By Zvi Volk
When 1,000 teenagers agree on something the vibes are palpable. And loud. And all seemed to agree that Mini Israel near Latrun, about a half-hour from Jerusalem, was the perfect venue for this year’s Yom NCSY. All the teens are participants in summer programs designed to show Israel to teens from North America, and a miniaturized, though not-quite-to-scale, version of Israel was a reminder of what they had seen and done, felt and experienced.
But Yom NCSY was so much more. With hours of cheering, singing and dancing, Monday night’s extravaganza, including a concert with Shlomo Katz and Gad Elbaz, was a reunion of what could be one of the world’s largest Jewish summer camps. It’s the one time during the summer when staff and participants of 11 different summer trips operated in Israel by the Orthodox Union are all in the same place at the same time.
‘Best. Summer. Ever.’
Some of the teens had never been to Israel before, although many had. They came from 12 NCSY regions across the United States and Canada —from New York to California and all points in between, as well as Canada and a handful are from Israel and Europe. Nearly half attend public schools and come from homes that are not religiously observant. Many others grew up with Jewish observance and attend a Jewish day school. Many of the participants received financial aid from the Orthodox Union or other sources.
But who cares? Certainly not the teens. Describing their Israel adventure as “awesome,” while predictable, doesn’t begin to reflect what they were thinking and feeling.
They reflected a feeling of unity. They talked about being inspired. They felt like they made friends for a lifetime. And most important, they connected to Israel. Each teen had a deep, personal experience filled with meaning and love of Judaism and Eretz Yisrael. And all seemed to agree with the sentiment expressed in the slogan of NCSY Summer programs: Best. Summer. Ever.
What They Did
NCSY Summer includes a variety of programs for all different kinds of teens who want different types of experiences.
Ahavah Smith, 17, from Miami Beach, FL was on GIVE, the Girls Israel Volunteer Experience. “Every day we had at least one chesed project,” she explains, using the Hebrew word for kindness or charity. “When we go somewhere and I see kids with disabilities or old people . . . The joy they get from what we do for them makes me so happy.”
Gabriel Barishansky, 17, from Teaneck, NJ and Ezra Teichman, 16, from Monsey, NY were both on the Kollel program. “The learning here is very different from school,” Barishansky says. “We’re learning for the sake of learning — not for tests. That makes it a lot more enjoyable. It’s really pressure free.”
Lilly Leibu, 16, from Marietta, GA was on TJJ, The Jerusalem Journey, which has a high percentage of teens who want to become more religious. “I go to public school,” she says, “and after a summer of seeing Israel with a Jewish group I realize how important a Jewish environment is. I want more of a Jewish experience in my future.”
Ari Clark, 24, is from Teaneck, NJ. He is in his final year studying for semicha (rabbinic ordination) at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He was one of the directors on Lilly’s TJJ bus. “As a staff member what I’ll remember is that every kid has a story and comes from a very unique place,” he says. “It would be easy to think that we’ll take 35 kids and we’ll travel around the country and they’ll love it. But it’s not that way. Everyone internalizes and understands things in different ways.”
So what did they learn and what did they internalize?
Ahavah Smith: The places the girls on GIVE visited range from shelters for girls from troubled families to senior citizen homes. They also staged a carnival for the children of Sderot in Israel’s south. “I knew who I was before I came this summer but being here on my own and learning so much about Judaism and really seeing Israel was really important for me. I think when I go home I’m going to change some things about the way I am and some of the things I do.”
“Hopefully in a few years I can come back as a staff member. When I look back I’ll probably think about how much I grew as a person this summer and how the experiences I had really touched me. I learned to give more of myself to others.”
Gabriel Barishansky: “NCSY Kollel always hires the best madrichim (advisors). They’re older guys. They’re cool. They’re great at basketball. And they love learning. This program helped me a lot religiously. You can be frum and you can be cool.”
“Even basketball is different here,” he says. “You learn to be good without being inappropriate. The language on the court here is a lot better than at home. My experience with the Kollel helped me appreciate my learning in school more.”
Lilly Leibu: “I met a farmer in the Negev who grows dates and olives. When he talked to us he made it clear that he still has the Zionist spirit. He is committed to making the desert bloom.”
“I made so many friends and felt so much at home,” she continues. “It’s an unforgettable feeling. I saw that Israel isn’t just someone else’s country. It’s also mine. I have a responsibility for it and have to take care and support it.”
A large, loud and enthusiastic contingent also represented Yad B’Yad, which joins disabled teens with their typically developing peers under the OU’s Yachad program.
NCSY Summer programs are known for offering memorable experiences that are based on a combination of Torah and touring. Every participant has special memories of the summer.
Gabriel Barishansky remembers hiking up Har Shlomo in the Red Canyon near Eilat. “We started hiking up the mountain at 4:00 a.m. It was dark out. When we got to the top it was time to daven. We could put on our tefillin. The sun was just coming up [netz] over the desert mountains. It was an overall enjoyable experience with beautiful davening.”
Ezra Teichman who is with Barishansky at Kollel remembers being at the Kotel on Tisha b’Av. “We have a kumsitz and sing in the open area near the Kotel. It’s very inspiring and it’s cool because the entire Kollel goes. There are also people who happen to be in Israel and have heard about our kumsitz. It was my favorite part of the summer,” he says.
Staff member Ari Clark also remembers a very special experience at the Kotel. He calls it “The Blindfold Walk.”
The teens on his bus were all blindfolded. “The idea was that they should think about what they were about to see without seeing it right away,” he explains. “They weren’t just going to look at a wall. They were going to look at a part of their heritage. A treasure in the Jewish heart.”
Once they got near the Kotel they were told they could remove their blindfolds which most did. Several teens asked their friends to lead them down with their blindfolds still on.
“One of the boys on my bus had never seen the Kotel before,” Ari recalls. “His friends took him down and he put his hands on the stones. After a few minutes he took his blindfold off. Several minutes later he turned to walk away. He had tears in his eyes. Clearly he had been touched by something very special.”
“We toured, we hiked, we saw so much,” Ari says. “But this is when they really opened their hearts to Judaism. They became part of the Jewish people.”