Last month, 18 local eighth graders traveled to Israel through a new Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey program called Israel Now. The students hiked up Masada, participated in an archaeological dig, visited the Kotel, enjoyed the Dead Sea, and spent time in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Israeli eighth graders joined them for some activities. They also had the chance to do volunteer work, to hear from Holocaust survivors, and to meet lone soldiers.
The local cohort was part of a larger group of eighth graders from other U.S. cities, including Chicago, Charlotte, and Rochester. Linda Heller, community coordinator for Israel Now of Northern New Jersey; Rabbi Jeremy Ruberg, rabbi for lifelong learning at Temple Emanu-El in Closter, and Raychel Reilly, chief health and wellness officer at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, led the local group.
Ms. Heller explained that the purpose of the nine-day trip was to give the teens an opportunity “to work on developing their own Jewish identity and a connection to Israel and also to create Jewish friendships.” It was many of the teens’ first visit to Israel.
“Providing meaningful Jewish experiences for teens early on makes it more likely that they will have a stronger Jewish identity and deeper connection to Israel,” Ms. Heller said. “Many teens don’t continue with their Jewish connections and their Jewish educations post bar or bat mitzvah, and once they get to high school, their calendars fill up with sports and all sorts of other activities. So the goal of Israel Now is to engage teens before they start high school. When Judaism and Jewish connections are an important part of their lives before high school, they are more likely to remain involved in the Jewish community during their high school and college years.
“Throughout the trip, the students were excited about seeing the different sites in Israel and also about exploring Israel with each other,” she continued. “The group felt very connected.”
The program is open to students who don’t attend Jewish day schools. “The idea is to engage students who don’t already have that strong connection during the school day,” Ms. Heller added.
Eli Kent, a student at Tenafly Middle School, loved the trip. He thought the program was great and enjoyed meeting other eighth graders from around the country, making new friends, and celebrating Shabbat in Israel with new and old friends. Eli found that visiting the Western Wall and praying there was the most meaningful and inspirational part of the trip. Although he had visited Israel and the Western Wall once before with his family, this time, “I was more independent and had more time to think and reflect on my own,” he said.
Sophie Halper, an eighth grader at Demarest middle school, also valued the trip. She said it was “the best experience ever,” and thinks that every eighth grader should participate.
Her mother, Casey Halper, agreed that it was a great experience. “Sophie immediately connected with the other kids and really enjoyed the opportunities to engage with Israeli teens,” Ms. Halper said. “She loved climbing Masada, exploring the shuk in Jerusalem, and cooking an Israeli meal. She found the volunteer work – packing clothes for people in need – particularly meaningful, and I think it was also all the little moments in between the activities, being in Israel and spending time with new friends, that made the experience meaningful.”
In addition to the visit itself, the program includes pre-trip and post-trip engagement and exposure to ways to get involved in the local Jewish community. The cohort participated in a few Sunday activities before the trip. “It was an opportunity for them to get to know each other,” Ms. Heller said. “They learned some Hebrew phrases, and they also learned about the geography of Israel.”
After the trip, a reunion was scheduled for the students and staff members. It included an opportunity for the teens and their parents to connect with some of the local organizations that work with Jewish teens. “We’re hoping they will get involved in some of Federation’s volunteer opportunities or at the JCC or with youth groups, whether it’s BBYO or USY or their synagogue’s teen group,” Ms. Heller said. BBYO is the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization; USY —United Synagogue Youth —is the Conservative movement’s youth group. “This is not just a trip and we’re done — we plan to keep in touch, it’s the beginning of a relationship with the teens and their families,” she added.
The federation’s chief operating officer, Lisa Harris Glass, explained that the federation invests strategically in building the Jewish future by funding programs for children, teens, and young adults, “and we’re always looking at return on investment, because obviously, we’re investing community money,” Ms. Glass said.
The group of federation programs geared to engaging young people is called the Continuum of Jewish Life. It includes PJ Library, which sends Jewish themed books to young children; Shalom Baby, a program for babies and toddlers and their parents, and Jewish Right Start Preschool, which provides grants for preschool. It continues through Moishe House, which helps create Jewish communities for young adults, and includes everything in between, Ms. Glass said. “This is a marathon, not a sprint; it’s 14 years before we know if a child who received PJ Library books is engaged as a teen.
“We’re heavily invested in One Happy Camper” – a program that provides grants for campers attending Jewish overnight camp for the first or second time – “because the surveys show that the experience of Jewish overnight summer camp is very impactful in building a positive Jewish identity.”
Israel Now was started by the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago. “They’ve been running the program for a long time, and their research was demonstrating that this experience – of an eighth-grade peer trip to Israel – was as impactive as a whole summer of Jewish overnight camp and that, indeed, getting participants, post bar or bat mitzvah, on this trip was the best way to ensure continued engagement Jewishly in the teen years and beyond,” Ms. Glass said. “So when they were thinking about expanding the program, we put ourselves forward to be one of the first communities outside of Chicago to pilot the program.”
Ms. Glass is excited about Israel Now and hopes to see the participants engaged in Jewish life. “Our obligation is to find these innovative programs and to bring them to the community,” she said. “We do our research, so we believe we’re making the right investment and then we hope that we get the outcome that we were looking for.
“I think this experience was really impactful for the kids. Time will tell.”
The participants have been back only a few weeks and “we’ve already heard from some of them that they are looking into opportunities to get involved in their synagogues, at the JCC, and at BBYO,” Ms. Heller said.
Eli is one of the students who is thinking about getting involved in BBYO. He already is on the teen advisory board for the Kaplen JCC’s Rubin Run and helps stock the food pantry and deliver kosher Meals on Wheels at Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Northern NJ.
Sophie also has started getting involved. She volunteered at her synagogue’s recent Purim carnival and is helping on the JCC’s teen advisory board for the Rubin Run.
“Sophie is excited to be actively involved in the Jewish community,” Ms. Halper said. “Linda, Raychel, and Rabbi Ruberg really impacted the trip in such a positive way; Sophie connected with them and hopes to continue to work with them.”
Ms. Halper is grateful that the federation brought this program to the community and hopes that other teens will have the opportunity to participate. She also hopes this is just the beginning of Sophie’s connection to Israel and the local Jewish community.
Ms. Heller already is looking ahead to next year’s trip. The first information session is scheduled for May 3 at the federation offices in Paramus and is open to all seventh graders and their parents. To learn more, go to www.jfnnj.org.