Teenagers from Summit spent their winter break in school, and they loved it. That’s because they were attending the MOR MetroWest High School in Raanana, Israel, with Israeli peers.
“Their life just seems to be a lot more laid back than ours is,” said Maya Mehlman in a conversation after the trip with NJJN. Mehlman, and the other teens, attend Hebrew high school at Congregation Ohr Shalom: The Summit JCC (COSS). “They don’t have as much of a set schedule as we do here.”
The 17 participants, who ranged from ninth grade to first-year college students, stayed with host families, went to school with their Israeli peers, and followed the daily rhythm of life in Raanana on an eight-day trip between Dec. 23 and Jan. 1.
“I loved that we got to be teenagers there,” said Rebecca Strauss. “We walked everywhere, getting back to the house at late hours. Sometimes the parents were there, sometimes they weren’t there. We went to movies one day, we went to the mall the next, we got lunch after school.”
For more than 25 years, Raanana, a Jewish Federaion of Greater Metro-West partnership community located near Tel Aviv, has sent a delegation of student ambassadors to New Jersey during the week of Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s independence day, and COSS families have hosted exclusively for the last four years. This past year, the Conservative synagogue was rewarded for their hospitality. “It has always been our dream: ‘This year in Summit, Next Year in Raanana,’” said religious school director Stacey David.
This trip marks the first time a local synagogue has sent students to Israel, not with their families to sightsee, but on their own, to live among peers for the bulk of their stay. Some similar programs exist — Golda Och Academy (GOA) in West Orange has an annual exchange with teens in Israel and GOA seniors spend their last semester in Israel; additionally, federation programs and partnerships such as Write On for Israel, Gesher, and Diller Teen Fellows host trips to Israel, but this is the first of its kind planned by a congregational school. A synagogue in Bridgewater is planning a similar trip for next year.
Said David: “We need to change the narrative when it comes to Israel and make it a priority in our schools.” She noted that learning about Israel is not enough. “It needs to be a ‘mifgash’ [encounter] with Israeli students, and trips to Israel, and more…. Our students need to feel Israel.”
COSS cantor Janet Roth sees another potential long-term benefit of such trips.
“By making this trip, I would almost guarantee that we have secured Judaism as a central part of these teens, lives forever,” she said, adding that having a trip like this would provide an incentive for kids to continue with their religious education beyond b’nei mitzvah.
For the hosts in Raanana, it was a kind of reverse “shlichut”, or Israeli outreach program. “For us this was the ultimate program,” said Amir Shacham, associate executive vice president of Global Connections for Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. “This trip was a dream come true,” he said about teens experiencing Israeli teen life.
While students left Raanana for some touring in Jerusalem, and a visit to Sde Boker and the border with Gaza, and participated in mitzvah opportunities, the raison d’être for this visit was neither sightseeing nor tikkun olam. “The point of this trip was to build relationship between Israeli Jews and American Jews,” said Rabbi Avi Friedman of COSS.
Raina Tarendash felt like she made lifelong friends. “It’s really amazing how quickly you can get close with these kids,” she said. Regarding her host teen, “the day we met we were best friends. You’re there for a week and make life-long friends. There’s such a connection.”
For the Summit teens, there were some surprises, such as a more relaxed atmosphere than they were accustomed to in New Jersey. For example, in the Raanana school, rather than an earsplitting bell to mark the end of a class period, an Israeli pop song—Mi’ Ma’ amakim (“Out of the Depths”) by Idan Raichel — played over the loudspeaker.
“The highlight was the energy,” said Tamar Novick. “It’s just a common thread wherever we went, even at school or out at night. The energy is casual, laid back, understanding. Like, it’s not a big deal.”
The freedom was appealing to Adi Ben Guy. “I think there’s a certain sense of independence being a teenager [there]. Everyone walks around. Or you might take a bus or taxi. You make your own decisions.”
Maya Mehlman had a memorable—if somewhat unconventional—Shabbat experience. “We went to the beach and went dune riding. My host father pulled the sunroof off and we stood on top of the car while he drove really fast, and then we stood on a cliff and looked down at water and took pictures,” she said. “That’s a normal Shabbos for them.”
Novick said she appreciated that she felt at home in a prayer service halfway around the world.
“I was hearing the prayers, the same tunes that we sing, even the same hand movements and dances we do,” she said. “It just hit me we’re all Jewish and share this connection — New Jersey, Raanana — it’s all the same.”
Paige Anderson said it was “kind of weird” to be surrounded by other Jews most of the time, something that is an anomaly in her life in Summit. But she took it as a positive. “I felt more comfortable because I didn’t have to explain myself every time I said something related to my religion.”
Noah Limmer summed it up by saying that visiting Israel is unlike traveling to other countries.
“It’s kind of like a second home,” said Limmer, who has been to Israel before. “When I go to other places, other countries, even with my family, it feels like I could never imagine living there. When I go to Israel, even when we were at Ben- Gurion Airport [at the beginning of the trip], it just felt homey there.”