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Emotion-Filled Israel Trip For TV Stars

David (Dudi) Roth (1st row, right), co-chairman of Meir Panim, greets members of the America's Voices in Israel celebrity mission at the Meir Panim Soup Kitchen in downtown Tiberias.

David (Dudi) Roth (1st row, right), co-chairman of Meir Panim, greets members of the America's Voices in Israel celebrity mission at the Meir Panim Soup Kitchen in downtown Tiberias.

With tears flowing, a phalanx of top American TV stars recounted various personal and religious revelations they gained during last week’s weeklong visit to Israel. They expressed admiration for the Jewish people’s vitality and for their willingness to create a better society in the midst of political and religious upheaval in the region.

The star-studded group included, among others, AnnaLynne McCord (“90210” and “Nip/Tuck”), Omar Epps (“House”), Paul Johansson (“One Tree Hill”), Holly Robinson Peete (“21 Jump Street” and “Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper”), Mekhi Phifer (“ER” and “The Tuskegee Airmen”), Holt McCallany (“Lights Out”), Zach Roerig (“The Vampire Diaries”) and Paget Brewster (“Criminal Minds”).

The trip was sponsored by the Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, while the Ministry of Tourism hosted and arranged their tour with the assistance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, El Al Israel Airlines and the Inbal Jerusalem Hotel. The celebrity group was led by Irwin Katsof, director of America’s Voices in Israel (AVI), which is part of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Some key elements of the trip included a visit to an Israel Air Force base, exploration of the ancient ruins in Caesarea, experiencing the physical and spiritual beauty of the Galilee and Golan Heights regions, and meeting the people behind some of Israel’s most renowned social welfare and outreach programs. They also celebrated Shabbat amid thousands of Israelis and tourists at the Western Wall.

“The hospitable nature of the people in Israel is something you just don’t find in many places,” Epps, who plays Dr. Eric Foreman on Fox’s long-running medical drama series “House,” told foreign correspondents during a press conference at the Inbal Jerusalem Hotel. “We encountered people at the Western Wall on Friday night who made sure that anyone who didn’t have a place to eat a warm Shabbat meal, were invited to someone’s home. I’ve never seen or experienced such loving care.”

Brewster, who has garnered critical acclaim for her role as special agent Emily Prentiss on the CBS crime drama “Criminal Minds,” was impressed by how a soup kitchen in Tiberias, run by Meir Panim, treated everyone with a smile. “It didn’t look or feel like a soup kitchen but rather [like] a restaurant, where the Meir Panim staff just wants to help people from all walks of life enjoy a good meal with dignity, even if they don’t have money. I was fascinated and moved by what I saw,” said Brewster.

Johansson, who has earned a notable reputation as an actor, writer and director, remarked that “I was invited many times to visit the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles, but I always wanted to run away from seeing or experiencing that type of pain. After going to Yad Vashem with Irwin [Katsof] and recognizing the continuing struggle of the Jewish people in their homeland was a very important experience for me.”

McCord, the popular antiheroine Naomi Clark on the CW’s “90210,” was enthused by the number of young Israelis who recognized her (the TV series airs on a local cable station). “Israelis of all ages are an engaging people,” she said. “It was fascinating for me to hear a wide range of opinions from so many different types of people, whether it was an aspiring blind actress trying to make a living in Jaffa to a former high-ranking Israeli diplomat who resides in Jerusalem. What I learned is that even in the midst of all the turmoil around them, Israelis love to live their lives to the fullest.”

The emotional response by the actors reinforced Irwin Katsof’s belief in America’s Voices in Israel’s ongoing mission. Katsof told The Jewish Press, “The power of bringing people like celebrities and others who have a platform on social media was made very clear by the impact this trip has had on the celebrities who came. Omar Epps will be producing a show about Israel for a cable travel network. Paul Johansson plans on directing a feature movie about [the biblical] Noah in Israel. Many of the stars sent out hundreds of positive tweets on Twitter that were seen by tens of millions of people. This trip enabled them to become ambassadors of goodwill for Israel.”

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