The summer of 2014 will no doubt be known as the Summer of the War in Gaza. But despite the war – or perhaps because of it — for teens who participated in NCSY Summer Programs, they will remember it as the Best Summer Ever.
NCSY is the international youth movement of the Orthodox Union. They sponsor 11 different programs in Israel every summer.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing this year. After all, the war wasn’t far away. NCSY took utmost precautions to keep the teens out of harm’s way while still enjoying the summer.
Doing the Unexpected
Almost everyone got to do things they wouldn’t have normally done.
Eli Sider, 16, from Detroit, Michigan, a student at Frankel Jewish Academy and Kayla Wolnerman, 16, from the Five Towns, a student at the YU High School for Girls, were both on ICE, a four-week coed touring program. They agreed that canoeing in the Jordan River was their favorite day.
“We got to do a lot of water hikes in the north,” Sider says. “In Jerusalem you see the ancient side of Israel. By being in the north we also got to see Israel’s rugged side,” he says.
Rachel Gittler, 16, from Hollywood, Florida, a student at Weinbaum Yeshiva High School, was also on ICE. She agrees about the ruggedness. She laughs as she recalls the day they went rappelling. “There I was dangling from a rope and I was thinking, ‘This is amazing. I get to see Israel from a totally different angle,’” she says.
Did the programs miss anything by starting in the north?
“Probably the most important thing we missed was the access to Jerusalem,” says Adir Pinchot, a madrich on the NCSY Summer Kollel program that combines intense learning, world class sports, and a full schedule of trips. Pinchot, who is 21, learned in Yeshivat HaKotel for two years and then went to Yeshiva University for two years. “But we got to see parts of the north we would never have seen otherwise.” This includes getting to spend quality time in Tiberias and Tsefat. And when the situation calmed down, they were able to come to Jerusalem.
Zev Miller, 20, who just finished his second year at Yeshivat Sha’alvim said that this is his fourth summer as a Kollel madrich. “I never jumped off a bridge before this summer,” he says, referring to the day they went bungee jumping.
Both Pinchot and Miller agree that convincing the guys that the summer program would basically be the same was a hard sell at first. “But once they bought into being in Hispin in the Golan Heights, it was fine,” Pinchot says. “Really the only complaint about Hispin is that the guys didn’t have anywhere to play hockey. I guess that indicates how smooth their transition was.”
“I thought all the changes might spoil my experience,” says Yehoshua Naor, 16, from Teaneck, New Jersey and a student at Torah Academy of Bergen County. Naor was on the Summer Kollel Program. “But the fact is no one who is here this summer could do what was planned ahead of time,” he says. “But this brought us closer together, because we were learning and davening for one very special goal: the soldiers in Gaza. We hoped and prayed that everything would turn out okay,” he continues. “This is a special experience that no one else can possibly have.
“On one hand we were here when the country was in chaos,” says Micah Gill, 16, another Kollel participant. He is from Los Angeles, California, and is a student at Shalhevet High School. “But we shared a deep passion for the well-being of all the soldiers,” he says. “It was an amazing feeling.”
Brothers and Sisters
Not surprisingly, one the places that really affected the teens this summer was the military cemetery on Jerusalem’s Mt. Herzl. Many of the participants had very deep reactions.
“Every time I saw a soldier, no matter where we were, I thought maybe I’ll see my close friend who is in the IDF,” Wolnerman says.
When her group got to Mt. Herzl, a military funeral had just finished. “All the soldiers were crying,” she says. “I felt really connected to Am Yisrael at that moment,” she says. “The thing is, everyone in Israel talks about how we are all one family. If you haven’t been here, you can’t understand it,” she says. “There’s something in the air. There we were at Mt. Herzl. The soldiers were crying. We were crying. I wanted to go over and hug one of the soldiers. After all, we’re all brothers and sisters,” she says.
Love for Every Jew
“Some of the guys talk about going into the IDF,” says Moshe Stuart, 16, from Monsey, New York, a student at Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, New Jersey and a BILT participant. BILT is a five week program for boys who want to experience personal challenges. What Stuart experienced this summer is that, “when one person dies it’s a very big deal. There is a tremendous feeling of love for every Jew,” he says.
Avi London-Wynne, 16, from Albany, California, a student at the Jewish Community High School of San Francisco, was also on BILT. He has been to Israel before with his family. “But I obviously have never been here during a war,” he says.
“We went to a lot of places this summer and what amazed me is that wherever we went people came up to us and thanked us for being here. It really matters to people in Israel that teenagers from America are supporting Israel this summer,” he says.