This summer, Tamar Schwarzer, 16, of West Orange will go to Israel on a trip for teens.
But unlike the many varieties of synagogue, youth group, and camp adventures there, with this trip she will not be traveling exclusively with Jewish peers.
Israel Teen Fellowship, which will launch its inaugural two-week trip this summer, is for teens of all backgrounds — Christian, Muslim, Jewish, interfaith, atheist, and anything in between.
“It seemed like the right time for a trip open to a larger audience,” said Michael Dorfman, 36, a native of Marlboro and the creator of ITF. “People are looking for diversity, and everyone is focused on the nature of college discourse on Israel and what to do. In terms of addressing it, reaching teens at the high school level, educating them all together, offers more nuance and complexity. When they hear each other’s stories, that’s really important.”
Dorfman is director of education at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, where Tamar is a member. Dorfman ran Israel trips for seven years for eighth-grade students at the Rodeph Sholom School, a Reform day school in New York City, where he also chaired the Jewish studies department.
He originally hoped to launch the first ITF trip in 2015. Big Tent Judaism — the former Jewish Outreach Institute — served as a partner and fiscal sponsor; ITF also received funding from the Jim Joseph Foundation, but only for teens from Manhattan. Neither continued as a sponsor after the first year.
Only four teens signed up in 2015, and Dorfman canceled the trip. “That was disappointing,” he said.
He will need at least eight teens for this summer. (He can take up to 20.) This year, Dorfman has opened the opportunity to high school students nationwide. In addition to Tamar, three other teens have already signed up, from interfaith, Jewish, and Christian backgrounds, from the Midwest and the East Coast.
The trip is “based in Jewish values, Jewish culture, and Jewish ethics, but it is not overly religious or Zionistic,” said Dorfman. All the food will be kosher, and Shabbat will be a rest day, but there will be some traveling on the first Shabbat.
While he acknowledged that some, if not most, communities prefer teens to go on all-Jewish trips, especially to Israel, Dorfman believes that’s a mistake.
“From my point of view, it shows a real apprehension that exposing kids to things not Jewish will lead them to turn away from Judaism. But I believe the opposite is true: that what makes Judaism exciting is the questioning, the talmudic debate, and the learning,” he said. So far, he has not gotten that push-back, at least not from the parents he has spoken with.
Tamar’s mother, Taly, a native of Eilat, isn’t worried at all. “I don’t have any doubt about her identity. If anything, it will make her stronger to see what other people think,” she said. “It really opens your eyes, and that’s really important.”
It helps that Tamar has been to Israel many times, and her mother’s family is there. Taly added that her daughter will also have other opportunities to go there with Jewish groups, like USY or Ramah.
The other piece that Dorfman hopes families will find attractive is the cost. The two-week (July 6-21) program costs $3,500 before March 5, $3,850 after. (A typical six-week Israel teen travel program can run upward of $9,000.) The itinerary includes not only places of Jewish significance but those of other religions as well.
Dorfman will speak about the new program at Our Lady of Sorrows in South Orange on Sunday, Feb. 28, at 7:30 p.m. and at Bnai Keshet in Montclair on Wednesday, March 2, at a time to be determined later.