AUGUST 2, 2018 – The Western Wall on a Friday night is beyond description.
“There were 1,000 people there, and the atmosphere was just unbelievable,” said Sam Zuckerman of Sudbury. “You could feel the emotion in the air, and it was probably the most surreal moment of my life.”
The collective ecstasy surrounding Judaism’s holiest site on the Sabbath was just one of many unforgettable moments for the 100 teens from 29 communities who returned on July 15 from the Lappin Foundation’s two-week Youth to Israel adventure. The trips initially were partially subsidized when they began in 1971, and have been fully subsidized since 1996.
For North Shore Jewish teens, the free, whirlwind tour of their homeland, accomplished its mission of enhancing Jewish identity. “It’s incredible to watch how teens, most of whom hardly know each other, open their hearts to new friendships and open their minds to learning about Israel,” said Debbie Coltin, executive director of the Lappin Foundation.
“Before this trip, I didn’t have any real opinion on Israel,” added Katie Hubbard of Arlington in a personal reflection. “I knew that it was the homeland for the Jews, but I hadn’t really felt that. But during this trip, I truly understood. I realized that I had never been in a place where being Jewish wasn’t different. It was an amazing experience not only being with 100 teens who had also grown up being Jewish, but also being surrounded by thousands of Jewish people. Israel had this amazing sense of community and family … it’s our place to be together.”
The trip offered a wide array of experiences that highlight Israel’s dynamic past, present, and future. There were the classic stops: the teens prayed at the Western Wall, hiked Masada at sunrise, floated in the Dead Sea, rode camels in the Negev, and paid their respects at Yad Vashem.
But they also ventured away from well-known tourist sights into daily life. They shopped at an open-air market in Tel Aviv, which Jake Geisinger of Sharon said has no real comparison in Boston. They toured the prestigious Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, which Adam Zamansky of Marblehead said made him interested in attending college in Israel. Jake Geisinger had never heard of the Druze religious minority until the group visited the village of Isfiya atop Carmel Mountain. Jacob Kaplan of Stoughton learned how to correct misinformation by attending presentations on how to advocate for Israel.
The participants also spent time with Israeli teens, who accompanied the program for four days.
“I thought they would be a lot different than we were,” said Danny Richmond of Needham. “But it was really clear we had a lot of things in common with them, and it was really cool to spend time with them for a couple of days.” Richmond said that like his peers, he keeps in touch with the Israelis he met on social media.
After the trip was over, six Russian-speaking American participants chose to stay behind in Haifa to spend even more time getting to know Israeli teenagers as part of a special mifgash (the Hebrew word for “encounter” that is often used to refer to educational and cultural exchanges between Israelis and Diaspora Jews.) The mifgash, which was part of Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ Boston-Haifa Connection program, paired the six Russian-Americans with nine Russian-Israelis from the Ironi Alef high school in Haifa. For five days, the teens delved deep into the Russian-Jewish experience in Israel, which has grown since nearly 1 million Jews left the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In a mix of Russian and English, they asked each other if they were Russian, American/Israeli, Jewish, or all of the above. “I had to think about it for a while,” said Elizabeth Zhorov of Marblehead. “I learned that most of the Israelis consider themselves Israelis first, then there was a mix of answers between Russian and Jewish second.” According to Jeremy Poock, who observed a portion on the mifgash on behalf of CJP, the Russian-Americans mostly said they were American first, Russian second, and Jewish third.
Ultimately, Zhorov couldn’t choose. “This activity made me feel like I can be equally American, Jewish, and Russian without having to order them,” she said.
According to Poock, many Russians in Israel and the United States live secular lives, because the older generations who grew up in the Soviet Union were not allowed to freely practice their religion. However, two of the Russian-Americans, along with four other teens, celebrated abbreviated b’nai and b’not mitzvah in Israel under the guidance of Rabbi Bernie Horowitz, a rabbi from Peabody.
“I always wanted to have my Bat Mitzvah in Israel, but I never thought it would really happen,” said Jamie Gaber of Swampscott. “It was an experience I will treasure always. Having my bat mitzvah in Israel made me feel more connected to Israel and Judaism. I felt something really special as I stood there with the other girls.”
Another new addition to the Y2I program was the inclusion of 13 boys from Camp Bauercrest, a Jewish overnight camp in Amesbury. Ken Cotton, the camp’s executive director, said the integration of Bauercrest boys into the wider Y2I community was a success.
“It far exceeded any of our expectations,” he said. “Of the [Y2I] kids on the trip, they got to know almost every one of them … it wasn’t stepping out of their comfort zone to go jump around and dance in front of everybody. They got everybody else going.”
“Y2I really stressed for us that they wanted us to break apart from our main group and go out of our comfort zone and meet new people,” said Jacob Kaplan, a camper from Stoughton.
“It was amazing to watch our boys get so into it spiritually with such ruach,” said Jake Aronson, a Bauercrest counselor from North Easton who supervised the trip. “Watching them interact and mix in really well with Y2I kids was really impressive.”
Perhaps the campers blended in so seamlessly because at the end of the day, after the museums, monuments, and markets; the history, the hiking, and the holiness – Y2I is a group of young people embarking on an adventure together, making lifelong friends. For so many participants, that friendship is the final, indispensable element that makes the trip so life-changing.
“I met so many people from the North Shore and beyond,” said Adam Goodspeed of Beverly. “During the trip, even the people I didn’t know I could go up to and it’s as if they were already a good friend. That was one of the best parts of the trip.”