The enduring promise of the land of Israel is that there will always be a home for the Jewish people. Eretz Yisrael will welcome you whenever you find your way to her – as Al Schneider has discovered for himself. Now in his 80s, Schneider has just returned from his very first trip to Israel, having been forever impacted by things he did not expect to see – lush greenery, modern buildings and technology, and camaraderie between peoples.
Al has, until recently, lived a predominantly secular existence. “For most of my life I really didn’t identify as a Jew,” he explained. “I didn’t have Jewish friends, I didn’t marry Jewish women, I didn’t date Jewish women.” His career with Xerox led him to Oregon, and he spent 40 years of his life there without connection to the Jewish community, not knowing a single Jewish person. “It just wasn’t anything I thought about,” he said. Whenever Israel was brought up, he felt a connection, but not a driving interest. After his wife passed in 2014, Schneider found himself sitting in his beautiful home alone with his dog, missing direction, when his sister, Jacqui Schneider – now the incoming President of Jewish National Fund-USA San Diego – suggested he move nearer to her in San Diego, California. Now that he lives in San Diego, Al says, “I don’t know anyone that isn’t Jewish.”
Jacqui’s involvement in Jewish National Fund-USA has grown in recent years and she invited her brother to her home to watch a virtual tour of Israel during the pandemic. “Until then,” Al continues, “I had always thought of Israel as desert, camels – you know, the old city was (all there was to) Jerusalem to me, I had no idea that Jerusalem was this large city – a semi-modern city.” After seeing the tour, he was compelled to become more personally involved with the work of Jewish National Fund-USA, donating first to a bomb shelter beautification project. He was pleased to see his donation resulted in a cheerful mural of a surfer and sea life on the wall of the shelter, bringing joy to children who could be traumatized by having to enter the shelter regularly for their safety.
The Schneider siblings were determined to visit Israel in person. Jacqui, having a keen interest in genealogy, has found cousins all over the world – including a second cousin local to San Diego with whom the Schneiders have become very close and who ultimately joined them on this trip. After initial attempts to travel were waylaid by COVID-19, their party connected with a local guide named Avi Gal – a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and a 35-year tour guide – and began a 12-day adventure that took them all over the country. Gal was “indispensable,” praises Al, crediting Gal’s skill and encyclopedic knowledge of Israel with much of the success of the trip. Once they arrived, Israel exceeded Al’s expectations. “I was blown away by the modernness of cities, buildings – green in places that shouldn’t be green,” he expressed. He found himself overwhelmed by the miles and miles of green – lush fig, date, banana, and olive trees dotting a country he once imagined to be bare. Jacqui’s genealogy skills paid off once more, as they connected with another cousin while in Israel, chemistry Professor Stephen Weiner at the Weizmann Institute of Science, who was able to give them a tour of the facility.
Since his trip to Israel, Al has deepened his personal connection with Special in Uniform, a Jewish National Fund-USA affiliate that “integrates young adults with disabilities into the IDF and, in turn, into Israeli society.” He has been so inspired by their work, and their determination that everyone belongs and everyone has a place, that he set up an annuity to help fund Special in Uniform for the remainder of his life. Although he has been an active donor to the organization for more than a year, it was seeing their work in person that made all the difference.
What Al finds most moving is the resiliency of Israel and her people, and how much world-class technology has been born in a little over 70 years, despite constant adversity and doubt from observers and other nations. “You’ve tried to kill us over the years,” he explained. “You’ve driven us out of our country. You wouldn’t let us in your countries. In every way possible you tried to hold us down and hold us back – and now we have a country of our own and we are going to make it the most technologically advanced society on Earth.” He saw people living in bomb shelters, but still they live their lives in defiance of circumstance. He found community with Arab people, sharing meals and co-existing together more than he expected.
“If you haven’t been (to Israel), or if it’s been years and years since you’ve been there, you’ll be blown away by what you see,” he insisted. “It’s not anything like even ten years ago. We saw things that didn’t exist two years ago.” Most of all, what Al is showing us is that the time to visit Israel is now, no matter your age. It’s never too late to come home.