For years before she went to Israel last summer, Halli James dreamed about going there for a post-high school year. She said she nagged her parents relentlessly until they finally let her apply for the nine-month Nativ program offered by United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
Now, a month after her return, she is still reveling in its impact.
“I would strongly encourage Jewish teens to at least consider a gap year in Israel,” she told NJ Jewish News. “It’s not for everyone, but if you do go, it’s the experience of a lifetime. I’ve never been happier in my life.”
Hers is the kind of testimony sought by those championing youth trips to Israel. Natan Sharansky, chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel, has told audiences in the Central community twice in recent months that building a sense of Jewish identity and Zionist loyalty through these programs has to be a priority both for Israel and the Diaspora.
The nine-month Nativ program includes academic classes, volunteer community service, and time for individual exploration. Funding comes from the USCJ and MASA Journey, a joint project of the government of Israel and JAFI.
The 18-year-old Westfield High School graduate had been to Israel before, for a month in 2009, and that made her all the more eager to return for a longer stay. But, she admitted, on the way to the airport last August, “with my life packed into two suitcases,” she hit a brief patch of anxiety. It didn’t last long. As others who have been on Israel programs have reported, the group dynamic bolsters their enthusiasm. Halli said that just meeting her fellow “Nativers” at JFK Airport restored her excitement.
The next nine months included experiences that ranged from the academic to agricultural, with a lot of social contact along the way. Halli wrote a brief column for the monthly newsletter put out by the congregation her family belongs to, Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah in Clark, and in each one her delight in Israel seemed to deepen.
Within weeks, she wrote, “Israel is incredible: the culture, the pride, the people (and of course the food) are amazing. Nowhere else could I look out the window and see thousands of years of history in my backyard.”
Now she is back in New Jersey, working on staff with USY on Wheels, the United Synagogue Youth program for high schoolers, a program she went on herself a few years back. Her USY connection goes way back. She was involved in Hagalil, the NJ region, and with International USY. She served on the local chapter board for two years, and the regional board for another two, and was vice president for membership in her senior year in high school. She has also been involved in her temple community and regularly leads services and reads Torah.
In the fall, she will enroll at the University of Maryland, participating in the College Park Scholars Arts Program, and — if she can get a place — working at the campus farm. That will build on one of her favorite experiences in Israel — working on a kibbutz.
In answer to a question from NJJN, Halli e-mailed: “I’ve always loved Israel, especially after my first visit in 2009 and couldn’t wait to get back. Now I only feel more strongly about protecting its right to exist. I learned a lot about Israel advocacy this year and am excited to show my support on campus.”
The greatest impact, she said, came from being involved in day-to-day life, as opposed to being a tourist. “Making connections with people born and raised there made a huge difference in the level of pride I feel about Israel,” she said.
As for being back, she wrote, “It’s been strange living back at home. I miss life in Jerusalem and on kibbutz, spending my days working in the refet milking cows. I grew up a lot this year, and learned a lot about myself as a person. I probably wouldn’t have learned as much had I gone straight to college.”
Asked about the value of programs like Nativ, she wrote, “It’s very eye-opening. You see that despite all the craziness in Israel, life goes on. Israelis are fazed by nothing. It’s also so different from anything you could ever experience in America. That’s why I chose to live and work on the kibbutz. I knew it would be something that I would never be able to do here, and a very different community dynamic than you can find in America.
“Being able to explore and experience Israel with a group of my now closest friends was indescribable. The number of ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences that I had this year is amazing. I helped give birth to a calf; I hiked the side of a water fall; I camped in the desert under the stars; I took a history of Jerusalem class in which I visited every place I learned about as I learned about it. The list goes on! This has honestly been the best year of my life.”