The Anne Samson Jerusalem Journey provides American Jewish teens with an in-depth Israel eperience.
In 10th grade, Annette Freed went on a trip that changed her life. Or, at the very least, how she felt about the Kotel.
With a bus full of other high school students and staff advisors, the recently married Freed — then known by her maiden name of Rosenfield — embarked on a four-week trip to Israel as part of The Anne Samson Jerusalem Journey, more commonly known as TJJ. Through traveling, learning and plenty of singing, she found herself fully immersed in Israeli culture and exploring a more religious life.
But that wasn’t where she started.
The Philadelphia native, now 21 and finishing her degree in biology at Penn State Abington, recounted the story of one of her first days in Israel on the trip. After being blindfolded and led off a bus so as not to ruin the surprise for the students of where they were, she found herself in front of the Kotel. But the “wow” factor she expected to feel wasn’t there.
“I didn’t feel anything. I was like, ‘OK, what’s next?’” she said. She went to pray and still felt nothing. It was just like praying at home, she said, only with a little extra wind blowing.
Flash forward four weeks later to the last day of her trip. After nearly a month of visiting sites all over the country and learning about where she and her tripmates came from, she took her siddur to the Kotel — and felt something a little different.
This was after she and her group were repeatedly criticized by other prayer-goers for doing something wrong in their eyes — boys and girls sitting together, girls not wearing long-enough skirts, singing together, singing too loudly. In response, she recalled, they sang even louder.
She went to the wall and began to pray, and then she felt it.
“As soon as I took my friend’s hands, that was the first time I felt like, ‘Whoa, this is more than a wall,’ ” she said. “There’s so much in this one wall. I felt at peace and at one.”
Forty-five minutes later, she realized she was the only one of her group left at the wall — and there were tears on her siddur.
The TJJ experience is part of NCSY, the youth movement of the Orthodox Union, which Freed had been involved in and how she found the program. It is only open to high school students, and is linked to creating higher engagement with Judaism after returning from the trip, according to a study done in May.
“The Jewish Impact of The Anne Samson Jerusalem Journey (TJJ): Increasing Jewish Engagement Among Conservative, Reform & Non-Denominational Youth” was conducted by Professor Steven M. Cohen at the Hebrew Union College and Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz in Israel.
The study found that “non-Orthodox TJJ alumni significantly outperform comparable Jewish young adults on several critical indicators of Jewish engagement,” including attending monthly services and Shabbat meals, raising children Jewish, dating mostly other Jews and the importance of marrying another Jew.
“The findings clearly demonstrate that an educational trip to Israel for teenagers has powerful and long-lasting effects,” said Cohen, research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
It stands out as an “Orthodox trip for non-Orthodox kids,” Cohen added. “It shows that an Orthodox organization can reach across denominational lines.”
The group all had similar goals as far as what they wanted from the trip and learning about their connection to Judaism, said Freed, which might be different on shorter trips such as Birthright.
Youth programs to Israel supply distinctive offerings such as focus on prayer or on social values, Cohen said, but they all offer “a full meal — an appetizer, main course and dessert,” meaning the creation of Jewish friendships, a Jewish journey and being generally more committed to being Jewish.
TJJ offers “distinct advantages” as a high school program, he noted, as it exposes young teens to Israel earlier than they would if they waited until their college years to participate in another program.
The program began in 2007 and has had more than 2,000 participants since its inception. About 1,800 alumni of the program were invited to participate in the study.
As part of the study, a survey was sent out to the alumni. The study compared the results with previous projects, including the Pew Research Center survey of Jewish Americans (2013), The Jewish Community Study of New York (2011) and The Birthright survey of applicants for years 2001-2005, but who never participated on the trip itself (2010).
Among the survey’s findings, 86 percent of TJJ alumni said it was very important to raise children as Jewish compared with 69 percent of Birthright applicants.
It also found that 80 percent of TJJ alumni fasted for the whole of Yom Kippur compared with only 48 percent of the 18- to 29-year-olds in the 2013 Pew survey; 75 percent said it was very important to marry a Jew compared with 55 percent of Birthright applicants; and 73 percent of TJJ alumni usually attended a Shabbat meal compared with only 34 percent of Birthright applicants.
These are still high numbers, Cohen said, particularly referencing that the Birthright applicants did not actually go on the trip.
“The results suggest that TJJ — the trip, the subsequent educational activities, and other consequences of participation — played a major role in generating increased Jewish engagement in these areas, and undoubtedly many others as well,” the study concluded.
Freed still talks to many of the 45 or so others that were on her bus, or her “family,” as she called them.
She and her actual family visited Israel together later — “I can’t hog it all to myself,” she said — so they could see what she had been talking about nonstop for a few months after she got back.
She also returned to Israel the year after her trip as part of TJJ Ambassadors, a sort of “Step Two” program that focuses more on Israel advocacy, which is what Freed became actively interested in after returning from her first trip.
She’s the first person to stand up to someone who talks about Israel, she said.
“No one can say anything about it until they’ve actually been there and experienced it,” she noted.
The trip changed her in other ways unrelated to religion. She learned to think before she spoke more effectively, she said.
But most importantly, she said, it connected her to history and where she came from.
“I learned so much about Israel that I never want to forget.”
Contact: [email protected]; (215-832-0740).