Blog  Today Begins The Big Family Reunion with our Long-Lost Israeli Teen Cousins

Today Begins The Big Family Reunion with our Long-Lost Israeli Teen Cousins

This past Thursday the group visited the mystical mountain-top city of Tzfat to learn about the poets, mystics and artists that have this given this ancient and Holy City its fabled reputation.   In 1492 when the Jews were expelled from Spain a large number of Jewish refugees decided it was time to go back home to the Land of Israel.  They settled in the quiet and pastoral town of Tzfat, nestled high in the green Galilee mountains, in order to be close to the grave of the famous mystical Rabbi, Shimon Bar Yochai, author of the Zohar, arguably the most famous book of Jewish Mysticism.    At this time there was tremendous interest in Jewish Mysticism.  The Jewish community was traumatized after the Expulsion from Spain.  The Jews of Spain has been there for hundreds of years.  They had been fully integrated into a multicultural and tolerant society in which Christians, Muslims and Jews lived side by side in harmony for centuries. Suddenly a new King and Queen, Ferdinand and Isabella came to power with the goal of making Spain great again.  To achieve this, they said, the Jews “Would have to go.”


Sometimes when you are oppressed physically, the only way to cope is to expand spiritually.  This is thought to be what led so many Jews to become mystic seekers at this time. They wanted answers to why the world had become so unsafe and unstable.  They went to Tzfat in search of safety and answers.    There still stands in Tzfat synagogues that are almost five hundred years old that were built by these refugees who were in search of hope and meaning. One of the most famous is called the Synagogue of the Ari (The Lion).  He was a mystic teacher who taught that every Shabbat is a mystical wedding during which the Jewish People and God get remarried on a weekly basis and then celebrate their joy.  One of the Ari’s congregants, Shlomo Alkabetz, wrote a mystical wedding prayer poem “ Lecha Dodi which is probably the most popular Shabbat Song till today.  After the depression of the Expulsion from Spain the Jews were hungry for joy.  Lecha Dodi is the song par excellence of Shabbes joy!  We want the participants to know that this song that is sung in every URJ Summer Camp and Reform Synagogue every was born in Tzfat and was created to inspired the soul with happiness and hope.  Another major teaching of the Ari is a concept of “Tikkun Olam.”  (Repairing the World.)  The Ari taught that our deeds here on earth have cosmic implications and can increase the amount of good in the world so much that the scales of spiritual balance can be tipped, so the good in the world can exceed the bad.  Meaning our deeds can make a difference and can change the world for be better.  This medieval mystical teaching has become a core principle of Reform Judaism inspiring Social Justice and Social Action.  For NFTY-in-Israel we want the participants to know that “Tikkun Olam” got its name here.  A visit to Tzfat teaches our participants about Jewish values that have become central to Reform Judaism.


Thursday afternoon the group visited the cemetery of the first kibbutz in Israel. Here the participants learned about the pioneers, the young idealists who came to rebuild the Land of Israel into what would eventually become the State we have today.   These idealistic dreamers were poets, and engineers, writers and farmers.  They were encouraged to dream and to take their dreams seriously.  Their dreams blossomed into the lush verdant farms that flourish along the shores of the Sea of Galilee today.  We too encourage our American teens to dream big and to take their dream seriously!  Dreams can be the secret to creativity and innovation!


On Friday the Group hiked down Mount Arbel.  Mount Arbel offers a dramatic view of the Horns of Hattin, the infamous battlefield where on July 4, 1187 the Christian Soldiers of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem were defeated by the Muslim General Saladin and thus brought to an end Christian Crusader rule over the Holy Land.  The view from Mount Arbel also provides breath taking views over the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights off in the distance.  After the hike the group will visited the new Galilee Chocolate factory at Galita to taste the delicacies and to have an option to buy some treats before Shabbat.    Shabbat was extra joyful and now that the group has travelled to Tzfat and learned about mystical aspects of Lecha Dodi and Tikkun Olam.


