Teens return from Y2I trip with fierce allegiance to Israel

Y2I teens at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Photos courtesy of Lappin Foundation

by Shelley A. Sackett

After a two-year pandemic hiatus, the Lappin Foundation’s 12-day, fully subsidized Youth to Israel Adventure resumed this summer, and the 83 teens from 31 local communities and 41 high schools returned on July 8 with reactions that reflected a somber reality.

Against the current backdrop of rising global antisemitism and increased incidents of anti-Israel sentiments and activities on college campuses, the 2022 Y2I cohort was especially receptive to learning ways to help them face the challenges they may soon confront as college students.

Although the teens still kvelled over praying at the Kotel (Western Wall) on Shabbat, viewing sunrise from Masada and swimming in the Dead Sea, their post-trip reflections also reveal more sobering concerns about coping with the world in which they live.

By far the experience most mentioned as having had a significant impact were two presentations by StandWithUs director of international student programs Charlotte Korchak. Speaking passionately and from personal experience, she explained the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and counseled how to best respond when encountering anti-Israel propaganda and misinformation.

The presentations are a regular part of the Y2I experience, but resonated particularly with this group. StandWithUs is an international Israel education organization that inspires and educates people of all ages and backgrounds, challenges misinformation, and fights antisemitism.

“Building on Y2I’s positive impact of enhancing Jewish identity, building community, and connecting teens to Israel, the teen Israel experience also takes on added importance of educating teens on how to identify and respond to antisemitism in its many forms,” said Lappin Foundation Executive Director Deborah L. Coltin, who has supervised Y2I since 2006. “The Jewish community has an obligation to do this. If we don’t do this, who will?”

At the Cardo in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Ephram Adler, of Wenham, wondered whether Israel might really be the aggressive apartheid regime he read about before the trip during a perusal of online posts and comments about Israel, Gaza, and the West. Now, armed with facts, he better understands how misinformation thrives on such sites and “feeds monsters.”

Several teens were surprised to discover how little they knew about the conflict and how complicated it is. “I learned neither side is completely innocent, and it is important that I stay involved and informed as a non-Israeli Jew,” said Sarah Diamond of Malden.

With antisemitic incidents becoming more commonplace in their own schools and community settings, the teens luxuriated in the freedom and empowerment they felt being in a land where they were not a minority and where expressing Jewish pride did not pose a risk to their safety.

“Israel is a place where I do not have to explain myself to anyone. It is such a beautiful thing to see Jewish people walking around, going about their day as a Jew, and wearing their religious attire without fear,” said Naomi Smith of Amesbury.

Y2I teens in Jaffa.

For many teens, especially those who lack a local Jewish community, the Y2I trip provided an important connection between their homeland and their homes. “Before this trip, I knew very few Jewish people in my town [Newbury] or at my school, but now I feel a have a community of Jewish friends I can always turn to if I ever need to talk about antisemitism in my town or stuff related to being Jewish,” said Sofia Colden.

Some, like Rachel Freedman of Peabody, said the sense of belonging she felt in Israel helped her see a whole new side of Judaism. “Israel felt like home. Now I have a voice and I’m not scared to use it. I’m not afraid anymore. Yes, I’m Jewish and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m proud to be who I am. Y2I helped me find that,” she said.

For five teens, the opportunity to enhance their Jewish identity occurred during the trip when they decided to have an informal Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Emma Mair, one of the counselors and a college student at Mount Holyoke and rabbinic intern at Temple Tiferet Shalom in Peabody, led the (re)commitment to Judaism ceremony.

“This moment gave me the opportunity before I returned home to further connect myself to my Judaism with those I grew so close to over the course of this journey,” said Drew McStay of Danvers, one of the five.

For many, the biggest takeaways from the trip were the surprising nuances of Israeli culture and customs, which opened their eyes to a new way of contemporary life. Diamond found it interesting and “honestly, a relief” to see so many reform teens who supported issues like feminism and gay marriage. “I felt like I could really relate to these modern-day residents of the Holy Land,” she said.

For Chase Goldberg of Lynnfield, a chance encounter revealed the heart of the homeland. In Tel Aviv, he was looking for a missing scavenger hunt item he had no idea where to find. A man sitting nearby witnessed his struggle and offered to help, giving him a detailed explanation of where it was.

“I learned later that random acts of kindness like this are not random in Israel; it is just their way of life,” Goldberg said.

After two-year lapse, teens will head to Israel for Y2I Adventure


Teens get to know each other during Y2I pre-trip meetings.

