Myra Chack Fleischer, JNF Partner, Noa Gefen, Ann Zinman, and Nina Paul at the Ayalon Institute Underground Bullet Factory.
(photo credit: JNF USA)
Most trips abroad don’t involve witnessing fighter jets soaring up above.
But while participants of Jewish National Fund-USA’s (JNF-USA) Queen of Sheba Mission led by Rhonda Sheakley of Ohio – an exclusive trip for women to experience Israel with JNF – were visiting David Ben-Gurion’s house in Sde Boker, a potential conflict was brewing some 95 kilometers (60 miles) away on the Gaza border.
“We’re in Sde Boker, but I know more than the other women that the Ramon Air Force Base is close by,” said Helene Blumenfeld, chair of JNF’s South Jersey Executive Board. Blumenfeld’s father was an engineer for the US Army and was instrumental in the construction of the Israeli base in the 1970s. As such, she was well aware of the Israel Air Force planes flying sorties overhead.
The indiscriminate barrage of Hamas terror into Gaza border communities, and the slight itinerary alterations for safety offered the American women on the mission a glimpse into what their Israeli counterparts face from time to time.
“I think it’s important for women to see the duality of life in Israel,” said Blumenfeld. “There are the good times and the not so good times and Israelis just deal with the situation including the anxiety and PTSD it often creates among their kids. What strength they have.”
“My concern, since I’m on JNF’s Gaza Envelope Task Force,” added Lauren Lizerbram, a member of the San Diego Board and wife of JNF National President Dr. Sol Lizerbram, “is for the people living near the Gaza Strip. I can’t even imagine running to a bomb shelter with children in the middle of the night. They are resilient and strong. It’s amazing.”
So while more than 400 rockets were launched from Gaza during a significant part of their 10-day trip, the women had an experience they will never forget. Some site visits were shortened or canceled due to the close proximity to Gaza, but they carried on with stops at museums to celebrate the struggle for Israel’s independence, traveling to Jerusalem, and meeting with women from all walks of life in Israeli society.
In Jerusalem, the group enjoyed a private guided tour of the Knesset – the Israeli parliament – where they learned more about Israel’s democracy and the pivotal role women have played since the early days of the state’s founding. To welcome in the Sabbath, a special “Kabbalat Shabbat” was held at the Kotel (Western Wall) in the Old City of Jerusalem – a poignant ceremony given the conditions Israeli residents were facing in the South.
From hearing the harrowing tales of the battle for Jerusalem during the Six Day War at the Jewish National Fund- supported heritage site of Ammunition Hill, to staying on a kibbutz in the Arava desert along the Jordanian border, to hearing firsthand accounts of life in Israel from Bedouin, Jewish, Arab, and other remarkable and accomplished women, the Queen of Sheba Mission offered donors a robust and comprehensive snapshot of life in Israel seen from a woman’s perspective.
For Jennifer Imbriani, a Christian from Indian Wells, California, the Queen of Sheba tour marked her first Jewish National Fund trip and left a lasting impression. “We’ve been here for 10 days and covered every square inch of Israel, and it’s been amazing and eye-opening,” she marveled.
“The importance and difference of this trip is that we bring like-minded women together, and we gain a deeper understanding of Israeli culture through meetings with prominent Israeli women, including journalists, TV anchors, entrepreneurs and MKs; women from different walks of life,” said Sharon David, JNF Director of Affinity Groups.
The trip packs quite an emotional punch as well. The women were visibly moved by a stop at the Jewish National Fund-supported Special in Uniform pro- gram at an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) air force base in the center of the country.
Seeing young men and women with disabilities benefiting from a program which helps integrate them into the military so they, too, can feel like part of Israeli society and serve their country, resonated with many of the women.
“You can say that we do ‘tissue days’ on the mission, and it’s very important,” Blumenfeld said while holding back tears of her own while at the base. JNF supports more than 400 young soldiers who gain real-world working experience and life skills during their IDF service to later transfer over to a paying job.
Visiting Special in Uniform had a profound impact on Blumenfeld, whose sister-in-law has disabilities. A strong advocate for supporting those with special needs, she and her husband donated a substantial sum to build a hydro-thermal pool in JNF’s ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran Rehabilitation Village in southern Israel’s Negev Desert, which treats some 2,000 people a month.
“It’s phenomenal. It’s not just for people with special needs, it can also help soldiers who need rehabilitative therapy,” she said. “In Israel and with Jewish National Fund, I can see the real impact of our work.”
That ability to be both vulnerable and decisive with where to allocate one’s philanthropic dollars was a liberating experience for many participants.
“To have women friends and to surround yourself with other women is very empowering. I think we made a big difference in many areas,” Lynne Merriam added.
Lizerbram agreed, saying, “They say that women control some 70% of the money decisions in a typical household. Today, after many years of gaining more independence, women have power and this is great.”
This article was written in cooperation with Jewish National Fund.
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