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?”
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.
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.