Ari (Ballaban) Jun — In Conversation
Seeing Israel Through New Eyes
Last week, I had the incredible privilege to join the Ohio Jewish Communities’ House Israel Trade Mission. Together with state legislators (7 Democrats, 5 Republicans), staff, and Jewish professionals and lay leaders from across the state, we had an incredible week of touring and meeting with government officials, start-up founders, journalists, innovators, and Ohio community partners in Israel. While I have been blessed to be able to travel to Israel over ten times, both personally and professionally, last week’s trip was truly special. Some highlights that I am excited to share with you all include:
Seeing Israel Through the Eyes of Another
As I mentioned, I am no stranger to Israel. From my very first trip in high school (paid for by the Jewish Federation’s Israel grants program!) to the countless Birthright trips I’ve staffed, that long trans-Atlantic flight has become something of a second home over the last decade. However, seeing things I’ve long taken for granted through the eyes of the non-Jewish politicians was eye-opening for me. I’ve long taken for granted the beauty and significance of the Western Wall, Old City, and hills of Judea, but the audible gasps, respectful asks about Jewish customs, and requests to return at night to see the beauty in a different light struck me. I’ve learned about Israeli innovation and chutzpah for my entire educational career and didn’t think I had anything left to learn. Sitting in meetings with Ohio legislators learning about Israeli desalination plants, clean-water adaption, and defense technology, however, was when it hit me just how special that is. Everywhere we went, I found myself learning something new about a place I’ve seen up close so many times.
Yad Vashem is Still Special
Like the country as a whole, Holocaust education has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My grandparents were German refugees who always made sure we knew how fortunate we were to be alive in this country, and how many others were less fortunate. Spending half a day at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust Memorial, with non-Jewish politicians brought that story home in a way that never has before. My grandparents fled from Germany with no citizenship, desperate for a place to take them in. 80 years later, their grandson went to Yad Vashem with 12 of his elected leaders to share the stories of European Jews and discuss how to ensure this truly never happens again. I am confident that out of this experience, we can have continued conversations with each of these leaders about how to apply the lessons of the Holocaust. At a time when Holocaust education is under attack, even in our own state, we now have 12 allies ready to testify to the importance of continued learning.
Israel Means So Much to So Many
Every trip to Israel I’ve ever participated in—from my summer trip in high school, to family vacations, to Birthright—has focused on the sites and stories of the Jewish people’s connection to our homeland. While this trip did too, traveling with Christian and Muslim colleagues meant additional highlights. An entire morning was spent seeing important Christian biblical sites in the Galilee, including where Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount. I have spent extended time in that area but never visited. Seeing how meaningful places like the Mount of Beatitudes, Sea of Galilee, Jordan River, and Bethlehem are brought home the fact that Israel is “The Holy Land” to people of many religions and cultures. One Representative said that getting baptized in the Jordan River was “the greatest day of my life.”
For me, Friday was a highlight of the trip. After a morning at the Western Wall and exploring the Jewish Quarter, we then toured the Christian Quarter, including the Via Dolorosa and Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Meanwhile, the Muslim representative in our group was able to ascend to the Al Aqsa Mosque for Friday afternoon prayers. His smile upon returning to the group, and the joy he exhibited in my follow-up conversations with him, said it all. After some free time that afternoon, we all brought in Shabbat together with traditional Jewish rituals and foods. No matter how many times I’ve heard it, it wasn’t until I was able to experience all three major Abrahamic religions within a matter of just a few square miles that I realized just how special Israel truly is.