Putting Israel into JCCs by Sending Young Staff to Visit

IsraelBirthright3by Joy Brand-Richardson

When we were developing JCC Association’s Statement of Principles in 2012, we knew that if we were to help JCCs and their members lead engaged Jewish lives, then Israel needed to be at the heart of what they do. We wanted our JCCs to not only buy into the statement in our principles that “Israel is an eternal birthright of the Jewish people, linking us to our past and to Jews around the world today,” but also to create a presence for the Jewish homeland in all that they do.

We didn’t want them to just pay lip service, incorporating Israel into a weeklong focus at some point, but rather to weave its essence throughout their programs, events and activities. But how do you put Israel into the very air of a JCC when so many staff to which that task would fall have never set foot in the land? To that end, JCC Association’s Israel Center, working with Taglit-Birthright and Amazing Israel, our tour provider, put together a trip for young Jewish communal professionals, so that they could experience Israel firsthand and bring it back to their JCCs.

We ran our first trip this past May and it was a tremendous success. The trip included professionals from 20 JCCs across the United States as well as other Jewish communal workers who felt they would benefit from a trip aimed at professionals. These young men and women, aged 22-29-years-old and slightly older than a typical Birthright traveler, are all out of college and working in the field. They are in positions that cover the breadth of what a JCC does. Among them are professionals in early childhood education, teen and family programming, sports and recreation, donor relations, camp, fitness and wellness, sales and cultural arts. The group included a married couple, a young mom who left her husband and two-year-old behind, a newlywed whose husband couldn’t join us, and a family of three siblings. What they all had in common was a commitment to Jewish community enrichment, a budding curiosity about the state of Israel, and an interest in the ways they could infuse the spirit of the country into their JCC.

The itinerary, too, was different. While we naturally visited time-honored sites such as the Western Wall, Masada and the Dead Sea, we also provided unique opportunities for professional development so that participants could network and brainstorm ideas to take back to their communities. So while we spent one day exploring the Old City of Jerusalem and another visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum; another was spent at the Modi’in matnas, the equivalent of a JCC in Israel. Meeting in small groups, we learned about the work matnas do and the challenges they face, while sharing our diaspora stories with them. Another out-of-the-box visit was from a young Israeli filmmaker from the Ma’aleh School of Television, Film and the Arts in Jerusalem, whose film had been selected to appear at the Tribeca Film Festival. The particular film focused on young adults in Israel, and our intent was to not only give our participants a sense of Israel’s thriving, lively arts scene, but also to share ideas about how to incorporate its offerings into their JCCs, not just through film festivals, but through showing and discussing such subject matter with their teen groups, camp staff and others.

The 10-day trip was a true hit, judging from the enthusiasm of those who attended. As one participating put it, “Now I get it.” That “it” was about the place Israel holds in the hearts of the Jewish people. It was also about seeing Israel through their “JCC eyes” and knowing how to build on that “now I get it” feeling to create experiences in our JCCs that will enrich the organization and build connections for those who walk through its doors.
“Over the course of 10 days, not only did I get the opportunity to celebrate Shabbat at the Kotel, visit the resting places of Israel’s bravest sons and daughters on Mt. Herzl, hike up and down Masada, float in the Dead Sea and learn more about all of the Jewish state’s people and events that made it what it is today,” wrote Ross Houston, manager of sports leagues at JCC Chicago. “But I also have the opportunity to network and brainstorm with colleagues, both domestic and foreign, about ways to improve our JCC programming and further incorporate Israel’s amazingness into our curricula. This was truly an unbelievable voyage in my life.”

And the response we’ve received from JCC executives who sent participants on the trip has been equally enthusiastic. “Going to Israel is the best way for someone to become personally invested in Israel,” wrote Ivy Harlev, executive director of the Siegel JCC in Wilmington, Delaware, of her youth director’s participation. “This is why we were so excited to send a staff member who had never been to Israel on a JCC Association sponsored Birthright trip. We wanted her to find a personal connection with Israel, and to be in an environment where she could explicitly connect her experience to the work she does at the JCC. Abbey [Henkin] has come back beyond excited.”

These are a few of the stories. Multiply them by the rest of the participants and the benefit to JCCs, which reach thousands of all ages through their fitness, early childhood, senior, cultural arts, sports and camp programs, is immeasurable.

Saying that we want to put Israel into each and every JCC and onto our communal agenda, is one thing, but giving our professionals tools to do so is another. By taking these young men and women to experience for themselves the vitality of the Jewish homeland, we give them the power and promise to make it happen.

Joy Brand-Richardson is associate vice-president and director of training and professional leadership for JCC Association, the continental umbrella organization for the JCC Movement, serving 350 JCCs, YM-YWHAs and camps throughout North America.