Together in Israel: Reimagining the Congregational Israel Trip
By Lindsay Ganci and Rabbi Danny Burkeman
Many people have traveled to Israel on a family trip, many have taken part in teen trips to Israel, and a lucky few have traveled on both. This past February, we organized a congregational Israel trip that would blend the experiences of a family and teen trip into one hybrid adventure.
When our congregation began talking about a family trip to Israel, one of our congregants approached us and asked about the possibility of offering a parallel teenage trip for our youth program, POWTY (Port Washington Temple Youth). This was around the same time that Taglit-Birthright expanded their eligibility criteria so that teenagers who went on an educational trip to Israel during high school would still be eligible to a place on a free trip. This removed what had previously been a major barrier to synagogue teen trips to Israel, and gave us a special opportunity to dream about and experiment with a new model for Israel travel and engagement for our congregants.
We envisioned a trip where most of the experiences would be spent together as a large hybrid group of families and teens. Within that larger trip, we would offer opportunities for the teenagers to experience Israel as a smaller group, wherein their unique interests and passions could be focused on more specifically. We carefully designed our itinerary to reflect such a trip, one in which was much to be shared, and much to be enjoyed based on each group’s needs and wants. In the middle of February, we set off for Israel, accompanied by 24 participants on our family trip, including a number of young teenagers, and six POWTY members in 10th, 11th and 12th grades on our teen tour. And our Family and Teen Trip to Israel was born!
For our teenage participants, their experience in Israel was unique to others they may have had in the past, and unique to any they will have in the future. We charged each teen with the role of peer leader, which empowered them as we journeyed through Israel. They rose to the opportunities associated with this role: They were warm and welcoming to our younger participants, funny and uplifting for our adults. They invited younger kids to join them at meals, and welcomed them to walk and talk through the streets of Israel side by side. They played games in our hotel lobby during an unprecedented Jerusalem snowstorm, and underneath a Bedouin tent while the rain poured down outside in the middle of the desert.
Our teens modeled maturity and intellectual curiosity for the younger participants by encouraging them to listen closely when there were chances to learn, to ask questions when they wanted to know more, and to experiment and take risks that tasted, felt, and looked new and different in the best ways. Our teens discussed their learning and experiences with anyone who wanted to listen, connecting with the adults on our trip as well.
In short, they reminded everyone of how incredible teenagers are: excited to learn, up for every adventure, willing to experiment and constantly questioning. They brought humor, energy, excitement and emotion to our experience, and we are proud and energized through knowing that every one of our family trip travelers would say that the trip was extra special because our teenagers took part in it.
Now that we have arrived home, the affect that Israel had on our teenage participants is palpable, exhibited in their words, actions, and deeds. One teen created a video of our trip participants tasting Israeli foods for the first time, and another is working on a slideshow of photos to share. One set up a Facebook group for us to all stay connected, and another is actively planning an Israeli reunion dinner for us to share together. Israel moved, inspired, and taught our teenage participants in impactful ways that we continue to be blessed by now that we are home.
For the participants on our family component of the trip, the presence of POWTY teens served to enrich the experience. One participant, Kate, who went on the trip with her husband and two children said: “it was great to travel with the teens on the family trip to Israel. Their energy and enthusiasm was infectious. The teens’ interest in Israel and their own Jewish identity was great for my children to see. My children came home saying that it was the best trip of their lives and they hope there will be a teen trip when they are in high school.”
Alongside the positive experience of the teens in Israel, we have also seen the impact since returning to Port Washington. Another participant Lauren said of her two sons’ experience: “My kids were wide-eyed and engaged every day and I feel excited for their future of passion for their faith and for the complicated and beautiful land we discovered with our congregation and our extended family. Through his experience of the POWTY teens on the trip my eldest has already begun attending youth group regularly and went to his first NFTY residential event. All of this has come about in large part because of the connections he made on our Israel trip.” We know the power of an Israel trip to inspire Jewish engagement and commitment, and we also know the power of teenagers to inspire other young people through peer leadership – the combination of these two elements made for a very successful Israel experience for everyone involved.
We are fortunate to be leaders of a congregation that is growing, thriving, and energized. That said, we have struggled in the past when we have tried to organize family trips to Israel. The numbers involved in a congregational trip often mean the costs are prohibitive. Our hybrid trip to Israel not only worked beautifully for us programmatically, but it also enabled us to jump the financial barrier put up by the prospect of smaller trips, and helped us bring both families and teens to experience Israel together. It also laid the groundwork for deeper engagement in synagogue life when we returned home.
We have already began planning for our next Teen-Family Israel program, and we believe that this model is one that can be replicated elsewhere with tremendous results for the participants and the synagogues involved.
To learn more about the Community Synagogue’s hybrid Israel trip, visit the website at: commsyn.org/programs/family-trip-israel
Lindsay Ganci is Director of Youth Engagement at The Community Synagogue.
Rabbi Danny Burkeman is a member of the rabbinic team at The Community Synagogue.
This article originally appeared in the Journal of Youth Engagement. The JYE spotlights successful strategies for engaging youth in congregations and communities. Reprinted with permission.