Immersive Israel Engagement
By Morgan Weidner
This past February, NFTY held its Mid Year Leadership Summit: NFTY Veida at the URJ Greene Family Camp. It was a weekend of networking and leadership development, and an opportunity to have important conversations about the values, priorities, and direction of NFTY.
Our first discussion was to assess how well we as NFTYites and leaders have incorporated NFTY’s Thirteen Principles – the shared values that are the foundation of NFTY – into our regions, programs, and experiences this past year. Anyone who has been to a regional NFTY event knows that we do a good job at Fun and Spirit (Kef v’Ruach) and Community (Kehilah). But we agreed that the principles that aren’t being incorporated as well into our programs are the State of Israel (Medinat Yisrael) and Hebrew (Ivrit).
Through NFTY, I have had two incredibly powerful, completely immersive experiences in Israel. First, during my junior year of high school, I spent a semester on NFTY’s Eisendrath International Exchange Program. Avi Fine, one of our madrichim (counselors), explains:
The power behind EIE and NFTY as a whole is that it makes Judaism and being Jewish fun. Living in Israel provides an entirely Jewish framework to an exceedingly fun adventure. It gives participants the opportunity to develop their own Jewish identities and gain a connection to Jewish history and peoplehood as independent individuals in a manner that could not be achieved living in America.
I am thankful that I had these opportunities to make Israel become real for me. I walked the land, touched the historic places, and heard the sounds of the country and our people. I developed a meaningful connection to a place I had only heard about for years. But as it turns out, I’m not in the majority of NFTYites or Jewish teens in North America. Most Jewish teens have not been able to have these experiences.
Another important discussion we had at the Mid Year Leadership Summit was about how NFTY engages with Israel. The overarching message that came out of the focus group was clear: get our teens to Israel. One teen expressed that although he thinks that our NFTY regions offer adequate programming on Israel, it was hard for him to feel a connection to the content and participate in the conversations since he had not been to Israel. Many others agreed.
This past November, I was one of five teens who missed a week of school to go to Israel for one reason: to represent youth at the 25th Anniversary Celebration of Women of the Wall. It was an incredible experience to pray on Rosh Chodesh (the new moon) with more than 500 women from all over the world, and one of the most important lessons I took away is my belief in the need for more young American Jews to make similar trips.
What would be an ideal youth trip to Israel? It depends on the individual. Interested in environmental work? Spend time at Kibbutz Lotan to learn about sustainable living and creative ecology. Interested in art? Then spend a week or two at the artist’s colony in Tzfat. NFTY has already found interest – based youth engagement to be a successful way of engaging newcomers into NFTY’s programming, including its new Nashir, Binah, and Nirkod programs. But why not include Israel programs as well?
Immersive Israel engagement is important – not only because the experiences are transformative for teens – but because they are critical to furthering NFTY’s values, the principles of our movement, and the work we do. But we are not doing enough. NFTY is committed to incorporating each of our Thirteen Principles into our experiences and to finding new and innovative ways to connect youth with the land (Medinat Yisrael) and language (Ivrit) of our people. So what is our next step?
Morgan Weidner currently serves as the NFTY Programming Vice President and is a first year student at Scripps College in Claremont, CA. She is originally from Bellevue, WA and a member of Temple De Hirsch Sinai. She is an alum of URJ Camp Kalsman, NFTY-EIE, and NFTY-NW. Morgan loves drinking tea, the Southern California weather, and laughing with her fellow board members.
We are grateful to Women of Reform Judaism who have supported NFTY for 75 years and continue their generosity as Inaugural Donors to the Campaign for Youth Engagement.