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For one group of friends separated by geography, a single Israel experience builds lifelong bonds

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When Ashley Inbar of Portland, Maine, got married in a traditional Jewish ceremony at the Jamaican beach resort of Ocho Rios in early January, there were five very special names on the guest list.

Just half a decade earlier, they were all complete strangers.

But then they met in Israel on an unusual Birthright trip geared toward “older participants” — those ages 27 to 32 — and forged bonds that have only grown over the years. When that 2018 trip drew to a close, six of them resolved to hold annual in-person reunions, despite the vast geographical distances that separate them.

“Pretty much right when we got home, we started planning to meet up somewhere,” said Inbar, who heads fundraising for the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine. “Our first trip was to Denver, then we traveled north to Redstone, Colorado, and stayed for the weekend. As soon as we end one trip, we start planning the next one. We see each other as often as we can, and we talk every day through group chats on Instagram.”

The tight bonds established by the six friends — Inbar, Tim Campbell, Max Staplin, Carly Herbst, Simon Muller and Jared Glassman — are part of the goal of Birthright Israel, which seeks to offer participants a “life-changing experience.”

While forging bonds between Diaspora Jews and Israel is the main purpose of the trips, which are given to participants at no cost to them, the 10-day Birthright experience also aims to strengthen both participants’ Jewish identity and their connection to fellow Jews (including Israelis). Countless long-lasting friendships and romances that started on Birthright have blossomed into marriages and Jewish families.

From Inbar’s group five years ago, the vast majority of participants are still in touch, she said.

“There were 38 of us, and our entire group got along really well,” Inbar said. “We were all at similar places in life, and all of us already had careers. Even today, 95% of us are still connected through social media.”

During the pandemic, when the six couldn’t meet up in person, they held biweekly Zoom chats where they’d talk for hours on end, playing games and discussing the ups and downs of their lives — including engagements, illnesses, deaths of family members and job promotions — as well as their shared memories of their Israel experience.

Ashley Inbar, third from right, with her Birthright friends celebrates her January 6, 2023, wedding on the beach in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. (Courtesy of Ashley Inbar)

The group also stayed in touch with the Israeli security guard, Gal, who escorted them on the trip. Gal video-chats with the group at times of conflict in Israel to share his experiences on the ground — and at other times to practice his English. “He just became an integral part of our collective experience, and I think it was as impactful for him as it was for us,” Inbar said.

Staplin, 36, a franchise attorney in Philadelphia, says the 2018 Birthright trip was one of the best experiences of his life. While the tours to the Dead Sea and Masada were amazing and the vibrancy of Tel Aviv unforgettable, he said, what remains with him most are the friendships he formed during those 10 days.

“We’d stay up till 1 a.m. every night talking. We knew then that we’d be friends for the rest of our lives,” Staplin said. “We decided to have a reunion every year. The first was in New Orleans, then the next year we visited Ashley in Maine. As we were figuring out where to do the next reunion, Ashley got engaged.”

Since 1999, more than 800,000 young Jews from 68 countries have visited Israel on free 10-day trips offered through Birthright, known in Hebrew as Taglit (Discovery). The vast majority were 18 to 26, but from mid-2018 until recently some 13,000 Jews in the 27 to 32 age bracket got to visit Israel as well, according to Noa Bauer, Birthright’s vice president of global marketing.

Now that the pandemic has ended and trips to Israel are back in full force, the organization is seeing its highest demand ever and can’t accommodate all would-be participants without raising additional funds.

“Given the limited spots, we went back to the original age group of 18 to 26,” Bauer said, “though we did allow those who missed out during Covid to participate this past summer as a last chance even if they aged out during the pandemic.”

On Inbar’s trip, the cohort of older Birthright participants included two married couples and several people with children, including her.

Visiting Israel at an older age made all the difference to Glassman, a 36-year-old firefighter in New Orleans. He cited “a much higher maturity level” as one of the advantages of doing Birthright when he did.

“At 18 or 19, I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much,” Glassman said. “Everyone on our group really wanted to be there. In my case, as a young adult, I became much closer to my local Jewish community. I’m a pretty active member of my temple, Touro Synagogue, so when Birthright opened that slot for my age group, it was almost like it was meant to be.”

Staplin said that what really stood out from his experience was the 360-degree view of Israeli life and history that the Birthright trip gave him – not something he could have gotten on a typical vacation.

Six participants of a 2018 Birthright Israel trip gather for their annual reunion in 2022 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Courtesy of Ashley Inbar)

“The most meaningful part was gaining an understanding of what day-to-day life is like in a country with so much history but still in the middle of so much conflict in present times,” he said. “Watching the people of Tel Aviv just going about their regular work days despite the announcement of the largest rocket attacks in years. Taking a bus ride through the middle of nowhere to Masada and learning about what happened there centuries before America was discovered, and then seeing the daily struggles of the Bedouins the next day. Going from the Western Wall to the Mahane Yehuda Market. Eating schnitzel in a kibbutz and then eating fancy Thai-fusion food at a restaurant in Tel Aviv.”

Herbst was 32 when she went on Birthright. Until then, she said, her travel priorities were to visit countries other than Israel, even though her older brother had gone on Birthright and had a positive experience.

“I wasn’t that interested at the age when you’re supposed to go,” Herbst said. “But our group had a different perspective. We weren’t looking just to get a free trip. Even my Jewish identity was certainly different for me in my 30s than in my 20s.”

Now 37, Herbst works in business development at a New York City tech startup.

“For me, what’s special about Israel is the enduring history of religion, and not only of Judaism,” she said. “Even seeing how strong of a presence Islam and Christianity has there was really fascinating for me. There’s no other place in the world where you see that.”

Muller, 37, grew up outside Rochester, New York, and was supposed to go on Birthright in his mid-20s. But a month before his planned trip, Muller lost his job after the congressional office where he was working in Washington, D.C., suddenly closed. He never got around to rescheduling the Israel trip, and then he aged out.

Nearly six years later, he said, he got an email that Birthright was doing a pilot program for older Jews.

“It was just before my 32nd birthday, I didn’t know anybody else,” Muller recalled. “It was a shot in the dark. I had low expectations.”

The trip turned out to be one of the milestones in his life.

“I found people I really clicked with,” said Muller, now an international trade consultant in Seattle. “We all live in different places and have different interests, but Birthright really bonded us. It’s been a wonderful experience.”


The post For one group of friends separated by geography, a single Israel experience builds lifelong bonds appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Obituaries

PHYLLIS POLLOCK

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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.

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Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary

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By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”

Raquel Dancho (left), Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St.Paul, and Nikki Spigelman, President, Gwen Secter Centre


Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)

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Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station

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This is a developing story.

(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.

An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.

Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.

The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.

The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to  transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.

Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.


The post Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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