NorCal NCSY teens beautify a bench at a youth center in Kiryat Gat, Israel.
NorCal NCSY teens beautify a bench at a youth center in Kiryat Gat, Israel.

Sightseeing? Sure. But this teen trip to Israel was much more. 

It wasn’t until her recent summer trip to Israel that Eleeza Joselewitz learned she had hidden talents. Turns out the Oakland teen could install a sprinkler system and build an outdoor bench. Who knew?

That was part of the self-discovery Joselewitz experienced when she and 28 other local Jewish high schoolers helped rehabilitate a run-down center for at-risk Israeli teens. It happened over two memorable days in the village of Kiryat Gat during a recent summer Israel trip that stressed acts of hands-on tikkun olam.

“I’d already been on group trips [to Israel] where you do the fun things,” said Joselewitz, 15, a junior at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco. “I wanted a new perspective. Israel is very important to me and I wanted to give back in some ways.”

The July trip, called TJJ Action, is new to NCSY’s roster of 19 summer programs. Partial funding came from the Denver-based Marcus Foundation, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation Scholarship Fund, the L.A.-based Blackman Foundation and others.

Although the trip was run by NCSY, the Orthodox Union’s youth group formally known as the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the 29 participants, all from the Bay Area, represented a wide spectrum of Jewish observance and education.

“Many didn’t know anyone else [on the trip],” said trip leader Akiva Naiman, director of both TJJ Action and NCSY’s office of strategic partnerships on the West Coast. “By day two or day three it was like they’d known each other for a year. What unified these teens was their drive for social action, for making a difference in the world.”

Lev Amzel, 17, a senior at Berkeley High School, fits that description. Though he has family in Israel and is fluent in Hebrew, he says he’d never really seen the country top to bottom as one can on an NCSY trip. “My main motive was to see Israel,” he said, “but I realized a trip like this would be very beneficial. Community service truly feels really good.”

The good vibes started weeks before flying out, as each teen took part in an online fundraiser to collect $7,000 toward the rehab of Makom BaLev (“place of the heart”), a center for at-risk youth in Kiryat Gat (about 15 miles from the Gaza Strip’s northeastern border with Israel). The teens exceeded that goal, taking in $9,300.

Naiman, who has led many trips to Israel, said fundraising for a tikkun olam project was something new. “This was the first time that the teens themselves raised the money before the trip,” he noted.

NCSY NorCal teens constructing crutches at Yad Sarah, which provides free medical equipment.
NCSY NorCal teens constructing crutches at Yad Sarah, which provides free medical equipment.

Of course the itinerary ticked boxes any kid would want on a trip to Israel. Rafting down the Jordan River, check. Stuffing hand-scrawled prayers into the cracks of the Kotel, check. Floating on the Dead Sea, check. Snorkeling in Eilat, absolutely.

But by design, this trip continually brought the focus back to chesed (acts of lovingkindness), Naiman explained. For example, one day the kids visited Yad Sarah, a nonprofit that provides free medical equipment for those in need. They took their places on the assembly line, grabbed screwdrivers and helped in the manufacture of crutches. One day in the Upper Galilee, the kids showed up at a vineyard, helping the farmworkers prune the vines and do pest control.

But the heart of the trip occurred over two days in Kiryat Gat at an empty lot adjacent to the youth center, which offers after-school educational and social activities for at-risk teens. The visiting teens’ job was to turn the lot into something beautiful.

“When we first got there, I didn’t know what I was in for,” recalled Joselewitz. “[The lot was] covered in trash, with bugs everywhere. It was sad to me. These kids deserved so much better, and that we were helping them was special to me. We had to pick up rocks, dig holes, put in trees and sprinklers. By the end, we were so proud of what we’d done.”

The project drew the attention of the mayor of Kiryat Gat, who stopped by to meet the Americans and to kick in 10,000 shekels (about $3,000) toward the project. National news media covered the story.

“It was a lot of hard, manual labor,” Amzel said. “We played loud Israeli music, sang and danced while we worked. It kept me going throughout.”

Although there was a local landscaper on site to supervise, to a large extent, the teens figured out what to do — and how to do it — on their own.

Naiman, for one, was impressed. “Leaders float to the top,” he said. “Once the landscaper explained the vision, every teen gravitated toward what they were passionate about. Everyone found their task.”

When the trip began, Naiman instructed the kids to break up into groups, then tasked them with coming up with a plan for a “practical” tikkun olam project they could do after returning home. At the end of the trip, the groups competed for funding in a “Shark Tank”–style event.

Teens on NCSY’s social action trip plant a garden in Kiryat Gat, about 15 miles from the border of Gaza.
Teens on NCSY’s social action trip plant a garden in Kiryat Gat, about 15 miles from the border of Gaza.

The kids strategized for weeks, and on the last day they came before a three-judge panel of Israeli NGO executives, one of them Orly Wahba, founder of the Kindness Boomerang and the Good Life Project. The four winning pitches would get seed funding for their projects.

“Since this whole trip was based on chesed, we wanted to bring a piece of the chesed home,” Joselewitz said. “We pitched the idea to make posters with info about the nearest food banks, starting in Oakland. Four groups got accepted, and ours was one of them.”

The judges “were blown away,” Naiman said. “They had never seen anything like this.”

Now that they’re back, participants say they don’t want everyday life to stop their momentum as a bonded group. Amzel says he’s already had multiple get-togethers with many of his new friends.

“The main reason we connected so easily,” he said, “is not only were we Jewish and all from the Bay Area, we have similar lifestyles, similar beliefs. We think alike, which made it easier to communicate and bond. For us, everyone managed to connect.”

With surveys showing decreasing support for Israel among American Jews, Naiman believes trips like this are more important than ever. “These teens came with open minds, open hearts,” he said. “They heard Israel advocacy, they heard from a Palestinian and a rabbi who came together for peace, and they learned connections to Jewish tradition. They truly made a difference.”

For Joselewitz, who has grown up in a strongly Zionist household, the summer of social action proved lifechanging.

“Before this trip, I always felt connected to the Israeli and Zionist part of me, but my Jewish connections weren’t strong,” she said. “I felt it was always there, but I didn’t think it was important to be passionate about it. During this trip and being in the land of Israel, I feel so much more connected to my Judaism.”

For information about TJJ Action and other NCSY summer youth trips, go to

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.