"My Trip to Israel"


by Keith Norstein, Fed Fellow

Published: September 27, 2018


It’s not very often you get a once in a lifetime opportunity or have a chance to be part of something that truly changes your life. Thanks to the Jewish Federation and the NYL Summer Mission, I did. 
I’ve been to Israel once before, but this time it was different. This time there was meaning and I had an overall feeling of purpose. As if I was there for a reason. I’ll admit it, the first time I visited Israel I was nervous and somewhat scared. The media in the United States only portrays the violence and hostility in Israel, so of course I anticipated this as being a daily occurrence. Eventually I was able to have a good time once I saw this was not the case, and my family and I enjoyed the tourist hot spots and some sightseeing. 

During my recent trip to Israel with the NYL Summer Mission however, I never once felt anxious or worried. I was never scared, not even in the least. This time I was completely relaxed, comfortable and at peace. I felt safe. I felt like I belonged. And it felt good. I savored this feeling as it washed over me day after day, and I didn’t want it to stop. 

The first time I visited Israel I was an outsider. A tourist. This time I was returning as a welcomed guest in my second home.

The National Young Leadership Summer Mission definitely helped me to feel this way. I never thought being selected as a Federation Fellow for our local Jewish Federation would have such an impact on me, but it did. The program was eye-opening to say the least. I felt personally motivated by the experiences and was inspired to be a better person. Sharing this with my wife, Aliza, made it that much more special. We love to do everything together and can’t stand being apart. I couldn’t imagine doing this without her. The program took us all over Israel, starting in Tel Aviv and stopping in other cities along the way before ending in Jerusalem. 

It was rewarding to take part in such a venture and see first-hand how Jewish Federation contributions, volunteer work and other charitable donations get utilized. We got to bear witness to, and take part in, what is the day-to-day routine for people from various walks of life in different cities and regions of Israel. Learning people’s stories and seeing how the Jewish Federation and other organizations help them was extremely touching and endearing. 

One such organization that benefits from our Jewish Federation of Pinellas and Pasco Counties is Leket. Leket helps collect all the food grown in certain farms and distributes it among the poor and hungry. I never thought I’d be in a farm in Israel picking fruit for the needy, but there we were doing just that. And despite almost passing out from heat exhaustion, it felt great and was well worth it. We got to visit Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, where Israel’s Declaration of Independence was signed. It was amazing to stand in the building where such an important piece of history took place. We learned about iRep, Israel’s Religious Expression Platform. There is a religious and political battle happening right now in Israel for freedom of marriage. Those who are not orthodox don’t have the freedom to get married and divorced as they please. iRep is trying to bring that control to the people. At a JDC facility we spent time with two disabled people, hearing their stories and learning what their lives are like. One man was in a wheelchair and is part of a wheelchair basketball team. I can tell you this, playing basketball in a wheelchair is much harder than it looks. Believe me, much harder. The woman we met is visually impaired and she walked us through a simple game using blindfolds. During the game we got a sense of what her world must be like, even if for just a moment. We heard many moving and emotional speeches as well. Lt. Col. Moreno told us about how Israel provides aid to Syrians fleeing the terror of their homeland. Dr. Dagan helps soldiers get reacquainted with everyday life after serving in the armed forces. We visited a Youth Futures Program where struggling children get the education and counseling they need. The Ethiopian National Project is another organization which benefits directly from our local Jewish Federation of Pinellas and Pasco Counties. Here we learned about the struggles of Ethiopian Jews and how they have preserved their heritage. Ethiopian Jews come to Israel in hopes to make a better life for their children and the ENP makes that possible with schooling and guidance. 

Of course we did other fun things as well. One evening, our entire group was taken to a farm for dinner. There was a buffet of delicious food, wine, beer, music, dancing and even a drum circle.  I’ve only rafted down a few rivers in my life, but now I can say one of them is in Israel, since we rafted down the Jordan river. It was simultaneously relaxing and exciting. We were welcomed to our hotel in Jerusalem by live music and wine. In both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, our guide provided a walking tour. The tour in Jerusalem included history about the old city and the Wailing Wall. And of course, no trip to Israel is complete without visiting Yad Vashem.

Another great aspect of this trip is friendship. The group of people was split into two halves, one for each bus. We spent most of the time with the people on our bus. So, needless to say, we made many friends. We met people from all over the United States and hope to remain friends and see them again sometime. Maybe even in Israel!

At one point someone else on the mission said it perfectly. She said we went places and saw things and did things we never would have done as a tourist. She was absolutely right. I mentioned before that I felt I was there for a reason. I think the reason was exactly that. To go to these places and see these things and meet these people; to have these experiences. In short, to have my mind opened.

I’ll quote my wife Aliza by saying the following, since she worded it so perfectly. “I am grateful and proud to have represented our communities at this year’s JFNA NYL Summer Mission to Israel as a Federation Fellow. Having these experiences and seeing first-hand what the Federation is doing made me realize how grateful and proud I am to be a part of our Jewish community. It also made me eager for more.”

What makes something a once in a lifetime experience? Among other things, it has to touch your heart. This trip my wife and I took with the Jewish Federation did more than touch my heart. It reached deep into my chest, grabbed hold of it and hugged it with a squeezing embrace. And it continues to do so today.   



Click HERE to read the article "I Love Israel" that Keith's wife, Aliza, wrote for the Jewish Press of Pinellas County.