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Bumper crop of youth on subsidized trips overseas
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Bumper crop of youth on subsidized trips overseas

Diller group members Ben Sabin, left, and Coby Levine visit Ein Avdat in the Negev.
Diller group members Ben Sabin, left, and Coby Levine visit Ein Avdat in the Negev.

The Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ has sent a record number of young adults to Israel this summer on subsidized trips.

Israel program organizers say subsidies provided by the federation enabled 104 young adults to go, in addition to 21 on Diller Teen fellowships, and five teens who attended a basketball camp there.

Daphna Yizrael, the federation’s youth shliha, or emissary, said the number is almost twice as high as last year’s.

“First of all, through the generous support of our donors, we were able to offer more spots on existing programs, and new programs that attracted new participants,” said Yizrael, who works with the Legow Family Israel Program Center in coordination with the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The federation contribution  — a total of $300,000 this year — covers a varying proportion of the cost of the different trips.

The cost of the Diller Teen Fellows program is $11,000 per student. Participants pay $3,500; the remainder is underwritten through a partnership between the federation and the Helen Diller Family Foundation.

The programs (see box) include a “Negev Fellowship” whose participants explore sustainable development in the desert; the Kefiada summer camp, which places counselors in a day camp in Ofakim, the federation’s partner community in the south; a combined Israel-Ukraine trip that includes working at a family summer camp in Cherkassy; and the Diller Teen Fellows, a year-long leadership program that culminates in a summer trip to Israel.

The largest proportion of participants traveled as part of Taglit-Birthright Israel — the free 10-day visits to Israel for young Jews. In addition to those joining trips for participants across North America, some 80 participants — the most ever — toured Israel on two MetroWest buses

“More young adults are choosing our trips because it gives them the opportunity to have this meaningful experience with other people from New Jersey,” Yizrael said. “It means that when they come back, they have 40 new friends in their area.”

What is more, Yizrael said, those who apply for a MetroWest Birthright trip are all but guaranteed a spot; nationally the odds are closer to one in three.   

While Birthright is designed for people who haven’t visited Israel on an organized trip, or been on a subsidized trip, a number of this year’s travelers on the other programs had been on previous federation-sponsored trips. “We like to see people coming back to us,” Yizrael declared.

Natalie Elgrabli, the Israeli emissary who served with the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey community this past year, returned in early August after taking part in the Cherkassy program as a staff member. She said it was enlightening and thoroughly enjoyable. “It’s a very different kind of community — more like Israelis in a way than the Americans. And they treated us like celebrities,” she added with a laugh.

Diller fellow Ben Sabin of Upper Montclair said that during his Israel experience he became close with people in Rishon Letzion, a MetroWest partnership community, and with the other MetroWest participants. “The bonding experience was indescribable,” he said. One moment really stuck in his mind: “We were hiking Ein Avdat in the Negev and we were all sweating and laughing, and we just had a moment when we got to the top and as a group we said to ourselves, ‘We did it!’”

His fellow Diller participant, Marisa Parnes of Livingston, wasn’t 100 percent sure about going on an Israel program. “Even when I was accepted, I had second thoughts,” she admitted. But “now that my year in Diller is almost over, I am so thankful and grateful that I decided to join.” The single most meaningful moment for her was when the group was in Jerusalem and visited the Kotel on their first Saturday night. “All it took,” she said, “was a glance at the wall for me to start crying tears of happiness. I really felt at the heart of Judaism, and for the first time, I think I really understood why so many people are so devoted and proud to be Jewish.”

Seth Katz, 21, of Livingston, went on Birthright in May, and then returned to Israel for the Negev fellowship. He said the first trip was fascinating socially and culturally. “It felt like we were discovering our roots,” he said. The second trip offered Katz, a mechanical engineering student at Lafayette University, a chance to learn about environmental — and Israeli engineering projects. “I definitely want to go back,” he said.

“These programs change lives, not just for the participants, but also for the people they see and meet — Jewish families in Ukraine, people in the Negev, the soldiers who join the Birthright bus,” Yizrael said. “These are life-long connections.”

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