Journey’s end

The pluralistic Nesiya Institute, which is closing after 28 years of running joint American-Israeli programs, is looking for partnership opportunities.

Neshiya trip 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Neshiya trip 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It was July 2002, and the head staffer of my teen summer program was calling my parents to get permission for me to spend my free weekend with a friend from Efrat.
“Her friend Ma’ayan lives over the Green Line, so your daughter will need to take a bulletproof bus,” he told my mother, who was already stretched nearly to her breaking point by the stress of having her eldest daughter gallivanting around Israel during the height of the second intifada. This was over a decade ago, when phones were less smart, and the satellite connection with America was not ideal during that conversation.
“A bulletproof vest?!” my mother screeched, reaching levels of hysteria I have only seen on a choice few occasions.
“A bulletproof vest?! I don’t want her going anywhere she needs to wear a bulletproof vest!” The misunderstanding was straightened out, and my tearful mother eventually gave her blessing to my spending the weekend in Efrat. I can forgive her misunderstanding and reluctance, and not just about the bulletproof aspect. I mean, why would a girl from suburban Boston, raised in a Conservative home by very liberal parents, who had never really interacted with the Orthodox community before, choose to spend her free weekend in a national religious settlement? The answer is that I was 17 and in love with Israel during my summer on Nesiya, where it’s not so unlikely for a secular Boston girl to become best friends with a modern Orthodox girl from Efrat.
The Nesiya Institute’s summer program operates in its own dimension, creating safe places for groups to interact in ways that rarely exist in reality. For the past 28 years, the pluralistic Israeli-American summer trip has brought more than 3,000 participants on six-week experiences (Nesiya never referred to itself as a “teen trip”) in Israel focusing on community service, art, music, and outdoor adventures. It has attracted participants from all of the diverse streams of Judaism – modern Orthodox settlers, virulently secular kibbutzniks, cosmopolitan Tel Avivians and Manhattanites, Americans from Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements. They shoved us all into the same bus and fed us frozen schnitzel for six weeks. Forced into uncomfortably close quarters, the most unlikely friendships blossomed between groups that would never have met in Israeli day-to-day life.
When exchanges over politics got heated, Nesiya refused to back down. There were a lot of tears that summer – not just over the intifada, which touched us in ways we had never imagined. There were tears because Nesiya pushed us to explore deeply held biases and assumptions, and to continue questioning our relationship with Judaism, Israel and ourselves.
My summer on Nesiya is one of the major reasons I am in Israel today. It was then that I first shared personal writing with a large group, and had the entire program rolling on the floor as I read aloud an expletive- laced story about learning how to do a backflip into the kibbutz pool. (Years later, one of my counselors, who is now among my closest friends, shared that she had received a stern dressing-down for the number of expletives in the story, for which I apologize – but listen, I was 17, and swearing in writing was an exciting rebellion.) On subsequent trips to Israel during my summer breaks, I had friends across the country to visit. In bus station bathrooms, I would change from long skirts and long sleeves after a Shabbat in Efrat or Jerusalem to a tank top and tight jeans appropriate for a Saturday night out in Tel Aviv or a field party at a northern kibbutz.
I saw many sides of Israel and had a personal connection to each one. I always assumed that one day I would return to Nesiya as a counselor, to challenge myself and others again about the way I connect with Judaism and this crazy country.
So my mouth hung open in shock last week when I received an email from Nesiya’s executive director, Charles Herman.
“Devotion to excellence is not enough to overcome every challenge,” he wrote. “With deep regret, I am writing to announce that Nesiya has canceled our 2012 winter and 2013 summer programs, and is planning to close its offices in New York and Jerusalem.”
AFTER YEARS of financial struggle, the program is closing with the hope of being absorbed by a larger organization.
After Herman received the devastating diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, he envisioned a growing period in which he could turn over the reins to a new executive director. But an attempt to secure multi-year funding did not raise enough capital, leading Nesiya to close its doors while it figures out what to do next.
