Reflections on a Trip of a Lifetime

Far West Leadership Seminar in Israel Inspires and Connects Our Youth Directors

A few short weeks ago, a group of Far West USY youth directors and regional staff members were touring the city of David, immersing themselves in Tel Aviv culture, studying at the Conservative Yeshiva and more. Each and every program and activity during this Far West Leadership Seminar in Israel was designed to develop our youth directors and inspire them to make Far West USY programming even more innovative and impactful as well as to forge meaningful connections and opportunities between the Conservative youth movement in the U.S. and Israel. We spoke with several of these youth directors about this once-in-a-lifetime experience just days after arriving back at their synagogue homes:

What made this trip a must-attend for you?

Sarah Bochenek, youth director and religious educator, Temple Beth Sholom of the East Valley in Chandler, Arizona: “I had never been to Israel and this was the most amazing opportunity to go with an organization I am so passionate about and involved in. I was very eager to learn more about the opportunities for my USYers.”

D.J. Sinai, musical director and youth director, Temple Beth Sholom in Las Vegas, Nevada: “I was really excited when I found out that the Far West Region was sending staff to Israel to learn about different teen programs that are offered throughout the year. Being a brand-new youth director, I was uncertain of the options my teens had—aside from what I had overheard in conversations. I was very excited to learn more to be able to share with my youth group.”

Jason Lobenstein, youth director, Congregation Beth El in San Diego, California: “I attended this trip for a variety of reasons, one of which was the fact that we were in Israel. I also feel that many of our youth directors don’t use each other as resources for programming and feedback throughout the year like we could, and this trip helped bond us together, which in turn, will make it easier for us to ask for help in the future. Lastly, I really hoped to gain knowledge about the variety of experiences our teens can go on in Israel through USY/Nativ.”

Michael Groetsch, youth director, Congregation Or Tzion in Scottsdale, Arizona: “I have always seen Israel as my home since the first time I visited. Since then, whenever I return, I try to gain another perspective of the land of Israel and its people. This trip not only allowed me to gain perspective of the Masorti movement and the secular youth in Israel, but it also gave me the opportunity to bring the knowledge back to my chapter.”

Sabrina Brotons, assistant director of experiential education, Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes, California: “I was excited to support the region in this special endeavor and learn more about international programs.”

In what ways did the trip meet/exceed your expectations?  

Sarah: “Having never been, I did not know what to expect so everything was a wonderful and invigorating moment. I will say though, every detail, moment and activity was so carefully planned and executed that we were enriched through every single program and activity.”

D.J.: “Sometimes when you attend conferences or conventions, you have hopes of learning a lot, but walk away not fulfilled. This was the complete opposite. After I returned home from the trip, I was very anxious to tell my colleagues, families and teens all of what I learned. Not only did I learn about their different opportunities, but I also learned more about Conservative Judaism in Israel, and I feel much better prepared to talk to my youth group about their connection with Israel. I look forward to talking more in detail, and promoting the different programs we learned about.”

Jason: “I feel like this trip exceeded my expectations because it was well planned and allowed us to really brainstorm and dive into conversations with our peers. I’ve been on many trips to Israel where you are overwhelmed with the amount of programming that you sit through, and on this trip, we had a very nice balance of programming, which helped us all not feel overwhelmed.”

Michael: “This trip exceeded all of my expectations. The programming was amazing and the interaction with the others on the trip really elevated the experience.”

Sabrina: “This trip was so eye-opening and touching for me to see that USY is bigger than just our chapters and the Far West Region. It tremendously over-exceeded all my expectations.”

What was the one most impactful thing you saw/heard/did while in Israel and why?

Sarah: “That is a tough question. There were so many amazing moments that blew me away! Okay, so an impactful thing I saw was the power of Shabbat. Seeing all of the shops closed, the roads clear of traffic and the quietness. Shabbat was all around in Jerusalem, and it was beautiful. This really enlightened me to what we are missing here. While visiting some of our Nativers, I heard what a great connection they have made from attending Nativ. It was said that not just a gap year but also Nativ has added value to the students by exposing them to the richness of the Judaism, the kehilla of Israel, that will forever help them and connect them to themselves and their Judaism.”

D.J.: “One of the most impactful things I am bringing back to my chapter is seeing the Nativ participants in their program and how happy, comfortable and committed they were to the program. To see how safe and confident the students were, showed me how wonderful a program it is—now, I am excited to teach my students all about it!”

