One of the first surprises for a group of visiting Israeli teenagers who arrived in the United States in late December was the sight of the Empire State Building lit up in blue and white, in tribute to Hanukka. By the next night it was red and green for Christmas, but for the visitors it was a foretaste of the welcome they were to receive in an eight-day exploration of Jewish life in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
The 19 teens, all residents of Arad, are participants in Project Gesher, a three-year bridge-building project — gesher means “bridge” in Hebrew — linking them with 22 teens from five NJ communities: Monmouth, Princeton Mercer Bucks, Central NJ, Margate, and Cherry Hill. The program is run under the auspices of the Jewish Agency’s Partnership2Gether project, which links the Arad/Tamar region with a cluster of federations in New Jersey and Delaware.
Since 2009, the two groups have been “meeting” each other via Skype and communicating individually via e-mail and social media like Facebook, learning about one another’s interests and concerns.
The teens are all in 10th grade now and between 15 and 16 years old. They come from varied religious backgrounds — some Orthodox, some Reform or Conservative, and some secular, but what they share, as organizers told NJ Jewish News, is their commitment to building Jewish community and their potential to be leaders in that effort.
In addition to two days in New York City, the itinerary included a Matisyahu concert in Philadelphia and a visit to the newly opened National Museum of American Jewish History there. The teens also took in an ice show at the Atlantic City Flyers Skate Zone, strolled around the Pier Shops in Atlantic City, and visited Eagles Stadium. They also had opportunities for community service and home visits with host families.
“I think this is the most worthwhile effort I’ve ever been involved in,” said Joshua Cutler, program and camp director of the Milton and Betty Katz JCC in Margate. “If some of the Israelis want to come back here as shlihim and the Americans develop their love for Israel, Gesher will be making a really solid contribution to the future of the Jewish people.”
He helped establish the program in 2009 under the leadership of Jack Fox, executive director of the Milton and Betty Katz JCC in Margate, and with Ofra Nathan, the P2G Living Bridge coordinator in Arad. She accompanied the Israelis, together with fellow supervisor Lior Oknin.
Lindsay Napchen, youth and teen services director at the JCC of Central New Jersey, joined the staff in September and has become one of the key Gesher organizers.
Napchen was delighted with how things went. In an e-mail to NJJN after the trip ended, she wrote: “I cannot express how proud I am of all the teens and everything they accomplished over the course of the eight days. They built a community, connected with each other and the communities in which they visited, learned together, laughed together, cried together, and created a bond that will last forever.
“I have learned so much from these young, motivated leaders, and I look forward to one year from now when the teens will be reunited in Israel. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but it is well worth it.”
The teens from the Princeton Mercer Bucks community were Liana Bloom, Michael Genello, and David Millner.
Their supervisor, Jerry Schwartz, director of adult and teen services of the JCC of Princeton Mercer Bucks, said the Israeli and NJ teens developed “a tremendous closeness” in their week together.
“I think there was some anxiety before the meeting,” he said. “They were wondering, ‘Will they like us?’ but after a few hours it was pretty obvious they have so much more in common than not.” Everyone spoke English, though when emotional or controversial topics came up, the Israelis sometimes reverted to Hebrew and asked their supervisors to translate for them.
“It was extraordinarily rewarding to see the relationships develop,” Schwartz said, “and to see the similarities — even though they live thousands of miles apart — and their shared concern for Israel.”
Proof of just how cohesive the group became can be seen in the lip dub video they made at the end, a rollicking performance that linked everyone together. It can be seen at youtube.com/watch?v=IQw_QtHoiKw.
And that harmony, people in both groups said, is going to make for an amazing conclusion to the project, the American teens’ visit to Israel in 2012.