President’s Column: Expanding the Circle
One day last summer, I eavesdropped on a group of teens sitting in a circle at Tel Yehudah, Young Judaea’s national leadership camp in upstate New York. They were discussing what they would be doing the following year in Israel—seeing the country, meeting Israelis, using their Hebrew and doing volunteer work. The joy in their conversation and the camaraderie were so palpable I wanted nothing more than to sit in the circle with them.
Young Judaea is Hadassah’s insurance policy for the Jewish future. We all know the challenge of raising children with strong Jewish identities, and certainly there’s no substitute for setting a good personal example. But those of you familiar with Young Judaea know that if you can get a youngster to one of our camps or Israel programs, the probability of lifelong Jewish commitment increases dramatically.
Our notions of youth are changing. A recent essay by New York Times columnist David Brooks identified a new life stage, between adolescence and adulthood, called “the odyssey years,” a time when young people out of college explore the world and try out different jobs and relationships before settling down. But while Brooks’s observations may have been eye opening for many, Young Judaea—which has programs for 8-year-old campers and post-college adults up to age 35—is ahead of the curve.
What impresses me most whenever I visit our camps is the mix of fun and education. “For a long time, I was under the impression that I was simply having an amazing time, making friends and enjoying amazing activities,” one Young Judaean recently told Hadassah’s national board. “I didn’t realize that in addition to those things I was learning about Israel, Zionism and gaining an appreciation of my Jewish identity and developing as a person.”
Beyond the camps, no organization can match the range of Young Judaea’s Israel menu. The jewel in our crown is Year Course, the program that circle of youngsters was discussing at Tel Yehudah. Designed for the gap year between high school and college, it is the largest American Jewish youth program in Israel; enrollment has doubled in the last four years to 500 per year.
Given its growth and the diversity of participants, Year Course is offering more and more options. Among the popular new alternatives are opportunities to spend part of the year visiting diaspora Jewish communities, from France to India to Uganda.
Add Young Judaea’s shorter-term trips and we are now sending 2,000 young people a year to Israel. The demand is stretching the limits of Young Judaea’s residential centers in Jerusalem, Bat Yam and Arad.
Nevertheless, the movement is poised to expand and to be of service to the wider Jewish world. Young Judaea is an official provider of trips for Taglit-Birthright Israel. Perhaps more important, now that Birthright has sent nearly 150,000 young people to Israel, it is looking to Young Judaea for follow-up and networking programs to help transform a 10-day trip into a lifetime bond.
Young Judaea began in 1909 and grew up like many of Israel’s founders—pretty much on its own. Hadassah first subsidized Young Judaea in 1936 and took on full responsibility in 1967. Young Judaeans were among the founders of the movement to free Soviet Jewry and, in 1973, they founded Kibbutz Ketura in Israel’s Arava Valley. In recent years, they have stood out in delivering relief supplies to victims of Hurricane Katrina and in advocacy on behalf of Darfur refugees. Today, former Young Judaeans are in leadership positions throughout the Jewish world.
I can’t magically become 15 again and go to a Young Judaea camp, but I have an idea: Why don’t you come with me next summer? We’ll fill a bus in front of Hadassah House and go to the camps near New York City. (And maybe we’ll stop at the outlet stores at Woodbury Common along the way.)
When we get to Tel Yehudah, we can form our own circle, share secrets and talk about our Israel experiences. And we can look around us at the circles of the future.