Alex Rubin is a Machar Fellow and Global Jewish Education Coordinator at deToledo High School. The Jewish Federation’s Global Teen Twinning Program (GTTP) is the largest student delegation program in the Jewish world. Every year, hundreds of students in 8th-11th grades from 21 schools in Los Angeles, Tel Aviv, and Vilnius, Lithuania participate in this transformative program.
One of my favorite parts of leading the deToledo High School Short Israel Exchange Program, (SIEP) in partnership with The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles is getting the opportunity to read student reflections after the program returns from traveling in Israel. While hosting Israeli students and traveling abroad, it is really easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day details of coordinating the exchange. As I reflect on my own experience I have the blessing to see the whole program again through the parallel lenses of the entire group. Below are some of the highlights of our students’ reflections. Many of them reflected on the impact of the program on their Jewish identity. I was struck specifically by how many of our students noticed the impact of the wider Jewish community on their lives. While many reflected on the obvious religious connections at places like the Kotel, students generally found just as important a Jewish connection in their everyday lives in Tel Aviv, showing that all kinds of Jews are part of our pluralistic community and that there is something special about being together in a near-constantly Jewish space. Others reacted to how the experience of traveling helped them develop skills and understandings that will help them grow as emerging adults in LA. I am really glad that we were able to design a program that had such an important and well-rounded impact on our students, and I am even happier to share their learning with all of you.
Before this trip I never really believed in the saying “making aliyah,” as getting closer to G!d by going to Israel, but this trip changed my perception. I now really understand this, because it is what I experienced on this journey. Staying in a kibbutz really showed me even more of the warmth of people in Israel, and it felt like it was one big community. This reminded me of school back home and how we are also one community. For a whole Israeli state to act as if they are all one community like our school was astonishing. The things I learned about the state of Israel on this trip as well as the things I learned about myself were life changing.
I was able to discover my Jewish identity and what being Jewish means to me. I was only able to discover this towards the end of the trip. Now, back in America, I am able to understand this even more. I am not very religious: I do not usually celebrate Shabbat, go to temple, or even believe in G!d, but none of this really determines being a Jew or being Jewish at all. To me, being Jewish is about being a part of a community with moral values. Going to Israel really showed this to me. When we went to the Kotel, I saw Jewish people coming together as a community. Most people were there to pray, but we were all connected as one Jewish people.
At the Kotel, I felt a closer connection to G!d than ever before…I remember writing that I “enjoyed speaking with ‘Him,’” and I think just by using the word “speaking,” it shows how much I felt G!d’s Presence. Never before had I felt so close to my people, to my people’s history. Before this experience, my Jewish identity was simply there; now, it is someone who feels as though they have experienced a connection to G!d, someone who has appreciated what their people have gone through for them to be alive…Israel also taught me how to view my identity…I learned to appreciate that everyone has their own story…. and I now appreciate that people also have to dig a little deeper to get to know me and my life, and that is a new part of my identity that I had never experienced before.
This experience really changed me for the better. I know now that I can be brave, emotional, respectable, and fun…Everything about this trip taught me so much about the world around me. Sometimes I need to stop and watch my surroundings, whether it be to watch for cars when I’m walking across the street or to look at artwork or to smell the delicious food or coffee around me. When looking at my surroundings and taking in the beauty of Israel, I noticed a graffiti artist’s work. It read in English, “For a minute there, I lost myself.” Reflecting on it now, I realized I indeed lost myself looking at the meaningful artwork in front of my eyes….All I know is that there was a reason I remembered that quote. G!d and my mind wanted me to remember it.
The program impacted my Jewish identity, because I was able to see the different customs Jews have across the world. On the plane I first encountered the diversity between Jews: I saw Orthodox Jews praying there. On the plane I grew anxious about the trip, but as soon as I went home to my buddy’s house, my nerves were calm…Our first Shabbat in Israel impacted me, because we did not drive on Shabbat, which I have never done before. In Los Angeles to get from place to place I have to drive and am constantly busy, but at the Kibbutz we had such a peaceful Shabbat with our buddies…my Jewish identity was impacted by our Shabbatot in Israel because it showed me that even though I may not be as religious as the Orthodox families on the plane, I still share certain values and respect their ideas which I am trying to incorporate into my life back home.
A big part of this trip was learning to step out of your comfort zone, and that’s something I think I did often. I pushed myself every day to try a new food that I couldn’t have in America. I had to do a lot of growing on this trip when it comes to my identity, and, although it was hard, I’m glad I did it. I think I emerged a more mature, well-rounded person…by far the most impactful [moment] for me was visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem. I am not a huge believer in G!d and that is something that has always held me back from fully embracing my Jewish identity. But when I visited the Wall, I was struck by how deep a connection I felt to it…I learned that to be Jewish doesn’t necessarily mean I have to believe in G!d. I believe in our people and our community, and those are the strongest parts of Judaism.
For more information about our Global Teen Twinning Program, contact: twinning@JewishLA.org