The Difference Within

“Who shall live, and who shall die …Who by fire and who by water…” Unetaneh Tokef

By Jeffrey Korbman

I can’t swim. I’m not proud of that fact, but it’s true. So one can surmise my trepidation this past summer, waist-deep in the Mediterranean, with a boy I just met. I was sure this was payback for a bet I lost from a prior lifetime.

The boy was Doron, 8, an Israeli with cerebral palsy. ReSurf, one of NCSY’s 21 distinct Israel programs this past summer, brought our teens to the beach, where it was our collective job to introduce boogie-boarding to a group of kids with special needs who had no experience.

What I witnessed over the course of those two hours is something I hope to remember for many years to come. To share that Doron also was terrified would be obvious. To further share that, with the help and coaching and support of our Jewish teens, fear began to slowly melt might be anticipated. By the end, Doron was happy and splashing. But what blew me out of the water (no pun intended) was the effect it had on our teens.

This past summer, NCSY brought just over 1,700 teenagers to Israel and other destinations … a staggering number – and our most ever. And most of the time, we focused on what they would see, what they would do, where they would go. But on this particular day, what mattered was what they felt.

“I had no idea,” Josh from ReSurf remarked, “that we could help him like we did. That was awesome. I feel awesome. This was the best.”

Josh’s remark brought back a memory I rarely share: Growing up with cerebral palsy, I recalled the fear and shame of playing kickball at recess in grade school. The game began every day the same way: “Captains” picked teams. I was perpetually chosen last. One need not wonder the harmful effect that had on my self-confidence, self-image and mood. Looking back now, I was sorely in need of a “Josh.”

The possible erosion of inner confidence was on full display when the ReSurf group later met with soldiers from a special army unit in Israel known as Duvdevan. The soldiers, equivalents of U.S. Navy SEALs, were tough. They were the living embodiment of Israeli strength and confidence. They were, in short, living the dream.

But today, post-combat, they suffer from PTSD. They spoke much more quietly, with a much quieter voice. On a sunny afternoon in August, our teens took them paddle boarding and engaged in conversation. No one quite knew what to expect.

After a bit of time and warming up to one another, Tanya, a junior in high school from Maryland, told them, “You think you are fighting for your family, don’t you? You think you are fighting for your neighbors and your country. I get that. But you need to know something else: You are fighting for us, too.”

There were tears.

On the ride home, I thought about the remarkability of how a U.S. teen could offer an Israeli soldier a boost of confidence, perspective, and encouragement. Wasn’t it supposed to work the other way around? How could that be?

Adele, three nights later, hammered this point home.

At the OU Benefactor Circle dinner in Park Rannana, where the scheduled speakers, lay leaders and Knesset Members all knew their roles, Adele was not supposed to be the keynote. Rather Adele, in her early 20’s, was a just a counselor on one of the NCSY programs. She was scheduled to just say a quick “hello and thanks for support,” quickly, for no more two minutes.

Man plans and G-d laughs.

Adele stood up and began with two words, “Thank you.” She then went on to tell a story, her story, about being in a high school in upstate New York. Jewishly, she knew nothing. She had a bat mitzvah, then her interest in Judaism went off the cliff.

One day, a friend asked Adele if she would go with her to an NCSY Jewish Student Union “club” in her high school. It was an informal discussion about being Jewish. And there was pizza. Adele said “sure.” That was eight years ago, Adele explained, and now she was leading a bus of 40 Jewish public-school teens…”40 Adeles” as she put it … on behalf of NCSY, throughout Israel. She was the leader. When Adele finished her story at the dinner, 150 adults – all of whom were old enough to be her parents – stood up and applauded.

Who inspired whom?

Too often, I think, we miss the main point of teen travel. We discuss where they go, but not what happens upon return. We discuss what they see, but very little about what they feel. We focus on the numbers, but not on breaking the numbness of attitude and distant emotion.

In the poem Unetaneh Tokef, which we are about to repeatedly recite during the High Holidays, we will say:

Who will be calm and who will be harassed; who will be at ease and who will suffer…

We bring many Jewish teens to Israel and Europe each summer. To be sure, we are only scratching the surface as there are plenty more. But for the “Joshes, Tanyas and Adeles” let’s hope the real journey will make its mark on an inner passport of confidence and commitment. Sustained change lies within.

Jeffrey Korbman is Director of Development at NCSY.