Minding the gap: Preparing for a radically different mifgash

The following essay is drawn from the author’s remarks at a recent plenary for the Israel Educational Travel Alliance, a consortium of over 100 Israel educational travel organizations, programs and philanthropies housed under the Jewish Federations of North America.

As an Israel-engagement professional, after Oct. 7 I experienced a deep yearning to return to Israel to see the people panin el panim, face to face, to cry, to hug, to listen and to help. 

A few weeks ago I led 30 Young Judaea alumni on a volunteer trip to Israel. I want to recount three poignant mifgashim (encounters) we had that might inform how our approach to such encounters should change to meet the moment.

Participants in the author’s Young Judea alumni trip to Israel at the graveside of Gili Adar, a former Young Judea camp staff member who was murdered in the Oct. 7 attack at the Nova Festival in Reim, Israel. Courtesy/Adina Frydman/Facebook

Meet Ian 

A medic and guard who joined our recent trip, Ian was supposed to be released from his army duties on Oct. 8; instead, he was directed to serve as a member of the search and rescue teams and found himself at one of the border kibbutzim, looking for victims of the atrocities of the massacre on Oct. 7. Along with a team of archeologists, his group searched for any remnants of life — body parts, bone fragments. They had a competition for who could find the most teeth, he told me, because those are the most helpful in identifying the victims. 

I learned Ian’s story by approaching him during a break at one of the sites we visited and starting a conversation. He was all too eager to share and to show me pictures. The pictures were his badge of honor — what he had to show after one month of search and rescue followed by two months in Gaza. What was not visible to me were the internal scars, the friends lost; the images forever seared into his soul, things no one should ever see. 

Ian is 20 years old —  only a year older than my son, who on the same night was likely out with his buddies at a local college pub or campus party back in the U.S. Two parallel worlds, sliding doors, simply separated by their individual circumstances. 

Meet Gili 

We met Gili, z”l  on our drive down to Jerusalem, at her moshav (town) cemetery where she is now buried. Gili was last seen at the Nova Festival, but the last time we saw her she was on staff at Camp Tel Yehudah, Young Judea’s national teen leadership camp in New York. We were now in her community to accompany her parents as they mourned their daughter, as they do each day since she has been gone. 

Gili Adar was a beautiful blond girl with a bright smile, and from the photos all around her grave one could get a sense of her sparkling and effusive personality in life. She was one of the 403 people who were murdered at the festival on the morning of Oct. 7. Her gravestone is inscribed, in Hebrew, “Our Gili: A girl of sunshine… She was only 24 years old.” 

As the rain poured down on us at the cemetery, we craved Gili, our sunshine, now eclipsed by the hole left by this enormous loss. Another sliding door. Why her? Why not our kids? 

Meet Noah

Noah is an American who made aliyah as a young adult close to 30 years ago. For the first 40 days of the war, Noah experienced sleepless nights waiting for his son to come home from his post in Gaza. 

Noah made aliyah idealistic and full of dreams about the Israel he wanted to help create. An activist, writer and podcaster, for months before Oct. 7 Noah joined together with thousands of Israelis to march at Rabin Square for the Israel they longed for. After Oct. 7, Noah is now back to marching every week, but this time for the return of the hostages, struggling to feel that same sense of idealism he had before. 

This is the biggest crisis Zionism has experienced in the last 150 years, he told us, speaking about the long list of disappointments that he and his friends are struggling with, falsehoods they used to hold to be true that have collapsed since Oct. 7. This is hard for us to hear; having come to Israel for inspiration and connection, it is a very different experience to be faced with the pain and the disappointments of Israelis today. Quoting Bialik’s poem about the Kishinev pogrom, Noah said plainly, “We are no longer the refuge for the city of slaughter, we are the city of slaughter.” What does it mean for Israelis to tell Americans that Israel is no longer a safe haven?

While he tried to comfort us with stories of emerging hope, a country newly united around a grassroots civic movement, we were left nodding our heads and realizing just how shattered our beloved country is. It was a turning point in our trip, when we realized we were the ones who needed to be doing the comforting, providing inspiration and newly igniting the hope.

Fitting the approach to the paradigm

For most of us in the Israel travel sector, crafting the perfect encounter, or mifgash, with an Israeli can be the difference between experiencing Israel academically or intellectually and letting it enter your heart and your being. Building deep and real connections with Israel through the people is the best way to experience the real Israel. 

But as powerful as mifgashim continue to be, the nature of the encounters post-Oct. 7 is radically different than they were the day before, and we will need to adjust to meet the moment — not only so we maximize the impact of the mifgash, but because we need to realize that these mifgashim are bidirectional and are impacting Israelis, too.

At Young Judaea, we say we will continue to travel to Israel so long as we can ensure the safety of participants to the best of our ability and ensure that we can provide a meaningful educational experience despite necessary changes to the itinerary. But now, I suggest that we add a third consideration: that we ensure that our encounters with Israelis are impactful, empathic and bidirectional. Mifgashim today fall into the following paradigms, and each one will require a different approach:

Funder and recipient: Anyone who has led a donor mission to Israel is familiar with this encounter. We might consider approaching this encounter with awareness of the power imbalance that is inherent within it and how contrived they can sometimes feel. Creating an authentic encounter will take some effort.

Comforter and bereaved: These days we will find ourselves in this role frequently and sometimes unexpectedly, as we don’t know what will trigger someone or what we might say that will open up an old wound. We might consider approaching this encounter with our best pastoral selves, prepared to listen and to hold but not to fix. 

Prosecutor and defendant: Some of our North American travelers are coming with agendas to prove, and we may inadvertently put Israelis on the metaphorical stand to defend the actions of the government or the army or groups within Israeli society. It is important to be aware that some of us may bring our own agendas and ideas about this war, some of which will feel quite jarring for Israelis still in the middle of a war. We might consider approaching this encounter with sensitivity and gauging whether they are coming across as defensive, because we may in fact be cross-examining them. 

Witness and testifier: Part of our educational experience will be to create encounters with individuals who have stories to tell about different parts of this war. There will be encounters with hostage families, beseeching our continued activism; encounters with soldiers and police officers who have witnessed unthinkable atrocities; encounters with survivors eager to tell their stories of heroism while sitting with the guilt of having survived. Each of these encounters may require a different approach, and we should make sure we listen and not ask questions they are not ready to answer. 

Peer-to-peer: As illustrated by the anecdotes above, what might seem to be a peer-to-peer mifgash will quickly reveal that Israelis and North Americans, even those close in age, are inhabiting different worlds right now. While many of us feel a reignited sense of peoplehood, feeling connected does not mean we are the same or that our experiences are the same. Being aware of that is the first step and then finding ways to acknowledge the differences while bridging the gap, is the next. 

The work before us as Israel travel providers, educators and funders now is to consider how we might best prepare our travelers and the Israelis for the most impactful encounters, how we can program the actual encounters to be authentic, and how can we build in reflection time following the encounter to maximize the educational impact for our travelers and minimize the well-meaning but potentially detrimental impact on the Israelis we encounter. As Simon Klarfeld writes in his paperMifgash and Meaning”: “Mifgash is both process and outcome: the process of the encounter itself is as important as the end goal of fostering a visceral, emotional attraction to the Jewish People.” 

Adina H. Frydman is the CEO of Young Judaea Global.