My bags are (almost) packed: old gym shoes, a NFTY staff baseball cap, a stack of t-shirts from my six summers at Kutz. I’ve got the pink tallis my grandparents gave me when I became a Bat Mitzvah and, perhaps against my better judgment, a fanny pack.
My passport is signed, sealed and ready to go, and Israel is waiting.
In just three days, I’ll land in Jerusalem to meet KESHER Birthright Group 361 for a free 10-day adventure tour of the Jewish homeland. This electric anticipation is an old friend, worn through like the old camp t-shirts lying dormant in my suitcase. I’m used to packing, but never quite like this.
I was a late-comer on the Jewish teen scene, but dove head first into Reform Judaism my senior year of high school. I packed duffel bags for NFTY-TOR events at URJ Greene Family Camp and suitcases for six summers as a participant and staff member at the URJ Kutz Camp. In Warwick, I was finally able to wrestle with questions I’d always had: Do I really believe in God? What happens after death? Where is the meaning in suffering?
My Jewish peers and advisors helped me see the beauty in my questions and in questioning my questions. Charismatic camp peers and counselors became unassuming role models, sitting cross-legged on cabin floors eating Nutella and pretzels with me and talking about Martin Buber. My new friends spoke of camel riding in the Negev Desert and visiting the Kotel on NFTY in Israel and NFTY-EIE High School in Israel, and assumed I’d done the same.
After high school, I packed boxes to move from Austin to Denver for college. I found spirituality and community at Hillel, where I lead camp-style Shabbat services and met my best friends. When our Israel committee planned an event for Israel’s 60th anniversary, I ate falafel and danced under a tent but didn’t feel the connection. Junior year, I tip-toed around the idea of studying abroad at Ben Gurion but ended up celebrating the High Holy Days in Australia instead.
Following graduation, I packed up a storage cube and headed for New York City. I was honored to trade my camp clipboard for a cubicle, to give back to the Movement that has shaped me as a web designer for the URJ Camp & Israel Programs.
But still, after countless NFTY-TOR events, multiple NFTY Conventions and Biennials, all six summers at 46 Bowen Road and a fulfilling job with the URJ—there was a piece of my Jewish identity very clearly missing.
Twenty-four years later, it’s finally time to pack for home.
When I unzip my suitcase in Israel, I will welcome the questions that are bound to leak out: Will I feel any connection to this place? Will I continue to defend Israel’s right to exist? How will politics and peace come into play? I know now, from camp and NFTY, that there is holiness in the search. And, although I don’t know exactly what answers I will find, I hope to discover energy in a country where public space is Jewish space, where Shabbat can’t be ignored and where the history of Am Yisrael, the Jewish People—my people—is as thick and real as the mud of the Dead Sea.
NFTY and camp have lead me to Birthright, and, I hope, an even deeper understanding of my Jewish identity. It’s clear that empowering the next generation to connect to Jewish life, whether through our youth programs (like I did), synagogue life or another avenue, is vital to the future of our Movement. Read, get involved and advocate for the URJ’s Campaign for Youth Engagement launched at last month’s Biennial, and help kids find meaning and purpose in leading Jewish lives.
My suitcase, chock full of Kutz t-shirts, NFTY swag and that awful fanny pack, is finally ready for Israel. And so am I.
Follow Leslie along with NFTY Youth Programs Managers Pamela Schuller (NFTY Garden Empire Region) and Logan Zinman (NFTY Chicago Area Region) every step of the way as they explore Israel for the first time on our live Storify feed, here on our blog, and on Twitter at #NFTYStaffDoesIsrael
Leslie Bass serves as Web Associate for the URJ Camp & Israel Programs and NFTY. Originally from Austin, Texas, she was an active member of NFTY-TOR as a teen and spent six summers as a participant and staff member at the URJ Kutz Camp. Leslie graduated from the University of Denver with a dual degree in Digital Media Studies and Journalism and now lives in New York City. She tweets @lbass2.