Without Israel option, teens offered trips closer to home

Rather than hiking Masada this summer, some area teens will be hiking the Appalachian Trail. And rather than floating in the salty water of the Dead Sea, they will go white-water rafting.

Nechama Tamler described the challenges Jewish educators face in coming up with an acceptable alternative to an Israel trip for teens, since the constant violence in the Jewish state is making that experience all but impossible.

"Nothing replaces Israel on a psychological level," said the director of the Bureau of Jewish Education's Teen Initiative. "If brothers or sisters or even parents went on one of the first trips, it's hard to have something else take its place."

Nevertheless, the bureau is offering a community trip to the American Deep South this summer, calling it Southern Exposure.

While educators don't expect to get anywhere near the numbers they last sent to Israel, they still would like enrollment to be higher than it is now, though Tamler declined to say how many teens were currently enrolled. The deadline has been extended to Feb. 7, and scholarships are available.

Last year, some parents asked why the bureau didn't offer an alternative when its Israel trip was cancelled.

"But it was after 9/11," said Tamler, "and everybody was reeling. In November and December, when it was time to sign your kid up, it was only two months after, and no one was planning on anything for the summer. But this year we said we would do something to respond to a community-voiced need."

Building connections among the teens is one of the main goals of such a trip, and with that in mind, educators chose the South.

Tamler said at first, they were discussing the Northeast, but "we did some informal polling, and a lot of kids had been there." Acknowledging there might have been more to learn there, there was a "'been there, done that,' attitude about it, and 'we have relatives there.'"

In regards to the South, Aaron Katler said, "It definitely feels like a foreign country, which is an asset." Katler is the director of Endangered Spirit, an organization that plans Jewish adventure trips and is handling all the logistical arrangements of Southern Exposure.

Additionally, the South "has an incredibly rich Jewish heritage and it's very friendly. All the Jewish communities are very welcoming and receptive to having outside groups come and visit. That combination makes it an ideal place to travel," said Katler.

The teens will start in Atlanta, and in their three weeks, they will journey through Alabama, Mississippi and end up in New Orleans. A large chunk of the educational component will be devoted to Martin Luther King Jr., as well as Jewish participation in the civil rights movement.

The teens will visit such historic sites as where the Montgomery-

to-Selma march took place; Tuskegee, Ala., where African American men were deliberately left untreated for syphilis so

doctors could observe the disease's effects on the body; and the site of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which was bombed in 1963, killing four little girls.

They will also meet with local Jewish teens and activists, whose families have been in the South for generations.

Noting that Rhode Island was the place where Jews first settled in the United States, Tamler pointed out that North Carolina was the second.

They will also perform some type of community service, which is being coordinated through the Institute of Southern Jewish Life. Although the exact nature of the work isn't known yet, it will be something like synagogue or cemetery restoration for the remote Jewish communities in Mississippi.

In addition to the serious learning component, there will be lots of opportunities for fun, both Tamler and Katler promised, like going to baseball games and theme parks.

By the time the group arrives in New Orleans, they will mostly be there just to enjoy themselves, with Tamler calling it "Cajun kosher fun."

"The South is the most different part of this country," said Tamler, "as the coasts are kind of similar."

Camp Tawonga is offering a trip to El Salvador this summer, and the Reform movement is offering a trip to the Western United States, including 10 days traveling to national parks, 10 days doing social action at Camp Swig in Saratoga and eight days in Alaska. About 150 teens from around the country have enrolled so far.

"The kids are mature enough to understand the broader perspective of what's going on in Israel, and are appreciative for the opportunity to still be together as group as Jewish teens and travel," said Ruben Arquilevich, UAHC Camp Swig and Camp Newman director.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."