No Better Time Than IsraelNow

Published May 22, 2024

By Sam Rodin

Jewish educators are often tasked with creating magical moments that combine deep educational content, authentic Jewish experiences, and genuine joy. IsraelNow does this each year for scores of 8th graders from across the country. In normal times, participants travel to Israel for a week to build relationships with Israel, gain Jewish self-confidence, and broaden their peer networks. Sadly, we do not live in normal times, and IsraelNow made the heartbreaking decision to cancel travel to Israel for our 2024 trips. The IsraelNow team was left with an important question: In acknowledgment of our mission to bring teens to Israel, should we cancel our program entirely? Or do we strive to create an experience that can achieve our outcomes, at least in part, and provide a meaningful opportunity for this year’s 8th-grade class?  

IsraelNow took a leap of faith and journeyed into the unknown with more questions than answers. We didn’t know where to travel or what content to bring. We didn’t understand the complexities of discussing Israel today. We didn’t know which of our teens might be interested in a domestic IsraelNow trip. But sensing that now, perhaps more than ever before, Jewish teens are looking for safe spaces to experience Judaism, discuss Israel, and simply have fun, we knew we had to try. 

The program we put together — 5 days in Northern California with volunteering and touring, hiking and text study, group bonding, and personal exploration — was nothing short of exceptional. Teens walked away feeling a deep connection to their Jewish identities, to Israel, and to each other. It was truly transformational. This is the power of experiential education.  

Just a few weeks ago, we were sitting at the Seder table celebrating Pesach and singing Dayenu. Had this been all we accomplished, Dayenu, it would have been enough. But what is much rarer in this field is the opportunity to transform the staff along with the teens. Spending this week with over 130 Jewish teens was transformational for me as well. I witnessed teens practicing Judaism in new ways, having deep and profound discussions about the current war in Israel, and being joyful with new friends from across the country. And I was right there with them, finding new meaning in Jewish text, sharing and learning about my own Israel story, and dancing and laughing together.  

There is no replacement for Israel, and I pray IsraelNow can return to trips to the Jewish homeland in the year to come. But for now, I am proud to have been with IsraelNow and feel closer to Israel, my Judaism, and the Jewish people because of having spent time with these 8th graders in California.