Making every summer matter

The Greenberg Group has been coming to Israel for 30 years and combines with the residents of a retirement home for joint study and charitable work.

When tour groups come to Israel for the summer, their agendas vary from sea and sun to a little sightseeing. The Greenberg Group however is a touring trip with a different agenda. Run by Rabbi Jacob J. and Malka Greenberg, the Greenberg Group has been coming to the Holy Land for more than 30 consecutive years. They partner with the Beit Tovei Ha'ir retirement residence in Geula, working to bring Torah, Avoda, and Gemilut Hassadim to each other and to those around them. The two organizations arrange for their participants to study Torah together and give lectures, pray together daily, and give jointly to Israeli charities in order to give back to the communities with whom they come in touch. The median age of the participants in the Greenberg Group is 65. The relationship between the two organizations is symbiotic. Beit Tovei Ha'ir welcomes the group to stay each summer in their apartments, and the Greenberg Group returns the favor by enhancing the religious atmosphere and forging connections with the residents at the retirement home. The participants of the Greenberg Group and the Israeli residents of Beit Tovei Ha'ir look forward to their three-week respite in the summer when the groups can combine activities and spend leisure time together. The two programs offer religious classes, combined havruta study, and numerous lectures on a variety of topics. They also pool their efforts to sell jewelry for charity. The religious and charitable aspects of the trip are of great importance to the Greenbergs. In fact, the American residents visiting Israel for the summer come with the explicit goal of being able to give as much to Israel as possible. Moshe Tavel, the group's tour guide since its inception, states, "They [the participants] give contributions all over. They come to Israel; they want to give to Israel. We went to visit the Shaare Zedek hospital, so they gave donations there. We went to see Yad Sarah, so they gave a donation there, too. They want to contribute to the country however they can." Rabbi Jacob Greenberg and his wife, Malka, started coming to Israel on an organized tour with the Jewish Agency in the 1980s. However, once the funding for that trip was cut, the Greenbergs decided to venture out on their own. As the rabbi of a synagogue in Canarsie, Brooklyn, Greenberg was able to recruit members to come on the annual summer trip, and word spread about the program through the original participants. Now the group, which does minimal advertising, has participants from all over the US, many of whom have participated in the trip for more than 10 years. The group's partnership with Beit Tovei Ha'ir began in 1992, when the Greenbergs and Tavel were looking for the perfect base in Jerusalem for their group. According to Greenberg, "We decided on Beit Tovei Ha'ir because we liked the looks of the place. When we first came here many years ago, it was new, and I thought I was in Gan Eden… I feel every year it gets to be more like home. I've joined them - I can't walk just like they can't walk; I need a cane, I need to take a pill, whatever else it is - I live with them in many, many ways." The connection between the Greenberg Group and the residents of Beit Tovei Ha'ir flourishes throughout the summer. "They [the Greenberg Group] know the people here," says Tavel. "And they get friendly with them. And I think the people at Beit Tovei Ha'ir also benefit from them because they are coming in, and these are old people. They talk to one other; tell stories about what's happened in the last year, and so on." Evelyne Paluch, marketing manager of Beit Tovei Ha'ir, says that the residents of Beit Tovei Ha'ir feel the same way about the Greenberg Group. "They are like our family. We are their family. We really love to have them when they are here in Israel," she says. Since Beit Tovei Ha'ir is an Orthodox institution, the association between it and the group is a match made in heaven. The residence makes the group feel comfortable and caters to all the needs of its participants. "Here in this building they have all the religious needs," Tavel says. "They have a shul here, they have a minyan every morning, they don't have to walk out to look for a minyan somewhere else. They have shiurim here. They have separate swimming in the morning. Some of the rabbis give lectures to the people that live here." Paluch says of the home, "It's a business, but it's a business with a big, big heart - to the society, to the elderly people, to tourists who come to visit Israel, to Judaism in general and to the environment specifically. The combination of people coming from abroad, staying here, sleeping here, praying together, sharing together, talking, doing activities - it's wonderful to see." The group has not yet missed a summer in the 30 years they have been coming to Israel, despite setbacks with the economy and the fear of terrorist attacks. "These people decided that they love Israel, and they want to stay in Israel, so this is their vacation," Tavel says. "Even in the intifada years, when Israel didn't have any tourists, this group came." Malka Greenberg, who has helped to lead the trip every year since it began, says, "It has been suggested to us that the Tourism Ministry should give our group an award for being probably the longest running consecutive group that comes to Israel. No matter what, when nobody else came, we came." The group, still healthy and thriving after all these years, will continue its travels as long as its participants continue to demand it. "We're just happy that enough people want to come with us every summer to visit the land," Malka says. "We don't set any terribly difficult standards. We just want everyone to be satisfied. We don't have ulterior motives, and that's why people trust us. It's a labor of love."