By Dan Lange, Director, URJ Youth Programs
Yom Ha’atzmaut represents a day of celebration in Israel – celebration of the founding of the modern Jewish homeland. In the days leading up to it, it is amazing to see the country transform to demonstrate the pride felt by Israelis for this place. Everywhere you look, Israeli flags pop up – along streets, hanging out windows, attached to the sides of cars. Imagery of David Ben Gurion appears on the sides of buildings. You cannot go anywhere without recognizing the excitement about this day.
While the winter months generally focus on recruitment and itinerary building, the final lead up to our NFTY in Israel summer really kicks into gear in conjunction with Yom Ha’atzmaut. Now just two months away from welcoming 500+ teens to Israel, our team in Jerusalem and New York are busy finalizing every little detail. Each Thursday evening and Friday morning from February through May, a talented group of young educators – Israeli and American – convene in our Jerusalem offices to learn about Israel. These educators, whom we call mechanchim, serve as our lead group staff during the summer, with responsibility for teaching about the sites we visit and creating meaningful, experiential opportunities to engage with the land of Israel.
I had the good fortune to spend time with the team in Israel over the last 10-days as we make our last preparations. On a rainy morning last week, I found myself trekking – almost a mile uphill, tight walls surrounding us and ancient rocks beneath us, we climbed. Rabbi David Wilfond, ourDirector of Education for NFTY in Israel, simulated the experience of touring the City of David on NFTY in Israel with our mechanchim. This ancient city, just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, offers us a historical look through thousands of years of history. I was reminded as we walked through tunnels where water comes up to one’s knees the power of the NFTY in Israel experience – teens truly walk through history, all the while surrounded by staff members who use the land to share our communal story.
We talk on NFTY in Israel often about Israel being a place where we find “OUR-story” rather than “HIS-story.” This is on full display as our staff engage teens in meaningful conversation around why a place like the City of David, now an archeological site, should matter to them in 2018; how archeological discoveries made here even today affect their lives and our understanding of Jewish and world history.
Every lesson, our mechanchim walk away with newfound knowledge and experience that will translate directly into experiential education this summer. Each week, this talented group engages in these activities, touring the modern state of Israel in order to transform it into a living laboratory for Jewish engagement with teens during the summer.
On this Yom Ha’atzmaut, as we make our final preparations for an amazing summer of meaningful exploration and discovery, relationship building, and a whole lot of fun, may we remember why a Jewish homeland remains so important. As shared by the organizations of the Reform Jewish movement yesterday, “We know this to be true: The State of Israel represents the greatest achievement of modern Jewish history, reuniting millions with the land that gave birth to the faith and people of Israel. Following nearly 1900 years of exile – centuries of persecution and expulsion, that culminated in eras of both catastrophe and creative growth and innovation – the Jewish people are again sovereign on Jewish soil.”
We can’t wait to welcome you home in a few short weeks!