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Connecticut beauty queen visits Israel

By Cindy Mindell

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Former Miss Connecticut USA Michele LeFrance (right) and Miss Ohio USA (left) at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Bethlehem.

Michelle LaFrance may be best known as Misty on HBO’s Entourage. But for five days in late September and early October, the former Miss Connecticut USA left the fantasy world of Hollywood for the reality of an Israel just recovering from the latest military conflict with Hamas.

LaFrance was part of a group of fellow former and current American beauty queens who traveled to Israel to get a real taste of the country beyond the headlines. The 11 women were hosted by The Face of Israel, a project of the Foreign Ministry, which offers subsidized tours of Israel to opinion and community leaders from around the world.

They arrived only three weeks after the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

The group visited national landmarks, including the Old City of Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum and Memorial. They had back-to-back meetings with regular citizens and women leaders, from Sderot residents and patients in the Barzilai Medical Center (Ashkelon) children’s ward, to IDF soldiers and officers, Knesset members, Israeli start-up executives, and high-profile Israeli women leaders.

The women shared their experiences on social media, both while in Israel and upon their return to the U.S.

“At a time when lies about Israel spread virally and some attempt to discredit the historical connection of the Jewish people to our homeland, these women have shared the truth of Israel – indeed, the face of Israel – to hundreds of thousands of their followers in just a few short days,” says Ariel Bulshtein, CEO of The Face of Israel.

It was Carrie Mehwa, Miss Florida USA 2003, who spearheaded the effort. On a business trip to Israel earlier this year, she met with a Face of Israel representative who suggested that she organize a group of fellow beauty queens engaged in humanitarian and social causes. Mehwa hand-picked colleagues she thought would be most inspired by Face of Israel’s mission, including LaFrance.

MIchele LaFrance Sea of Galilee

Michele LaFrance on the Sea of Galilee.

“In my gut, I knew I wanted to go,” LaFrance says of the decision to visit Israel in the wake of Operation Protective Edge. “I did due diligence and didn’t feel there was a big threat at that point and I knew that Face of Israel wouldn’t let us go into a dangerous situation. It’s a scary time anywhere in the world but I really wanted to go and experience Israel and the Holy Land. I wanted to be open, to know the current state of living because what you hear about Israel in the news isn’t always positive,” she says. “You hear about the war and who’s killing who and it’s so political that I really wanted to know how people are living on the ground.”

Each day, from 8 a.m. to midnight, the women visited sites and met with an array of mostly women leaders – educators and school principals, IDF personnel, entrepreneurs, government ministers, and Knesset members.

“Being a woman, my focus was to learn about the kinds of opportunities women have in Israel,” LaFrance says. “I loved how equal men and women are in Israel, being recruited into the Israeli Defense Forces right after high school, no matter what socio-economic class you are. The young women soldiers we met are so worldly and have all this wisdom – they have the time, when they’re doing something so important, to figure out where they want to go next.”

LaFrance won the 2003 Miss Connecticut USA title at age 24 and embarked on a year of philanthropic work that would continue after her tenure. “Anything and everything that had to do with children, from visiting cancer patients to reading in different schools, I said yes to it all,” she says.

LaFrance moved to New York and got into acting, earning her Screen Actors Guild card and relocating to Los Angeles to pursue her new profession and become a health and wellness coach. She is still involved in children’s causes.

So it’s no wonder that she says she “broke down” while at the Yad Vashem children’s memorial, or that her most moving experience was meeting with high school students in Sderot.

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The group of American beauty queens get ready to board an El Al flight to Israel.

“They asked us whether we were scared to be there and we said, ‘No, you’re here so we’re here,’” LaFrance recalls. “I think that was the most surprising experience – going and seeing that ongoing threat of attack is a daily encounter; that’s how they live. They remain positive and focused on what they want to do, and all the while you would never know that yesterday they might have spent the entire day in a bomb shelter. For me, that was the biggest learning experience on the ground of what happens: parents have to grab all their kids and have 15 seconds to get to the bomb shelter. Who else in the world lives like that?”

“I found that a lot of the experience was hard to put into words because it was so profound,” she says. “Walking the streets and realizing how historical a place it was, I really felt that it is the Holy Land. I felt like Israel was wrapping its arms around me everywhere we went.”

The most “extraordinary, magical experience” for LaFrance was sailing out onto the Sea of Galilee, surrounded by the open sky and the mountainous landscape, with no hint of the unrest that characterizes the region just over the border.

LaFrance continues to share her experiences and impressions from Israel with her online communities, via her Twitter handle, @michellafrance, and her Facebook page, michellelafrance00.

Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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