(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ronna Steinbeck has been thinking about her recent experience in Israel every day since her return. "Every day that I have been home, I constantly think to myself, 'This time last week, we wereâ€¦' all in an attempt to hold on to the amazing experiences and connections that came up for me on our trip," said the Deerfield, IL resident.
Steinbeck was one of 30 women from all over the United States who participated in Jewish National Fund's first-ever mission for women only. Labeled as "The Queen of Sheba Women's Mission: Israel Through Tears and Laughter," it was to be a once-in-a-life-time experience for women only -- no husbands, no kids, no boyfriends -- just women experiencing life as their sisters do in Israel; seeing and feeling Israel through women's eyes only.
The trip far exceeded its billing.
"Where to begin?" asks Steinbeck. "There is not a thing that I would change about our mission's itinerary. I learned so much from each and every stop that we made along the way. With our female tour guide Tanya adding history to our locations and routes, I was fulfilled. My heart was full. I have spent the past eight years or so studying Judaism, filling myself up with all that I can spiritually, all that I never received growing up, and wanted to complete my studies with a trip to our homeland. Visiting Israel has allowed me to use my visual and tactile senses to blend the knowledge received from books.
It is a magical land and I can completely understand why the people of medinat Yisrael live the way they do -- with intent and purpose and love -- for the land and each other.
"As for the women on the mission," she continued, "well, I feel that no one could consciously put together such an eclectic group of women yet we all found a place of comfort and friendship. We all have a story, a past, a history, and a common thread that drew us together for this experience and this journey. I admire and respect each woman for who she is and how she chooses to live her life."
"It's hard to describe in words the emotional experience that the 30 women who participated in the mission had," said JNF Israel emissary Talia Tzour, one of the JNF professionals who ran the trip. "The ingredients that went into our mission were a love for Israel, a love for our People, JNF as the bond between the land and the People, and women as a powerful source that moves the world. It seems this recipe worked.
"A deep connection was created between the mission's participants and the Israeli women they met, a connection that will remain with them all, forever. The connection was centered on identification, empathy, mutual history and roots and similar dreams of a better future, and was established during the warm and close meetings with Israeli women from all aspects of life."
Israeli female soldiers, female residents who live on the Lebanese border and in the Negev desert, business women, a bereaved mother, the only female president of an Israeli university, a female Holocaust survivor, a Bedouin woman, an Arab woman, a religious Jewish woman from Gush Etzion, and young students, were more than happy to share their way of life with their American sisterhood in meetings and discussions, enabling them all from both sides of the ocean to look inside, ask questions and understand.
"Meeting these women was an amazing experience for me," wrote 18-year-old Ma'ayan Shayovitz in her high school's journal, after participating in a roundtable discussion with the participants. "So many different worlds and perspectives in the same room and part of one conversation, was fascinating. But what was most interesting was the realization that while we all may come from diverse places, at the end of the day, we all seek the same thing: peace and harmony. The feeling of sisterhood, which always seemed like a foreign notion to me, was palpable."
At night, the Queen of Sheba participants celebrated with delicious Israeli food, a private belly dancing lesson, and a sing-along evening, allowing them to bond in a different way.
The group, also accompanied by mission chairs Marci Robinson, Terri Katz, and JNF professional Diane Scar, traveled through JNF development projects all over the country, from the north to the south, emphasizing the major role JNF plays in building and developing the state of Israel for the Jewish People. And Friday night was spent with Tali Tzour's family -- her grandmother, parents, and siblings.
"My family was honored to host the Queen of Sheba mission," said Tzour. "The experience left a lasting impression on everyone and my parents can't stop telling me how much they enjoyed it. Ema Deena -- my grandmother who is 87-years-old and lit candles with everyone -- told me she feels like another 10 years was added to her life because of their shared experience."
"It was just a magical, moving week," said Valerie Van-Leer Greenberg, a Queens, NY resident and one of the participants. "The experiences were so varied and so rich; they entered your soul and have stayed there ever since. From meeting women soldiers, to pioneers in the Negev, to Ema Deena, to going to the Kotel, it was a week of portraits of passion -- passion and commitment."
The 2nd annual JNF Queen of Sheba mission to Israel will tentatively take place during the last 10 days of March 2008. All are welcome (women only) to join the mission, during which the Queen of Sheba will meet Queen Esther for a huge costume party in honor of the Purim holiday.
Attention Editors: Please look for a series of pieces this summer written by Susan Freudenheim, managing editor of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, who was on the mission.