Young Cincinnatians Take Life-Changing Trip to Israel
January 29, 2013

Cincinnati Young Leaders Journey participants and chaperones: Dana Askin, Noa Belillti, Jeff Blumental, Yair Cohen, Abby Cooper, Courtney Cummings, Zach Fink-Sigler, Daniel Garfield, Shleby Gilgoff, Jillian Goldberg, Kyle Goldhoff, Benjamin Heldman, Jacob Hiudt, Joseph Hiudt, Arielle Ingber, Justin Junker, Victor Kamesar, Jeremy Kiner, Alex Kraus, Charles Lappin, Ryan Lavigne, Ben Lee, Ari Levine, Chelsea Manning, Jessica Melowsky, Michael Mintz, Matthew Moler, Dan Nadler, Samantha Nadler, Michael Natarus, Sarah Perlman, Alex Roth, Luci Simon, Louis Stillpass, Sarah Weiss, Tyler Wolf, Weston Wolf, Zachary Zakem, Tommy Zipperstein, Samantha Zola

Earlier this month, 38 travelers made the long trip back from Tel Aviv, Israel, to Cincinnati, Ohio, after a two-week trip to Israel. While winter trips to Israel have become commonplace with the rise in popularity of programs such as Birthright, this particular trip was unique in many ways and a milestone in its own right.

Let’s rewind to the summer of 2012—not such a long time ago, all things considered—and a small group of Jewish young adults from Cincinnati with an idea.

(A little background: The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati funds Israel travel grants for students and young adults. Each Cincinnatian is eligible for two grants, one during high school and one post-high school, up to age 26. The program has helped send hundreds of young Jewish Cincinnatians on life-changing trips.)

“A lot of people my age don’t use their second Foundation grant, but also aren’t eligible for Birthright because they went to Israel in high school,” explains 22-year-old Cincinnati native Victor Kamesar, currently a senior at Oklahoma State University. “So we wanted to figure out a way to put together a group of us who could all use our grant together, and Kyle Goldhoff just sort of had this idea.”

(A little more background: “Birthright” is Taglit-Birthright Israel, which provides a gift of a peer educational trip to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26 years old who haven’t already been to Israel on such a trip.)

The idea was simple: get together a group of Jewish young adults from Cincinnati and take them on a trip to Israel over winter break. The only hurdle was that it had never been done before.

“We just started having conversations with our friends from Cincinnati, and there was a lot of interest,” Kamesar recounts. “So we came to the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati with the idea, they were really excited about it and it just took off from there.”

And take off it did, largely because of the hard work of Yair Cohen, Cincinnati’s community shaliach (emissary from Israel), and Sharon Spiegel, director of Youth Israel Experiences at the Federation, who planned and organized the trip—contacting travel agents, creating itineraries and guidelines and generally putting in all the behind-the-scenes legwork necessary for such an undertaking. And on December 20, 2012, less than six months after the initial idea, 38 young Jewish leaders departed for Israel on the trip, using grants funded by the Jewish Foundation.

“We knew that there was this huge opportunity in going as a defined group of Cincinnatians, as opposed to having these same people go on separate Birthright trips individually,” Yair states. “And we didn’t want to let it slip by.”

“Yair’s enthusiasm for our idea helped push the whole thing forward,” recounts Kamesar. “He helped us take it from a vision to a reality. To state it simply, there’s no chance we would have pulled this off without him.”

“I think what made this trip so valuable was that it wasn’t something that the Jewish institutions created and tried to attract young leaders to participate in,” Cohen asserts. “Rather, the young leaders had the idea, and we did our best to listen to what they wanted and to make it happen.”

Cohen came up with a demanding itinerary that took them up and down Israel, as well as into Jordan. From paying a visit to the grave of David Ben-Gurion to stopping by Hebrew Union College’s campus in Jerusalem to biking around the Ramon Crater to celebrating New Year’s Eve in Tel Aviv, a lot was packed into two weeks.

“We went in thinking that people would want something different than what they’d already seen. We tried to focus on cultural experiences and look at some of the other religions in Israel other than Judaism,” explains Kyle Goldhoff, who co-chaired the trip with Kamesar. "We made it into a very Cincinnati-based trip; we added a visit to HUC and went to Netanya [Cincinnati’s partnership city].”

Cohen also went along as one of the chaperones (joining Sarah Weiss, executive director of the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education, and Courtney Cummings, the Mayerson JCC’s Cultural Arts manager), playing a key role in creating an environment for dialogue. “Yair did a phenomenal job engaging all the participants along the journey and provided important and powerful insights about leadership, the politics of Israel and more,” comments Weiss. “His perspectives encouraged the participants to think, engage and stay curious about Israel, the Jewish community and their own Jewish identities.”

“He did a very good job making sure that different opinions were heard,” adds Luci Simon, a University of Cincinnati student. “He just added this incredible insight and wisdom to each discussion. His ability to relate to us as Cincinnatians looking into Israel also added a lot.”

“One of the themes we discussed throughout the trip was how fortunate we all are to be from Cincinnati and to be a part of such a supportive Jewish community,” says Sarah Perlman, a senior at Vanderbilt. “Many Israelis we met on the trip thought we were part of a Birthright trip. When we explained to them that we were on a trip that our own city’s community had funded to strengthen our connection to Israel, their reactions made us realize just how unique the opportunity given to us was.”

“The community that we grew up in is about as strong as it gets in the entire country. For that to continue, the people who grew up here need to feel connected but also that they have an opportunity to take ownership of it,” Kamesar says. “What this trip did for us was show us that we have an opportunity, sooner than later, to play a big part in continuing to grow that community we grew up in. It really just got that back on our mind and reestablished the lifetime connection we have to all of this.”

Goldhoff adds, “It made me remember how lucky we are to have this opportunity, because no other community has what we have. It made me see Cincinnati in a different light and made me remember what I’ve been given here. It definitely renewed my faith in a place that I got really far away from when I left for college.”

Another theme that came up was leadership. “Participants had the opportunity to learn about and reflect on both the history of Jewish leadership as well as their own commitment to leadership,” Weiss comments.

Jillian Goldberg, a senior at Tulane, echoes that sentiment. “As a result of what everyone shared, we have a newfound sense of self and our relationship to each other, Israel, our Judaism and our Jewish community. Although I cannot speak for everyone, I believe we all left the conversation with a new outlook on the Jewish community and our future as Jewish leaders.”

More than just discussing leadership, the group was afforded a chance to interact with some of Cincinnati's current Jewish leaders, who happened to be in Israel at the same time. “We were invited to a dinner with several families from Cincinnati while in Israel,” Kamesar says, “and the coolest part about that was that it was like a real-life example of some of the things we had been talking about on the trip. These are people who deeply influenced how we grew up in the community with all of their own individual contributions. So we talked about how to give back to the community that shaped us. Being able to have that conversation with those people right in front of us just reaffirmed how strong our community is, as a result of the people who make it that way.”

All told, there has been no shortage of positive feedback about this breakthrough trip. The participants have not only been thankful, but also genuinely expressed hope that others get to share their same experience in the future.

“While this was my seventh trip to Israel and fourth as part of an organized tour, I have to say that this was the most powerful,” says chaperone Sarah Weiss.

“Everyone involved had a powerful experience, and I look forward to following up with the amazing young leaders who took part in this trip,” Jeff Blumental, the Federation’s new Young Adult Division (YAD) Director, adds.

For more information about the trip, contact Yair Cohen at ycohen@jfedcin.org.

View more photos from the trip.