Israel or bust

First, they went to Costa Rica. Then, they went to Argentina. But this summer, the teens in the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Diller Teen program are going to the place they have always visited in the summer: Israel.

But they’re not the only ones. Teens from all over will have a chance to experience Israel because a community trip is being planned by the S.F.-based BJE along with Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation (JCF).

“The purpose is to offer a community-based option for both affiliated and unaffiliated teens,” said Robert Sherman, director of the BJE. “This summer, we’re seeing what happens. Obviously, it’s still a question of the parents, and ultimately, how they feel about doing this.”

After three years of violence that have kept American Jewish teenagers away, the community was at an important juncture in re-evaluating its relationship with Israel, according to Debbie Cohn, who chairs the Israel Educational Initiative, a joint project of the BJE and the JCF’s Israel Center.

“I see this is as part of an entire movement or philosophy that says we need to remain engaged in Israel,” she said, “that Israel remains a critical part of Jewish identity-building.”

The East Bay federation sent a small group of teens last summer, but without the BJE’s involvement. That group went on a greatly modified trip, avoiding major cities.

Those who did go last summer, said Sherman, “had a terrific experience, so we decided, ‘Let’s at least leave it to the parents to make that decision.'”

The trip is scheduled for June 23 until July 21.

Of course, if the situation continues to worsen, the trips could be canceled once again, said Sherman. “We always have to feel we can provide a safe and secure experience, although people recognize what the situation is. We wouldn’t do anything we didn’t feel was right.”

Community rabbis who were consulted almost unanimously gave their support, he added.

Cohn said the discussions around the community and the Diller Teen trips reached parallel conclusions.

While she couldn’t say board members arrived at the decision easily, or by consensus, she said it did provoke very heart-wrenching conversations about the values of the community.

While ultimately, some parents may still choose to not send their teens, Cohn believes the community was making a strong statement of support.

“By not going, we’ve had a confused message, with no clarity,” she said. “But now we’re clearly making a statement about the values of our community.”

In addition to the Diller and the community teen trip, the BJE is sending three other groups on Israel trips for educators, ranging from early childhood through teens.

“We have found time after time that an Israel experience is a critical component for teachers to have, in order to teach Israel in an effective way. They need to feel it closely in their kishkes,” said Sherman.

As director of the Diller Teens — a program for exceptional 11th- and 12th-graders designed to inspire leadership — Ilan Vitemberg admitted he was able to provide a fantastic experience for the participants in Argentina, in which they “got the sense of this huge Jewish world.”

Nevertheless, Vitemberg said though they could still have an incredible experience elsewhere, Israel remained important.

For information about the community trip to Israel, call Nechama Tamler, the BJE’s director of teen programs, at (415) 751-6983 ext. 143.

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."