Nearly 300 members of the Pittsburgh Jewish community left Tuesday for Israel as part of a 10-day "mega-mission" sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
It's the largest mission ever from the region, planned in conjunction with the federation's 100-year anniversary.
Some of the participants have been to Israel numerous times, others are making their first visit, and five families are traveling with three generations, said Ellen Roteman, federation marketing director.
"Our last mega-mission 20 years ago had 181 people," said Edgar Snyder, a local lawyer and co-chair of the centennial celebration. "We wanted to break that record for our 100th year. Our goal was 250, and we exceeded that by a good margin."
Lou Plung, federation chairman, said the goal was for participants to "be inspired, have a great time, talk about what matters and how we can do even better.
"Bringing so many people together in Israel will create a lot of energy," he said. "Bonds will be formed, the investments we make in Israel will be seen firsthand, and it will enhance the understanding of the federation's mission."
Because the trip is seen as a way of inspiring the next generation of community leaders, the federation is heavily subsidizing the excursion for those age 45 and younger.
"Many of our current leaders went 20 years ago and then took leadership positions within the Jewish and non-Jewish communities," Mr. Plung said. "We are hoping that leaders will emerge from this trip to drive the community forward for the next 20 years."
Mr. Snyder counted himself among those who stepped forward after the mission in 1991, and also among those traveling with three generations -- 14 members of his extended family in all. He has visited Israel 15 times.
"Trips to Israel played a very important role in me getting to the place in my Jewish life where I've taken my role seriously as I got older," he said. "A relationship with Israel has been proven to help stoke the fires of commitment to Jewish life, not just here but across the country."
Accommodating such a diverse group required a lot of logistical planning, Ms. Roteman said. First-time visitors want to tour all the must-see places that frequent travelers already have covered on earlier journeys. The solution was to offer an array of options -- from biking, kayaking and parasailing to culinary arts, yoga and meditation, technology and medicine.
In addition, a number of children of bar and bat mitzvah age will have a special outdoor service in Jerusalem led by Rabbi Jamie Gibson of Temple Sinai, as well as a presentation atop Masada overlooking the Dead Sea.
The first few days of the mission will be spent in Karmiel, Pittsburgh's sister city in Galilee. The federation has formed partnerships there to develop bike trails, vocational training, music education at an integrated public school serving Jewish and Arab children, and a wide range of support for low-income children at a special kibbutz school.
"Looking at meaningful sites and projects combined with conversations on buses and over meals gives a lot of opportunity for new relationships and ideas," said Mr. Plung. "I believe this trip will have ripple effects in our community for years to come."
Sally Kalson: email@example.com or 412-263-1610.