First Israel visit is eye-opening experience

Robin Brody, Keith Cohen, Burt Garland, Jeremy Lieb, Daniel Platschek, Ed Reggi, Dorie Sher, Abbey Small, Jennifer Growe Soshnik and Brad Snitzer were selected as participants of the third annual Rubin Israel Experience.

by Keith Bryan Cohen

Every day we try to connect with family, friends, co-workers and customers.   Connecting with people is not easy and it takes time, but as a Rubinite, the 10 of us were given the gift of 10 days to connect with an entire country. 

Each one of us was making our maiden voyage and connecting to the Jewish homeland, all with different ideas, concerns and expectations.  The whole adventure was a lot like speed dating – learning and experiencing as much as we could of this beautiful and somewhat mysterious place in a short time span, then coming home to convince our nearest and dearest that she’s the one for me.  

We started our adventure with a series of pre-travel meetings.  This was a great time to prepare ourselves for this journey – gathering and sharing our thoughts, understanding our goals and connecting with new friends. The night before we left St. Louis, I have to admit I was nervous.  I was thinking: “What if I don’t feel a connection?  What will I tell the Rubins?  I finally took a deep breath and said out loud, ‘I am ready.'”  


The moment we found our seats on the massive 747 from JFK to Tel Aviv, we were making connections.  A cute 4-year-old Israeli girl felt very comfortable jumping over her seat two inches from my face and serenading me with songs from her favorite video “Uncle Moisey and the Mitzvah Men.”

A number of Hasidic Jews filled other seats on the plane and at sunset and sunrise gathered in the back of the plane to pray. A new friend, “Rabbi Spooner,” asked Jeremy (Lieb) to join in.  With barely any sleep on the 11-hour flight (except for Robyn Brody, who could sleep through a nuclear blast), we landed in Tel Aviv and met our amazing guide and friend, Amir.

Amir’s opening greeting was: “Dearly Beloved.” (I told you the trip was like speed dating.)  Our first stop was at the botanical gardens of Israel, Neot Kedumim.  We learned about the biblical landscapes and fine-tuned our leadership skills by herding goats and sheep.  Ed (Reggi), our experienced shepherd (don’t ask, just believe it), showed us the way.  By getting into the middle of the herd and with a little push we led them, just as our ancestors did so long ago.

Reflecting on this experience later, I saw our group as a herd, with Israel as our shepherd, leading us along a path of making connections.  And making those connections on this journey took us through a full range of emotions:

• Uncontrollable laughter in Beersheva

• Pride during our visit to the Elyakim Military Base and the Palmach Museum

• Community spirit and joy at the food pantry and the Yokneam & Megiddo Kibbutzim

• Spiritual renewal at the Western Wall on Shabbat

• Frustration and sadness at Yad Vashem and Mt. Herzl

• Exhaustion and awe as we climbed Masada

• Happiness floating in the Dead Sea

Israel tried its best to win our hearts with its beautiful beaches in Tel Aviv, its amazing sunset from the mountains overlooking the Dead Sea (Daniel Platschek loved the jeep ride) and the scenic views of the Old City (Dorie Sher take a picture using your good arm).  However, I think we would all agree, it was the people of Israel that connected with us the most. It wasn’t that they were different than us. Actually, they were the same – people who want to live free, in their homeland.

So did we make a connection to Israel?  Yes, but each of us in our own way.  We could tell you what we did, who we met and even how we felt, but you don’t really get it until you try to make the connection yourself.  We would like to express our sincere appreciation to Ron and Pam Rubin, Jewish Federation, Wendy Rosenblum, Margo Newman and Mindee Fredman for this amazing, life-changing experience.

Keith Bryan Cohen is Preconstruction Director for Duke Realty Corporation and is Vice President of the Crown Center for Senior Living, a board member of the St. Louis Zoo and a Corporate Committee member of Congregation Shaare Emeth.  He lives in Ballwin with his wife, Amy and their three children, Max, Phoebe and Olivia.

Cohen was one of 10 St. Louis Jewish young adult professionals who went to Israel for the very first time as part of the third annual Rubin Israel Experience, the first and only program of its type in the country. The trip was completely underwritten by St. Louis philanthropists Ron and Pam Rubin and organized and staffed by Jewish Federation of St. Louis. The program is modeled after the Birthright Israel, but designed for young adults ages 27-40.