For NFTY group, Israel creates sense of belonging
[by Shiela Steinman Wallace, Editor]
(See full image gallery at the end of this article.)
For Pamela Niren, Harrison Reines and Christina Stoler, summer usually means going to Goldman Union Camp Institute (GUCI), the Reform Movement’s camp in Zionsville, IN. This year, the three of them chose to participate in the North American Federation of Temple Youth’s (NFTY) Israel Adventure.
“Right off the bat, we went straight to the desert for four days of hiking in the mountains,” Christina said. “We slept and ate there, and it was a really different environment for everyone. We had this great tour guide who taught us about nature and the places we were.” After an hour or more of climbing, she enjoyed reaching the top and “being able to look out from a 2,000-foot mountain and see everything. It was a really cool experience.”
“The thing I enjoyed,” Harrison said, “is we were able to be immersed in a new culture for a month. We got to learn a different lifestyle than the one we live. … It was a pretty cool experience.”
One big difference he noticed immediately was “the food was so different. We could go anywhere and get falafel and schwarma compared to here, where you just get cheeseburgers and sodas. It was a totally different experience.”
“It was really cool to be in a totally Jewish place,” Christina added, “everywhere you went, you were able to find a Star of David.” She also liked “hearing Hebrew everywhere and seeing in on signs.”
Just being surrounded by Jews was a new experience for her. “At school, I’m the only Jewish kid out of 2,000 kids,” she stated. “So to be able to turn around and ask a random person on the street, and they would answer that they were Jewish” was an amazing experience.
“It felt a lot different,” Harrison agreed. “You felt accepted by everyone there because a lot of the people shared the same religion with you. Being able to relate with them is something very unique.”
Pamela, too appreciated being in the Jewish state, saying, “it felt natural to be there,” but she also felt that the closeness of the NFTY group was also important. She enjoyed “the experience of feeling loved in the community from everyone – feeling close and connecting. … It was nice that we could have services without worrying about someone feeling left out.”
One difference Pamela observed was the Israelis’ perception of distance. Everything is so close there, she noted that “people thought an hour-long drive to somewhere was long, where here, an eight-hour drive is long.”
Christina Stoler also noticed how close everything is, particularly Israel’s neighbors. “It was really interesting for me to go to the borders, like the Syrian border and the separation wall and the Lebanese border.
“Before coming to Israel,” she explained, “we would watch the news and see all these things about conflict. To stand at these borders and look at them felt weird. We were standing at this place where there is supposed to be all this conflict, but it wasn’t scary to be there and we felt safe.
“That’s because of the Israeli military,” she continued. “There’s something about being in Israel. You know you’re secure because you’re surrounded by all these really strong people in this place that has persevered all this time.”
For part of the trip, the group split up to pursue different options. “I spent four days in the IDF,” Harrison said. It was really cool to see how the IDF is very committed to keeping Israel protected, but at the same time, keeping in mind human rights and making sure they aren’t doing anything that harms civilians. That shows that Israelis are very committed to their country and will do a lot for it, but they’re also very caring about themselves and other people.”
The Israelis are also very cognizant of the price they pay for security. For Pamela, hearing about how on Memorial Day “soldiers come to the graves and light candles and put rocks on the graves, even for people who might not have someone to come there for them” was very empowering.
When Memorial Day ends, she continued, “everyone transitions from learning about those who died and being sad into celebrating what they died for.”
The teens also enjoyed getting together with a group of Israeli teens. “It was cool to talk with them and to get to learn about their lives and the kibbutzim and just growing up in Israel and how much they love their country,” Christina said.
“They aren’t that different from us,” she added. “Everyone had a really great time together.” She enjoyed talking about America and listening to them talk about Israel. Later, they enjoyed home hospitality on the kibbutz. “We got to look around and see how the kibbutz works,” she said, “and be part of a regular Israeli family to see what that looks like and feels like.”
The three talked about many more highlights, including visits to historical sites, Masada, the Western Wall, the water tunnels in the City of David and the shuk.
All three came home with stronger connections to Israel and the Jewish people and a different understanding of the Jewish State. They also encourage others to go to Israel.
Pamela received a scholarship from the Jewish Federation of Louisville that was funded by a grant from the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence and expressed gratitude for the help.
Pamela and Christina are both Louisvillians. Every year, Harrison spends at least a month in Louisville visiting his grandparents, Irv and Sheila Steinberg. He and his family are moving to Australia.