500 strong, local contingent from 9 congregations finds meaning, belonging on visit to Israel

‘So steeped in a culture that is mine'
Posted at 7:00 AM, Aug 28, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-28 11:22:58-04

CINCINNATI -- A recent trip to Israel wasn’t all pleasure for Brett Stern. She had a message to deliver.

The message was a piece of paper with a prayer request, that for healing for her mother, who underwent a double mastectomy while Stern was abroad.

Stern began crying as her tour bus pulled into Jerusalem, she said, and she continued as it made its first stop, the Western Wall, the holiest place in all Judaism, a remnant of the temple built by Herod the Great about 19 B.C.

Jews worldwide place their paper prayer requests between the stones that make up the wall. It was hard for Stern to find a place for hers, but she did.

“I was in tears about how much I wanted for her to be OK,” Stern said. “Praying for her complete recovery was very meaningful.”

Members of the Stern family of Symmes Township in Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem during the 2016 Cincinnati Congregation of Community Israel Mission in July. From left: daughter, Leora; mother, Brett; daughter, Shoshana; and father, Noah. Provided

The Symmes Township resident and her family visited Israel in July as part of the 2016 Cincinnati Congregation of Community Israel Mission, which was subsidized by the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati.

More than 500 locals, including members of nine Jewish congregations, went on the 10-day trip, the largest contingent ever to visit Israel from this region; 350 of them participated in a prayer gathering at the Western Wall, and in a multinational effort to create an egalitarian prayer space there.

Stern, who celebrated her 40th birthday on the trip, and her husband, Noah, 45, had both visited Israel before. This was her fifth trip there -- she made her first when she was 17.

“It’s my most favorite place in the entire world,” she said. “It’s amazing to me to be in a place so steeped in a culture that is mine, and that feels so foreign at the same time.”

Even a trip to the grocery has special meaning, she said, because the transaction is conducted in Hebrew, the same language Jews pray in.

What made this trip memorable was experiencing Israel with her husband for the first time, and with their daughters, Shoshana, 13, and Leora, 10, who had never been but had heard lots of stories.

They had wide eyes and eager smiles as they touched the Western Wall for the first time, Noah Stern said, as it was a place that had taken on almost mystical proportions for them.

While the Sterns were in Jerusalem, they also took part in a bat mitzvah for a friend from Arizona whom Shoshana met at Camp Young Judea, a summer camp in Wisconsin. That took place at Robinson’s Arch, a section of the Western Wall where men and women can pray together.

“We were able to be part of the ceremony,” Noah Stern said. “It was a wonderful experience.”

K.K. Bene Israel Rockdale Temple member Steve Coppel, 65, also visited the Western Wall but was more moved when a tour guide asked him to take off his shoes to walk on the steps that led into the Temple’s south entrance.

He also toured the archeological dig below the ground and saw the actual temple foundations, which gave him an idea of how huge the Temple was.

The Montgomery resident visited with his son, Brad Coppel, 33, of Hyde Park, which made the trip more meaningful.

His father, Werner Coppel, who died in February, was an Auschwitz survivor who for three decades spoke to local school children about what happens when hate is unchecked.

Werner Coppel was in training to go to Palestine when World War II broke out. After the war, Steve Coppel said, he wanted to resume that goal but acceded to the wishes of his wife, who wanted to move to the United States.

If not for that, he said, he could have been born in Israel. He could have been one of the young soldiers buried at Mount Herzl, the cemetery they visited, where four of Israel’s prime ministers are also buried, along with Theodor Herzl, a father of modern Zionism.

Brad Coppel had the same “what if” thought when they visited Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. The museum’s final exhibit, the Hall of Names, has binders filled with names of people murdered in the Holocaust, while the cone-shaped ceiling is covered with 600 of their pictures.

“Seeing their smiles, and knowing their lives were cut short … Both my grandparents were lucky enough to survive … it could just as easily have been my relatives’ pictures,” he said.

Rabbi Robert Barr, who led a group with members of his Loveland synagogue, Beth Adam, and some non-Jews, said his group was most moved by an exhibit about towns destroyed in the Holocaust.

His group also visited some Christian sites in Israel, such as the Church of the Beatitudes, where a minister read those sayings of Jesus and the group discussed them.

They also visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional site of Jesus’ interment. Although that site didn’t have any resonance for Barr, he said, he was moved to see people moved by it.

“Our goal was to have a meaningful experience that allowed people to look at Israel through multiple lenses,” he said. “People were moved by what they saw. I wanted them to come and get answers, but to leave with more questions as well. I think we absolutely did that.”