Returnees and first-time visitors alike marveled at the modernity of Israel, perhaps best exemplified by the nationwide network of battery charging and exchange stations for electric cars that opened the week before the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland’s Connect to Israel Mission in February.
“Before our trip, I read about A Better Place in Startup Nation and looked forward to visiting the company,” said Rich Meyer, one of 17 mission participants. “A Better Place is a big, cross-functional endeavor: it’s not just about selling people on the concept of buying an electric car, but it requires a lot of infrastructure to support the system. … If this type of system can work anywhere in the world, then Israel is the place to try it. The business typifies the Israeli experience – they are seeking to defy conventional wisdom by doing what others say is impossible.”
JFGP CEO Marc Blattner expressed similar sentiments in his Feb. 24 email blast about the trip: “Shai Agassi (Better Place founder) and his team have truly developed an incredible concept, and, perhaps one day this non-oil-dependent car will be a mainstay in Portland and the rest of the world.”
Bob Ingber said he was impressed by the car’s pickup, speed and drivability. He added that the changing stations can swap a battery in five minutes, faster than filling a tank with gas.
“I thought the cars were fantastic; great acceleration, perfectly quiet – but the concept is even more exciting than the cars themselves,” added JFGP Chair Michael Weiner.
While most of their traveling companions were test-driving the electric cars, Steven Kahn and Mark Goodman decided to take a different kind of test drive.
“We actually tried to rent bikes from the bike share program, which has bikes to rent all over Tel Aviv, with rental stands everywhere,” said Kahn, noting their foreign credit cards wouldn’t work at the kiosks so they had to go to a bike shop. (Portland has a similar bike share program in development.) “One of the biggest changes I noticed in Tel Aviv is the growth of cycling as a means of transportation there. It has become a supremely bike-friendly city, which is hard to believe, given the roads, traffic and the way Israelis drive.”
Kahn, who was last in Israel in 2010, said that the country continues to develop with new roads, new malls and new restaurants.
Meyer added, “Tour guides in Israel joke that the national bird of Israel is the crane, but it’s really true – the place seems to be going through a building boom.”
On his first trip to Israel, Ingber said he was surprised by two things: “How normal and safe it felt … also how beautiful and plush and green” everything was, especially surprising in a desert country.
Goodman, also on his first trip, had three surprises: “Soldiers were younger than I thought, enemy countries much closer than I thought and food much better than I thought.”
Meyer, who said he couldn’t believe he’d waited 29 years to return after visiting Israel on a USY trip while in high school, said that he gained “a much better understanding of life in Israel and a new appreciation for the challenges Israel faces as well as for the sacrifices people have made to create a state for the Jewish people.”
All the participants asked said they recommend others visit the Jewish state.
“Every Jew must visit Israel,” said Weiner. “Whether they know it or not, their journey as a Jew is not complete without a visit to Israel.”
“I would highly recommend a trip like this,” said Sue Friedman, who was on her fifth trip to Israel.
Ingber suggested first-time visitors go on an organized mission. “I can’t imagine going alone and understanding it,” he said. “Understanding the whole picture gave me a different view. It personalized it and made it hit home,” he said, adding he hadn’t realized how important water was to them and how many challenges they face.