By Daniel Larson
As a Jewish professional entering his late 20s and who is passionate about the Federation system, I have to clear my conscience and admit that I am a convert to those mainstay programs of myriad Jewish communal organizations: mission trips. What does this mean? As a young(er) adult, I thought that mission trips were anything but authentic experiences. Rather, I believed that they were carefully constructed experiences for potential donors. To my jaded mind, the average mission trip participant gave to Jewish causes out of a sense of blind communal conviction and either didn’t see (or chose not to see) the flaws apparent in the State of Israel or Jewish communities in other countries to which they traveled. Moreover, I felt that many of the individuals and organizations mission trips visited were likely being played – used to showcase funding allocations and being paraded before visitors replete with ostentatious thanks.
I was cynical, and a contemporary cynic might hold these same opinions or worse, and that is their right. To my great surprise, however, this summer my mind was changed.
In July I was generously granted the opportunity to participate in The Jewish Federations of North America’s Campaigner’s Mission to Israel. While I cannot speak to mission trips run under the auspices of other organizations, the Campaigner’s Mission was truly a formative experience for me. Whatever my expectations were going into the program, they were pleasantly shattered.
For one thing, our group of 58 was diverse, with participants from across Canada and the US, men and women, from millennials to octogenarians, and with a wide spectrum of Jewish affiliation and perspectives on Israel represented. As I understood it, the purpose of the mission was to better familiarize participants with the diverse groups in Israel that benefit from funds raised by member Federations, and for us to turn those educational experiences into informed stories when making the case for Federation giving in our communities back home. While that was certainly the case, the experience was not limited to fundraising coaching. The individuals and organizations that we visited, from Yemenite event halls in development villages to employment assistance programs for the Haredi sector, to a microbrewery diversifying the economy in Israel’s periphery, we were genuinely welcomed by organizations that had benefitted in very direct ways from Federation funding of programs operated by JAFI and JDC, the main on-the-ground partners of the Federation system.
But other aspects of the mission trip still concerned me. One day, after visiting a program designed to bolster confidence in youth from troubled homes, I asked one of our trip lay-leaders, “How much funding has this organization received? JFNA missions come here year-on-year. The funding must really be worth it, because surely it’s a degree of imposition on this organization, coming here and taking up the time of staff and volunteers who could be working more productively.” He responded that the organization had received micro-grant start-up funding some years before. I was troubled by this. Here we were, visitors at an organization that was being trumpeted as a very successful program, and that had achieved its success in part due to its early Federation support, and yet the Federation system had only funded them once, years previously.
This arrangement did not seem to me either fair nor transparent. As an organization being showcased to Federation campaigners, I thought highlighted projects would all be ongoing partners. Over the following days I discussed this dynamic with fellow campaigners. Were we locking in partner agencies in exchange for minimal support? Were we receiving authentic words of thanks from these organizations? Were we using these organizations? These thoughts and more about power dynamics and the role of the viewer and the viewed rolled around in my head. Not until a couple days later did I realize what the dynamic was. These site visits were truly reciprocal. For as much as we were outsiders peering into their organizations’ operations, we as individual campaigners represented outlets to much broader funding opportunities. As individual campaigners, we would return to our communities ripe with pride and potentially channel funding to these organizations in a direct manner. Even if local communities did not decide to fund such organizations outside of their Israel & overseas allocations, the groups were receiving free PR and in fact vied for the opportunity to engage with us.
These interactions and resulting insights surprised me and shook my understanding of mission trips. We as participants were not simply audience members to a curated showcase on the impact of Federation giving. To the contrary, we were enacting the very synergistic and complementary nature of the Federation-beneficiary relationship. As a Jewish professional, it took going on a mission for me to truly realize the value of this publicly enacted relationship and acknowledge that a mission trip to Israel could expose me to more about this complex country than I could have imagined. Despite my many trips to Israel, there was a new face to the country to discover, and that face pivoted in the direction of the North American-Israeli relationship. As our bus rolled on to Ben Gurion Airport at the end of the mission, I remember letting out an audible sigh. My preconceived notions had been challenged and I had learned something new that I would take back to my work and coming conversations about Israel. I deeply value the work of our Federations and I hope to relate that Federation story, in addition to my stories from Israel, to our communities as we foster growth in our ever-more-complex Jewish communal world.
Daniel is a second-year FEREP graduate student in the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University, where he is pursuing an MA in Jewish Professional Leadership and an MBA in Nonprofit Management at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management. Prior to returning to academia, he served as the Campaign Coordinator and Director of Communications at The Jewish Federation of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada.