Summer Sheds New Light on Israel for Teens
by Yaffi Spodek
Noam Tansman knew he wanted to travel to Israel for the summer, but he was looking for a program that was different than just a conventional teen tour.
“I wanted a trip that was both fun and educational, that would also help me feel more connected to Israel,” explained Noam, a senior at the Claire and Emanuel G. Rosenblatt High School at Donna Klein Jewish Academy.
He found all that and more on Ramah Seminar, one of a wide array of programs geared toward high school students looking to spend a memorable summer in their homeland. Like Noam, dozens of Jewish teens throughout the community were privileged to enjoy unique Israel experiences this past summer. In addition to visiting traditional tourist destinations, they had the incredible chance to see a side of Israel they’d never been exposed to before. Whether it was through a historical lens or from a cultural perspective, participants gained a new appreciation for modern-day Israel and explored its rich history through educational and meaningful hands-on experiences that made Judaism come alive.
Designed for campers of the Conservative Ramah overnight camps, Ramah Seminar is an intensive six-week program that combines hiking with text study, stimulating discussions and interactive learning opportunities. Noam felt that his time in Israel helped him forge a deeper connection to his religious and Zionist roots. A visit to the Knesset gave the group a glimpse into the country’s political landscape, and the trip inspired Noam to start an Israel club at his school that teaches students how to advocate effectively for Israel.
“I feel like my identity as a Jewish person became a lot stronger and I felt very proud to be part of the tribe,” he said. “When we visited a Kibbutz in Southern Israel, the place where David Ben Gurion once shared his vision of settling the land – it really spoke to me and made me want to live there.”
Alyssa Cohen also felt a greater connection to Israel after her summer on NCSY’s The Jerusalem Journey (TJJ), which helped her discover more about her Jewish heritage and appreciate the beauty of the country.
“Every day on TJJ was action-packed and every activity we did over the four weeks, such as hiking, volunteering or visiting soldiers, helped me learn more about Israel,” said Alyssa, a junior at Olympic Heights High School. “I learned so much about Judaism that I didn’t know before, like what it means to keep Shabbat. I also loved meeting new friends and learning from our amazing advisors who dedicated their summer to us.”
Though TJJ is geared toward public school students, NCSY offers a host of other summer programs catering to teens of all religious backgrounds. The trips focus on a range of activities -- from sports and volunteering to learning programs and leadership training seminars -- and some NCSY groups also travel to Europe before heading to Israel.
An emotional experience in Europe was in store for Hannah Weinstein, who attended one of the Reform movement’s NFTY programs called L’Dor V’Dor, a five-week journey which started out in Prague, Poland and the Czech Republic. The group delved into Jewish history and visited local landmarks and synagogues, as well as meaningful Holocaust memorials.
“It was extremely emotional, and I gained insights as to what Judaism means to me,” said Hannah, a junior at Spanish River Community High School. “We visited concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Terezin, and it was truly a life-changing experience.”
Israel highlights of the L’Dor V’Dor trip – one of several NFTY programs in Israel – included excursions to Masada, the Western Wall, the Negev and the Dead Sea. Hannah also completed Gadna army training in Sde Boker, covering everything from learning how to stand like a soldier to shooting an M-16, which was “was very challenging, yet so meaningful and fulfilling to complete,” she added.
Other teens were able to learn firsthand about the country’s thriving tech industry. Jeremy Jacob, a junior at Yeshiva High School, attended STEP - a Technology & Start-Up Program offered through the Technion University which features academic workshops, visits to Israeli tech firms and meetings with leaders and innovators in the field. The month-long program also incorporates recreational activities, such as rock-climbing, go-karting and visits to art and engineering museums.
“We learned from inventors, engineers and professors about why Israel is such an innovative powerhouse, despite its small size,” said Jeremy. “I definitely learned a lot about entrepreneurship, but even more than that, how to apply the skills I learned and become a positive thinker and doer, not just a dreamer. I also enjoyed experiencing Israel firsthand – through the people we met, by speaking the language and enjoying the food.”
For Brett Koolik, who attended Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI), a highlight of the summer was a memorable visit to the Western Wall where he sang and danced with a diverse group of rabbis, soldiers and tourists.
“The feeling was surreal,” he recalled. “People grabbed me and threw me into a circle to dance, and the idea that we were all Jewish broke down the boundary that separated us as strangers. At that moment, I felt I had a home in which I belonged. It was a key revelation that really affected my Jewish outlook.”
AMHSI offers a six-week study abroad summer program (in addition to longer sessions during the school year) that features classes on Jewish history supplemented by touring expeditions around the country. Participants are eligible to receive high school or college credits for their studies, and can explore Israel in a fun, engaging way, through hiking, rafting and camping.
Molly Mussary of Spanish River Community High School, who also attended AMHSI, gained a deeper appreciation for life in Israel.
“After spending the summer on AMHSI, I feel more of a connection to Israelis, and my experience made me even more willing to stand up for Israel when I hear people speaking poorly about it,” said Molly. “It was a trip that made me realize how special the country is.”
Molly was upholding a family tradition, since her father, Jordan, attended AMHSI in 1982 and spoke so highly of the program, piquing her interest. She had also visited Israel on a school trip in eighth grade and was eager to return.
“After leaving my Jewish day school for a public high school, AMHSI allowed me to reconnect with my Jewish identity,” Molly added. “The people and places I was able to learn about, and actually visit, will stay with me forever.”
There are a multitude of opportunities available for high school students interested in attending a program in Israel. To learn more about these programs, please visit lapidisrael.org.
Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County offers a limited amount of scholarship funding for students who wish to attend a summer program in Israel. To apply for a scholarship, please visit jewishboca.org/departments/programs/education/israel_programs_scholarship.