January 18, 2024

A Mission of Deeper Understanding

Linda Scherzer JCRC Director

This Sunday, Federation leaves for Israel with a 22-person delegation of NJ state legislators, school superintendents, heads of school, and community leaders for the first fact-finding trip of its kind in Jewish Federation’s history.

During our 48 hours on the ground, we will visit Kibbutz Kfar Aza, one of the worst-hit kibbutzim on October 7. We will meet with an IDF spokesman at our partner Kibbutz Erez to learn about the security situation and see the proximity of Erez to the Gaza. We will speak with some of the families of the more than 130 hostages still being held captive, more than 100 days later. And we will speak with Israeli Arabs and others to hear their hopes for the future and thoughts about peace and coexistence.

Most of the policy makers and educators joining the study tour will be visiting Israel for the first time. Their purpose in coming with us is clear: to gain a better understanding of what was perpetrated against Israel by Hamas and the continuing security concerns that confront Israel and its citizens.

By hearing from primary sources, participants will engage in the complexities of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. By meeting with Israeli Jews and Arabs, Ethiopian Jews, and members of the Druze community, participants will see the diversity of Israeli society. We will encourage everyone to ask tough questions, wrestle with issues, and observe what Israel means to the people who live there, both Jews and Arabs.

For some of the school superintendents, it was a brave decision to join us, not because they’re travelling to a country at war, but because of the criticism their trip has generated at home. Many school districts have been dealing with enormous tensions around the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. Several high schools have faced student walkouts in support of the Palestinian cause, creating fear and anxiety for many Jewish students. Board of Ed meetings have devolved into angry confrontations between parents who feel their children – whether Jewish or Muslim – have not been properly supported in school. A surge of antisemitism and Islamophobia has been playing out in classrooms, libraries, and social media. Parents are worried about the safety of their children. Students are worried about losing friends as they watch the debates play out on their social media feeds. School administrators have been searching for ways to bring balanced conversations and proper civil discourse into the classroom.

We are trying to help them navigate these challenging times.

In the legislative arena, state senators and assembly people have been asked to sign a symbolic piece of legislation calling for a cease fire with Hamas. They too have had to navigate tensions within their districts where pro-Palestinian marches and rallies have taken place. This week, Jewish Voices For Peace issued an on-line petition trying to pressure legislators not to join a “Jewish Federation-led propaganda tour” to Israel. As of this writing, none of the seven legislators who joined our trip have backed out.

For our part, we believe in the importance of bringing people to the region to see with their own eyes what Hamas has wrought, the ongoing pain of the hostage situation, and serious security concerns which have prevented over 200,000 people from returning to their homes on Israel’s southern and northern borders.

While we surely will not take participants to Gaza or the West Bank, they will hear from a senior Arab administrator at JDC about the ways that Israel’s Arab community has been supported since the massacre, and how JDC is helping to strengthen shared society projects across Israel.

We will take mission participants to Hand in Hand, a school where Jewish and Arab students learn together. There, we will speak with parents and teachers to get a sense of how they see the path forward for Jews and Arabs living together as part of Israel’s diverse society.

Our goal is to enable participants to gain a deeper understanding of the nuances of the current situation in Israel that will empower them navigate tensions at home and to see Federation as a trusted resource as they confront related conflicts.

I am deeply grateful to JCRC Chair Jody Caplan and the seven other Jewish community leaders who understand the importance of this mission, of the role that Jewish communal leaders play in conversations with policy makers and educators, and of strengthening our civil society. I could not be prouder or more grateful to be travelling with them as well as with my colleague, Ilyse Shainbrown, Director of Holocaust Education.

To respect the confidentiality of our participants, we will not post on social media while in Israel. Once we have the permission of our educators and legislators, we hope to share stories, photos, and reflections upon our return. We look forward to an important, impactful, and meaningful two days in Israel with every hope that our elected leaders and educators will come home more informed and better prepared to deal with whatever tensions in their communities lie ahead.