Teens discover their Jewish identity on Youth to Israel journey

By Shelley A. Sackett

Y2I_cover

2017 Y2I participants dance on the Haas Promenade in Jerusalem during their ‘Welcome to Jerusalem’ ceremony. The trip included 109 teens from 28 communities.

 

 

Josh Tabenkin didn’t want to go on the Youth to Israel Adventure trip. He even skipped one of the mandatory pre-trip meetings, half hoping that infraction might get him booted out of the program. He ultimately decided to go because he was afraid he would regret it if he didn’t for the rest of his life.

 

After two weeks in Israel, the Georgetown Middle-High School 11th grader returned a different person.

 

“You learn about how great Israel is over all these years, but you really don’t believe it until you see it. I now feel I have a home and a place to go where I’ll always be accepted,” he said. “Being a Jew is more than a religion. I am changed in a Jewish way.”

 

Which is exactly the kind of transformation philanthropist Robert Israel Lappin hoped teens would experience when he created the Y2I program in 1971.

 

soldier-talk

2013 Y2I alumnus Jon Cohen, who is currently a Lone Soldier in the IDF, spoke to 2017 Y2I teens and encouraged them to defend Israel by being Israel advocates. Pictured, from left: Jonah Spritz of Swampscott, Colby Tarbox, Ian Shevory of Marblehead and Cohen.

 

“Y2I teens come back from Israel prouder and stronger Jews and eager to support Israel. Israel builds Jewish pride in our teens where none existed before. Israel inspires kids to stay Jewish. Israel connects teens to our Jewish Family and Israel inspires them to keep the Jewish chain of tradition going,” he said.

 

A stated goal of Y2I is to “inspire teens to stay Jewish, to marry Jewish, and to raise their own children Jewish.” To that end, it gives local teens a means and a reason to get together. “It’s a beautiful thing to see so many North Shore teens connect with one another and become fast friends. Were it not for Y2I, most would never meet,” Lappin said.

 

Open to Jewish sophomores or juniors in high school who live in or are members of a temple in any of 23 cities or towns, Y2I is considered a rite de passage for Jewish North Shore teens. More than 2,500 teens have taken the fully subsidized trip since its inception as Let’s Go Israel in 1971.

 

The 2017 trip included 109 teens from 28 communities and 38 high schools. Y2I is open to all, regardless of level of Jewish observance, education, and affiliation and, thanks to a 2017 grant from the Ruderman Family Foundation, disabilities.

 

Deborah Coltin is executive director of the Lappin Foundation and has led 12 Y2I trips over the program’s life. The two-week trip combines education, adventure, history and fun in a packed itinerary that includes visits to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, a Bedouin Village, the Sea of Galilee, and Masada.

 

“A big challenge is wanting to do more and see more during our time in Israel. With thirteen days on the ground and only 24 hours in a day, there is only so much we can do and see, and we do and see a lot!” she said. The 2017 trip also included activities such group building and leadership development, and Israeli dance sessions that tell the story of Israeli history and culture through dance.

 

Although Y2I offers participants the opportunity to have a Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall, none from the 2017 signed up in advance. After less than a week in Israel, several changed their minds. “It was beautiful how Israel made them feel this way not even one week into the trip,” she said.

 

Tony Gluskin, who never had a Bar Mitzvah at home in Marblehead, pinpointed the event of wrapping tefillin, reading a prayer with Rabbi Bernie and receiving a blessing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem as the single Y2I experience that had the most impact on him as a Jew.

 

“I felt a connection like never before, like I was crossing a bridge and strengthening my Jewish identity,” the Marblehead High School 11th grader said. “It all came together to give me a once in a lifetime feeling.”

 

Being at the Wall, touching it and putting a note to his grandfather in one of its crevices was “one of the coolest experiences I ever had,” according to Tabenkin. “I just felt so connected with the country and my people.”

American and Israeli teens spent fours days together in mifgash, a Hebrew word that means, “encounter.” Coltin witnessed the strong bonds formed over such a short time. “The mifgash is about feeling part of the Jewish Family, regardless of where we live,” she said.

Gluskin was struck by how similar American and Israeli teenagers are. “We talk about the same stuff, like the same music, enjoy the same things,” he said. He was also struck by an important difference.

 

“Once we graduate high school, we go onto college, but once they graduate, they go to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. It was fascinating seeing the affect that has on their daily lives.”

