By Rabbi Rich Kirschen, Director
One of my favorite teachers is the Quaker author, educator, and activist Parker Palmer. Parker Palmer has this remarkable ability to speak about “Meaning & Purpose” and why we need to transmit these values to the next generation. For many of us, another name for “Meaning & Purpose” is Spirituality and for me, Palmer gives one of the best definitions about spirituality I have ever come across. He writes, “Spirituality is any way you have of responding to the eternal human yearning to be connected with something larger than your own ego.”1 So concise, and yet so true. Connecting with something larger than our own ego is exactly what we strive to do at NFTY in Israel. By being brought into the larger narrative of the Jewish people, our participants experience a broad host of possible connections on this four to five week journey that offers them a diversity of responses to this deep truth about an “eternal human yearning”. At the age of sixteen when our teens are no longer children, but not yet quite adults, we need to honor that their intellectual and spiritual hunger runs deep. Therefore, it is our responsibility to offer these young people programs that help them not only try on different models of meaning, but diverse pathways towards a spiritual practice.
One thing that we have learned at NFTY in Israel over the past 61 years is that spiritual exploration doesn’t occur only through stories and narratives from the outside, but rather there is a great amount of processing that takes place on the inside. Part of the NFTY in Israel curriculum brings these young people out of their comfort zone, whether it is in the Negev desert, the hills of Jerusalem or in the mountains of the Galilee. During these experiences, our teens begin to reach out to each other for support. On a program with so many moving pieces, like going to Yad VaShem, discussing religious pluralism, or coming to understand the complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict, they begin to understand that only with each other’s support can these experiences become more meaningful. It is also important to note that everyone during the summer at some point has difficult moments, both emotionally and physically, where it is only through the help of the group that they are aided along this voyage. Traveling together for weeks at a time, sleeping out under the stars, and a host of other captivating experiences gives these teens permission to both ask for help from their peers, as well as offer help to their peers. In essence, during the summer they learn that “wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.”1
Since our communities are both accepting and nonjudgmental, our teens also learn during this experience that there is no such thing as “normal” amongst a group of 40-60 young people living together. Therefore, there is no need to squeeze or contort themselves into trying to be someone else. Rather in the words of another great educator, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (otherwise known as the Piazetzner Rebbe, the last Hasidic rabbi of Warsaw, Poland before the war), our goal is to help our teens connect with their “authentic self” and when this happens they can truly connect with others because it comes from a place of honesty and understanding.2 Of course, this doesn’t happen in one summer, but we like to think that four to five weeks on NFTY in Israel serves as an indelible moment in a lifetime of a spiritual process.