By Regan Treewater-Lipes
(AJNews) – A trip to the Holy Land is a tremendous journey for any Jewish family, even one that has landed upon the sacred soil numerous times. This past summer, the Wasel and Asbell families – pillars of the Edmonton Jewish community – embarked on a voyage to Eretz Israel like no other! The landscape of Edmonton’s Jewish life would not be what it is without the familiar faces of these families, and as they reflect on the joy and celebration of their recent travels, the larger community can join in toasting their philanthropic achievements and many simchas too.
Weekly Shabbos-goers at Beth Israel Synagogue may have noticed their congregation’s president Shane Asbell absent from the bimah for several weeks. Aliza Asbell, eldest daughter of Shane and Rabecca Asbell, recently married Eitan Yehuda, her b’shert, in a ceremony surrounded by family and friends from around the world. Eitan was born in Israel, not far from where the couple wed, but grew up in Toronto. Aliza and Eitan met while studying at McMaster University in Hamilton, and now reside in Toronto where Aliza is pursuing her postgraduate studies.
This was not the only significant occasion marked during the trip though. Many in the community will remember the Edmonton JNF Negev Gala of 2019 when Freya and Lewis Wasel, Aliza’s proud maternal grandparents, began their work to cultivate, restore, and revitalize a public green space in Kiryat Shmona. While in Israel for Aliza and Eitan’s chupah, the families were able to attend a ceremony in Airplane Park and see firsthand the glittering oasis that their altruistic labors made possible. With the city’s mayor, Avihai Shtern presiding, and representatives from the local KKL offices, a plaque was dedicated in recognition of Freya and Lewis Wasel’s tremendous contribution to the most northern Israeli municipality.
In addition to all these festivities, there was yet one more family milestone to pay tribute to – the bar mitzvah of Shane and Rebecca’s only son, Caleb.
“At the Negev Gala I announced to Caleb that we would celebrate his bar mitzvah in Airplane Park,” explained Freya Wasel in a recent interview with Alberta Jewish News. “His bar mitzvah was in May of 2022, but we were able to call him up to the podium with us during the ceremony at Airplane Park, with all his family around, and he could not have been prouder.”
Freya and Lewis were presented with two awards that day: one from the JNF, and one from the city. Both now stand impressively in their home next to the framed certificate from when they were first honored at the Negev Gala in 2019.
“I visited Airplane Park shortly before the Negev Gala, and I can remember being so excited. I remember thinking how incredible it was even before all the improvements,” Freya commented reflectively. When Jay Cairns from the JNF first presented the Wasels with potential projects, it took two visits before the couple could decide.
“Jay came and suggested some projects that might work for us, and they were all worthwhile projects, but nothing really resonated with us. So, he came back a second time, and BINGO! When we saw Airplane Park, this was it. Central Israel is vibrant but the North and the South need more development. Especially in this particular area, being surrounded by hostile neighbors, we knew this was it; it spoke to us. We liked the idea of families coming together in a peaceful setting.”
During the dedication ceremony, both Freya and Lewis were moved to see so many people strolling through the park, some even stopped to thank the couple for their efforts to beautifully develop the area, realizing what the auspicious gathering marked.
“The park is also completely accessible,” Freya elaborated. “I was so pleased to hear this and when I mentioned it to a representative from the KKL, his answer really stuck with me. He said: ‘Freya, why are you surprised? Nature is for everybody.’ I found that so meaningful.”
Before the question could be posed, Lewis quite knowingly offered: “Perhaps you’re wondering why it’s called ‘Airplane’ Park.” Yes, this was certainly a ponderance. “Well, the area adjacent to the park had been used as an air strip. Even after it was decommissioned, there was one airplane that was left behind. Nobody knew why, and it just remained there. It’s been taken away now, but the name stuck.”
Freya was able to tour the site before any work was done, so she was able to reflect on her before and after impressions. During the momentous ceremony she describes being captivated by the tranquility and natural elegance of the park with its finished product ready to be showcased. “There are some plans to enhance Airplane Park by building hotels and glamping areas next to it to promote tourism,” she explained. “Airplane Park is an incredible place to start.”
How much joy can one family cram into a two-week trip? This marked Freya’s eleventh visit to Israel, and Lewis’ eighth. Both Aliza and her sister Daniella celebrated their bat mitzvahs in Israel, and yet, this 2023 pilgrimage to the sacred sites of Eretz Israel will forever echo as the precious snapshots from the trip of a lifetime for the Wasel and Asbell families. A sincere yasher koach to Freya and Lewis for their contribution to tikkun olam, effusive mazel tovs to Rebecca and Shane and to Aliza and Eitan for a lifetime of happiness together, and many congratulations to Caleb who was able to fulfill his grandparents dream – to be recognized and celebrated at Airplane Park.
Regan Treewater-Lipes is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with Alberta Jewish News.