Why go to Israel? Ask anyone who has been to Israel on a mission, a Birthright trip or a fact-finding exchange organized by the Detroit Federation. Most will tell you that their experience was eye-opening, inspiring – even life-changing.

Consistently, the Detroit Jewish community sends more people to Israel on missions than most communities in the country. In 2015, nearly 30 Federation delegations and recipient visits to Detroit took place involving nearly 600 Michiganders and 120 Israelis. Additionally, these trips have drawn hundreds of volunteers and host families together in both communities.

Behind the scenes on every mission from Michigan, there’s the team, of course: extraordinary professionals and community leaders, Israelis and Detroiters — working together to pull itineraries, logistics and memorable events seamlessly together. And, more significantly, behind the team there’s a history: the history of two communities linked as partners since 1994 in three Michigan communities – Metro Detroit, Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids – and three municipalities in Israel – Migdal HaEmek, Nazareth Illit and the Jezreel Valley – all located in Northern Israel in an area referred to as Michigan’s Partnership2Gether Region of the Central Galilee.

Missions: A powerful driver for building community

“For generations of Jewish Detroiters drawing from the history and strength of the community, missions to Israel have been among the most powerful drivers for building Jewish identity, promoting community engagement and growing philanthropy,” observes Naomi Rockowitz, Federation’s Mission Director headquartered in Jerusalem.

Naomi Rockowitz

Naomi Rockowitz

Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Naomi has lived in Israel for more than three decades. A highly accomplished tour guide and a passionate advocate of all things Israeli, Naomi has been a key member of the Federation staff since 2002 when she was recruited to lead, with her family, the first delegation of 300 Israeli campers to Tamarack. Since that first summer in Ortonville, Naomi has become a familiar face in the Detroit community, well connected as a “Tamarack mom,” a Federation mission planner and one of Detroit’s Israel reps.

Days of Whys . . . and Wows

In many ways, Naomi’s relation to the Federation community epitomizes the connections and deep level of engagement Jewish Detroit now enjoys with Israel. In an extended visit to Detroit working with the Federation team last December, she shared her insight into what happens on a mission at those junctures when everything clicks together for an extraordinary “Day of Whys and Wows.”

Why a Federation? How are we connected to Israel ? What is our responsibility as leaders in a community? How do we get involved?

To invite reflection on those questions at the culmination of the 2015 Grosfeld Leadership Mission in November , Naomi implemented a full day facilitated by leading Israel professionals in the field of philanthropy and civil leadership and site visits and meetings with Israeli educators and philanthropists, youth leaders and volunteers,  invested in repairing the socio-economic periphery and securing the future of the country.

With the goal to promote a deeper appreciation of Federation’s allocations to programs in Israel, the day started in Lod, a mixed Jewish-Arab city near Tel Aviv. Drawing comparisons to the city of Detroit, Naomi describes Lod as one of Israel’s most impoverished and challenging cities in Israel. “Lod set the stage for us and inspired the group in the ways young people were working to reenergize the city. In site visits to several programs there, our group was most impressed talking to Jewish and Arab students working together as trustees of Youth Futures, a program to mentor youth-at-risk, sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI).

The mission concluded the day in the Partnership Region celebrating with 195 teens who were beginning their leadership year in the Youth Leadership Program (noting that all were graduates of Federation’s Israeli Camper Program). “Talk about a wow moment.” Says Naomi, “For many on the mission, we had come full circle, with Detroit Tamarack host parents meeting again with Israeli campers they had hosted over past summers.”

Will there be more Days of Whys and Wows? Absolutely. Given the participants’ overwhelmingly positive response to the day, coupled with their first-hand exposure to the dynamics of Federation dollars at work in Israel, the Day of Whys and Wows is sure to be developed as a model for future missions, large and small.

Reimagining Federation Missions

As Naomi observed in her recent visit to Detroit, “The impetus for our “Day of Whys” in Israel runs parallel to what is happening right here in the Detroit Federation. Thinking outside the box, we’re starting to explore the powerful ways our missions work to bring people together as catalysts for change in our communities. How we do it again and again will depend on the mission participants, themselves, their interests, as well as the agency partners and volunteers we bring to the table.”

Recognizing that missions to Israel continue to be one of Federation’s most effective means for advancing its goals of strengthening Jewish identity and securing the future of the Jewish community, Federation has begun the process of re-imagining how community missions are organized and launched with targeted appeals to affinity groups. Current examples include the Women’s Mosaic Mission sponsored by Women’s Philanthropy in April 2015,the Maimonides II Mission for physicians and the Michigan CEO Mission,both in October 2015.

Stepping Forward: members of Federation's Women's Philanthropy on a Mosaic Mission to Israel.

Stepping Forward: members of Federation’s Women’s Philanthropy on a Mosaic Mission to Israel.

While the concept of theme-based missions to Israel is not new, it’s taken an exciting new focus thanks to Nora and Guy Barron who generously committed funds to establish Federation’s Mission Lab, a community “think tank” with the goal to implement and support new mission models for the coming years.

In its inaugural year 2015, the Mission Lab launched the Entrepreneur Mission, which brought 20 young business-minded Detroiters to Israel to build community bonds – and potential business – with their Israeli peers. The next mission to launch from the lab is a first in Detroit – an Interfaith Couples Mission set for June 2016.

For more information on Federation’s Mission Lab and the full schedule of missions for 2016, call or email Jennifer Levine, Director of Israel and Overseas Department, jlevine@jfmd.org or 248-203-1471.

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