Herman sent a poignant plea to the program’s 3,000 alumni, asking for $100,000 in donations to help Nesiya organize its curriculum and hopefully find an umbrella organization. In 10 days, he raised $21,000 from alumni, including a lone soldier who donated $500, four times his monthly salary. More than 100 letters poured in from alumni, long and thoughtful letters describing ways the organization had touched their lives, and some expressing dismay, since they had hoped to send their young children on the program as well.
The outpouring of support was no surprise to Herman, who always believed in the importance of his organization’s pluralistic message.
“For better or worse, many of the greatest challenges in Jewish life are the same ones that are confronting us when we started 28 years ago,” he says. “Things like the increasing polarization between different groups of Jews, and lack of a sense of shared purpose among Jews from different backgrounds. In Hebrew, we would call it ahavat Yisrael [love of Israel as a nation], being a sacred principle not just of Jewish spirituality, but also Jewish culture and the development of Jewish life.”
He stresses that any change in Nesiya will still protect the organization’s commitment to pluralism.
For three years, the organization has fought against slipping participation rates, as American teen programs have moved in the direction of shorter trips with more flexible dates, or holding parts of the trip in Europe in addition to Israel. Birthright, the free 10- day trip for those over 18, is also an attractive option. Why pay nearly $10,000 for something they could get for free in a year?
Nesiya struggled because, like other unaffiliated programs for teens, it was among the more expensive options for teenagers spending the summer in Israel. Last summer, the trip cost $9,200 for American participants and NIS 10,000 for Israeli participants without financial aid. Almost all Israelis and two-thirds of Americans received financial aid. However, other teen trips not affiliated with the Reform, Conservative or Orthodox movements had similar costs: BBYO’s three-week Israel trips are nearly $5,000. Affiliated movements are less expensive: USY’s Israel Pilgrimage, associated with the Conservative Movement, has a five-week trip for $6,000.
“Reasonable people can have a reasonable argument about such an expensive program,” says Herman. He nevertheless defends the things that make Nesiya expensive as well as a strong program: intensive staff training, quality artist workshops, its commitment to bringing as many Israelis as possible on the program at reduced prices or, for some students from the Yemin Orde youth village, for free.
AS NESIYA struggles to reorganize, the question remains: Is pluralism worth the extra cost? Will Jewish donors find a way to fund these non-affiliated programs? For me, it was never a question. A decade on, I still feel the effects of Nesiya.
Only on Nesiya, with its diverse and eccentric group of participants, did I realize that Israel was a country of immigrants.
Before my summer, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that most people’s parents had come to Israel from somewhere else – in my mind, Israelis were all born in Israel. I had never met an Ethiopian Jew before. Or, for that matter, a Sephardi Jew. Most Jews I knew were just like me: Conservative, public school students, third or fourth generation from a motley mix of Russian and Eastern European, movies and Chinese food on Christmas.
Suddenly, “Jewish” morphed into a complex and multicolored identity, “Israeli” even more so.
In my day-to-day work as a reporter for this newspaper, I see so much intolerance here in Israel. Many times I return from a hate-filled rally or protest, racist chants still echoing in my ears, and shake my head with hopelessness. Those are the days I feel that this country will never be able to overcome such racism. Nesiya, which is Hebrew for “journey,” sticks out in my mind as a place of hope where young people learn to bridge the chasms.
How ironic that once I finally begin to understand how vital Nesiya is to creating leaders who can overcome the divisiveness of Israeli and Jewish society, the program ends.
I’m not sure what will happen to Nesiya in the future. I can only hope that the Jewish world can appreciate the importance of a safe place for pluralism to thrive.
Years later, my parents came to visit Israel and also spent their “free Shabbat” at my friends’ family in Efrat, thus enlarging the circle of people who have been touched by the organization and brought to places they may not have arrived otherwise. But in deference to my mother’s one-time hysteria, we did not take a bulletproof bus. We drove.