Ask Elan Wasserman of Bergenfield why he participated in a summer group trip to Israel despite the annoyances of facemasks and covid tests for travelers, and he’ll tell you in fewer than 10 words: “Israel is my home, so it only made sense!”
Elan, a senior at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, is an active member and international board member of the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth, better known as USY.
And USY is one of 21 organizations whose summer Israel programs were heavily subsidized this year as part of a new initiative, RootOne. By enhancing trip curricula and experiences, along with required pre- and post-trip engagement opportunities, RootOne aims to strengthen Jewish identity and connections to Israel before teens begin college.
While organizations such as Birthright Israel and Masa offer Israel experiences during the college years and into young adulthood, more and more Jewish communal professionals believe incoming college freshman must be better prepared to face anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment on campus.
Elan, 17, said the overall message he brought home from his summer experience was the power of kehillah — community.
“The idea that Judaism as a culture is so rich that there’s even more to learn than just the religious aspect was awesome,” he said.
Elan was one of 4,000 teenagers — 135 from Bergen and Essex counties alone — who took advantage of the program through partner organizations across the streams of Judaism. The minimum stay for a Root-One-affiliated trip is 20 nights in Israel; most were between three and four weeks.
Seed-funded by the Marcus Foundation, RootOne is supported by the Jewish Agency for Israel and powered by the Jewish Education Project, a New York-based nondenominational agency in existence for more than 100 years.
Simon Amiel, executive director of RootOne at the Jewish Education Project, said that despite reports about American teens feeling less connected to Israel, “we see the opposite to be true when teens have the opportunity to engage in meaningful ways with Israel. The teen years are so formative; they need to experience Israel themselves and have space to ask any tough questions they want. It’s all part of a robust learning and personal growth experience.”
From left, Dylan Sacks of California, Elan Wasserman of Bergenfield, and Jared Miller of Pennsylvania stand together at Mitzpeh Ramon,
a natural crater in the Negev.Mr. Amiel added that the well-documented rise in teens’ struggles with mental health during the pandemic, as well as increasing anti-Semitism on college campuses, made RootOne organizers and funders even more determined than they had been pre-pandemic to launch the initiative this summer.
“I was fortunate to visit with some of these teens in Israel,” he said. “They so clearly appreciated the chance to learn, ask questions, and also have fun. It was wonderful to see.
“But the Israel trip is only one aspect of our efforts to develop a generation of Jews who will be proud to stand up for their beliefs in their high schools and on college campuses.”
Tamar Kursh of Closter, 16, a junior at Northern Valley Demarest High School, said she decided to participate this summer because she wanted to travel to Israel and meet new people. “I thought it would be a great way to have an amazing summer while getting to see a side of Israel that would be new to me,” she said.
She chose a four-week program, Chetz V’Keshet (Arrow and Bow), sponsored by Tzofim Israeli Scouts.
A highlight for Tamar was a sunrise climb to the top of Masada, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Legend has it that this Judean desert mountain fortress was the site of a heroic but ultimately tragic Jewish rebellion against the Roman Legion in 73 to 74 CE. Masada came to symbolize the struggle for Jewish freedom.
“While climbing Masada was one of the toughest things we did, it was the most memorable and satisfying thing we did,” she said. In general, Tamar continued, the Israel summer experience “taught me more than I could ever imagine. It taught me how to talk to different types of people and connect to others, it taught me about Israel and the culture that I share with millions of people all around the globe, and it taught me a lot about myself and how I grew as a person.”
Elan said he enjoyed learning about Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, and has continued educating himself further about it since returning home.
Tamar Kursh — she’s in the back row, wearing a pink hat on backward — and her friends at sunrise on Masada.Like many visitors to Israel, his outstanding memory is from the Kotel — the Western Wall. “I got to lead mincha for friends I had made over the last four years,” he said. “We all felt not only each other’s presence, but the presence of our ancestors and all the Jewish people.”
Yaara Nahar, a sophomore at Tenafly High School, visits family in Israel every year. However, she said, “I never took time to appreciate just how beautiful Israel is — from Masada to the Dead Sea, Mitzpeh Ramon to Jerusalem. These places remained unexplored for the past 16 years of my life up until now.”
For Yaara, a member of Tzofim Israeli Scouts, the summer memory that stands out is Gadna, which prepares young people for service in the Israel Defense Forces.
“I vividly remember at the end of the physical test in Gadna, the military training, just an overwhelming sense of self-accomplishment,” she said. “Every single person there pushed themselves beyond their limit. I felt emotional and physical challenges I never endured in Tenafly, New Jersey.
“The willpower it takes to be in the military and the responsibility is always known, but never fully understood until getting a taste of it.”
She, too, came home with deep personal connections.
“When you spend hours hiking and then looking over a beautiful Masada with people you spent a month living with, the bonds you create between the people around you and the country are the strongest you’ll ever feel,” she said.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and taught me lessons no classroom could ever accomplish.”
That is exactly the goal of the iCenter for Israel Education, the Chicago-based primary educational adviser for Root-One. The iCenter trained the educators and leaders who led trips and engaged with teens before and after the trips.
In cooperation with Israeli organization ENTER Peoplehood, 1,500 upcoming RootOne participants will be matched with 1,500 Israeli high school students to meet five times virtually. Next summer, some of these Israeli peers will join their new friends on the RootOne journey.
And as past participants head toward college, RootOne “will create a pipeline to national organizations such as Hillel and others that will continue to engage them in meaningful Jewish experiences and community,” Mr. Amiel said.