Teens discover their Jewish identity on Youth to Israel journey

By Shelley A. Sackett

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

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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.