Lindsay Napchen wasn’t too sure how her young charges would react to meeting up with their Israeli counterparts on their trip to Israel last month.
The participants in Project Gesher — the program that connects 22 high school students from NJ communities with teens in Arad and Tamar in Israel — had Skyped with each other, but it had been a year since their last face-to-face meeting, when the Israelis visited New Jersey in late 2011.
Napchen and her fellow group leader decided to open with a surprise: On their first day in Jerusalem, they led the 19 NJ Gesher members who had come on the trip into an alley in the shuk (market) and brought the 19 Israeli Gesher teens in from the other end. The encounter ended any doubts Napchen had.
“They were so excited to see each other. They were hugging and screaming,” she said.
It proved the perfect tone setter for what was to come.
Napchen, teen director for the JCC of Central NJ in Scotch Plains, a beneficiary agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, led the group with Josh Cutler, program and camp director of the Milton and Betty Katz JCC in Margate, together with two Israeli colleagues. From Dec. 20 to 31, the New Jerseyans toured Israel, some of them for the first time, accompanied most days by the Israeli Gesher teens. According to the NJ participants — all 11th-graders between 16 and 17 — the experience created bonds they’ll never forget.
The trip was the highlight of the three-year Project Gesher program, which is run through the Jewish Agency’s Partnership2Gether program. Arad/Tamar is the P2G community linked to 11 Jewish federations in New Jersey and Delaware, including, at the partnership’s inception, what was then Jewish Federation of Central NJ (now part of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ). Teens are recruited in the ninth grade, and over the next three years, meet regularly for educational and team-building exercises, and communicate with one another and with their Israeli counterparts via Skype and Facebook.
The group included teens from five of the participating federation communities, including four from the historic “Central” region.
(Napchen is currently recruiting ninth-graders for the next group of NJ Gesher teens; contact her at 908-889-8800, ext. 203, or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
When the Israeli cohort came to New Jersey in 2011, they toured the state with their American hosts, visiting community centers, synagogues, and private homes, as well as shopping, attending sports events, and making a music video.
During December’s reciprocal visit, the teens went to the main historic sites, explored the desert town of Arad, visited with Bedouins, prayed together, and stayed in private homes as well as hotels. The Americans made some of their more solemn visits — to Yad Vashem and the Western Wall, for example — on their own, while the Israelis were in school. On the way home, the NJ teens had a stopover in Berlin, where they visited the Holocaust Memorial by moonlight.
“This was a transformational experience for the teens,” said Napchen.
“They participated not only in a beautiful Israel — Masada, the Dead Sea, the Old City of Jerusalem on Shabbat — but also a harsh, raw Israel,” Napchen said, noting that the group visited a military cemetery, Holocaust memorials, and bomb shelters in Arad.
“Watching their faces and witnessing their vulnerability as they experienced Israel — many of them for the first time — was truly inspiring, and confirmed a hunch I’ve had for a while,” she said: “When dealing with Israel, we are dealing with magic.”