Jewish Federation and Coast Guard Academy team up on tour
By Cindy Mindell
NEW LONDON – During a cold, wet week in early March that passed for springtime in Israel, a group from the United States Coast Guard Academy (USCGA) had many of the best tourist attractions to themselves, from the Golan Heights in the north to the Dead Sea in the south. The 24 cadets and five faculty and staff members were led by Jerry Fischer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, together with an Israeli tour guide.
The spring break trip was the brainchild of Capt. John Van Dickens, command chaplain for the Groton institution. “In my position, I support our cadets having enriched opportunities to grow professionally and spiritually,” he says. “Visiting Israel allowed them to see first-hand where the early development of the major monotheistic faiths took place, and its ongoing significance. I also wanted them to gain professional knowledge of Israel’s recent history, how it gained its independence, the mission of its navy, and Israel’s political importance as a functioning democratic nation in the Middle East.”
When Van Dickens approached Rear Admiral Sandra L. Stosz, USCGA superintendent, she referred him to Fischer, a fellow member of the New London Rotary Club.
Fischer has led many Jewish and interfaith missions to Israel, but this was the first time he was invited to accompany a group that was both college-age and entirely Christian. Before the trip, the group was briefed on the itinerary and conduct, and then received an extensive briefing on Israeli culture and the military by the Defense Attaché from the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C.
For most participants, trip highlights included religious sites and the naval base and Naval Academy in Haifa, where the group was hosted for a day by Cmdr. Yuval Eylon of the Officer Training Center and joined by Cmdr. Sean Maxwell, U.S. Naval Attaché to Israel.
First-year cadet Samantha Everett has wanted to visit Israel since childhood. “The first chance I received was this year’s spring break trip, and I jumped on it without hesitation,” says the Alaska native. “I was looking forward most to meeting with the cadets from the IDF Naval Academy to see what they were like, and that was definitely the highlight of the trip. After spending the day with them, I realized that sailors are sailors no matter where they are born. I have a lot of respect for the people who make up the IDF.”
The group also visited the Golan Heights, where they received a briefing about the current security situation on the Syrian and Lebanese borders, and learned about the area during the 1967 and 1973 wars.
“In addition to developing a deeper understanding of the religious mix within Israel, I have a much greater appreciation for just how close together everything is,” says John Lerchbacker, a fourth-year cadet from New Jersey. “It was quite eye-opening to think, ‘Oh look, there’s Syria, or Lebanon, or Jordan,’ depending on where we were.”
Being on the ground in the Holy Land meant that many closely held myths were busted. “I was expecting to see a more militarized country, but I am glad that it wasn’t what I had initially thought,” says Everett. “I also wasn’t expecting Israel to be as modernized as it is. It defied my expectations, which was fantastic.”
“I was surprised at how welcomed we were,” says Van Dickens. “I knew that Israel and the United States have a strong relationship, but it is clearly the attitude of everyone we met there. The first words that came out of the mouth of our Israeli guide were ‘Welcome home.’ And in ways that I had not anticipated, I did feel at home. I had no idea how beautiful Israel is, and how much the landscape changes in just a few miles. I knew about the ongoing controversies with surrounding neighboring nations, so I was relieved to feel very safe throughout the trip. And I had no idea how wonderfully delicious the food is!”
For Fischer, aside from touring a Sa’ar class-5 warship, the best part of the trip was seeing the group’s reactions to Christian holy sites – Jerusalem, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, and Bethlehem among them.
“I didn’t know what to expect really, mostly just to go around various places in Israel to see where events in the Bible took place,” says Adam Welzant, a second-year cadet from Maryland. “I was most looking forward to seeing Jerusalem and all the history it was the setting for, and without a doubt, the best part was seeing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was a very profound experience to see where Jesus died and was entombed. I also really valued my time at the Western Wall.”
While in Jerusalem, the group also visited Yad Vashem, accompanied by a high school friend of Fischer’s now living in Israel, whose parents were Holocaust survivors.
There was even an opportunity for Biblical humor and mysticism close to the source: “Floating in the Dead Sea was a ton of fun,” says Welzant. “The weather was crazy while we were there, so in one day we went from overcast and chilly to sunny to pouring rain and golfball-sized hail. We joked we were getting a Plague experience as well.”
Van Dickens adds: “After we boarded the bus and dried off as best we could, we drove up to Qumran to the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls and saw one spectacular waterfall after the other. Even our guide said he had never seen waterfalls in Israel. It felt like the Almighty was showing off.”
The cadets returned to campus not only with a closer connection to their own faith, but also with lessons from Israeli society. “In Israel, it was very evident how people with different religious beliefs were able to get along and live together in a community,” says Welzant. “I believe that this will help me to remember that disagreements can be healthy and should not prevent me from working with or enjoying other’s company.”
“Being Christian, I am not familiar with many Jewish customs, and I believe that I came to understand the culture of the Jewish people much better,” says Everett. “I feel that, because I understand their culture better now, I can better serve the people of the United States, because the U.S. is a cultural melting pot with many different ethnic groups, religions, and backgrounds.”
For some, this first trip will not be the last. “I have heard a lot about traveling around Israel; extended family and friends have all gone, and talked to me quite a bit,” says Lerchbacker. “However, none of that could compare to actually going myself. Israel really is the oldest new country in the world, and it was a privilege to travel for a week. Honestly, this trip really just whetted my appetite to go back.”
Van Dickens hopes to accompany another group of cadets. “Everyone, and I mean everyone, absolutely loved the trip and cannot wait to go again,” he says. “Having now visited Israel, I have a first hand reference for so many of the stories of scripture, which is always helpful for clergy. I’m also better enlightened as to how Israel is still developing as a nation, and the religious and cultural issues it faces within its borders and beyond. It’s not just the historical site for countless scriptural references. It is a living, dynamic place with tremendous relevance and ongoing political, cultural, and spiritual significance. For anyone who has never visited Israel, I would recommend going at least once in a lifetime.”
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