Connecting Young Adults to the Jewish Community
July 29, 2002Comments (2)
| E-mail this to a friend Brian Schneider recently took off a week from his job as a software engineer to wash dishes in Israel.
Lisa Huriash took a break from her position as a newspaper reporter to spend her days changing batteries in gas masks.
Schneider, 26, and Huriash, 29, were among a group of mostly 20-something Jews who traveled to Israel in June to volunteer on a military base. Volunteers came from two organizations that cater to American Jews in their 20s and early 30s: GesherCity-Jconnect Miami, a nonprofit venture linking young adults to the Jewish community; and Livnot, which offers study programs in Israel. The six-day trip was sponsored by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.
Some worked on tanks; others baked pastries and bread on an army base. It was their way to prove to Israelis that American Jews are with them in body -- as well as in mind and spirit.
"There were no expectations," said Nina Sherman, director of GesherCity-Jconnect Miami. "The participants just wanted to be there to support Israel."
Sherman and Sheri Zablotsky, program director for Aish HaTorah in Hollywood, led 17 volunteers -- all of whom have been to Israel before -- at Julius Army Base in Ashkelon.
The participants found that despite their lack of military training, even the most menial tasks meant a lot.
"I was so proud to be there and doing something concrete," said Huriash. "I e-mailed a friend living in Beit Shemesh, a suburb of Jerusalem, and bragged about the gas mask work, and he thanked me. He said his kids need updated masks, and this will benefit them. I was thrilled."
Schneider's assistance enabled soldiers to do more important tasks.
"Even if it takes four of us to do the job of one soldier, if we take care of the manual labor, that allows a soldier to be in Ramallah, or stationed at a checkpoint, or home with his kids," Schneider said.
Among the ways Americans are showing solidarity with Israel include buying Israeli products, attending unity rallies and writing to their congressmen. For Huriash, who had been to Israel three previous times -- once during the Persian Gulf War -- none of that was quite enough.
"Since the Intifada started I've felt incredible guilt for not going to Israel and opting for other destinations instead," Huriash said. "There is no denying that this is a stressful time to be in Israel and the risk is much higher. But when this trip fell in my lap, just a few weeks before departure, I thought it was a perfect opportunity.''
Gesher means bridge in Hebrew and the group's purpose is to "bridge young adults in their 20s to the Greater Miami Jewish community by providing personal networks and access to information and resources," Sherman. The organization has also set up 'bridges' in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Seattle (Philadelphia and New York City groups are coming soon).
Rather than having the itinerary planned for them, Sherman said "everyone felt they had a say." They shopped in Jerusalem, visited Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea, met a survivor of a suicide bombing and visited children in an Israeli hospital.
GesherCity is planning similar volunteer trips to Israel later this year.
Before the group left, participants shared their plans with family and friends and were met with surprise and fear.
More than once, Josh Kaye heard the question, "Are you nuts?"
"If all Jews thought like that there would be no state of Israel," said Kaye, 26. "When I got this opportunity, there was no thinking about. I felt it was my obligation to go. It's my responsibility. Sixty years ago there was no one to take in the refugees escaping the Nazis. Now every Jew has a place. We have to be sure there is always a Jewish homeland."
When anyone showed concern for Seth Kaplan's safety, he answered: "Driving on I-95 is more dangerous and far less spiritual than being in Israel."
Once they arrived, participants said the appreciation they received from Israelis made it all worthwhile.
"It made it even more special, even more important when we would hear, 'Thank you for being here,' " said Kaplan.
One of GesherCity-Jconnect Miami's most important missions began when the group returned. Participants have already began a follow-up process to educate their fellow Americans -- Jews and non-Jews -- on what's really happening in Israel.
"Israel is really alone without American support," said Schneider. "In South Florida, we are insulated from what Israelis deal with on a daily basis."
Rather than asking participants to give and raise funds, the organization asks them to take what they have learned back to their communities.
Being in their 20s, many of the volunteers may not have a lot of money to donate to help Israel, but they can contribute in other ways, Sherman said. Their mission now is to act as ambassadors, activists and educators.
"Our volunteering is more than just a one-week trip," said 20-year-old Orli Ben Horin. "Our responsibility to Israel did not end there. Now we want to encourage people to go like we did."
Linda Brockman writes for the Jewish Star Times.