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Helping Teens Understand Where They Fit in the Jewish Story

Helping Teens Understand Where They Fit in the Jewish Story

Group photo of NFTY in Israel teens at the Western Wall

More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, it is Shabbat that has kept the Jewish people.
-- Ahad HaAm, Zionist thinker

Recently, some Reform Jewish teens spent Shabbat in Krakow, Poland; others experienced morning prayer in the Negev desert. Still other teens recited Kiddush surrounded by the rolling hills of the Galilee, and those teens who were visiting Israel’s Mediterranean coast said HaMotzi, the prayer over the challah, there. In so doing, our participants truly represent the breadth and depth of the Jewish experience, connecting ancient prayers, texts, and stories with our current Jewish reality.

They went on to explore how, over centuries, even as we built communities around the world, we never forgot that Israel was the birthplace of our nation. Importantly, these experiences offer an opportunity for our teens to ask how and why any of this history is relevant to them. Of course, NFTY in Israel has many answers, but nothing is more important than a good question to frame the entire experience.

As the summer progresses, our teens tend to ask one very basic question: How did we stay together as a people after all these years? Coincidentally, when the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, was exiled to Dharamshala, India, he too asked, “How does a people remain a people outside of their land?” Being a thoughtful leader, the Dalai Lama invited a number of rabbis to visit him so he could find out how the Jews remained a people for 2,000 years following the exile from Judea. If we Jews lacked our own geographic boundaries for 2,000 years, he wished to know what was the glue that has held us together for so long? Of course, these rabbis gave many different answers – focused on laws and language, traditions and rites. For us, retracing the Jewish story for participants in NFTY in Israel is a chance to find the glue that connects each teen to the story.

In addition to a summer of unparalleled fun and a journey that will help teens develop a new level of personal maturity, NFTY in Israel is an experience in which Jewish fundamentals such as Shabbat are not taken for granted. Instead teens question them and wrestle with them. What’s more, questions are not limited to places or concepts, but include engaging with fellow Jews from various backgrounds. This summer, all our teens are meeting with Israeli peers their age, having meaningful encounters, and asking what the Israeli and North America Jewish communities have in common. This is one of the questions often asked by today’s organized Jewish community. By exploring it themselves, our teens will come to see that they have the power to write the next chapters in the story of the Jewish people.

Isadore Rabi, winner of a Nobel Prize in physics, was once asked why he became a scientist. He replied:

My mother made me a scientist without ever knowing it. Every other child would come back from school and be asked, “What did you learn today?” But my mother used to ask: “Izzy, did you ask a good question today?” That made the difference. Asking good questions made me a scientist.

This summer, as we move through time and space on our various NFTY in Israel programs, we too will confront the existential questions of the Jewish story in the 20th century – which moved from annihilation in Europe to re-birth in Israel – and we will explore how we be balance physical, spiritual, and moral strength with the multitude of challenges that come with having a sovereign Jewish state.

Learn more about the six unique NFTY in Israel travel opportunities for Reform Jewish teens.

Rabbi Rich Kirschen is the director of NFTY in Israel, the Union for Reform Judaism’s teen summer Israel travel program. Kirschen was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1996. Before making aliyah to Israel, he served as the executive director of the Hillel Foundation at Brown University in Providence, RI. He also served as the University of Michigan Hillel's associate director in Ann Arbor, MI. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife Cara Saposnik, who is the director of international relations at the Sam Spiegel Film School.

Rabbi Rich Kirschen
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