Twenty-one-year-old Kishwer Vikaas describes her recent participation in a Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia Jewish Community Relations Council Interfaith Mission to Israel as "overwhelming -- in a wonderful, memorable way." This Temple University graduate and her father, Victor Gill, a leader in Philadelphia's Pakistani Christian community, traveled to the holy land of many faiths with a delegation of area clergy, civic leaders and educators from Jan. 16 to Jan. 23.
The group toured Christian holy sites, Caesarea, a kibbutz, the Golan Heights, Jerusalem and Yad Vashem. They enjoyed a Shabbat dinner; participated in synagogue services; and met with a Palestinian Christian leader as well as an Israeli journalist, rabbis and numerous dignitaries.
Interfaith missions have been ongoing under the auspices of the JCRC since the late 1970s. "They are really designed for people like Vikaas and her father -- people open to new insights and experiences who may also return and share their new knowledge with others in a meaningful way," explained Burt Siegel, director of the JCRC, who led the mission. "We know that once people see Israel with their own eyes, they truly understand it, and can help others to understand it, too."
"I felt that I really, truly understood so much about Israel in the ways that mattered," said Vikaas, who was "ecstatic" to be invited to be a part of the mission. "I've always been interested in history, and the idea of learning it through travel was just wonderful."
She recalls that, while a student at Central High School, she was intensely interested in the Holocaust, and had won a prize in the JCRC's Mordecai Anielewicz Creative Arts Competition focused on the Holocaust. Vikaas composed a diary written in the voice of a young woman experiencing this cataclysmic event, and had even produced an art project to accompany it.
"My father often told me stories of Holocaust survivors he had met during his travels in Europe, so I was quite aware of how Jews had suffered," said Vikaas, who has been a volunteer at Einstein's Hospice Care program, worked as a reporter for the Temple News newspaper, and is currently working with challenged students in a special math program at Temple University.
Connection and Understanding
Siegel understands the power of these missions to educate, inform, and often, transform opinions. "We know that those who go on a mission come away seeing and hearing for themselves how desperately Israelis want peace, and how constantly they live with danger. It's emotional, it's spiritual, and it's definitely educational," said Siegel, who has seen instances of mission networking that ultimately lead to even more connection and understanding.
For Vikaas, the insights and impressions came in a steady, pummeling stream.
"I went out of curiosity, and came home with the curiosity satisfied," she said. "And while it was definitely a spiritual experience, it also awakened something in me that I feel is just as important. Now, inside of me is an American much more willing to speak up and speak out about Israel as the only democratic country in that part of the world. Now, I'm not afraid of being identified as someone wanting to become more involved."
Despite the exhausting pace of the trip, Vikaas kept a log -- one that she shared with family and friends.
There were narrative descriptions of " ... scrubby bushes and pine trees, groves of bananas and orange trees ... everything is gorgeous ... ." There was commentary: "We planted a tree near a yeshiva to replace the ones burnt during the war last summer. We visited Tzfat, a gorgeous city with an ancient quarter ... the Arab market in the Old City was amazing ... ."
Yet it was the group's meeting with former Americans Sherri and Rabbi Seth Mandell -- the parents of 13-year-old Koby Mandell, who, along with a friend, Yosef Ishran, 14,, was stoned to death near his West Bank home in 2001 -- left an indelible impression on Vikaas. "That was one of the most moving experiences of the entire trip, and during it, I could not stop crying," she said, adding that "it was a reminder of what some Israelis go through."
After the loss of their son, the Mandells started a foundation in his memory, and also have become crusaders for anti-violence and tolerance. The Koby Mandell Foundation is supported by Federation.
Another mission participant, Dr. Victoria Yancey, an administrator with the Philadelphia Board of Education, was so deeply affected by what she heard that she's arranged for Sherri Mandell to speak at a major conference for Philadelphia teachers and parents on June 1. "It's another example of how personal and significant this kind of trip can be," said Siegel.
The JCRC director can cite similar post-mission reactions, including the time that then-Lutheran Bishop Roy Almquist participated in a JCRC mission.
"Based on an earlier church trip, Bishop Almquist had spoken out in a statement to Condoleezza Rice about the hardships posed by the security barrier. But after our trip, where he gained a far deeper understanding of why it was necessary, Bishop Almquist publicly expressed a turnaround, and admitted that he'd been wrong."
Vikaas vows to be more outspoken in her support for Israel: "This was truly the trip of a lifetime, and I think its impact will really stay with me for the rest of my life. I will never forget what I saw. I will never forget what I heard and learned. Now I know how important it is to understand Israel -- not just the place, but its people and its challenges, too. And now I know how important it is to speak out."