ALSJCC teens journey into landscape of Jewish identity

Imagine learning about Jewish immigration and then actually visiting Ellis Island, or learning about Jewish pioneers and then visiting the California Gold Country.

That's what ninth- and 10th-graders will be doing this summer in the new Nesiya program run by the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto.

Nesiya, which means journey in Hebrew, will take 14 teens to the Gold Country, Los Angeles, Washington and New York.

Nesiya will look at genealogy as well as immigration. "We're going to look at where we came from, both in literal and metaphorical terms," says Susan Protter, ALSJCC director of teen services.

"It looks at Jewish identity as a journey."

Nesiya will be a pluralistic program, using material from different denominations within the Jewish tradition. "A journey means that there are different paths," Protter explains. "We have a wide diversity of teens [at the ALSJCC]. It's not a dogmatic program. It simply offers really excellent material to read and discuss. It leaves the question [of choosing a path] up to the teenager."

The first teen program to be funded by the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, Nesiya will receive a two-year, $39,000 Jewish education grant.

Nesiya was inspired by teens themselves, Protter explains. "When they're going into 10th grade they can be [camp] counselors. Not all teens wanted to. They asked me to invent another program, more of a teaching, studying program."

Misha Berkowitz, 13, was one of those teens. "I just think [Nesiya is] a great concept. It's important that Jewish teens learn about their roots, hang out with other Jewish teens and travel around to places."

Through his involvement with the ALSJCC, Berkowitz has inspired his family to be more observant. "Every Shabbat we light candles and we say prayers over bread, wine and candles. That's like the one night of the week that we definitely do something together as a family," he says.

Protter says many teens burn out after studying for their b'nai mitzvah. She believes that once they reach eighth grade, teens are ready for a new style of teaching. "They're starting to think about thinking. You can start asking them to analyze text based on meaning."