The Baltimore Zionist District celebrates a half-century of its teen mission to Israel.
Young American Jews today are searching for something meaningful in their lives, says Idan Zrihen, and Israel can be the answer.
“I think there are a lot of young people who are looking for relevance,” says Zrihen, 32, an Ashkelon native who serves as the shaliach, or Israel emissary, for the Baltimore Zionist District. “I don’t think it’s about apathy [toward Israel]. I just think they want to see what it means to their life. We have to find ways to help them find that connection to Israel.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the BZD’s annual summer teen mission to Israel. While the trip has undergone several incarnations and restructurings, the objective has remained the same — to give local teens meaningful, fun and positive experiences in the Jewish state to remain with them for the rest of their lives.
This year’s BZD teen summer experience in Israel will be held from June 27 through July 21, led by an Israeli guide and a local counselor. Held in conjunction with the international Jewish sports organization Maccabi World Union, the journey will feature a two-day hike spanning from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River; a feast in a Bedouin village; a five-day Israeli army education/training program; a rafting excursion down the Jordan; touring Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum; and a visit to Masada and the southern resort town of Eilat, with a snorkeling outing on the Red Sea.
The heavily subsidized trip with scholarship opportunities — which is eligible to Jewish high school students from across Maryland — also will include visits to Ashkelon, Baltimore’s sister city in Israel, the northern town of Safed and the Galilee region; spending Shabbat in Jerusalem; a meeting in Haifa with members of the Druze minority group; and hiking on trails along waterfalls and camping under the stars.
Last year, the BZD took 10 teens on the trip. Organizers hope to attract the same number of young travelers this summer and are speaking to teens and parents about the trip at various congregations and venues.
“Traveling is not just about something being exciting. It changes you,” says Zrihen. “We really hope to provide experiences to these teens that will help change their perceptions.”
Caren Leven, executive director of the Pikesville-based BZD, says the trip aims to provide an all-encompassing view of Israel and Jewish life in general.
“Israel ties it all together,” she says. “All of those years of going [to religious school] on Wednesdays and Sundays, and all the Purim carnivals and everything. Finally, the kids get to go Israel, and it all comes together.
“This is the only Baltimore-based community teen trip to Israel,” Leven says. “So this is for anyone from every synagogue or organization, or anyone who might be unaffiliated, and bringing them together in a meaningful, impactful way. Israel is special for everyone, and we view our role as to get every teen there at least once in their life.”
While meeting various speakers and others during the trip, Zrihen says participants are encouraged to think and discuss matters about Israel and the Middle East in a critical and comprehensive manner.
“We encourage the kids to examine their opinions and ask the hard questions,” he says. “Don’t ask the questions in America — go to Israel and ask them. It’s a fun trip, but it’s an informative one as well. It’s an opportunity to stand behind your opinions. We want them to experience things like the coexistence in Israel [between Arabs and Jews] in places like Haifa.”
A major difference in this year’s teen trip is that the BZD is working closely with the Lone Soldier Project, which supports Israeli troops who serve without the benefit of familial or communal networks.
“Our partnership with them is to help this organization and the soldiers in it, so we’re collecting goods — socks, toiletries, T-shirts — and sending them to the organization to distribute to soldiers,” says Zrihen. “Also, we’re trying to start a relationship with the soldiers. We will have several Skype conversations with the teens and the soldiers there, and we hope to have the teens actually meet the soldiers in Israel [during the trip]. The teens will deliver packages and meet the soldiers, hearing from them firsthand.”
Leven, a Haifa native and mother of two, says she conceived the idea for the partnership with the Lone Soldier Project during her most recent visit to Israel a few months ago.
“I was watching these really young soldiers, and it hit me,” she says. “My son is 10, just eight years away [from serving in the military] if we lived in Israel. And here are these soldiers with rifles, protecting our country and doing this willingly. We want the teens to see this, since they themselves are only a few years from that age.”
Leven admits local teens appear less interested in visiting Israel than in past years.
“I think people are busier now or they have an ‘I’ll-do-it-later’ attitude,” she says. “Also, there are a lot more teen trips today. It’s not as hard for kids to go today.
“But I say to teens and parents to go now because it’s the most convenient time [of life] to go,” Leven says. “Once you go to college, you can go on a Birthright trip. But once you get married and settled, it’s much harder to go. If you’re going to go, go now. Now is the time.”
Leven says she believes visiting Israel is a crucial coming-of-age experience for a young Jew. “At some point, younger people are going to have to step up and realize that 71 years ago, we were given the state of Israel,” she says. “It’s not just up to Israelis to maintain it. It’s up to us in the Diaspora as well.”
For information, visit bzdisrael.org or call 410-484-4510.