By Shelley A. Sackett

BEVERLY — Over the last two years, the pandemic has clipped the wings of many a traveler, including rising sophomores and juniors who had hoped to go on Lappin Foundation’s 12-day, fully subsidized Youth to Israel Adventure.

Established in 1970 by the late philanthropist Robert Israel Lappin as a way to build Jewish pride, connect young people to Israel, and imbue them with a sense of love and responsibility for their Jewish brethren, the trip has become a rite of passage for teens who live in any of the Lappin Foundation’s north of Boston service area’s cities and towns.

Despite lingering concerns about COVID-19, the Y2I trip will resume from June 26 to July 8, with 83 teens from 31 communities and 41 high schools. More than one-third are from interfaith families, and Camp Bauercrest campers will join Y2I for the third time.

“Community building is a big part of the trip,” said Lappin Foundation Executive Director Deborah L. Coltin, who has supervised Y2I since 2006.

Coltin acknowledges that the big difference between 2022 and previous Y2I trips has to do with COVID-19 precautions. While the pre-trip meetings and trip itinerary remain largely unchanged, testing, mandatory proof of vaccinations and boosters, and contingency plans in case anyone tests positive prior to departure from Israel provide added layers of safety.

“We will abide by the rules of travel that are in effect at the time. Other than that, the trip will be full of activity, exploration, new friends, and self-discovery,” Coltin said.

Danvers High School sophomore Norah Hass is not worried about any aspect of the trip. She learned about it from her brother Jared, who made the trip in 2019, and welcomed the opportunity to meet more Jewish teens. “Danvers has a very small Jewish community, so this will be a nice change,” she said. She is most excited to swim in the Dead Sea, which she has heard is “something everyone should experience once in their lifetime.”

An informal discussion during a pre-trip Y2I meeting.

Ariana Selby, whose two teens Jackson, 17, and Talia, 15, will travel with Y2I on the trip, likewise has no concerns about her children’s safety. “The Y2I teams has been extremely informative and transparent throughout the process of planning and arranging travel,” the Marblehead mom said. “Israel is known for its superior healthcare system, so I am not worried about COVID-19.”

Her youngest, Nathan, 13, is looking forward to his turn in a few years. Selby hopes her teens grow together as siblings during the trip and make lasting bonds with other travelers. “I also hope they are inspired to form a deeper connection to their Jewish roots,” she added.

While Claudia Granville, of Boston, is a full-throated supporter of both the Lappin Foundation and the Y2I experience, she is a little worried about what would happen if her daughter Mabel, 16, tested positive in Israel and had to stay in a designated hotel until testing negative, but is optimistic the policy may have changed by July.

Even so, Mabel and her family remain enthusiastic about her upcoming opportunity, which Granville calls “a foundational trip for Jewish teenagers growing up in this time” amid the profound prevalence of antisemitism and anti-Zionism. “It is essential for our teens to be exposed to and experience Israel in a positive light, especially before college,” she said. She hopes Mabel, who plans to join Lappin Foundation’s Teen Antisemitism Task Force next year, will learn enough to return home with “talking points when she is inevitably faced with anti-Israel rhetoric.”

For Elizabeth Cushinsky and her four children, Y2I is a family affair. Seth, 17, will follow in his three sisters’ footsteps when he attends Y2I this summer. She has no concerns for Seth’s physical safety while in Israel, but she is concerned about COVID-19 and the fact that he and his fellow travelers will be traveling on a plane, touring in buses, and staying in hotels.

“This is a trip of a lifetime for him. There is no question that the benefits outweigh the risks,” the Marblehead mom said.

She hopes Y2I inspires Seth to join Hillel in college and continue enjoying and practicing his Judaism as he grows older. “Even living in a Jewish area on the North Shore, we struggle to bring our children up in a largely Christian world. It gets even more challenging as they grow older,” Cushinsky said, noting with pride that Seth wears a mezuzah around his neck every day.

To Cushinsky, Y2I’s focus on inclusivity is as noteworthy as its emphasis on Jewish pride. “They go out of their way to make sure all teens feel welcome and supported, regardless of their needs [social, emotional, or related to another type of disability]. The supports are kept low key, so teens don’t feel different than anyone else on the trip,” she said.

Over 160 state municipal leaders join fight against antisemitism at Lappin forum

“This is not just a Jewish problem,” Deborah Coltin said at the March 28 forum.

