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Debby Mazon
Chair, American Affairs Advocacy, Hadassah

How a 1996 Hadassah Young Women’s Mission to Israel changed my life forever

Author's photo of the 1996 Hadassah Young Women's Mission to Israel. Author is seated in the second row, second from the left. Photo courtesy of the author.
Author's photo of the 1996 Hadassah Young Women's Mission to Israel. Author is seated in the second row, second from the left. Photo courtesy of the author.

In 1996, I was nominated for the first Hadassah Young Women’s Mission to Israel and my life was about to change forever. I was thrilled to apply for what would be my first Israel encounter. I doubted that I would be chosen, given so many other qualified applicants. But I was!

Not having the financial means to go to Israel, I was so appreciative that fate lent a hand to send me there. My husband encouraged me to go, promising to handle our two sons, then 15 and 10.

The author at the Western Wall. Photo courtesy of the author.

The Mission’s goal was to build Zionists. We were 26 women, with two Mission leaders and a camera crew, who would record the mission and create a video. Most of the participants, with various levels of Hadassah involvement, were total strangers, but our leaders had a clear plan for us. Before the Mission began, we were assigned “Israel Moments.” In pairs, at various geographic locales throughout Israel, we were to give a presentation about the place’s significance. My partner was a mathematics teacher from Florida; I was then an English/media teacher. Our assigned spot was Masada. Right away, we were on the phone exchanging ideas and preparing our script– as you might expect from two school teachers!

We all met for the first time at what is now Newark Liberty International Airport, where our orientation began. Lesson one instructed us to be respectful and honest with the El Al security officers during check-in. We listened. However, when one woman on line—not part of our group–was asked if anyone had touched her luggage, she sarcastically replied that she did in fact have help packing and carrying her very heavy bag and she didn’t see any problem with that. She was escorted away by two security officers and never made it on to the plane.

As our flight took off, we were excited and full of anticipation. When we landed at Ben Gurion Airport and took our very first steps in Israel, it was an absolutely magical moment. Israel felt like no other place I had ever been. It took some time for me to understand why.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Onto the bus we went and, an hour later, we were planting trees in a Jewish National Fund forest. Through the years, I had purchased trees in remembrance of someone. But now, in this holy land, we were touching the soil, literally absorbing the feel of the country, taking in the sights and sounds of a place I had heard about all my life.

Our guides and speakers showed us maps to explain borders, territories, wars, security, daily life and the best places to shop. I still remember our first-time view of the Old City of Jerusalem and our first walk on the Western Wall plaza. We were awestruck.

Each day began a new adventure. Each place held its own charm and significance. Going to Yad Vashem for the first time was gut-wrenching. One indelible image in my mind is the Children’s Memorial, commemorating the Dutch teacher who accompanied his students into the gas chamber because he did  not want to let them go in alone. We held a memorial service  for all who perished in the Holocaust. At Mt. Herzl Cemetery, we paid homage to the soldiers who gave their lives so Israel could exist.

We toured what was then the Hadassah College of Technology, where the renowned chefs prepared a feast for us. At the Children’s Pavilion at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem, we spoke with several doctors and watched “Geoffrey” from Toys R Us party with the children. Afterwards, we gathered in the hospital chapel, surrounded by the breathtaking Marc Chagall windows and learned how they came to be there.

Alecia Sachs and Debby Mazon (author) atop Masada. Photo courtesy of the author.

Next up was Tel Aviv, a bustling city – beach bathers, wonderful museums and scrumptious food. At the Museum of the Diaspora, we heard about the relationship between Jews in Israel and Jews worldwide. This small country, no bigger than New Jersey, held a place for each of us, should we ever need it.

At the Hadassah Neurim Youth Aliyah Village, we were struck by the magnificence of the Mediterranean Sea as we lunched with students from Ethiopia, Russia and Israel. They were learning English and Hebrew–how amazing!

In Jaffa, we shopped for tallitot (prayer shawls), jewelry and mementos to bring home. That night, we had dinner at the Rishon Winery and were told to be ready for music and dancing. Sitting around long tables, enjoying delicious food and wine, we wondered where the dance floor was. But this was Israel!

The author and Susan Wilkof at the Dead Sea. photo courtesy of the author.