 

For Katie Cohen, of Peabody, seeing people who were not much older than herself wearing IDF uniforms and carrying guns “showed me up-close how different it is to grow up in America versus Israel.”

 

Most of the teens were surprised by how safe they felt in Israel. “The Israel they saw and experienced was not the Israel they saw on the news,” Coltin said. “Some expected Israel to be like a military state with armed soldiers roaming the streets.”

 

The rigors of a summer tour in Israel had its own physical tests. For Gluskin, the 6 a.m. wakeup call was his biggest challenge. “During the summer I like to sleep a lot,” he said. For Cohen, it was the heat, which she doesn’t think she could ever get used to completely.

 

With the heat, however, came the chance to float in the Dead Sea, Cohen’s favorite experience of the trip. “I’m not that great of a swimmer, so for the first time I could float comfortably without a floaty,” the Peabody Veterans Memorial High School 11th grader said with a laugh.

 

On a more serious note, another goal of Y2I is to equip teens to be Israel advocates and ambassadors. Following their trip to Israel, they are invited to enroll in the Foundation’s free Teen Israel Advocacy Fellows program, where they can participate in advanced Israel Advocacy training.

 

“My wish is that every Jewish teen in the U.S. could experience Israel, which would remedy the growing divide between the American community and Israel,” Lappin said. Coltin is excited by the number of teens who have expressed their interest in continuing in the 2017 post-trip advocacy program.

 

Her biggest reward, however, still comes from establishing a connection between Israel and North Shore Jewish teens who now have new friends, their own personal stories about Israel, and the tools and techniques to stand up for Israel and for themselves as Jews.

 

“Y2I continues to weave its magic,” Coltin said. According to Tabenkin, so does she. “This whole trip would not happen if it weren’t for Debbie. She gave me the gift of Israel,” he said.

 

 

 

 

Y2I is funded by Lappin Foundation, Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation, Robert Israel Lappin, Combined Jewish Philanthropies and more than 900 donors to the Foundation’s annual campaign. The Morton and Lillian Waldfogel Charitable Foundation provides funds for families in need to cover ancillary costs.

 

 

Bringing It Home: PJ Library Takes Parents to Israel

 

 

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Sara Weisman of Beverly, at center with white hat, took part in the first PJ Library Parents to Israel Trip (PJLP2I). Photo courtesy of the Lappin Foundation.

Last May 11, on Yom Ha’azmaut (Israel Independence Day), Debbie Coltin was reading a story to a group of children and their parents as part of the PJ Library program when a little girl turned to her mother and asked, “Mommy, does Israel really look like that?”

 

The mom, who had never been to Israel, panicked and made eye contact with Coltin, the Lappin Foundation Executive Director.

 

“I thought to myself, ‘We’ve got to get these parents to Israel,’” she said. And get them to Israel she did, with the creation of the first PJ Library Parents to Israel Trip (PJLP2I).

 

“We get the teens excited about Israel [with Y2I, the Lappin Foundation teen trip to Israel], but this hits a different generation. If we didn’t organize it, when would they go? Our dream is to have this missed generation of young parents who didn’t do birthright, who are busy professionals, go to Israel,” she said.

 

Less than a year later, from April 25 through May 4, Coltin led the first PJLP2I trip with 29 participants, including ten interfaith families. The subsidized trip was open to PJ Library parents of all faiths who live in the Lappin Foundation’s service area and who had never been to Israel.

 

PJ Library is a Jewish family engagement program that focuses on the bond created between children and parents during story time right before bed. Jewish children ages six months to eight years old are eligible to receive a free Jewish book and CD-of-the-month. The Lappin Foundation partners with Cohen Hillel Academy as local funders of the international program created by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.

 

The PJLP2I’s immediate goal is straightforward: to educate and empower parents to speak about Israel to their children from first-hand experience. According to Coltin, the bigger picture is to create ambassadors and advocates in the community for Israel.

 

“That generation is all about social media,” she said referring to the many participants who posted daily pictures during their trip. “Their friends and parents of other kids were already commenting on their postings. So it works,” she said.

 

Participants were from three distinct geographic areas — Newburyport, Marblehead/Swampscott and Beverly/Peabody. They and their families had three opportunities to meet prior to the trip. “It was a specular community building and growth experience,” Coltin said.

 

Sara Weisman, a Beverly mom and member of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, was very skeptical of Israel and hesitant to take the trip. She returned “totally blown away by the experience” with plans to return.

