Before going to Israel, Ben Zamansky never understood why he had to go to temple on Yom Kippur. His father would tell him that it was good to be a part of something bigger, but it never resonated with him – until now.
“When I went to Israel, and I was always surrounded by Jewish people, I actually did feel a part of something,” said Zamansky, 17, of Marblehead. “It felt more real than just being told I was part of something … seeing the community I’m a part of, the pride behind it.”
Zamansky’s change of heart is the result of Youth to Israel, a tour that aims to help teens find their Jewish pride and feel at home in their Jewish community, whether in the United States, Israel, or anywhere else they might land.
The Y2I trip has been running since 1971. This year, 83 teens from 34 high schools and 29 communities across the North Shore, the Greater Boston area and the Merrimack Valley spent nearly two weeks traversing Israel, hiking Masada, spending Shabbat in Jerusalem, and more. The trip was staffed by 14 Americans and 10 Israelis.
Debbie Coltin, president and executive director of the Beverly- based Lappin Foundation, which funds and runs the trip, went on her own Y2I trip back in 1973, and was so moved by the experience that she came back to the foundation years later as an adult. This year is the 50th anniversary of Coltin’s trip (she grew up in Peabody), and the 26th year of her tenure as president and executive director.
The trip has certainly evolved over the last 50 years. As Coltin describes it, the itinerary has gone through a lot of iterations to meet the needs of the teens in each new generation.
This year, the teens took a tour of Shafdan, Israel’s largest wastewater treatment plant, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. They learned that Israel has virtually solved its water shortage problems by reclaiming a whopping 90 percent of wastewater – the most in the world.
“That was a big moment for some of the kids,” Coltin said. “Israel is leading the world in something so important.”
Another addition in the past few decades is the mifgash, or “encounter,” with around 30 Israeli teens joining the trip for three days to promote peer connection across countries.
“It’s definitely the most important part of the trip,” said Zamansky. “It’s showing rather than telling. Hearing their perspective and how important Israel is to them … it makes you want to care about it more.”
Another teen, Ely Wallen, who grew up in Swampscott and now lives in Middleton, also found the mifgash to be a powerful component of the trip. “There were a couple nights when we’d all group together and we’d talk about politics and the media,” he said. “Our largest thing was seeing the comparisons between the division in both countries.”
Wallen is still in touch with some of the Israelis he made friends with on the trip.
“The explicit goal of the trip is Jewish continuity,” Coltin explained. “We want them to fall in love with being Jewish, we want them to fall in love with Israel.”
This goal was evidently achieved. Talking to the teens who have recently returned from the trip is like talking to people who have just discovered an invaluable treasure: that of community.
“Coming back from the trip is just euphoric,” said Zamansky. “It feels like there’s so many people behind me.”
Wallen also found himself truly moved by his time in the Holy Land. A few days after returning, Wallen went on a run with a friend in his neighborhood. Nothing had changed since the last time he’d gone running, but he had.
“On the run is a Jewish cemetery,” he said. “And I think before, that wouldn’t have made a difference to me. But seeing the names – I actually felt a connection there where I probably wouldn’t have before.”
He slowed down, noticing the people listed on the gravestones. And for the first time, he felt connected to them: his community, his history, his people.