How to Leave a Mark by Giving Teens Israel Travel Opportunities

Inside Leadership

How to Leave a Mark by Giving Teens Israel Travel Opportunities

NFTY students riding in a donkey caravan seen from behind

Last week, as the calendar filled with important occasions for Israel, I thought about the role the country plays in shaping Jewish identity for our movement’s young people. For decades, the URJ has been sending teens to Israel for life-changing experiences. This summer, Sci-Tech Israel, a new specialty trip, will join our family of teen and young adult Israel programs, which includes NFTY in Israel, URJ Heller High, and URJ Kesher, the only Birthright trip associated with Reform Judaism.

On my recent visit with the URJ’s 2017 Board Mission, I had a chance to reflect on my own experiences in Israel – and the many ways they have enriched my bonds with the land and its people. We were privileged to explore various socio-economic and geopolitical facets of Israel, learn from politicians, professors, economists, and business professionals, as well as spend time with our Reform colleagues and congregations. 

I was especially moved during Kabbalat Shabbat services at Kehilat HaShachar, a relatively young Reform congregation near Netanya. During the introductions, a young woman shared a powerful story about how she joined the congregation. After gathering strength, she told us she had lost her husband tragically and had gone to her local congregation to say Kaddish for him. The women’s entrance at the Orthodox synagogue was locked, and she wasn’t comfortable entering through the main entrance where men were praying. She decided instead to seek an alternate location, and found Kehilat HaShachar. As she heard her own voice bring the words of Kaddish to life – something she’d never heard before – with a community who joined in support, she understood the true power of prayer and the significance of having pluralistic congregations in Israel. This woman and her daughter are now active members of the congregation.

This encounter was one of many throughout the trip that reaffirmed that Israel is a promising place and that my life is inextricably connected to it. While I was there, I witnessed the country’s immeasurable beauty, power, and creativity, which reminded me, once again, that there is conflict, disparity, and insularity that limits its potential. More than anything, it is the personal connections to its people and the place itself that are paramount. I have invisible, yet profound bonds to Israel simply because I am a Jew, and these bonds become stronger and more visible every time I visit and because I visit. 

In a poetic adaption of a Hebrew essay by Amos Oz, he describes a relationship with Israel that may resonate with many of us:

The Land of Israel is not a museum of God.
No place is a museum of God,
no person and no inanimate object is a thing of worship.
It is permissible to both touch and change these things
on the condition that you yourself are prepared
to be touched and changed.
The condition is love.
I know: It is impossible to "educate to love"—
you cannot "educate someone to love the land,"
nor can you "educate someone to love the scenery."
With love, you can “infect” someone else.
Sometimes love can be awakened,
sometimes, but not with a strong hand,
not with an outstretched arm, and not with burning anger—
rather through an approach of mutuality.
You come to a place—a hill, the desert, a spring, a house…
You change it and make your mark upon it,
but it is also to be open
and give it the opportunity to leave its mark on you.

Every trip – from my first as a teen to this most recent URJ mission – reminds me that studying Israel, seeing it blare in news headlines, and hearing about it from friends and family, takes me only so far in truly understanding and appreciating the country. A personal, on-the-ground experience in Israel is irreplaceable when it comes to building a Jewish identity – and it is up to us to encourage and support our young people to have such experiences.

As we celebrate Israel’s 69th year, I hope you will join me in sharing with the young people in your congregation information about the many wonderful, identity-building opportunities available to them through the Reform Movement. Together, let’s pledge to give them the experience of Israel – to encounter its wonder and beauty and to help them see the bonds of faith that bind us together as Jews.

Limited space is still available for URJ summer programs in Israel. Visit NFTYIsrael.org to learn more about all our offerings for teens.

If you or someone you know who’s 18-26 years haven’t yet taken your FREE trip to Israel, you can pre-register to reserve your spot.

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Miriam Chilton is the Union for Reform Judaism's vice president of youth; prior to this, she served as director of strategy, operations and finance, for URJ Youth, Camp and Israel Programs. Miriam has a Master of Arts in Business Administration and Master of Science in information systems from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Ithaca College. When she's not out in the field trying to engage more young people, Miriam is an active member of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J.

Miriam Chilton
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