Life-altering Experiences from the Promised Land

Guest Correspondence


Have you ever had a life-altering experience that left you completely and utterly changed? If so, were you able to channel it for good?

After having returned recently from an interfaith community trip to Israel, sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee, I have a renewed sense of commitment for what it means to be a contributing member of my community.

I am grateful to have had this experience, which was exponentially magnified because of the people who joined me on this journey. Similar to the kibbutzim we visited while traversing Israel from north to south and east to west, our group—a melting pot of diversity in all definitions of the word—assimilated into a tightly woven family that embraced Ziggy Marley’s song, “Love is My Religion.” I simply can’t imagine my life without these people in it.

While my preconceived notions of Israel were limited, we were exposed to enriching life lessons that ignited my senses and triggered great emotion. We listened to a trauma surgeon from the Galilee Medical Center share stories of the more than 1,600 patients who were treated during the Syrian War using an underground emergency department of the medical center. Seeing how the Israelites provided humanitarian aid to Syrians reminded me of the guiding principle that in everything, “do unto others what you would have them do to you.”

During two days of our visit, fighting broke out in the Gaza Strip. We could hear hundreds of rockets and missiles firing, and yet we never felt in danger even though we were just 40 miles away. With enemy countries adjacent to the Israeli border, we could see the Hezbollah flag waving in the distance. It was surreal.

The next day, we celebrated Israel’s Memorial Day—Yom HaZikaron—when the entire nation stopped for a moment of silence as sirens sounded, paying homage to those who died in service. The following day, we celebrated and danced for Yom HaAtzmaut—Independence Day—as Israel celebrated its 71st anniversary as an independent nation. From somber to euphoria, the sense of patriotism was palpable and drove home for me this truth: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

We visited a school that is a network of integrated, bilingual schools for Jewish, Christian and Arab children in Israel. Embracing their differences, respecting their heritages and seeing them playing with one another reinforced for me to honor everyone. I also learned that the Israeli military protects all public areas, including schools, which led me to conclude that school security is a matter of national defense. While educating students may be a local issue, protecting students should be a federal responsibility so that we can give justice to the weak and use vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.

These were just a few of the many rich experiences our group felt together. Ultimately, the greater lesson I learned was that often, our vision is limited by where we are; we can see only from the place where we are standing. By being not just open but thirsty and hungry to learn, I absorbed a nation, culture, heritage, history and religion in ways I had not been taught before.

My world view was altered by seeing—both by sight and new understanding—what it took for this nation to go from peril to promise, and by viewing that not from a textbook but from my vantage point of standing in the actual Promised Land.

“If we could take just a little of that back home,” I thought, and then realized I could do just that by truly assimilating profound personal lessons about how I choose to live my life, such as being better at withholding judgment, demonstrating greater empathy, having deeper compassion, overcoming or effectively resolving conflict, and modeling respect for humankind.

Thank you to The Jewish Federation for this incredible trip and thank you to my newfound family for teaching me lessons I never expected, but am grateful, to have learned.

Jennifer Vigne is president of the Education Foundation of Sarasota County.

Photo courtesy Education Foundation: Jennifer Vigne, third from right, with interfaith community group in Israel.

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