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Hiking in the Negev Sparks Teens' Love for Israel

Hiking in the Negev Sparks Teens' Love for Israel

Six teens walking in an open expanse of the Negev Desert

“You followed me into the desert, into a land not sown.” (Jeremiah 2:2)

A few weeks ago I followed 40 American teens and their four counselors into the Negev Desert in southern Israel at the start of their four-week discovery journey through Israel.  They are all rising 12th graders from URJ Goldman Union Camp Institute (GUCI) in Indiana, many in Israel for the first time or returning to Israel after experiencing only short trips with their families. For almost 60 years, NFTY in Israel has succeeding in creating an enduring relationship between generations of Reform Jews and the land, people, and State of Israel.

With varying degrees of sophistication and knowledge, today’s teens come to participate in an Israel experience already aware that Israel is country that has issues. A well-designed trip like NFTY in Israel takes young people on a journey through which they can gain perspective and, we hope, develop greater confidence to shape their own views.

From a distance, the Negev in the summer appears lifeless in its shades of stony greys and browns. With each step in, moving away from machine-paved roads and onto trails marked by wild goats, Bedouins, and hikers, the desert’s seemingly muted ecosystem becomes surprisingly animated to the observant trekker. In this way, the Negev is brilliantly both metaphor and practice in the art of perspective – a word whose origin is the art and science of optics. In their desert experience, NFTY in Israel teens learn something about ways of seeing that can be applied to the complex Israel beginning to unwrap itself before them, ways of seeing that also are internalized to navigate the personal growth pressures that come from ending high school.

If done right, the Negev walks and the sleeping out under cold, clear, and starry skies, touch the emotions and the soul. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, retired with his wife, Paula, to Sde Boqer in the Negev. When Paula died, he eulogized her with Jeremiah 2:2 – “I remember the devotion of your youth, the love of your nuptials – you followed me into the desert, a land not sown.” Their bonds and partnership became inextricably tied to the desert they shared and loved. I witnessed my teen companions form deeper bonds with each other as they helped each other ascend a difficult patch of rock, as they marveled together at purple bloom surviving in dry riverbed, and as they cuddled for warmth during an unseasonably chilly night.

Although not really quiet, the desert gave my teen companions space to hear themselves think and to search their souls. Like the prophet Elijah who heard the still, small voice of the Divine in a nocturnal experience in similar surroundings, I heard teens from Midwestern cities and suburbs share their radical amazement, finding welcome spiritual discovery after what I imagine was a frenetic year of high school. It was moving for me, the counselors, and the young Israeli nature guides to hear testimonies from 16- and 17- year-olds about how the desert spoke to them and through them, empowering them to articulate their religious voice.

Before the hikes, the group had visited the unadorned, paired graves of David and Paula Ben Gurion, overlooking a majestic desert canyon. In a simple, yet powerful way, their gravestones tell a compelling story, so fitting for the start of an Israel journey. In addition to the customary names and years of birth and death, each grave displays their dates of aliyah to Israel. For these founders of Israel, settling in the ancient Jewish homeland was a rebirth – all the identify-formation, which happened prior to that point, saw a new level of realization, profoundly applying theory to practice.

After only a few days in Israel, I witnessed American teens, nurtured for so many years by Reform camps and communities, come to understand the deep impact Israel can make on their Jewish journeys. Remembering the narrative that the ancient Israelites entered the Promised Land through the wilderness, these teens, with the encouragement of their counselors, pondered their personal connections with the Jewish concepts of being in community, belonging to a people, and creating and sustaining a homeland. And, on this, the first leg of the trip, the natural beauty of the desert inspired for most of them the idea that there is something to love about this not uncomplicated country.

Rabbi Reuven Greenvald is the director of Israel engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism.  His prior experience in re-thinking Israel engagement comes from work on innovative initiatives in the North American program of the Jewish Agency for Israel.  

Rabbi Reuven Greenvald
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