 

“This trip changed my impression of Israel completely. In some sense, I didn’t learn anything new, but I gained insight that can’t be learned at a distance or read in a book about the value of having a Jewish nation. What happens in Israel feels very personal in a way it didn’t before,” she said.

 

Al Pica from Swampscott is father of two young children and a member of Temple Emmanuel in Marblehead. He was most surprised by the unwavering patriotism among all Israeli people — Christians and Arab Israelis as well as Jewish Israelis — and how that differed from his preconceptions. He left the U.S. as an ambassador to Israel, but returned home “with a sense of duty to do even more — spread the good word, clear up myths and misconceptions about Israel, the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, etc.,” he said.

 

The trip affected both Weisman and Pica as parents. “I had previously been to other Holocaust museums, but a tour through Yad Vashem, and in particular the Children’s Memorial, had a tremendous impact on me as a parent of Jewish children,” Pica said.

 

Weisman feels she now understands Biblical history a lot better after visiting places where some Biblical events took place. “The mental scale I had of cities, distances, landscapes and so on wasn’t connected to physical places before. I want to share this with my children, as well as a sense of pride in the modern nation of Israel,” she said.

 

Coltin was most impressed by the sacrifices many had to make to participate. “Look at the demographics we were appealing to. One mom had four little kids. That’s brave, right?” she said.

 

She is delighted with the parents’ post-trip evaluation comments, especially the number who said the trip was “life changing” and “eye opening”. “The goal was to bring it home and instill it in your kids. I’m sure those conversations will take place,” she said.

 

 

 

 

Israeli Innovations Energize Mayor Driscoll

 

 

 

Israel had long been on Mayor Kim Driscoll’s bucket list. So when she was invited to participate in the American Israel Education Foundation’s (AIEF) educational seminar to Israel for members of Congress and other politically influential people last February, she jumped at the chance.

 

“We think Salem, which is almost 400 years old, has an embarrassment of riches, from the birthplace of the National Guard to the Witch Trials to the great age of sail. We’re a babe in the woods compared to what’s over there,” she said.

 

Although she is a practicing Catholic, she was more drawn into the history of the sites she visited than the bible stories. “I really value the role history plays in the character of a place. The commitment to never lose sight of that, whether it’s good history or history that’s more tragic, like the Witch Trials — that’s definitely moving,” she said.

Western Wall

At the Kotel (Western Wall)

At the Kotel, or The Western Wall (an ancient limestone wall in the Old City of Jerusalem), she also felt the weight of the region’s history and the thousands of years during which there have been sometimes violent disagreements. She came away with an even stronger commitment towards peace. “It is so complicated and so hard to achieve, yet so necessary,” she said.

 

She was also on the look out for Israeli ideas she could bring back to Salem, and she found more than she expected. “I was struck by the drive for ingenuity and innovation in Israel,” she said more than once during the hour-long conversation.

 

In particular, she marveled at Israel’s ability to recycle 80 percent of its water in a sustainable, thoughtful way. “It’s amazing what you can do when you have to. Water scarcity is a big issue in the Middle East. They don’t have a choice,” she said.

 

Israeli engineering firms that have developed ways of monitoring water leaks to help with water loss also caught her attention. “When you think about a water system as old as ours, well theirs is a thousand times older. I think there could be some shared alignment,” she said.

Granot Desalination Plant visit

At the Granot Desalination Plant

 

Urban agriculture, also tied to water, is another area of potential transferability. “I think we’re all going to need to think about that as more folks move into cities. There’s already a farm-to-table sustainability food industry here. I think there’s a lot we could learn,” she said.

 

She also sees potential applicability for Salem to adapt the way Israeli law enforcement communicates with residents. In Jerusalem, for example, a system of colored lights signal the current level of concern about potential attacks from Israel’s enemies. Although Salem doesn’t fear that kind of attack, Mayor Driscoll came away with ideas about how to expand the system already in place that flashes a blue light when there is a snow-parking ban.

 

“I’m talking more about if trash is delayed a day, or if there is other information we want to get out,” she said. “Right now we rely on phone calls or web sites. Their simple lighting system communicated a universal message to a city where people were from many different backgrounds and spoke many different languages. It was very clear to everyone what was going on.”

 

According to 2015 Census Bureau information, 23.3 percent of Salem citizens speak a language other than English. That is higher than the national average of 21%.

