By Elise Polaner
(Elise Polaner, 21, is a junior at Boston University, majoring in Public Relations and Judaic Studies. Elise is spending the summer as a public relations intern at the Orthodox Union in New York.)
A lot can happen in five years. A child can get through middle school and high school; a young adult can graduate from college. These milestones come and go, yet people are often too rushed to take a minute and to look back at where they came from. It is a shame that daily responsibilities get in the way of such important reflections, but as I move from place to place, it is hard to remember where I have been. However, with high school in Boston, seminary in Israel, and two years of college at Boston University behind me, ready to move on to my final years of college, I look back and realize that there is one experience, exactly five years ago today, which stands out more than any other – something that truly made an impact on who I am now.
In the summer of 2001, I went on NCSY’s Israel Summer Experience (ISE). NCSY is the Orthodox Union’s national youth program, The National Conference of Synagogue Youth. ISE was more than a summer camp abroad. Sure, I had done the summer camp thing. Years at camps Yavneh in New Hampshire and Mesorah and Nesher in Pennsylvania – where I came east from Seattle and Denver – made me a Jewish summer camp veteran. Relaxing and fun summers were behind me. I was ready for something new, something different, something I would remember for the rest of my life. The sites, views, emotions, hikes, smells, and relationships that I encountered in those six weeks on ISE allowed me to look at my own life and evaluate it as a young adult. I was looking for a different summer trip, and I had found one that inspired and transformed me to be a more dedicated and mature Jew.
During the El Al flight overseas, I kept on saying to myself, “I am going to Israel, I am going to Israel.” There is something about your first trip to Eretz Yisrael that makes it stand out over a first trip anywhere else. I had studied its history, sang its songs, danced its dances, and ate its food for sixteen years, but actually being in Israel was entirely different. Anyone who has been to Israel knows that – it’s like none other. But just going to Israel, and seeing the country within the context that I did, are two completely different things.
The trip started like any other – we had icebreakers and song sessions, sports and Torah learning. We spent our days hiking and visiting old synagogues and holy sites, just as my friends were doing on other organized trips. The land itself was amazing – at each city and valley I felt a part of it all; the NCSY advisors knew Israel, Torah, and sixteen-year-olds equally as well and therefore were able to connect the three. We studied the Torah significance of each site, such as Masada, Tzfat, and Jerusalem’s old city in the Tanach (Hebrew bible) that we carried with us at all times. We learned ancient and modern Jewish history as we traveled in the footsteps of Israel’s founders. We cried as we saw the Kotel for the first time, and we sang on its cobblestone plaza as we were about to part from the country.
When I was there, I felt as though I revolved around Israel, and that Israel revolved around our trip. It wasn’t just that my friends and I (many of whom I am still in close touch with) loved Israel and were happy to be seeing and experiencing the land. We knew that we belonged there, that everything we had learned and seen seemed to fit in place, between our past education and our future experiences.
Two years later, I was a Maimonides High School graduate, about to embark on my second journey to Israel to spend an academic year there before attending Boston University. The moment we arrived there, the entire group went to the Kotel. That night, however, I could hardly concentrate on the evening prayer service or the director’s welcoming address. Being in Israel in 2003 brought back memories from my NCSY trip, and the only picture in my mind was from 2001 – a line of 40 teenagers, eyes closed, walking towards the Kotel, and the tears in our eyes when we opened them.
Memories from the NCSY trip are still fresh in my mind, and as I spend each day in America, thousands of miles from a place I call home, I can do nothing but stop, think back, and be thankful for the trip that has been truly life changing. Five years later, as I work with the Orthodox Union, connecting NCSYers on summer programs to their local newspapers, I feel nothing but excitement as I watch their transformation to becoming stronger and prouder Jews.