By Rabbi Rich Kirschen, Director
At NFTY in Israel we know that the summer doesn’t end when our participants’ planes land back in their home airport. We also know that our teens don’t come back the “same” after a trip to Israel. A trip to Israel is a journey of a lifetime, but more importantly it is truly a transformational moment in the life of a young person. In fact, for many of our teens, once the program ends, a new chapter in their Jewish life is just beginning; and that is the voyage of understanding the role of Israel in their life as a young Jewish person in North America.
The majority of our participants return to their URJ summer camps the year after their Israel trip. URJ camps are a perfect context for connecting everything these NFTY in Israel alumni have experienced the summer before. NFTY in Israel alumni recall with intense eagerness hiking in the desert, connecting with Israelis their age, and actually seeing the places they sang about in their Bar/Bat Mitzvah Torah portions. Their stories and adventures give them a deep level of credibility, and they also inspire the rest of the camp, as their enthusiasm is contagious. Our alumni can have the important responsibility of being role models, mentors and peer leaders in order to teach the next generation. An older adult talking about the importance of Israel can never compete with a seventeen-year old talking about their experience in Israel last summer to a bunk of twelve-year old’s. When NFTY in Israel alumni return to camp, it not only empowers them, but it creates an invaluable camp culture where traveling to Israel at the age of sixteen is seen as part of an organic Jewish journey.
In addition to URJ camps, our NFTY in Israel alumni return to their URJ congregations where they share their experiences with their clergy, community and peers. We encourage rabbis to invite these young people to speak about their experiences in Israel during the High Holidays, Shabbat or at other community gatherings. There are also other options such as getting involved in their TYG and creating teachable moments for their peers at the Temple or at a wider NFTY regional event. And just as these young people have created a culture of “Israel travel” in our URJ camps, their passion and excitement can have an extraordinary impact on the culture around “Israel travel” in their Temple community.
Returning from a trip to Israel is an opportunity to take one’s new knowledge about Israel to the “next level”. At NFTY in Israel our goal is to teach the Jewish story as it unfolded from Abraham and Sarah all the way to 2019. Participants walk away from the summer with a deep understanding of the Jewish narrative. One example is that our teens learn the reason we are called Jews is because we originated from the land of Judea (another name for Israel). They learn the story about the Kotel (the Western Wall) and then they understand why having an egalitarian prayer space is so important at this historic/spiritual site of our people. And when our participants finish with their last week learning about modern Israel, they have a firm understanding of the Jewish past and are now equipped to begin building the next chapters of the Jewish future when they return to North America.
Part of building those chapters involves educating themselves to dive deeper into the more complex issues that surround Israel. Whether it is understanding the connection between Jews in North America and Jews in Israel, the complexities of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or the challenges of supporting Israel in light of criticism from the “Right” and the “Left”, these young people are able to approach these subjects with a solid foundation that they received on NFTY in Israel.
NFTY in Israel is an adventure but the adventure does not end in Israel, in fact it really begins when our teens get off the plane and return to their home communities!