Ten years later…
Ten years ago, after being a shlicha (a counselor from Israel) at Camp Ramah in Canada for a few years and, eventually, the summer Assistant Director, I embarked on a journey to pursue my passion for “Ramah” and become a full time Jewish educator. My husband, Nachum, and I had both moved to Israel from the U.S. with our families as young children, went to school and youth group there, served in the Israeli army, and attended university in Israel. We were completely Israeli and partially American. After some time in Toronto, we landed in Los Angeles where I became Associate Director at Camp Ramah in California. Over the years, I tried to find opportunities for professional development but most were offered in the summer and conflicted with the demands of my position.
I was surprised to find out about the Generation Now Fellowship, run by The Jewish Education Project (and generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation), which develops a network of veteran Jewish educators who work together to shape the teen engagement agendas in their communities or movements. It seemed like the perfect time to invest in me and to practice what I preach to my staff.
I was honored to be accepted into the first cohort. When I saw the names of the others in my cohort, I was blown away. I read through their bios and looked at their pictures and I was so humbled and honored to be a part of this group. I couldn’t wait to meet them all!
We had our first gathering in New York in June 2018 and established our personal goals for the fellowship. I was really looking forward to our time in Israel to deepen the relationships and to have more opportunities for sharing. Mostly, I was anticipating trying to crack some of what has been facing us all as Jewish educators - how to enhance our Israel education efforts.
When October finally arrived, I was ready to embark on an eight-day trip to Israel, SOLO. No partner, no kids - just me and my nineteen new friends. I was really not sure what to expect, especially given the diverse communities and organizations represented (BBYO, URJ, several JCCs, NCSY, Bnei Akiva, local teen initiatives, Upstart, Moving Traditions, a JFCS, BJE, and more).
I welcomed the opportunity to be the learner – to be “on the other side” for a change. While in Israel, we:
- Looked at Israel as a model of how to handle challenging subject matters with our teens and turn them into honest, reflective, and challenging opportunities to flourish.
- Met with change agents tackling internal social challenges like Tikkun Olam Makers who, with the help of engineers, create innovative technical solutions for the physically challenged.
- Visited with leaders of BINA: The Secular Yeshiva, whose founders decided that it was time for Torah and other parts of our rich tradition to be accessible to the chilonim (non-halachically observant) in Israel.
- Met with the creators of the hit show Ha’Yehudim Ba’im who decided to take our Jewish tradition and stories and turn figures like Moses, Abraham, and Ben Gurion into human comedic individuals, just like the rest of us.
- Learned about a newly defined Jewish/Israeli identity - “Jewsraeli” - from Israeli social researcher/commentator, Shmuel Rosner.
- Discovered religious, educational, and political paradoxes that social entrepreneurs such as Rabbi Seth Farber, Rabbi Michael Melchior, and David Moss (my incredible father) are working to solve.
Our travels brought us to an East Jerusalem bookshop run by a Palestinian seeking to educate his people and to Gush Etzion’s Shorashim Center, which encourages dialogue and face-to-face encounters between settlers and West Bank Palestinians. The list of things we did, people we spoke to, and places we visited goes on and on…
But, in our closing circle, when we were asked to share our closing thoughts, I shared these words:
First, I have immense gratitude for having had this experience. The recognition that we Jewish educators need this time to ignite our minds, to be invested in (we were treated like royals!), and to be the learners for a change is incredible. Second, I felt a real coming of age. This year marks ten years that I have not lived physically in Israel. My group joked that I was the Mayor of Jerusalem because I knew so many of the people we met (i.e. a shaliach from Ramah California drove by and yelled “Ariella!,” we passed my father in law’s hat store, visited my father’s studio, and went to my brother in law’s bar). I did not fully recognize how, in a country that is '70 years young,' as Rabbi Farber called it, ten years away creates new problems, new cultures, new identities, new movements, and new changemakers.
It suddenly clicked for me that the people I knew were changing the face of Israel and that our group of twenty - and all those who work and support us back in the US - are the changemakers of Jewish America. Together, we are creating the Jewish future for Israel and the Diaspora with our teens.
Internally, I probably knew this but I needed to go back to Israel, to stop my day to day work and to take time to learn and think, to see what is facing us as Jews, and to meet and spend meaningful time with nineteen inspiring educators, to verbalize and feel it fully. Taking the time to stop, learn, and reflect was probably the best gift I could have asked for!
Ariella Moss Peterseil is the Camp Director of Camp Ramah in California.