Israel tour to transformation: Youth leader looks back

After 17 years of tears at the Western Wall, wide eyes at Masada and the occasional fit of homesickness, Naggar Bourne is leaving her post — sadly.

"This has been the blending of my two passions, teaching and Israel," she said.

SIIYP, a forerunner in communitywide Israel experiences, stemmed from a Congregation Emanu-El confirmation trip launched in 1970. The BJE took it over in 1975, opening the program to all Marin, Peninsula and San Francisco teens.

After traveling to Israel with the 1997 class, Naggar Bourne is moving east with her children to join her husband, who has been working in New Jersey for the past year.

Naggar Bourne, who joined the BJE staff in 1970, values SIIYP's linking together of American and Israeli culture.

It "[makes] sense of the passion and schizophrenia about wanting to be in Israel and living in the States," she said, adding that she wished she'd had a similar opportunity as a youngster.

When she was 10, Naggar Bourne's Israeli father and American mother moved the family to Israel. They returned to the United States, ultimately settling in Burlingame, when she was 15.

"It was a difficult time for me. Israel was very far away. And most American Jews hadn't been to Israel," Naggar Bourne said. "SIIYP took me all the way back to my adjustments and the lack of identity that I had when I was 15."

The program "was so close to what I needed. It really would have helped me to have an intense Israel experience with my friends. But this was before teen Israel trips existed."

Enrollment has been consistent; about 150 teens sign on each year. However, the program, which runs this summer from June 24 through Aug. 1, has not remained stagnant.

During the early years, "before fax machines and e-mail, when the world was a much larger place," the goal of the trips was simpler: to expose teens to Israel, Naggar-Bourne said.

SIIYP began with little curriculum or philosophy behind it. The trips now offer youngsters a week of interaction with Israeli teens; special-interest choices including kibbutz, army and archeological experiences; the wisdom of an educator-guide; and post-trip activities with fellow travelers.

"Our concern is not only helping Bay Area teens understand their relationships to Judaism. We're interested in helping these teens develop a closer relationship to Israel that is historical, religious and cultural," Naggar Bourne said. "This [trip] is no longer an isolated experience."

For example, this year for the first time, Bay Area teens will meet with 1,200 other American youngsters on the shores of the Kinneret for Maccabiah-style games and fireworks. BJE leaders are considering holding a reunion of all California confirmation students, on the beach at Venice or Santa Cruz.

"The canvas [of opportunity] is much larger now," Naggar Bourne said. "And we're able to expose kids to other possibilities of relationships."

While the trip will undoubtedly continue to change and grow under new leadership, Naggar Bourne hopes one aspect of SIIYP will remain constant — the program's attentiveness to the personal transformations of each student.

"Many kids are affiliated for their parents' [sake] — until Israel. There they become Jews for themselves," she said. "Whatever sense dominates — the food, the people — these kids come back with such an awareness of self, as people and as Jews."

For example, in a written evaluation of last year's SIIYP, one teen wrote: "Mickey, I used to wear my mom's dress. It was her taste, her style. Now it's my dress. I wear it. I wear it with pride."

"This stuff," Naggar Bourne said, pointing to the letter, "is what fuels me."