When Sam Greenberg traveled to Israel with the youth organization Bnei Akiva this summer for an intensive six-week experience known as "Mach Hach Ba'Aretz," he didn't know quite what to expect — certainly, not the violent conflict with Hezbollah that broke out shortly after the group arrived. But despite the unfortunate timing and necessary changes to the group's itinerary, the 16-year-old Rhawnhurst resident said that it was an unforgettable experience that he hopes to repeat soon.
"We knew what was going on, but not one of the kids left early," stated Greenberg, a member of Congregation B'nai Israel-Ohev Zedek and a junior at Stern Hebrew High School. "I feel like I came back with much deeper connections than anything that can be taught in school. You have to go there to really feel that incredible impact."
His trip was made possible through "Passport to Israel," an incentive savings program that helps fund educational Israel experiences for young people. The program is a partnership among families, synagogues and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
"The importance of teen travel to Israel is one of the top Jewish identity-builders because it connects everything they've learned and helps Judaism come alive for them," attested Pam Pearlmutter, who coordinates the Passport program for Federation. "They always return having been positively changed by the experience. I really believe every Jewish child should go to Israel."
Students in grades three through eight are eligible to enroll in PTI while in a formal Jewish-education program within the five-county Philadelphia area, or are active participants in an approved informal Jewish education program. For each year that parents contribute the required minimum savings to their account, Federation will set aside $200 per year for seven years (up to $1,400 in total) toward that child's future Israel travel experience. (Some participating schools also make matching PTI funds available toward the student travel.) Students may use their accumulated funds any time after the end of ninth grade and before the end of college.
"This is something people from all walks of Jewish life can use," said Greenberg's father, Bernie, who hopes to save enough money along with his wife, Allison, through the program to provide similar Israel experiences for their other children, Zachary, 13, Benjy, 9, and Nathan, 6. "I don't think the trip would have happened without Passport to Israel. It's paid off for us and for Sam in a very meaningful way, and I encourage everyone to take advantage of it."
Since the program's inception, more than 3,300 students have been enrolled, and nearly 1,100 teenagers and young adults have traveled to Israel with Passport funds. Even if a student is unable to participate in an educational Israel experience, the family's money is protected, and can be withdrawn with 60 days' written notice to Federation. Parents who withdraw from the program get back every dollar they contributed — plus any accumulated interest — and only pass up the funds Federation committed to match.
"I remember as I was leaving Israel I wasn't sad because I knew I would be coming back," recalled Sam Greenberg. "I have an entirely new outlook — and a connection to the land that will stay with me forever."
For more information about the "Passport to Israel" program, call Pam Pearlmutter at 215-832-0837, or visit: www.jewishphilly.org.