By Zvi Volk
As Operation Protective Edge intensified in Gaza, teens on NCSY Summer in Israel programs gave back and expanded their horizons. They lent their support to Israeli residents in the south, visited IDF soldiers, and in the process, had the best summer of their lives.
Boys Israel Leadership Training (BILT)
Like most of the NCSY summer groups this year, the itinerary for BILT, a program that challenges its participants and highlights their personal strengths in order to draw out the future leaders within, had to be exceptionally flexible. The group started out in the north and later relocated to Jerusalem.
“This was my first time in Israel,” says Moshe Stuart, 16, who lives in Monsey, New York and goes to school at the Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, New Jersey. “I was nervous at first because of the war,” he admits. “I wasn’t sure whether I should come. But I’m glad I did. It’s hard to explain how happy I am.”
“I had been to Israel with my family, but obviously never when the country was at war,” says Avi London-Wynne, 16, of Albany, California. “We’ve gone to so many places with BILT and have been able to experience real achdut (unity),” he says. “What amazed me is that people have been thanking us for being here. It’s really significant that we’re supporting Israel this summer.”
Because they couldn’t come to Jerusalem right away, they went north. This provided the group with the opportunity to visit Tiberias, where they bought snacks and small gifts to soldiers at an IDF base on Mt. Hermon.
“They were a little uncomfortable at first, but they got over it,” says Sam Weiss, 16, a student at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles (YULA). “We got to talk to them and ask them about their experiences and opinions.” The BILT group–like many of the NCSY Summer in Israel groups–was already saying Tehillim every day. “It was very different for us when we were saying Tehillim and thinking of specific people,” he says.
In addition to connecting with the soldiers, the boys on BILT took part in programming that was aimed at improving Israeli society. They visited Ethiopian olim, ran a day camp for children from S’derot, and packed more than 1,000 food packages for the needy at a Jerusalem shelter.
They also put on IDF uniforms and got down and dirty at a Gadna army base for four days.
“At first I thought that this is a really long hike,” Stuart says. “But every day I was happier. The guys in front made sure to help their friends who were in the back. We learned about the importance of being there for each other,” he says. “These experiences changed all of us.”
Girls Israel Volunteer Experience (GIVE)
It takes a special kind of girl to spend a summer in Israel helping others. Of course, the girls on GIVE also had time to hike and bike in different locations. But the main focus of their Israel summer journey was to give back to society.
They learned about being medical clowns in a hospital and visited an absorption center for Ethiopian immigrants. They also organized a scavenger hunt for bereaved children who are supported by OneFamily, Israel’s leading organization assisting victims of terror and their families, and they volunteered with Leket Israel, the national food bank.
They helped improve the country by planning trees in a JNF forest in the north and helped paint a school in Tiberias.
However, the activity that resonated most was their visit to an army base where they distributed Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to the soldiers.
“We had been moping around all morning,” one of the soldiers said, “so when the GIVE girls came with ice cream and smiles, it really made our day.”
“I wanted to use this summer as a springboard to bring me closer to my Judaism,” says Asher Gritz, 17, a student at the Donna Klein Jewish Academy in Boca Raton, Florida who participated in the NCSY Kollel program, a unique experience that combines intense Torah learning with world-class sports activities and a full schedule of great trips all around Israel.
“My friends thought this would just be a continuation of school,” says Phillip Dolitsky, 16, a student at Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “But it’s very different,” he says, “because there are no tests and no pressure. You go at your own pace.”
“The situation in Israel this summer really brought us all together,” says Yehoshua Naor, 16, who goes to the Torah Academy of Bergen County and lives in Teaneck, New Jersey. “We were part of a group of about 250 boys who were all learning and davening for the same thing: the safe return of all the soldiers. This was a very special experience,” he says.
During the fighting in Gaza, the participants learned how to make tzitziot which were then packaged and sent to soldiers. Every package contained handwritten letters from NCSYers expressing their gratitude.
In addition to learning Torah both in Hispin in the Golan Heights and Reishit in Bet Shemesh, the girls on NCSY’s Michlelet program had a full itinerary that reinforced the program’s goals of gaining a greater appreciation of Torah, of chesed, and of the Land of Israel.
Their volunteer activities included working at Yad Eliezer in Jerusalem, where they learned about breaking the cycle of poverty in Israel, and assembling packages for soldiers, which they delivered to IDF bases. They also held a bridal shower and organized other activities for a bride they had never met before.
Considering the situation in Israel while NCSY teens were visiting this summer, they could have complained or decided to return to their communities in North America. But they didn’t. Instead, they pitched in and helped out wherever they could. In the process, they learned the true meaning of achdut and developed a special bond with the Land of Israel and its people. Ï–