As part of CJP's Follow Me to Israel program, I went on a nine day trip to the promised land. The goal of Follow Me is to train adults to recruit families to participate in Passport to Israel, a saving and matching program to send teenagers on trips to Israel. The trip was great fun and a wonderful experience.
Our schedule was quite busy, including lectures and activities, focusing on interactions with teens on trips in the Passport to Israel family. Our most successful interactions with teens were not in circle time, where the teens had to speak in front of their trip leaders, but informally as part of activities, even meals. Many of the teens had been to years of Jewish camps, and this trip was the logical extension and culmination of that experience. For most teens, their parents had been to Israel. On the one hand, some teens saw their trip as a social experience, what their friends were doing. Their trips tended to be more like tours. On the other hand, there were more serious trips including visits to Europe and Holocaust sites, and these teens tended to be more serious. On the third hand, some teens were more academically oriented and, and they took trips that involved study. Of all these different types of trips and teens, many spoke of "feeling a connection" or being "at home" or having a comfort level in being Jewish in Israel. All the teens were having a good time.
I had expected to make a religious connection as a result of visiting the focal point of our religion, but that didn't happen. I found the wall to be ... really really smooth. On the other hand, I felt a deep connection to history and Jewish culture. An architect by training, I was awed by the diversity of civilizations that had built there, and the archeological layers. Our unplanned stop in Caesarea on our way to Haifa was an architect's dream. You could almost see the lions eating the Jews with the picturesque Mediterranean in the background.
Early in the trip, we visited Beit Guvrin and participated in an archeological dig with teens. Fran Alpert gave an incredible one hour lecture, "Historical Time Periods in the Land of Israel," on the complete history of civilization to the present. We dug in caves dating back 2300 years to the time of the Macabees, and we actually found artifacts: pottery, oil lamps, and a coin. Very cool.
We visited the natural pools in Sachneh, where we swam and jumped from a high rock into the water. The sign reads, "Rocks Jumping." I took a leap of faith.
We visited a Progressive synagogue, Kehilat Kol HaNeshamah, on Friday night, and I very much enjoyed kabbalat shabbat and maariv services, even though I don't understand Hebrew. The music, atmosphere, and people were very warm.
I really enjoyed getting to know my fellow travelers, a couple of whom I'm still in contact with. Also, I love seeing new places and unfamiliar cultures, and I enjoyed visiting the grocery store and having free time to shop and wander around the cities with my fellow travelers. Home hospitality was also very nice and a great way to sample Israeli life.
We had great food all trip long; even the box lunches. Overall, the trip was fantastic. I loved every second and gained a new appreciation of what it means to be a Jew: not a religious Jew, but a cultural Jew.
The trip was effective at motivating me to recruit for Passport a program that makes sense for many families in our community, and we're already discussing next steps. Just as Passport offers a variety of programs for a variety of teens, Israel was very meaningful to me, although not in the way I expected.