One of the first surprises for a group of visiting Israeli teenagers was the sight last week of the Empire State Building lit up in blue and white, in tribute to Hanukka. By the next night it was red and green for Christmas, but for the visitors it was a foretaste of the welcome they could expect in an eight-day exploration of Jewish life in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
In Scotch Plains the next morning, at the JCC of Central NJ they were welcomed into a boisterous Hanukka Shabbaton with the center’s early education students and their parents, grinning as they sang along in Hebrew perhaps a little more fluent than their little companions. Already, they said, some of their preconceptions of America were beginning to change.
The 19 teens, all residents of Arad, are participants in Project Gesher, a three-year bridge-building project — gesher means “bridge” in Hebrew — linking them with 22 teens from five NJ communities: Central NJ, Margate, Deal, Cherry Hill, and Princeton Mercer Bucks. The program is run under the auspices of the Jewish Agency’s Partnership2Gether project, which links the Arad/Tamar region with a cluster of federations in New Jersey and Delaware, including the Jewish Federation of Central NJ.
Since 2009, the two groups have been “meeting” each other via Skype and communicating individually via e-mail and social media like Facebook, learning about one another’s interests and concerns. They have found differences, but also much in common, according to Talia Sion of Springfield.
Her family hosted six of the Israelis overnight, and she took off school on Friday — a half day — to help welcome them into the Central community. The Israelis all speak some English, but they welcomed the fact that she understood Hebrew. Later that afternoon the rest of the NJ contingent arrived to share an overnight Shabbat experience with them at the JCC, and then head out together for the week.
“By the end of the trip, we’re really going to feel like we know each other as friends,” Talia said.
And that, people in both groups said, is going to make for an amazing conclusion to the project, the American teens’ visit to Israel in 2012.
The teens are all in 10th grade now and between 15 and 16 years old. They come from varied religious backgrounds — some Orthodox, some Reform or Conservative, and some secular, but what they share, as the organizers told NJ Jewish News, is their commitment to building Jewish community and their potential to be leaders in that effort.
“I think this will be the most worthwhile effort I’ve ever been involved in,” said Joshua Cutler, program and camp director of the Milton and Betty Katz JCC in Margate City. “But if just some of the Israelis want to come back here as shlihim and the Americans develop their love for Israel, Gesher will be making a really solid contribution to the future of the Jewish people.”
Cutler helped establish the program in 2009 under the leadership of Jack Fox, executive director of the Margate JCC, and with Ofra Nathan, the P2G Living Bridge coordinator in Arad. Lindsay Napchen, the youth and teen services director of the Central JCC, who joined the JCC staff in September, has become one of the key Gesher organizers.
Nathan came with the group, together with fellow supervisor Lior Oknin. They arrived at Newark Airport before dawn on Dec. 22, where they were met by Napchen and Cutler, who took them on a whirlwind tour of Manhattan. They visited the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, Ground Zero — a place that the adults said brought an unexpected feeling of shared vulnerability. They also went to Ellis Island and fit in some shopping.
“After that, whatever we’d do with them would seem relaxing,” Nathan said.
While the Israelis — who all live in Arad and most of whom attend the same school — meet about once a week, the Americans have met as a group about once a month. They’ve done educational and team-building exercises, including designing T-shirts for the participants, studying aspects of Israelis society, and helping plan the itinerary for the Israelis’ visit.
The itinerary included a Matisyahu concert on Saturday night in Philadelphia, where they later visited the newly opened National Museum of American Jewish History. They also took in an ice show at the Atlantic City Flyers Skate Zone and strolled around the Pier Shops in Atlantic City.
At the Central JCC, they spent time in the classroom with the little kids; in Margate they were going to make sandwiches for the Atlantic City Rescue Mission.
Reached on Tuesday morning in Philadelphia, Napchen was delighted with how things were going. She e-mailed, “The interaction has been AMAZING. They were shy for about five minutes and since then it’s as if they have known each other forever. There is definitely meshing between the two groups. Everyone hangs out together — on the bus, at meals, etc. — as one group rather than with a separation between the Israelis and the Americans.
“So much singing, dancing, clapping, and cheering!!”