I’m only going to Israel this summer because my parents are forcing me to,” my daughter complained to her friends in the days before her first trip to the Holy Land last month. She wore a pout and made sure we could hear the reluctance in her 16-year-old voice. Just hours after her arrival, though, her attitude changed dramatically. “This country is amazing,” she texted. “I never want to come home!”
For four weeks, my twin girls toured Israel with an NCSY trip called the Jerusalem Journey. They played with chocolate at a chocolate factory, hiked through rivers, climbed mountains before sunrise, rode donkeys and camels, and raced through the Red Sea on a tube in Eilat.
Yet there was plenty of serious, reflective work involved, too. The group padded slowly through Yad Vashem and searched its database for lost family members. They met Israeli mothers whose children had been murdered in acts of terrorism, and they wept at the Acre Prison, where the noose that hung martyrs of the Irgun in 1947 is still attached to the ceiling. They danced with members of the IDF, prayed at the Western Wall and learned how beautiful Shabbat can be when an entire country shuts down and a restive peace descends like a soft mist.
The trip brought Jewish history to life with an immediacy and urgency they had never previously understood. “Everything felt so real in Israel,” my daughter told me later. “I realized that the places I was visiting were all about my people, and that those who suffered and died endured what they did so that we could be alive today.”
For years, my girls have been exposed to Jewish education, synagogue, festivals and Shabbatons. But each facet of their Jewish lives felt disconnected from their reality. Their trip to Israel somehow managed to put all the Jewish puzzle pieces together in a vibrant, meaningful and incredibly impactful way.
“We planned every last detail, hoping for this outcome,” confided Rabbi Shlomo Mandel, their trip leader and the director of JSU-NCSY Canada.
“Today, with peer pressure and anti-Semitism, it’s a big struggle for a Jewish teen to feel energized and proud of their Judaism. Much of the Judaism teens are exposed to – like being dragged to shul by their parents – can seem outdated. We try to make this trip a place where you feel surrounded and insulated by Jewish meaning, Jewish pride, growth and happiness. Our hope is that when they return home, participants can confidently express their newfound pride in their Judaism and be committed to Jewish growth, to becoming a better person each day.”
In the days since their return, I’ve noticed changes in them. The musical soundtrack we listen to in the car post-Israel is peppered with Mattisyahu and the Maccabeats, and they have stayed connected, via telephone, with some of the friends they met on the trip who live on the other side of the country. My girls are participating in a Shema challenge that involves saying the prayer every night and reciting Modeh Ani each morning. These are things they would have scoffed at just two months ago.
“We tried to teach them that with Judaism, it’s not an all-or-nothing scenario,” Mandel explained. “We show them advisors who wear kippot, keep Shabbos and have values and ideals, and we explain that’s something you can be in life. You don’t have to choose between a life of 100 per cent religious observance, or no observance whatsoever. And you don’t need the labels of secular, religious, Reform.”
We’re a secular family and it’s unlikely that my girls will start keeping Shabbat in the near future. But I’m thrilled that the version of Judaism they’re beginning to understand is one full of spirituality, pride, dignity and values. It’s something I couldn’t fully communicate to them in 16 years of family life. And without the fastidious planning of the NCSY team, the inspirational leaders and the amazing ruach they helped create on this life-changing trip, it might never have happened.