Jason: “I believe one of the most impactful days we had was when we spent the day talking about Israel and narratives. We spent a few hours at Jerusalem U, where we dove into conversation about how we teach Israel education and how we discuss Israel/Palestinian and Zionist/Pro Israel narratives to our USYers. I feel I gained a valuable resource and now have the tools to help our USYers be better informed and capable of making their own informed opinions based off what I hope to share with my teens in programming next year.”

Michael: “The most impactful thing we did in Israel was we held a conversation about how to express how special Israel is. So often, we end up at a loss for words when talking about Israel and just end up saying something along the lines of, ‘It’s Israel. It is just special and unique. There are really no words other than those to describe it.’ However, this falls so short, especially when you are trying to convince someone to visit. This is why it was so impactful to have this conversation so that as educators, we can return home and convince our students to go.”

Sabrina: “One of my favorite moments was experiencing a Conservative Yeshiva class that the Nativers get to take. We were in the same classroom with one of their professors diving into a text study first thing in the morning. It was a beautiful and energizing way to start my day with some limud and sicha! I also loved seeing all the shlichim from the Far West history. We’re a unique region that is so fortunate to have shlichim as our resource. It was amazing to hear all their stories and all the history they have about Far West.”

How do you think the trip will make you an even better USY youth director?

Sarah: “For my USYers who have been to Israel, I now have a deeper connection with them and more understanding of what they are trying to get across to the rest of their friends. Having now been to Israel, I am more able to articulate and connect with what Israel is and means to people who have never been and hope to help create a better understanding than I had before this experience. Also, I now have the knowledge and understanding of the programs we offer and I am able to articulate the amazing value they have. Instead of just offering these programs, I can explain to them and hopefully, encourage more students to attend.”

D.J.: “Not being able to participate in many other programs throughout the year, this was truly the first time I got to spend a chunk of time with other youth directors and staff from the Far West Region. We learned from each other, grew from each other and became a stronger region because of it. Being a first-year youth director, this was particularly important to now know I have a whole region I can reach out to for assistance.”

Jason: “This trip helped me in several ways: 1) I feel like I gained many resources to help educate our USYers. 2) I now have knowledge of what teens do in Israel on Pilgrimage and Nativ, so I can now better promote them. 3) I feel I made strong connections with the fellow participants and will not be afraid to reach out and use them as resources to help plan the best programs possible.”

Michael: “I believe this trip can make anyone a better youth director. First off, you are learning about all the opportunities that are offered so that we can better explain and encourage our teens to participate. Second, the bonding time and networking with those on the trip and those we met will be invaluable.”

Sabrina: “I’m so blessed and grateful to have received the opportunity to attend this trip with the support of Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei and Ami Berlin from Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay. I can’t wait to share all these new opportunities with our chapter!”

What did you experience or learn that you are most excited to implement for Far West youth?

Sarah: “Well again, I am more able to explain and encourage the programs—to help those who have never been to connect more. But specifically, I am excited to connect more with Noam, having spoken to their Rabbi and learned more about their program, I see the value we have to each other and would like to strengthen that connection. We also learned a great way to help develop ideas as a group that I really look forward to using with our Chapter board.”

D.J.: “I am very excited to share with my youth department information about Nativ and Pilgrimage!”

Michael: “I would like to implement deeper Israeli programming. By this, I mean not just the geography or history, but also the present and future—everything from how Israelis live, to social issues, to political issues. I believe this will be instrumental in having our teens better connect with Israel.”

Sabrina: “I loved all the workshops that Yaara Koren planned, especially the day with the Masorti Movement. It was interesting to learn and I was happy to hear that the Masorti Movement is thriving and making strides not only in Israel but also in many parts of Europe as well.”

If this was your first time in Israel, can you share what going for the first time meant to you?  

Sarah: “I had planned to visit Israel two times before this and both times the trip was cancelled. I felt that Israel was a dream I wasn’t sure I would ever see. For as long as I can remember, I have felt a connection to Israel but I had no clue how to verbalize or understand this connection. Now I can, now I can feel and express this love I have always had for a place that is full of love, life and soul—a place that feels like home even if it is your first time there. Israel has been a dream for many, a dream come true from the beginning of time, from its declaration to this day. Everyone who has been says you have to go, that it is the most amazing place. They can explain and describe as much as they can but nothing can articulate the inexplicable connection and beauty you truly get by actually being there. I am so incredibly thankful for this amazing opportunity and look forward to sharing all I can with my USYers to enhance their Israeli education and connections.”

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