 

The February itinerary included briefings at the Gaza Strip and Lebanese and Syrian borders, and visits to the Granot desalination plant and the Knesset as well as to top tourist sites in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Capernaum.

 

Group photo at Visit to Sea of Galilee- Mt. of Beatitudes

Group photo at Mt. of Beatitudes- Sea of Gallilee

 

“I really felt like I was on a journey to better understand history and also how people interact in a time when there is trauma, stress and threats all around them. There is a real perseverance in Israel that you can see everyday,” she said in an interview soon after her return.

 

“We had immense opportunities to speak with everyone we met. We were told, ‘There is nothing you can’t ask. There is nothing out of bounds.’ That was very worthwhile,” she said.

 

The group was diverse, with members of state government, many of whom had been active in political campaigns and within different policymaking levels of government. “The discussions were really hearty. I appreciated being in a discussion with folks who had different lenses. I brought a lot of the local flavor, I would say,” she said.

 

What most impressed her, however, were two qualities she circled back to again and again: political consensus building and the perseverance of a people at perpetual risk.

 

“Israel has 26 different parties. It is very much a parliamentary form of government with lots of coalition building. Yet they can adopt a uniform policy that covers the whole country and it can have meaningful impact,” she said.

 

Although consensus building is harder in Israel than in the U.S., its power and effectiveness is greater. At the Knesset (Israel’s legislative body), she witnessed lots of party members expressing lots of opinions. “Yet I was struck by their ability to move something forward,” she said in reference to Israel’s policies of universal health insurance and national water conservation policy.

 

She contrasted that to the situation in the U.S. with our city, county, state and federal levels of government. “We get almost nothing done with two parties, yet with six parties influencing policies and legislation, they manage to get consensus,” she said, shaking her head.

 

On a more personal note, Mayor Driscoll described her visit to a kibbutz near the Gaza Strip where she met families who live under the constant threat of rocket attacks, yet would never consider living anywhere else.

 

“Seeing the bomb shelters, seeing the Egyptian border, and hearing first hand from individuals who lived there was very moving for me. The situation was normalized for them. It was normalized for their kids. If you heard the alarm, you had 19 seconds to get into a bomb shelter,” she said.

 

The impact that governmental actions can have on families’ everyday lives “hit me in the face. A peace process can be mind-boggling, trying to figure out who’s responsible for what and the role we Americans play in it. But the difficulties and complexities involved in that discussion didn’t matter to the kids sitting at the bus stop next to the bomb shelter,” she said.

 

The geography and diversity of the Israeli landscape, “mountains to coastline and everything in between” surprised Mayor Driscoll. So did the fact that she never felt unsafe for one minute. “I would encourage anyone who is remotely worried about safety to just go,” she said, pointing out that many Israelis she spoke to said they wouldn’t feel safe traveling to the U.S. with news reports of gun violence and school shootings. “We put into perspective the awful things that have happened here, normalizing them. We still haven’t passed gun control,” she added.

 

The AIEF trip was not all work and no play, and Mayor Driscoll thoroughly enjoyed getting better acquainted with Israel’s “awesome” food. “Shakshouka!” she exclaimed with a broad smile. “My new favorite, and they have it at Adea’s on Sunday right here in Salem!”

 

“I guess I had never thought of Middle Eastern food as the culmination of different places. It’s a little Syrian, a little Israeli, a little of everything. We were served small plates…but they just kept on coming,” she said with a laugh, adding, “we tried to walk as much as we ate.”

 

She was also surprised by the visit to a winery in the Golan Heights. “Who thought I’d be in a terrific winery in the Golan Heights? When I think Golan Heights, I think of ‘Duck for cover!’’ she said.

 

If invited back to Israel for a follow up trip, Mayor Driscoll would suggest the itinerary include digging deeper into Israel’s schooling and education. The February tour incorporated brief visits to schools that are trying to bridge Muslim and Arab and Jewish differences by bringing students and their families together in ways she found “smart and thoughtful”.

 

“We saw kids from different backgrounds being educated together and celebrating all holidays. This is sometimes under really difficult circumstances in neighborhoods where there may be a history of trauma or tragedy that exists between those with long-held beliefs or differences of opinion.

 

If they can figure that out, that younger generation might be the real key to achieving peace in the Middle East,” she said.

 

AIEF is the charitable organization affiliated with AIPAC, America’s pro-Israel lobby, and was created in 1990. For more information visit aiefdn.org.