Campers at the Yom NCSY concert.
(photo credit: JOSH WEINBERG)
Living in the Diaspora can present a challenge to maintaining a proud Jewish identity and bond to Israel, when those connections feel so far away. Natalie Grinshpun, 17, knows just how hard it can be. She goes to public school in Apple Valley, Minnesota, where there are few Jews for her to meet. But youth programs such as the ones the Orthodox Union’s NCSY offers have changed that for her.
“As soon as I come to Israel, I can feel the Jewish people around me, I can feel the support all the time,” according to Grinshpun. “It makes me feel like I belong somewhere, like I am home.”
And she is not alone; on Wednesday, NCSY’s 17 summer programs came together in Park Ra’anana to celebrate this unshakably strong bond between American Jewry and the State of Israel.
NCSY is dedicated to instilling in its participants a love for Israel and a connection to the Jewish state that become an integral part of their identities.
Though Orthodox-affiliated, NCSY provides educational and social programs that unite youth from all different backgrounds regardless of level of observance, connected by their shared ideals.
“We have kids who have been taught Torah their whole lives dancing and singing alongside campers who had never opened a Hebrew text before,” said Allen Fagin, CEO of OU. “More than ever before, they can appreciate that whatever their previous differences, here in Israel, we are one people with one heart.
If that doesn’t epitomize Jewish unity, what does?” Over 2,000 campers and staff members attended the barbecue and concert event, which featured singer Mordechai Shapiro, making this the largest ever gathering of NCSYers in one location in Israel. The crowd was an inspiring statement that the ties between American Jewry and the State of Israel continue to grow.
“At a time when people speak of a growing disconnect between Israel and the Diaspora, these campers are proving that just the opposite is possible,” said Rabbi Avi Berman, executive director of OU Israel. “The fact is that through education and a spiritual connection, hundreds of American youth from all backgrounds will return home with a true sense of the central place that Israel has in their lives.”
Each of the summer programs NCSY offers is geared to a different interest and adapted for different levels of observance.
The programs combine educational, social action, and touring elements to inspire their campers to be proud of their Jewish identities.
“I think people can’t really understand their Jewish identity until they come to the place of the Jewish people,” said Samantha Fern, 18, from Livingston, New Jersey. “Everything here just comes to life and there’s so much meaning behind everything.”
Campers spend their summers volunteering or interning, and connecting with their Israeli counterparts. They can feel the positive impact their contributions are making on the State of Israel and the Jewish people.
“No matter what program we are on, we all joined together for the common goal of having fun and bringing back the type of baseless love we need to create a better Jewish future,” said Jacob Winters, of Deal, New Jersey. “I have never been to Israel before and as soon as I got to Jerusalem I felt a connection go through my body that was like nothing I have ever felt before. At first I was skeptical about going to Israel and now I never want to leave.”