It’s September 2012, the week before Rosh Hashana and Rabbi Heidi Cohen is already thinking about her synagogue’s next trip to Israel, her fourth since joining Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, California 14 years ago.
But this is one of those pleasurable rabbinical tasks, explains Rabbi Cohen, as each group is different, requiring varied goals, itineraries and ideas for an always mixed crowd of congregants.
“The whole idea of the trip is thinking about who’s going and how to make it work for them, how to make it personal for them,” says the rabbi, who has spent much time in Israel, including a six-week sabbatical with her family last summer.
Rabbi Cohen, also known by her blog moniker, Rav Ima, has been able to vary the itineraries because of her diffused outlook, and she says, by always working with Da’at, having established the initial connection with them via ARZA World, the travel arm of the Reform movement.
The first Beth Sholom trip was a general, get-to-know-Israel trip; the second included more families, but was made up of mostly adults; the third, an adults-only adventure, included visits to specialty wineries and artisanal cheesemakers. The next trip will be primarily families on a summer tour, and she hopes to include more hikes, outdoor activities and even the occasional water walk.
“The goal of our last trip was not only to see places but also to connect with the people of Israel,” she says, “I wanted to emphasize that.” Cohen herself researched some of the places visited, enjoying Da’at’s flexibility and willingness to consider different ideas, fitting in boutique winery visits among more typical tourist stops or offering home hospitality for Friday night dinners, availing participants the opportunity to get to know ‘real’ Israelis, connecting “our congregation,” emphasizes Rav Ima, “with ‘the people.’”
What’s works about the connection with Da’at, adds Rabbi Cohen, is the company’s willingness to consider different ideas — visiting a goat farm, for example, when it was still a fairly new concept at the time — and researching her particular favorite, Ein Camonim in the Galilee.
“They’re willing to do things differently,” she says, “and the staff is so conscientious. If we run into an issue, they will always work around it and deal it. They’re very flexible.”
The biggest surprise for Rabbi Cohen was how much she could depend upon the Da’at tour educators, leaving them to be the “knowledge base” of the trip.
“I did a ton of prep before my first trip, I had a whole notebook of stuff,” she said. “Then on the trip, it was phenomenal, I realized I didn’t have to do all this, I could just bring in what I wanted to the tour.”
Back home, before the trip, Rabbi Cohen runs at least two or three meetings prior, learning together, offering some history so that the participants have a better idea of where they’ll be going, and who will be in the group. Her husband, Matt, is her co-leader, her “back-of-the-line guy,” who makes sure no one gets left behind and assists those who need it. They’ve been able to included congregants who may require a wheelchair at times, because the rabbi’s goal is to make the trip as inclusive as possible and she’s able to make that happen.
Yet aside from the trip planning, site explanations and historical references, what is ultimately important to congregants is having their rabbi around, muses Rabbi Cohen. They don’t just want to spend time in Israel, she says, but to spend 24 hours with the rabbi for the next 10-12 days.
“They want complete access to me, to see me as rabbi, educator and also as a person,” she says. “They want to have dinner with me, and learn from me as well. It’s a relationship thing. People who go on tours come home and talk about the amazing tour they went on and they got to spend ten days with the rabbi.”
Da’at invites you to have a dialogue, so that we can listen to your ideas and craft the perfect trip with you.