and saving lives.
Finally, we visited Yoav, where the Lehigh Valley partners through Partnership2gether with the mutual goal of connecting Israelis and Americans. Here we got a snapshot of the current focus and programs running and a discussion of how to continue to grow the partnership. It was interesting to see how similar we all are are when zoomed in on the daily lives of individuals versus generalizations from a distant viewpoint. Also, as one of four BBYO advisors on the trip, we could see existing programs extending to our teens almost immediately. Overall, it was invigorating to learn about the partnership and the potential for expansion in Israel and our community.
I have to say I really am proud of myself for making it through this trip. It wasn’t easy but now I can say something I couldn’t last time. Yes, I have been to Israel. By being vulnerable and risking embarrassment, I took a step closer in managing my anxiety and grew closer to our group. We all have fears and may feel like we are the only ones, but at the root level we are looking for the same basic needs and want to avoid embarrassment. We want to be happy, healthy, safe and cared for. We have more in common than seen at a distance and a lot to gain by acknowledging and sharing. With greater understanding, clearer identity, and the passion to better the world, all that’s left is action. I am excited to reflect in weeks to come and determine the next steps to make Lehigh Valley a better place for Jews.