From Fed Fellow to Israel: Guest Post by Jackie Wertel

Jackie Wertel is a very involved community member and super volunteer at CBI. This past Shabbat she shared about the FedFellow program and her leadership mission to Israel.

From Fed Fellow to Israel

It is an honor to speak with you this morning. My return to Israel began long before I got on the plane. In July of 2018, I was reading the Jewish Press and came across a small article titled, “Federation Seeks New Corps of Young Adult Volunteers.” It talked about volunteering for the Federation, which I wanted to know more about after receiving CBI Sisterhood’s honor at the Women of Distinction Awards that year. The article also mentioned a trip to Israel. At that point, it had been 27 years since I had been there, and I was not sure if I would ever be able to go again. For me, this program was a match made in heaven. I was willing to volunteer and learn, and, in return, the Federation was willing to pay for my trip to Israel. So from September 2018 to June 2019, I volunteered for 100+ hours working Federation-sponsored events. Now it was time for my “reward,” a trip to Israel with a leadership-learning component.

When I arrived in Israel on Friday, I had this surreal feeling to again be in Israel surrounded by years and years of history of our ancestors and by G-d.

Once we settled in to our hotel in Tel Aviv, our first official group activity was Shabbat dinner together. The next day, since it was still Shabbat, we had a leisurely day in Tel Aviv. A group of us went down to the beach and just relaxed. We met up as a full group for a study session and then headed to the beach for a beautiful Havdalah service.

Sunday morning, we headed out to the Partnership 2gether partnership region and met with the Tikkun Olum 2019 P2G teen group at Ramat Hanadiv Memorial Gardens. We learned a bit about the area and Baron Rothschild’s history with the area, then explored the gardens in small groups of teens and adults. Next both groups attended a cooking class and learned to make traditional Israeli foods such as Israeli Hummus with Paprika & Whole Chickpeas, Israeli Salad, Grilled Moroccan Chicken, Israeli BBQ Kabobs, and Chocolate Boom (Souffle) for our lunch. Food is always a big part of Jewish life, and since I am usually in the kitchen at CBI, learning about Israeli dishes gave me the opportunity to experience that connection and maybe even bring a few delicious Jewish recipes back to our congregation! The groups then visited the Ecological Farm at Ein Shemer and learned about Kibbutz life and the research done there on agricultural issues. Then we were on to our hotel on the Sea of Galilee.

Monday, we visited Safed, one of Israel’s holiest cities, located in a dense pine forest overlooking Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee. It was where Spanish Jews settled after their expulsion in 1492. From the influence of Kabbalah to its artists’ quarter, in this place, I felt spirituality in the air. We then visited Akko and the famous Acre Prison, and in Rosh Hanikra, we descended down to see the chalk cliff grottoes.

We began Tuesday with a jeep ride up to the Golan Heights. After that, we saw the ruins of Beit Shean and the Mosaics at Beit Alpha. We then traveled the West Bank down to Jerusalem and stopped at Mt. Scopus to look over the city and say Shehecheyanu. It is truly amazing how beautiful Jerusalem is from up there. I was so glad to be back here 28 years after my first trip. That evening, dinner was on Ben Yehuda Street.

Wednesday was a busy day in the Old City of Jerusalem. We went to the City of David and saw Hezekiah's tunnel and the Cardo market. We then stopped at the Kotel, which always moves me to see people from all aspects of life praying together. We toured the Western Wall tunnels and visited the Davidson Center. Being in the old city and exploring the Western Wall tunnels and the southern wall of the Temple made me appreciate the history of the Jewish people even more. That evening, I wandered down to Mamilla Mall for some dinner and window shopping.

Thursday we traveled to the Dead Sea basin, and our first stop was Masada. While we were there, we saw a man walking around carrying a Torah. Since it was Thursday, either a Bar or Bat Mitzvah must have happened there that morning. From there, we went and took a float in the Dead Sea and saw a waterfall in Ein Gedi. Our last stop of the day was at Genesis Land for the Bedouin experience of riding camels and dinner with Abraham.

Friday was our last day of touring. The morning was all about remembering. We started at the National Memorial Hall, and visited the graves of Israeli soldiers from all wars, Mt. Herzl and then Yad Vashem. These places are all reminders of what the Jewish people have gone through throughout history. We then went to the Shuk (market) for lunch and pre-Shabbat shopping. For Kabbalat Shabbat services that evening, we went to the Egalitarian Kotel. At dinner, we were joined by some lone soldiers and heard about their lives and experiences in the Israeli military.

Shabbat was our last day in Israel. I spent the day relaxing; I walked a bit around Jerusalem and had this sense of peace (which has been missing from my life for some time) and prepared for the journey back. We had dinner together one last time as not everyone was returning to the U.S. the next day.

This trip, as mentioned earlier, also had a leadership learning component to it. Each evening, we would gather when we returned to our hotel and discuss how history and leadership related to where we had visited that day.

This trip meant a lot to me as my late boyfriend Michael and I had talked about taking a trip so that I could experience Israel as an adult. I felt that he was with me the entire time, and I attribute some of that to spirituality throughout the Jewish homeland.

I met many wonderful people on this trip from all aspects of the Jewish community in Pinellas County. I hope to continue the friendships I made and to benefit CBI in the future.