A High School Experience in Israel; Priceless

by Rachel Rosenthal

I’m a PhD student and a Jewish educator. Let’s just say that I am not exactly rolling in the dough. However, when I received an email from Nesiya, an Israel summer program for American and Israeli teens currently fighting for survival, I didn’t think twice about opening my wallet. To choose not to seemed impossible.

Let me explain. In the summer of 2001, when the Second Intifada was raging, I got on a plane with 28 Americans of all different backgrounds, from all over the country, and flew to Israel to spend six weeks with 28 Israelis. Nesiya, which means journey, called our program Kehilla, community. And indeed, I cannot think of two words that are more appropriate to frame my experience on Nesiya.

First, the journey. Nesiya was indeed a journey through Israel, but the core exploration was a personal one. I grew up in a highly involved Conservative Jewish family on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I spent my Shabbat mornings at synagogue and my summers at Camp Ramah. Friday nights meant family dinners; Wednesdays and Sundays were for Hebrew school. However, as immersed as I was in Jewish life, it never occurred to me that it could look especially different from the Judaism I had always known. To me, the “right” way to be Jewish was about social justice, egalitarianism, liberal politics and an open approach to halakha and ritual.

Less than 24 hours into Nesiya, those ideas were blown out of the water. I was suddenly confronted by Jews whose Judaism was radically different than my own, but who felt just as strongly about their beliefs and practices as I did. There were girls who had never been near a Torah scroll or counted in a minyan, and boys who saw making music as the most authentic form of prayer. There were Israelis who felt intensely Jewish while being totally secular, and Americans who were so in-flux religiously that they wore tank tops one day and only skirts the next. In this diverse an environment, it would have been easy to dig in; to claim that there is only one correct way. However, through learning, prayer, art, service and especially through music, we all found a way to open up to and try that which we had not even considered before. We pushed each other, but we also loved each other – and that made all the difference.

Which brings me to the second value, the value of community. The summer was the most intensely challenging one I have ever had. As a war waged around us, we had no choice but to ask what it meant to be Jewish, and to love Israel, in such a complicated time. And because of this, to this day, my best friends are from Nesiya. For many of us, Nesiya was the first place where someone asked us “who are you?” instead of “what are you?” Today, we are educators, activists, students and leaders. None of us are in the same place Jewishly as we were back then, but we are all doing our best to make the Jewish community and the world a little better today than it was yesterday. And we still know that we can call each other to ask questions. We are each other’s family.

So why does someone with such limited resources give money to an organization that might not exist in a year? Because I believe Nesiya needs to exist in a year, and in 10, and in 50. There needs to be a place for teenagers like me, who think they have figured everything out and yet don’t quite fit anywhere, to ask the big important questions: Who am I? Who do I want to be? And how will that person make the world better, stronger, and more just than it was before?

I don’t believe there is a way for me to ever fully repay the debt of gratitude I owe to Nesiya. The fact that I am getting a PhD in Rabbinics and am a teacher of Talmud – the fact that I was even open to exploring those possibilities – would not be were it not for that formative summer of 2001. I dream of my children one day going on Nesiya, maybe even with my friends’ children. Sure, it may seem like an unrealistic dream right now. But if there’s one thing I learned on Nesiya, it is this: no dream is too big, if you are willing to work to turn it into a reality.

Rachel Rosenthal is a teacher at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education in New York and a PhD candidate in Rabbinic Literature at JTS.