Two central Jersey teens’ five-week visit to Israel this summer was more than just a vacation. They and 45 others from across the United States learned to become “ambassadors” for Israel on college campuses and high schools.
Erica Lunin of Avenel and Allison Belfer of Manalapan took part in the Jerusalem Journey Ambassadors program of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth of the Orthodox Union.
“Israel’s most important battles are being fought in the battlefield of public opinion, and today we are outmanned and outarmed,” said NCSY New York regional director Rabbi Aryeh Lighstone, who created the program. “We need to educate teens who will be influential on influential campuses.”
Allison, the daughter of Richard and Mindy Belfer, is president of the Englishtown chapter of NCSY and an incoming senior at the Academy of Allied Health Sciences in Neptune.
“I’ve been to Israel before and knew I wanted to go back,” she said, so she discussed possible programs with her NCSY chapter adviser and Rabbi Robert Pilavin, her rabbi at Congregation Sons of Israel in Manalapan. They suggested the ambassadors program with its combination of learning, politics, advocacy, and service.
Erica, a recent graduate of Colonia High School who is entering Rutgers University, also came to the program through a recommendation. Ever since her Conservative synagogue, Congregation Adath Israel in Woodbridge, merged several years ago with Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, she has periodically attended the Chabad of Midtown Manhattan. Its rabbi, Joshua Metzger, told her about the program.
“I really lost touch with my religious side after my synagogue closed,” she said. “But I got back in touch in Israel. I understand a lot more and appreciate a lot more. It was very interesting to learn surrounded by people who know where you come from even though you come from different backgrounds.”
The June 30-Aug. 3 program sent 47 public high school student leaders, led by West Orange native Rabbi Ben Zion Goldfischer of Modi’in, to meet with Knesset members, chief rabbis, senior IDF generals, and members of Hatzalah Israel ambulance service. They also visited the security fence and border areas and met with the parents of a Navy commando involved in the recent Turkish flotilla incident.
“It was the summer of a lifetime,” said Erica.
The group also participated in a camp day for children from Sderot who live in constant fear of missile attacks from Gaza.
The trip was even more special for her because her parents, Russian immigrants Vladimir and Serafina Lunin, were also in Israel, a gift for her father’s July 15 birthday.
“My father had never been there,” said Erica. “My mom and I went there as a present after my bat mitzva. But, this was a chance for me to visit when I was older. I have a lot of family there and I saw my parents on weekends. I loved it.”
Allison, a cadet with the Englishtown-Manalapan Volunteer First Aid Squad and a Friendship Circle volunteer helping handicapped children, had previously celebrated her brother’s bar mitzva in Israel and participated in the International Youth Program, part of Sar El — Volunteers for Israel.
Included in the ambassadors program was a week of study — in the Michlelet program for girls, Kollel for boys — which provided a crash course in basic Judaism and hands-on leadership training. Additionally, Allison said, she “learned a lot of hesed [acts of kindness].”
Highlights of the program included playing with children in a Netanya orphanage and meeting youngsters brought to Israel from around the world by Save a Child’s Heart to have lifesaving surgery not available in their native lands.
As a result of the program, said Allison, “I feel prepared to be a better leader with the skills to advocate for Israel. It allowed me to be a better person, learn Torah, and help people.”
“I plan on bringing the skills I learned this summer back to my NCSY chapter,” she said, “and teach them to advocate. On my college campus, I plan to start programs to show what Israel is really about, not what they see on TV.”