Michael Eisenstat, rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth Israel, has visited Israel 22 times. He lived there for 10 months in 1963 and 1964 and has also led sightseeing tours there and participated in federation meetings in the country. But Eisenstat returned in July from a different kind of visit.
“This was a give-back kind of trip,” he said.
Eisenstat spent three weeks volunteering in late June/early July on an Israeli military base outside of Tel Aviv, followed by two weeks at the Shalom Hartman Institute, in Jerusalem.
At the military base, Eisenstat was one of 21 volunteers who packed 45-pound backpacks filled with emergency medical supplies as part of the Volunteers for Israel program. The bags are then put in warehouses in case of war or sent to other countries, such as Haiti after the Jan. 12 earthquake. The volunteers included Christians and Jews from the United States and Europe. Some participated because they were concerned about the growing anti-Semitism in their countries. After volunteering, Eisenstat was one of 140 North American rabbis who participated in the Shalom Hartman Institute think tank in Jerusalem.
Eisenstat said that both experiences taught him new lessons about Israel.
“Volunteering taught me that idealism is still very important in Israel,” he said.
During his time on the military base, Eisenstat ate meals alongside Israeli soldiers. He noticed a few soldiers who had severe disabilities. He expected them to be seated off to the side of the group, but, instead, their fellow soldiers embraced them.
“Here’s a country where army service is so important,” he said. “If they were not allowed to serve, it would be one more crippling blow … that, to me, still says so much about Israel’s heart.”
The two-week program at the Shalom Hartman Institute was called “The Role of the ‘Other’ in Modern Israel.” Eisenstat described it as the most exciting learning experience of his life.
“The biggest thing is to always remember that Israel is a work in progress,” Eisenstat said. “It’s still a young state compared to others. It’s not perfect, but they’re doing some unbelievable things. It’s a country of ideas.”
Contact Robin Hartill at email@example.com.
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