Fourteen Jewish teens from Greater Philadelphia spent the final three weeks of their summer vacations in what they all agree was a life-transforming experience. These high school sophomores and juniors traveled to Israel and created what is hoped will be a true and enduring Mifgash -- the Hebrew word for encounter -- with the land and people of our Jewish homeland.
Fittingly, Mifgash is the name for this unique program, coordinated for the very first time by the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education-Jewish Outreach Partnership (ACAJE-JOP) with funding from the Partnership 2000 Committee of Federation's Center for Israel and Overseas.
"This important program strengthens the ties between Israeli and Philadelphia young people and is an essential building block for Jewish identity," said Jeri Zimmerman, director of Federation's Center for Israel and Overseas. She said that she was "delighted that ACAJE-JOP decided to partner with the center on this initiative and help to generate excitement for Israel within our local congregations."
ACAJE/JOP's executive director, Rabbi Phil Warmflash, was excited at the prospect of collaborating with Zimmerman, to add both advocacy and service- learning components to this trip, which pairs Philadelphia area teens with their Israeli peers from Federation's Partnership 2000 communities of Netivot and Sedot Negev.
"Jeri and I worked together to expand the program to include social action and leadership-development experiences," Warmflash said, adding that "these young people return to their home communities as Israel ambassadors and teachers." The teens that were accepted into the program attended three pre-sessions and will participate in two follow-up sessions to give them the tools to create Israel projects within their synagogues.
Rabbis and Jewish educators from area synagogues nominated teens for this highly competitive experience, which was heavily subsidized by Federation and the nine synagogues that selected nominees.
Zack Miller was one of three teens representing Kehilat HaNahar-the Little Shul by the River in New Hope. Both he and his family are active in the synagogue and felt a close bond to its founding religious leader, Rabbi Sandy Roth, who died last March after a long battle with cancer. Miller studied with the late rabbi for his confirmation and was inspired by her to volunteer to teach third graders in the shul's religious school.
Raised in an observant household, Miller said he had always wanted to visit Israel. After talking with the synagogue's education director, Derrick Rosenbaum, about Mifgash, he recalled, "I felt that the program would be the perfect first-time opportunity for me."
The impact of the experience for the aspiring journalist, who serves as editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper, was "immediate and profound." "Right off the bat, as soon as we embarked on the bus from Ben-Gurion International Airport to Jerusalem, I knew that I was in a truly amazing place ... a land that was a unique mix of old and new," he said. Although hard-pressed to select one highlight from an itinerary that included a sunrise hike up to Masada, Shabbat at Yad Vashem and homestays with Israeli families, Miller commented that he "will never forget the special feeling of praying at the Kotel and looking out at the Old City."
Miller met the Israeli teens on his birthday, a day that he described as the "ultimate birthday present." He said that the Philadelphia and Israeli teens surmounted their initial cultural differences and language barriers to become good friends. Both groups of teens enjoyed Shabbat hospitality at the Beit Daniel Youth Hostel situated between Tel Aviv and Jaffa. The site was a departure from the original itinerary, which called for the teens to enjoy time together in Philadelphia's Partnership 2000 region -- which was under heightened security due to terrorist attacks. Miller believes that he gained a greater understanding about "the challenges that Israelis face on a daily basis and a deeper appreciation of the need for all Jews to support our Jewish homeland."
Miller said he plans to write an article about his experiences for his school newspaper, which serves a community with a very small Jewish population. "I want to communicate the need for all Americans, regardless of their individual religious faiths, to support Israel," he said. He also is working with his fellow Mifgash participants from Kehilat HaNahar to prepare a slide show to present at an upcoming congregational event. "I want more people to go to Israel and learn firsthand about this truly special place," he said.
Deb Lipenta, marketing manager for ACAJE-JOP, accompanied the teens on the trip. She explained that applicants represented all different streams of Judaism and levels of religious observance. They were selected for their leadership potential and their ability to serve as youth ambassadors for Israel.
Stephanie Weinstein, of Temple Judea in Doylestown, met the Mifgash criteria based on her involvement in ACAJE-JOP's Teen Assistance Program (TAP). As a TAP volunteer, Weinstein works with religious school students who have special needs.
As an environmental activist, she said she particularly enjoyed the time spent on an Israeli kibbutz where residents are working on a wide range of environmentally sustainable projects. "I really connected with the Israelis I met," she said, adding that her experiences as a Mifgash participant reinforced her personal beliefs that "Israel is not just about our history, it is a living, breathing land and people that it essential to our Jewish future," she said.
For Max Glass of Congregation Beth Sholom in Elkins Park, Mifgash marked a true milestone. It was the first time he had traveled outside the United States.
The group's visit to Jerusalem came during Tisha B'Av, a holiday that commemorates the destruction of both the First Temple and Second Temple in the Holy Land. "It was incredible for me to observe this sad day by attending a conservative service in Jerusalem, overlooking the Wall and all of the other sacred sites," he opined. Glass is still processing this "amazing experience and countless others" and is trying to find the best way to communicate to other young people that they "owe it to themselves to visit Israel and experience the magic for themselves."
For more information about Mifgash and to apply for the summer 2012 program, contact Jeri Zimmerman at 215-832-0553 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org .