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As a child, one of my favorite pleasures each week was going to synagogue with my parents. At the end of each service, the rabbi would raise his arms aloft and recite the Birkat Kohanim — the priestly blessing:
No matter what had happened that week in school, with friends or at home, that prayer always made me feel warm and protected.
I thought about that prayer again recently in Odessa, during a mission organized by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). We had just met Ada, 58, and bedridden for five years. Her eyesight is gone, and her body devastated by multiple sclerosis. She has not been outside in over a year. Ada told us she desperately missed the warm rays of sunshine that glow just beyond her front door, and dreams of a refrigerator to keep her medicines from spoiling.
With no children or spouse, Hesed volunteers for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), supported by Jewish Federations, have become Ada’s only contact outside the one-room world of her apartment. They deliver food packages, medicine and care literally hesed (compassion) each time they walk through her door. As the blessing says, we shine a light on Ada and keep her warm and protected.
As the national campaign chair at JFNA, I have been on many Jewish Federation missions, and each one reveals a new sense of inspiration. I pack my suitcase with the expectation that I cannot possibly learn anything new, and each time, my life is forever changed.
This mission was no different. Once a vibrant Jewish community, filled with incredible thinkers, poets and Zionist pioneers, Odessa was all but wiped clean of its Jewish identity under the Soviet regime. The Holocaust brought unimaginable death and destruction to a city of 180,000 Jews; by the time Odessa was liberated from the Nazis in 1944, only 600 remained.
Since then, the city has slowly been rediscovering its Jewish roots. About 35,000 Jews now call Odessa home, and a small, dedicated group has established a sense of Jewish culture and religious life.
We visited JDC’s Beit Grand, a bustling community center where a group of beautiful Jewish children staged an entire musical for us. We spent an afternoon at the Jewish Agency for Israel’s summer camp, where hundreds of teens danced to Israeli songs. In the very place where so many have tried to destroy Jewish life, there is a vibrant new generation of Jews, on the path to a flourishing future in Odessa.
As is tradition for most Jewish Federation missions, we spent the second half of our journey in Israel. The many highlights included candid discussions with President Shimon Peres and Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, but the most striking experiences brought us from the past destruction of Odessa to the shining light of Israel.
We were privileged to travel with the incomparable Rabbi Michael Paley, the scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Resource Center of UJA-Federation of New York, who helped put the transition in context:
In Odessa we witnessed the last ingathering of exiled Jews, where Zionists fought for the creation of a Jewish state. When we arrived in Israel, we went straight to Haifa to the naval base, and later to the Kirya Israeli Defense Forces headquarters, where we learned about Israel’s Iron Dome.
From imagination and words to action and power in such a radically short amount of time. It hits you, when you step off the plane in Israel, that we did it. We didnt do it fast enough, and we left too many people in the ground, but we went from a dream to the state of Israel.
Before leaving Israel, we visited the Jewish Agency’s Mevasseret Zion Absorption Center, which was filled with adorable Ethiopian children. They were playing, singing and making crafts, ice cream smeared all over their smiling faces. I thought about Operation Solomon, which, with the support of Jewish Federations, brought more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. I thought about what kind of life these kids would have if theyd stayed in Ethiopia. We rescued their parents from the brink of civil war. We shined a light on them, and still today, keep them warm and protected.
We use the word mission to describe what we do, because a mission is so much more than a visit or a trip. Tourists can’t go behind the walls. They can’t see deeper, said the rabbi. On missions, we go as witnesses, which is much harder. We travel with a group that shares our ideals. And I believe we go as pilgrims, re-enacting the Jewish journey.
Susan K. Stern is the national campaign chair for the Jewish Federations of North America and chair of the President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.