Making lasting connections
Salome Henry, second from the right, in Jerusalem on her Ambassadors to Poland trip with, left to right, Deborah Stein, Ashley Solomon and Zahava Rothschild. (photo from Salome Henry)
The Anne Samson Jerusalem Journey (TJJ) is trying to increase Jewish engagement among Conservative, Reform and non-denominational youth. A four-week summer program for public high school teens, TJJ takes participants on a Jewish heritage trip to historical and modern sites in Israel.
Participant Salome Henry, 16, was born in France and later made her way to Vancouver with her family, before recently moving again with her family to Boston. She went on TJJ – which is run by NCSY (National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the international youth movement of the Orthodox Union) – two years ago. She stayed involved with NCSY after the trip, which she took while she was still living in Vancouver.
“I’m hoping to stay connected to the organization,” Henry told the Independent. “I ended up going on a second summer program after TJJ. I went on the Ambassadors to Poland trip, which was spending one week in Poland learning about Jewish history, followed by three weeks in Israel, which was really intensive.”
While Henry goes to public school, her school has a Jewish students union, which she helped get started this past year. “This is one way that I stay connected to the Jewish community, because it’s rather hard if you go to public school.”
Henry said, “Most of the friends I have at school who are Jewish don’t really associate with Judaism, or they don’t consider themselves Jewish, or they celebrate things in different degrees…. I thought to myself that it would be great to have something like this. I know I definitely wanted to be able to talk about Jewish issues that I usually discuss at NCSY, but I feel like a lot of other kids can benefit from it, too.’”
Henry’s school has a large Jewish population from Israeli, Russian and American backgrounds. “It’s a very diverse community,” said Henry. “I remember when I came to the school, I realized there were so many people who are Jewish.”
The Jewish student group is looking at planning a trip next year to Israel or a one-week trip to Poland. At board meetings, they talk about upcoming holidays and there is a rabbi on hand if people have any religious or spiritual questions.
“We just received a lot of funding for next year, so what we are going to be doing is getting speakers to come and speak on important subjects and people will be able to come after school and listen to them,” said Henry.
In addition to putting together the speakers program for next year, Henry is finding places where students can volunteer in conjunction with the local synagogues. “I think it would be nice to add that aspect to our club,” she said.
“I’m going to delegate some work to some younger kids, because I want the club to be able to grow afterwards,” she added. “If all the seniors in the club graduate and no one can take over, that would be unfortunate.”
Another thing weighing on Henry is to find ways to support Israel in the larger community. “When I was in Israel last summer, we talked a lot about what it means to be a Jew on a college campus and how to speak up for Israel, especially in terms of media,” she said. “It’s hard to really talk to people who are so against it.
“A lot of kids have these ideas – they see it [Israel] in the media, which is captured very differently from what the reality is, so they immediately assume that what Israel is doing is wrong. If they took the time to analyze, they’d see what Israel is doing is logical and is what any other country would do.
“If they knew more about the IDF [Israel Defence Forces], they’d know it’s one of the most moral armies out there. So, I think that’s really something that we … today, as American Jewish youth, if we have the resources to learn about it … we really have the duty to tell others around us who don’t know about it, because it’s for the good of the Jewish community. It’s also our reputation that is at stake. Hopefully, we can focus on that next year.”
Being from France, Henry is keeping a close watch on what is unfolding there, as well – and more so as of late, as she will be there this summer. “I’m so concerned, because I know that things in Europe are so much worse for Jews,” said Henry. “With current events, people are starting to realize the intensity of the situation.”
From conversations with her family, Henry has become more aware that this current situation is not a new one for French Jews – something she feels people need to be educated about. “It’s horrifying to think the Holocaust has already happened, but people are still saying the same things that they were in the in 1940s. There’s still so much hate out there.”
Henry’s parents are very proud and happy with her involvement. “Both my parents love my NCSY friends and they are happy that I have that community near me,” she said. “They are thankful, because they know how much they mean to me.”
Seeing her go to Israel last summer with TJJ while Israel was in the midst of a conflict did not overly concern her parents, as they knew she was in good hands with a great group of kids, said Henry. And, indeed, everyone returned home safe.
Positive TJJ stats
According to a recent study commissioned by NCSY, 92% of the Jerusalem Journey “alumni feel emotionally attached or very attached to Israel.”
“The results suggest that TJJ – the trip, the subsequent educational activities and other consequences of participation – played a major role in generating increased Jewish engagement in these areas, and undoubtedly many others as well,” said the report, called The Jewish Impact of the Anne Samson Jerusalem Journey (TJJ): Increasing Jewish Engagement among Conservative, Reform and Non-Denominational Youth.
Conducted by Prof. Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and Ezra Kopelowitz, chief executive officer of Research Success Technologies in Israel, the internet survey portion of the study took place last spring. Non-Orthodox alumni who had participated in summer programs since 2007 were contacted. Of the 1,784 alumni surveyed, more than 20% provided responses that could be used in the analysis.
Questions focused “on behaviors and attitudes considered to be important to Jewish leaders across the denominational spectrum” in an attempt to answer the question, “Does the Jerusalem Journey help make non-Orthodox-raised Jewish youngsters ‘more Jewish’?” Responses from the TJJ survey were compared with the Pew Research Centre survey of Jewish Americans (2013), the Jewish Community Study of New York 2011 and the Birthright survey of applicants for 2001-05 but who never participated (2010).
According to the report summary, “86% of TJJ alumni said it was very important to raise children as Jewish, compared with 69% of Birthright applicants; 80% of TJJ alumni fasted for the whole of Yom Kippur, compared with only 48% of the 18-to-29-year-olds in the statistically adjusted Pew survey; 75% said it was ‘very important to marry a Jew,’ compared with 55% of Birthright applicants; and 73% of TJJ alumni usually attended a Shabbat meal, compared with only 34% of Birthright applicants.”
As well, “94% of TJJ alumni said they attended a Passover seder last year, 61% said they participate in Jewish learning on a weekly or more frequent basis and 41% said they returned to Israel after attending TJJ…. In general, the survey found that TJJ attracts significant Jewish engagement and identity among young people who were not raised in Orthodox homes.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.