By Shelley A. Sackett

SALEM — The Lappin Foundation on March 28 sponsored “Two Steps Forward Against Antisemitism,” a virtual event aimed to educate Massachusetts city and town officials on two important steps they can take to help their communities stand up to and combat the growing threat of antisemitism. The event drew 168 municipal leaders representing more than 100 localities.

Deborah Coltin, Lappin Foundation executive director, explained the summit’s goal was to educate attendees about two tools available to fight antisemitism: adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s non-legally binding, working definition of antisemitism, and local enactment of a proclamation to annually commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27.

“This is not just a Jewish problem. Where there is antisemitism, there are also other kinds of hate,” Coltin said.

The IHRA, which has promoted Holocaust education, research, and remembrance since 1998, is the only intergovernmental organization mandated to focus solely on Holocaust-related issues. With strong evidence of a recent rise in antisemitism, its experts determined that in order to begin to address the problem, there must be clarity about what antisemitism is, according to its website, http://www.holocaust­remembrance.com.

The IHRA defines antisemitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

Over a dozen scenarios apply the definition in the contexts of criticism against Israel and contemporary examples in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and the religious sphere.

Robert Leikind, regional director of the American Jewish Committee of New England, stressed the importance of a common framework to help governmental officials and others understand what is meant by antisemitism. “In the absence of a clear understanding of the definition, you can’t create policies to deal with it,” he said. “You can’t fight what you don’t recognize.”

So far, 35 countries have endorsed the IHRA, including the United States. Twenty states and five governors have adopted its definitions of antisemitism, including Massachusetts, when Governor Charlie Baker signed a proclamation on Feb. 18.

Peabody Mayor Ted Betten­court, honorary chair at the Lappin event, announced that the Peabody City Council unanimously voted to adopt the IHRA’s antisemitism guidelines at its March 24 meeting, making Peabody one of the state’s first to do so (Newton, New Bedford and Lynn have already adopted the IHRA definition). Mayor Bettencout also issued a proclamation on Jan. 27 recognizing it as International Holocaust Remembrance Day and January as Holocaust Education Month.

The Peabody City Council is considering adding Holocaust education to its middle and high school curriculum, Bettencourt said.

Referencing the verbal attack on Chabad Rabbis Nechemia Schusterman and Sruli Baron on Lowell Street in 2019, Bettencourt stressed that acts of hate will not be tolerated in Peabody. “Love and acceptance can triumph over hatred, intolerance, and exclusion,” he declared.

Underscoring the importance of adopting the IHRA guidelines, Robert Trestan, Anti-Defamation League New England regional director, cited a recent poll that indicated almost all American Jews say antisemitism is a problem. Furthermore, 2021 FBI statistics indicate that 60 percent of all hate crimes are against Jews.

“This is not just anecdotal. The increase in violence and antisemitic incidents is real,” Trestan said.

Sharon was the first town to adopt the IHRA definition in March 2021. Sharon community activist Robert Soffer, who was instrumental in this process, emphasized that antisemitism is as grave a danger for non-Jews as for Jews. “It is the ‘canary in the coal mine’ and indicative of all forms of hate,” he said. “If the municipal managers attending this summit truly embrace this fact, then something very important will have been achieved.”

Rounding out the list of speakers were Josh Kraft, president of Kraft Philanthropies and the Foundation to Combat Anti-Semitism; Jody Kipnis, co-founder of Holocaust Legacy Foundation; Lucy New and Sofia Vatnik, cochairs of the Teen Antisemitism Task Force; and Dr. Hans Fisher, a frequent speaker and Holocaust survivor who was aboard the M.S. St. Louis in 1939. The ship carried more than 900 Jews who had fled Germany and hoped to reach Cuba and then migrate to the US, but passengers were not allowed to get off the ship in Havana, and then shut off from docking in Florida. The St. Louis was forced to return to Europe, where more than 250 of the Jewish passengers were killed by the Nazis.

“Antisemitism is alive and well in the US,” Dr. Fisher told the Journal after the summit. “Police protection, unfortunately, is often necessary right now, but strong school education programs can be very effective in ameliorating this scourge.”

In her remarks, Kipnis urged attendees to work to get their communities to adopt the IHRA definition and proclaim January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. “Ask yourselves two questions: What have I learned? And, how can I make a difference in community,” she said.

For more information about adopting the working definition of antisemitism as an educational tool to identify and combat hate, email Robert Leikind, Director of American Jewish Committee New England, at leikindr@ajc.org. For information about the process Sharon went through to adopt the definition, email Robert Soffer at sofferrobert@gmail.com.