By Rabbi Rich Kirschen, Director of NFTY in Israel
Over my many years at NFTY in Israel, one of my most inspiring experiences was picking up a young man named Max at the airport. He had come late to the Israel trip and needed to be driven down to meet his group while they were camping deep in the Negev desert. In the car, Max and I talked about where he was from, his many years at URJ camp, and what led him to decide to come on a trip with NFTY in Israel. Max’s main motivation was to spend time with his best friends, who he said were like family to him, as well as have an adventure far away from home. During this five-hour drive to Eilat we spoke about his life at home, extracurricular activities like soccer in the fall, track in the winter and tennis in the spring, and his hope to get into a good college. We also talked about his connection with Judaism and what he thought he was about to encounter over the next four weeks in Israel.
Max had grown up with an overall positive image about Israel from his home, temple and camp, especially due to his connection to the Israeli counselors, referred to as “Mishlachet“ in camp. We talked about the complexity of trying to teach about another country and culture when you are so far away. He knew that he had sang along to songs about Israel, had prayed about places like Jerusalem and had even read the story of King David in Jerusalem for his haftorah at his Bar Mitzvah. Nevertheless, Max had never been to Israel and was looking to try and fit some missing pieces together. After many hours in the car, a falafel on the way, and finally into the desert to meet his friends, he looked at me and shared that he wasn’t quite sure about what Israel had to offer. He was under the assumption that on some level Israel was a very “religious” country, adding he wasn’t so sure what that meant either. When we arrived at the campsite, Max got out and was immediately tackled by seven other teens jumping on him, glad to be reunited with their friend from camp. I secured everything with his staff and returned to Jerusalem wondering what would happen with Max over the next four weeks.
One the privileges of my job is that I get to drop in on the teens as they are in the middle of their program and get a sense of how they are processing their adventure. I was able to catch up with Max again when he was trekking on our Sea to Sea expedition where teens hike from the Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean Sea. Max was very tired and sweaty along with sixty other participants, and just like his ancestors, climbing through the hills of the Galilee. On a break I found Max and had a chance to find out what he had discovered since that first night that he was dropped off in the middle of the Negev desert. He explained, most of the trip was fun and it was more tiring than he had expected. Max also shared that Israel was not what he expected with regard to thinking about Judaism in ways that he had not thought of before. He had told me he thought of Hebrew as mainly a language that was for praying, whereas here everyone was having everyday conversations in that same language. He also saw that Israelis have a different understanding of being Jewish than Americans, but that he was beginning to figure it out. He felt that he was experiencing a sensory overload and didn’t know how to process all of it – certainly not while he was trying to just get to the next mountain top.
Finally, on the last day of the trip, we congregated at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, where we had a final meal together and went through an educational summary of the summer. As usual, I was there making sure each and every participant was there, healthy and ready to go home (because as much as I love spending time with them, usually at this point in the summer I was ready for them to go home as well 😊). I knew this was my time to close the circle with Max. Max, at the time, was sixteen and had a lot of opinions. He had questions about the food, the way we put together part of the itinerary, some of the timing between programs, and one too many sites, but at the end of it all, he was amazed by Israel and recognized that the being here had shown him a story that he had not completely pieced together before. I told him that I thought leaving with a lot of questions was a good start, and that understanding the story of your people is invaluable for a young man returning to his Jewish community. I shared that now was the time for Max to begin to ask what the next chapters of this story are, how he is connected to this story, and what his role is. Max went back to his pack of friends, very similar to how his trip began, and I went back to triple check everyone’s flights.
NFTY in Israel is just the beginning of a relationship with Israel, and we hope that there will be just as much learning and activity when our teens return home. Ultimately, our goal is for teens like Max to begin to think about the relevance of this place in their own Jewish journey and to begin to ask thoughtful questions. Max had a demanding, tiring summer, but clearly an adventure and a fulfilling experience like no other.