If I had to sum up my Federation journey in one word, it would be “reconnect.” Israel was a huge part of my identity growing up – I had gone twice, once with my mother and grandmother, who was a Holocaust survivor; and once to study in Jerusalem during high school. Then I went to college, graduate school, and started working. Before I knew it, 15 years had gone by. I started to feel disconnected, not just from the country but from the community as well.
In 2008, at the suggestion of a co-worker, I applied to, and was accepted into EILI, the Entertainment Industry Leadership Institute at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Through EILI, I met other young professionals spanning every area of the entertainment business. We became friends and met regularly to learn about all aspects of the Federation, including programs supported nationally and locally, such as the “Fed Up with Hunger” initiative. More than 1.7 million L.A. County residents face hunger every day; The Jewish Federation plays an active role in trying to change this harsh reality, working closely with diverse partners and policy makers in the effort to end hunger in Los Angeles. After volunteering at the L.A. Food Bank, our EILI group decided to make a bigger impact – we planned and hosted a screening of the film “Ghostbusters” at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, during which we raised more than 8,000 pounds of food that we donated to local Los Angeles food shelters. [This program is now part of The Federation’s Hunger Initiative. For more information, and to see what we’re doing now, please visit /hunger ]”.
As my 30th birthday came and went, I knew I needed to get back to Israel. But when and how? The answer quickly became clear. One afternoon in April 2013, my best friend Lily forwarded an email to me. The subject line read, “Registration for the 2013 NYL Summer Trip to Israel is Now Open!” I opened the email and read Lily’s message: “Israel this summer???” Several of my friends who are involved in the Federation had gone on the National Young Leadership trip in 2012 and repeatedly talked about what a life-changing experience it was. I could only think of one word in response to Lily’s three-word proposition: “Yes!”
We kicked off the trip early, spending a few days with my cousins in Tel Aviv. We had the most incredible Shabbat dinner, sitting outdoors at a big table with my Israeli family – since the last time I was there, five new family members had been born. On Monday, we met up with the larger group. Our first stop in Haifa, we stayed atop the Carmel Mountains overlooking the city and the harbor was magical.
Over the next nine days, Bus 3, the west coast bus, became my new family; we hiked through ruins of the ancient city Tzippori, rafted down the Jordan River, climbed Masada at sunrise and watched several of our friends get Bar and Bat Mitzvahed for the first time. We also met several IDF soldiers and had our fair share of hummus and falafel in every city. We saw some of the programs that the Federation supports in Israel. I had an incredible, mind-opening experience visiting an employment center in the Arab-Israeli town of Tira that helps reduce unemployment and under-employment among Israeli Arabs by training them to enter the workforce. In Jerusalem we also visited Susan’s House, a center where at-risk youth work, create art and receive much-needed social services.
Certainly the highlight of the trip for me was going back to Jerusalem. Spending Shabbat in the old city was incredible. We sat outside for services during the sunset and then visited the Western Wall. The next evening we explored the ancient tunnels underneath the Old City via newly excavated caves, literally walking on the same cobblestone streets our ancestors did thousands of years ago. At Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum, we heard first-hand from Rena Quint, a survivor from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Then in a special group service, we lit candles in memory of our family members who perished in the Holocaust, including my grandparents and family who were lost during the war. The support and love felt from the group touched me deeply; I left that day feeling inspired to continue educating others so that these stories and our history is never forgotten.
I feel truly blessed that I experienced this adventure with one of my best friends, and with new lifelong friends, connecting with amazing people from all over the U.S. I look forward to staying involved in the L.A. Federation and am excited to see others who are new to the Federation to create their own experiences, whether they’re getting involved in YALA, joining a Federation leadership program, going to Israel for the first time or returning in order to reconnect.
Erin O’Brien is Director, Communications at CBS Television and an EILI alumna (Entertainment Leadership Program). She previously worked in publicity for NBC Universal, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.
For more information about Young Adults of Los Angeles, email YALA@JewishLA.org.
The Jewish Federation’s Community Leadership Institute launches soon with four highly-competitive tracks: Universal, Real Estate, Entertainment and Russian Jewish leadership; for more information, contact Jennifer Toplitzky at JToplitzky@JewishLA.org.