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Chicago Latinx leaders experience Israel firsthand with JUF

Read reflections from Latinx and Jewish Chicago leaders who took a joint trip to Israel.

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Latinx Leadership Mission during visit to the Kotel in Jerusalem. Photo credit: Ariel Stoler

From the Kotel and Church of the Holy Sepulchre to Dr. Saeb Erekat's office in Jericho; from a Hezbollah terror tunnel at Israel's border with Lebanon to a moshav on Israel's border with Gaza; and from the Knesset to Sheba Medical Center, 10 Latinx leaders from Chicago toured Israel with JUF in December. The delegation spent five days networking with each other and experiencing Israel firsthand thanks to funding from JUF's Shafton Israel Institute, which was created to take primarily non-Jewish community leaders to Israel.

These trips are crucial for two reasons: First, there is no better way to understand Israel than to experience Israel; and second, the relationships made and information shared between mission participants and JUF volunteers and staff on these trips cannot be replicated even at the most productive seminar.  

Most people don't get a chance to dig into the nuances and realities facing Israelis daily. That's why JUF designs trips like this: to delve deeper than talking points and soundbites, and to enable mission participants to hear firsthand from policy makers, security professionals, academics, journalists, and average citizens about what is really happening on the ground.

As three mission participants share following, this trip was successful in introducing them to the complexities that make up daily life in Israel.  As the Chair of the Jewish United Fund's Government Affairs Committee, I was honored and privileged to join this incredible group of Latinx leaders and some of our federation's most committed lay leaders for a unique Israel experience. I am proud to say that this trip forged new friendships, opened new lines of communication, and connected 10 community leaders to a country and a people that mean so much to our community.

Trip Participants


  • Dr. Elizabeth Aquino (DePaul University and American Association of Nurses)
  • State Senator Omar Aquino (2 nd )
  • State Senator Cristina Castro (22 nd )
  • Deputy Governor Sol Flores
  • Michelle Morales (President, Woods Fund)
  • Celena Roldan (CEO, American Red Cross of Chicago and Northern Illinois)
  • Deputy Governor Jesse Ruiz
  • Juan Salgado (Chancellor, City Colleges of Chicago)
  • Joseph McKeown (Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity)
  • State Senator Celina Villanueva (11 th )
  • Wendy Abrams (Board of Directors, Jewish United Fund)
  • Gita Berk (Board of Directors, Jewish United Fund)
  • David Golder (Board of Directors, Jewish Federations of North America)
  • Lee Miller (Board of Directors & Chair of Government Affairs Committee, Jewish United Fund)
  • Daniel Goldwin (Executive Director for Public Affairs, Jewish United Fund)


Finding friends and understanding in tragedy

Celena Roldan, CEO American Red Cross of Chicago and Northern Illinois

During our visit, we had the incredible opportunity to engage with experts involved in Israel's cutting-edge medical disaster and humanitarian response programs.

We visited the Israel Center for Disaster Medicine and Humanitarian Response at Sheba Medical Center, which responds to mass casualty events, natural disasters, and humanitarian crises around the world. Upon entering the emergency room at Sheba, there was a Magen David Adom ambulance parked in front.

Some people remember that the International Red Cross used to not recognize the MDA, and it's good to remind people that they now do. Many MDA volunteers ride ambulances daily in Israel assisting critically sick or wounded patients. The Sheba medical center Emergency room sees as many as 400 to 500 patients daily.

Lastly, it was an honor to meet Yotam Polizer, the Co-CEO of IsraAID, who responded in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and in Mexico after the earthquake in 2017. As I had also been part of the American Red Cross response in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, I was able to speak with him about the humanitarian work they provided after the hurricane and other crises, which was extremely moving.



Walking in the footsteps of terrorists

Senator Omar Aquino (2 nd )

While in Israel, we visited the Lebanese-Israeli border just outside a town called Zar'it, where we came face-to-face with Hezbollah's plan to kill Israelis. 

Like an ugly scar gashed through a beautiful countryside, we saw the entry into a tunnel that Hezbollah terrorists dug from Lebanon into Israel.  This tunnel, which took over 12 years and approximately $10 million for the terrorists to dig, was intended to be used once and for one goal--to inflict as much carnage as possible on Israeli civilians.

Led by IDF guides, we descended about 200 feet underground and saw Hezbollah's careful workmanship--the tunnel had phone lines, electricity, and even stairs with railings. 

When we left the tunnel, we drove about five minutes to a quaint bed and breakfast in Zar'it. It was surreal sitting in this quaint home, eating incredible Middle Eastern cuisine made by hand by a first-generation Israeli whose parents fled Iraq for Israel, knowing that but for the IDF finding the tunnel, our owner and host could well have been one of Hezbollah's victims.


A lasting impression from the Gaza Border


Juan Salgado, Chancellor City Colleges of Chicago

I met a man who, like me, has three young children. 

He and his young family endure daily threats to their lives from rocket fire. Bomb shelters are located everywhere to allow him, his family, and his neighbors to run to safety within 15 seconds--the amount of time it takes for a rocket launched from Gaza to land on their home, playground, or school. This man and his entire family are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, leaving him at times shivering and in tears. 

In these circumstances, you might think he would look at Gazans with a broad brush of animosity and disdain. Instead, he expressed empathy toward those across the border; he understood the people of Gaza also suffer. 

This man has remained in Netiv HaAsara despite the disruption because he deeply loves his community.  Yet, even with this fierce passion for his family and his neighbors, he recognizes a common humanity. 

I will never forget the empathy he shared and think that empathy is the key to lasting peace.

Lee Miller is the Chair of the Jewish United Fund's Government Affairs Committee and a member of the JUF Board of Directors.


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