Exploring a different Israel with the Merrin Fellowship

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A year ago, I began an  18-month professional development program called the Merrin Fellowship for Teen Engagement. Together with 12 other JCC teen professionals we are learning from each other and many JCC and non-JCC professionals about different innovations in teen programming. The program includes five group seminars, including a 10-day experience in Israel in October. We had all been to Israel before but the purpose of this trip was to see Israel in a different way, and especially  to see how Israel values youth and teen programming.

In Israel, we visited three places most relevant to our work in the U.S.

Shanti House in the Negev is an intriguing program that helps youths who can no longer live at  home for a variety of reasons. A youth is able to come to this oasis any time at any point regardless of time of day. He or she can stay for as long as needed, including years. The people of the Shanti House help with everything, including counseling, drug rehab, education etc. They help the residents get ready for their time in the IDF. The refrigerator is always stocked and the residents can always go to it. This is something we take for granted, but the residents have said that they were saved by this house and these details. One of the girls who lived there is now a high commander in the IDF. We talked with the staff about the Shanti House and learned that there is no other organization like this in Israel. Is there another like it in the world? I cannot help but ask myself why this type of organization does not exist  in the US. What do we do in the US for at-risk youth? Would something like this work? Would our general population support this? Why does Israel feel this organization is important? These questions are still with me. And this is the kind of thinking that the Merrin Fellowship encourages.

We also met with volunteers from  Save a Child’s Heart. I had visited this place while on a Birthright trip seven years ago, but this time it had a different impact on me. Save a Child’s Heart is a non-profit that helps children who need heart operations. These children mostly come from Africa and everything is paid for. The Israeli doctors also train doctors from these countries. The thing that stands out is that they are treating children from ANY country, including Iraq and Iran. The Israeli doctors also travel to the countries in Africa to check on the children who they operated on. If a former patient needs another operation, they do it, no questions asked. The Jewish Alliance states “All are Welcome.” If Israel can help children from countries that hate them, they truly are welcoming everyone because kids are kids. It makes me think about how can we use this idea in our own organization and truly mean “All are Welcome.”

 On any trip to Israel, a visit to the Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem, is important. I had been there before but this time we took a long look at the outside sculptures and their meanings.  This visit really affected me when we went to the children’s memorial. The statues on the outside are designed for a very specific reason. There is a statue of columns and trees on a hill near the entrance. The columns are unfinished and staggered in length to symbolize children’s lives cut short by the Holocaust. The trees show that growth happens despite death.  There is a statue to the right of the entrance with six candles that represent the six million Jewish lives taken. Inside the exhibit are five candles that are magnified more times than I can count. You are in a dark room and only hear the names, ages and countries of the children who died. I visited the memorial when I was 13. Now at 33, I walked out feeling emotional with tears in my eyes. I have  a deeper appreciation and understanding of what we do at the Alliance and why. As we were walking to the memorial, a friend said, “being here is proof that the final solution was not final.”

When I share with teens that the organizations I saw deal with kids their own age, it helps them connect to something so far away and helps them connect to Israel in a deeper way. Every time I visit, I come back more energized about Judaism. After this trip, I came back with a renewed excitement for the possibilities of what can be accomplished with teen programming.

SETH FINKLE (sfinkle@jewishallianceri.org) is director of Camp Haverim and teen programming at the Jewish Alliance.