When dinner was over, dishes were cleared, live music started and everyone hopped onto the tabletops! The ruach, the energy, was contagious so we followed their lead and partied. Regardless of day-to-day challenges, Israelis know how to enjoy life and appreciate every minute, taking nothing for granted.

The next day, we climbed Masada, taking in the never-ending view and the crystal-clear blue sky. It was time for “our moment.” We presented monologues of two mothers: one recounting her family’s Holocaust experience, the other expressing futile hope for her children—futile because, rather than surrender, the Israelites, captive atop Masada, had decided on mass suicide. Very emotional.

From Masada, we descended to the Dead Sea. Most of us ran into the water to “float.” Then we luxuriated in the mud baths, followed by ice cold showers to remove the rejuvenating mud.

At Kibbutz K’far Bloom, we saw how crops were grown even in the desert. Everything was naturally raised, with no bioengineered ingredients, and then transported to restaurants, markets and hotels. The food was so fresh, literally “farm to table.” Once back home, it took me months to forget the taste of fresh Israeli vegetables.

On Shabbat, we returned to the Western Wall, the Kotel, where history and modern day converge. We prayed together and left soulful notes in the cracks of the Wall.

Children’s Pavilion at Hadassah Medical Organization. Photo courtesy of the author.

We also visited Haifa, one of Israel’s major cities, and Safed, known for its kabbalistic mystics, magical alleyways and art galleries. We took a lively jeep ride in the Golan and explored ancient archeological digs.

Our last night was spent in Jerusalem with the Young Judaea Year Course students, in the Cardo neighborhood of the Old City.

Goodbyes were difficult. We had bonded with the people, the places and each other. How would we share this profound experience back home? Some pledged to become leaders, others would run an event. All would speak about the Mission and show our video.

If you are wondering what the Return on Investment (ROI) was for Hadassah from this Mission, it resulted in 11 Hadassah Region presidents and four more leaders who served on the Hadassah National Board. Others stayed active in their local Hadassah regions or chapters. One staff Mission leader is now the Southern New Jersey region president. As chair of American Affairs advocacy, I have the pleasure of working with five Mission friends I met in1996, who share a special bond and deep passion. No doubt, missions build Zionists.

Today, more than ever, we must act on that connection. Thankfully, many organizations offer mission experiences, including Birthright, the Jewish Agency, Jewish federations and Hebrew day schools, among others. There is no better learning experience than time spent in Israel. Our sons’ first trips were with Birthright and Frisch Hebrew High School. Each time we return, our family deepens its commitment and connection.

My older son wrote about his experience: “It was not just a trip to me. It changed my life. I went as a tourist and came back a Zionist. I was emotionally moved that people must fight over this beautiful land. People die, kill and survive in this land. There is no other place like Israel, where in the south you can be at the lowest point on earth, at the Dead Sea. And in the north, you can ski on a mountain.”

All these years later, the emotions I felt and the experiences I shared remain within me and have intensified. Tragically, what Israel has built for its own diverse population is under attack by more forces than war. Anti-Jewish, anti-Zionist vitriol is evident worldwide, including on our college campuses. And the UN General Assembly has voted to grant “Observer” status to the Palestinian terrorist regime.

We must stand up and stand together for all the good Israel is and has done for the betterment of the world. If we don’t stand together, who else will? I pray that soon people will feel confident to visit our Jewish homeland and immerse themselves in what this unique and vital country has to share.

Debby Mazon is Chair, Hadassah American Advocacy Affairs.

About the Author
Debra Mazon is Chair of American Affairs Advocacy for Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Inc. (HWZOA) and a member of the Hadassah Writers' Circle. Debra has been an active leader in Hadassah for many years holding varied positions including having been the Coordinator and Vice Coordinator of the Education and Advocacy Division. Her professional training was as a Speech/Drama/English teacher for which she was employed on the K-12 levels. Later in her teaching career, she received her Masters as a Media Specialist. Currently, Debra is the director of Human Resources for a medical sales company founded by her husband Richard. She and Richard have two grown sons who work in the company and four grandchildren, two boys and two girls. She is an exercise enthusiast and taught aerobic and step classes for many years and encourages others to work out for physical and mental health benefits. She lives in Emerson, NJ and is a past president of Hadassah Northern New Jersey Region.
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