Friday night the group celebrated Shabbat at Oholo on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  Saturday, Shabbat day, was an opportunity for much needed rest and relaxation with friends and activities in the spirit of a Shabbat.


Today, Sunday, the Group begins the “Kishrey Noar” segment of the NFTY Summer Program.

Kishrey Noar” is Hebrew for “Youth Connections,” and for many of the American Teens this is a highlight of the summer in Israel. During this part of the program eight Israeli teens join the group full time for seven days. The idea is to break the impression that the tour bus is like an “aquarium” in which the participants look out upon Israel from the bus window, but fail to get in touch with real Israelis and their lives.  In Kisrei Noar, eight Israeli teens spend 24/7 with the American group socializing and talking about the “Big Questions” of being a teen-ager in Israel and in America.  The program is presented like a “Big Family Reunion” with long-lost relatives. Educationally this is also the part of the program in we focus on modern Israel and its complexities.  At NFTY we believe that the best way to engage with modern Israel is alongside modern Israelis in a peer teen dialogue.

Today was a day of fun and sun at the Sea of Galilee with swimming, banana boats and water sports. This was meant to create a joyful atmosphere of openness for making new friends with the Israeli teens and to welcome them to the NFTY Group.   There were also ice-breakers and group-building activities. Dinner was at Yoav Pizza which makes boutique pizzas in a wood burning oven.  At night the Israeli teens led an activity on Israeli pop music to introduce the American to their favorite Israeli tunes.

Tomorrow, Monday, the Group will drive to Mount Bental overlooking the border with the country formally called Syria.  Today Syria has unraveled into humanitarian disaster with worldwide implications. The visit to this look-out point provides an opportunity to have a conversation about Syria and the so called “Arab Spring,” and what it has meant for Israel.  Then the group will then drive to Metulla to look out over the Border with Lebanon.  Here some of the Israeli counselors will discuss their Army Service protecting the border of Israel from Lebanon and the sad and difficult history of wars with Lebanon over 30 years. The tone of these discussions are intended not to be a Rambo like glorification of might, but a somber and serious engagement with the reality that Israel is a small country in a “Rough Neighborhood

In the late afternoon the participants will go rafting in the Jordan River near Kibbutz HaGoshrim. In the evening the group will have a program about Current Events in Israel in order to become better informed of the issues confronting the People of Israel today.

On Tuesday, the group will visit the Druze Community of Daliyat haCarmel.  The Druze are a highly respected minority in Israel with a secret religion.  They broke away from Islam more than 1,000 years ago and today are fiercely loyal to Israel.  This may be due to the fact this minority suffered severe discrimination under Islamic rule.  There will be time (in groups) to shop and explore the colorful Druze market of spices, middle eastern sweets and handicrafts.  For lunch the group will be hosted by a Druze family in their home.

After Lunch the group will visit Bat Hefer to see and discuss the complexities of Israel’s “Separation Barrier.”   Though the fence separates the land, there is an inspiring story here about how the Israelis and Palestinians jointly purify the waste water that collects in a local reservoir along both sides of the fence, and is then jointly shared for agriculture.  Our students learn there is hope even in sites of conflict.

In the afternoon the group will get a chance to take a dip in the cooling blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea at the beach in Hertzlia. This is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and pristine beaches in Israel and is just a few miles north of the thriving metropolis of Tel Aviv.

This beach experience allows our students to feel the pulse of vibrancy amongst young Israelis who worship the sun and play in the waves.

On Wednesday the group will engage in a volunteer project at a Senior’s Center in Jerusalem before heading off to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum and Memorial.  This will be the main activity of the day.

The NFTY-in-Israel schedule is rich with sites and experiences designed to give our teens memories to inspire a life time of connection to the Jewish Story and to our people’s future.


Rabbi David Wilfond

Director of Education