The summer is approaching quickly and teens’ thoughts drift towards their summer plans. I recall feeling the anticipation that the end of the school year was nearing and the rush of excitement for the summer was taking over. At this time, fifteen years ago, I was preparing to embark on a summer that would be like no other. I was off to Israel for the first time in my life. This experience would become the trip that I credit today for ensuring my Jewish identity.
I returned from my summer experience in Israel, and my love for the holy land was unmatched. I wanted more Israel, and I wanted it all the time. I searched every Jewish neighborhood in New York City finding any product that would bring me back to my summer in Israel. I loved that summer — the hiking, the sightseeing, the food, the people. Every part of Israel lived within me like nothing else in my life. No experience before or after that summer could match the connection I would have with Israel for the rest my life.
Ten years after my summer in Israel I found myself employed in the Jewish community. There is no doubt that my Israel experience inspired me to push Jewish teens to having an experience like I had. I was running a teen program at a congregation in New York City, and I had attended a workshop for congregants about making connections to the land of Israel. The rabbi running the workshop asked the crowd of more than 100 Jewish adults and teens, “How many people believe American Judaism can survive without the State of Israel being in existence?” I was shocked that more than 50 percent of the room didn’t think Israel existing impacted American Jewry. How could so many feel that way? I couldn’t figure it out. Finally, I realized that many of the people in the room had never been to Israel, or they had not sent their kids. There it was — no connection equals no sense of urgency to insure the survival of the place that inspired my Judaism.
That workshop came and went, and I was inspired in a new way. My mission was not just to inspire Jewish teens to discover their Jewish identities; it was to get them to Israel. To that point I really just cared about keeping teens connected in any way that I could, but now Israel had to be part of the connection. Fast forward to the present day, and that’s exactly how I try to shape experiences for Jewish teens here in Orange County. It’s not good enough to get them on a Camp Retreat or to a Jewbilation event; it’s about connecting those experiences with experiences that involve cultivating a love and passion for the State of Israel.
The Orange County Bureau of Jewish Education offers many different programs that begin cultivating a connection to Israel. This summer we are sending a group of teens to Israel on our TIES trip, and we currently have many teens running our I-ACT (Israel Advocacy Committee for Teens) leadership program. For more information about these programs contact Eric Nicastro, (949) 435-3450 or firstname.lastname@example.org.