THIRTY-THREE REFORM JEWISH TEENS SPENDING SCHOOL SPRING SEMESTER IN ISRAEL
(NEW YORK, Jan. 31) -- Thirty-three Reform Jewish teenagers departed New York's Kennedy Airport this week for Israel, where they will spend four months studying, volunteering, and exploring as part of the North American Federation of Temple Youth's Eisendrath International Exchange (NFTY-EIE).
This year's class is almost double the number of teenagers who attended last spring's semester abroad in Israel, an important indication of the allure of the Reform Movement's elite high school program.
The teenagers, who come from towns and cities across North America, will spend their spring semesters at the NFTY-EIE High School in Israel, located on a secure kibbutz twenty minutes outside of Jerusalem. As they fulfill their home high schools' requirements in English, math, science, and social studies, they will also study Hebrew, Reform Judaism, and the history and culture of Israel. The NFTY-EIE High School is fully accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, and students will have the chance to take Advanced Placement, PSAT, SAT I and II, and ACT examinations while in Israel.
"These youths have an extraordinary commitment to Israel," said Paul Reichenbach, co-director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations' Youth Division, which sponsors the NFTY-EIE program. "At a time when most teenagers are focusing on college applications and the prom, these young men and women are giving up four months with their families and friends to travel thousands of miles from home to experience Israel during an extremely difficult period in her history. They truly are the best of the Reform Movement."
While in Israel, the youths will take part in a wide range of experiences. In addition to the fourteen weeks they will spend living and studying at the kibbutz, they will take short trips to points of interest across the Jewish state, camp out in the Negev Desert, join archaeological digs, and participate in an outdoor trek from the Galilee to the Mediterranean Sea. They will journey to Prague, Krakow, and Warsaw, and visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. And, in one of the most difficult aspects of the program, they will undergo a weeklong "basic training" program at an Israeli Defense Forces boot camp to gain insight into how important the IDF is to the people of Israel.
The teenagers themselves were eagerly anticipating their trip. "I've wanted to go to Israel since sixth grade, because I knew it would be a great way to expand my horizons," said Greg Dubin, 18 of Milwaukee, WI. "And right now is the most important time to go to Israel. Visiting now is the ultimate way to show support."
Aaron Taylor, 16, of Spokane, WA, said he's visited Israel before, but only on tourist trips. "There's a difference between visiting Israel, and really experiencing it. I want to experience it. It's an obligation for every Jew."
Many of the teens said they wanted to experience the land and the people they've studied in religious school for so many years.
"Every time you pray, or sing a Jewish song, you're talking about Israel, so I think I've wanted to go since I've been able to speak," said Jomi Kramer, 16, of St. Louis Park, MN. "I'm looking forward to meeting new people, seeing their daily lives, and just being in Israel."
The emotions of the teenagers' parents were slightly more mixed. "I feel great that my daughter wants to go. It's not just the opportunity of a lifetime - it's a rite of passage, and I'm confident that she will come back a totally different person," said Rabbi Daniel Zemel, whose daughter, Shira Zemel, is going on the trip. "But as a father, I will miss her enormously."
Founded in 1961, the NFTY-EIE program is named after Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations from 1958 to 1973, and has sent thousands of high school students - including many current Reform Movement leaders - to Israel in its 40 years of existence. The program is open to bright, capable Jewish young people in grades 10 through 12.
NFTY-EIE is designed to build Reform Jewish identity and leadership among Reform teenagers, and help them gain independence and maturity as they spend time away from their families. "We want these kids to become role models for their youth groups and for their temples," Reichenbach says. "They are the future leaders of the Reform Movement, and we hope to strengthen their feelings toward Judaism and the Jewish people."
The Union of American Hebrew Congregations is the central body of Reform Judaism in North America, uniting 1.5 million Jews in 895 synagogues across the United States and Canada. UAHC services include camps, music and book publishing outreach to unaffiliated and intermarried Jews, educational programs, and the Religious Action Center in Washington, DC.
The Union of American Hebrew Congregations is the central body of Reform Judaism in North America, uniting 1.5 million Reform Jews in more than 900 synagogues. UAHC services include camps, music and book publishing, outreach to unaffiliated and intermarried Jews, educational programs, and the Religious Action Center in Washington, DC.