birthright - Erez Ozir - February 11 2011
Birthright participants at the organization's 'Mega Event' in Jerusalem, February 2011. Photo by Erez Ozir
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Like most Israelis, I spent Tuesday, October 18 glued to the television. I listened to the radio incessantly and checked my phone for news updates every few minutes. I wanted to keep as up to date about Gilad Shalit’s return to Israel as possible, and I wanted to share it with as many people as I could.

But more than anything, I wanted to share my excitement about the news with my friends and loved ones abroad.

Of course, I was not the only one excited about this historical event - my Facebook newsfeed was loaded with status updates and shared articles on the prisoner exchange. However, I was particularly pleased to see how many of my former students and campers from Jewish programs that I have worked with over the years were eager to share the news as well.

Over the last number of years, I have been involved with different programs that give Jewish high school students the opportunity to come to Israel from anywhere from six weeks to four months. Once in Israel, these students undergo a transformative experience.

As Jewish educators in Israel we have unique opportunities that our North American counterparts lack. For many participants, being abroad without parental supervision is an adventure, and a new culture and language give the experience added appeal. More importantly, we have students excited to be in Israel not for the beach, but to become more intimately acquainted with their Jewish roots.

This opportunity is an incredible gift, and successful programs for teens in Israel make the most of it. A good program does not only focus on education about the state of Israel and Jewish heritage, but seeks first and foremost to build participants' moral character. When a student has a positive attitude toward their experience in Israel, they become excited about all the learning that comes with it.

While enrolled in the programs, students are challenged in many different ways. It is not enough to teach them about the history and culture of Israel. They are encouraged to reflect on their character and to strengthen themselves, their Judaism and their connection to Israel. However, in order for these experiences to have a lasting impression, students must continue to challenge themselves and to build onto the processes they began while in Israel.

The work cannot end here. Students leave Israel engaged with Israel and with Judaism. The challenge is for Jewish communities abroad to reach these excited and newly captivated students to maintain their level of interest in their Jewish roots and Israel.

I am happy to say that for many alumni, this connection with Israel and Judaism lasts a lifetime. My own decision to make aliyah was influenced by the summer I spent here with my youth group, and many of my Anglo friends here moved to Israel for similar reasons.

I am proud of my students who have made aliyah, as well as those who volunteer in underprivileged communities and even become educators themselves. These individuals have been inspired by their time in Israel and wish to impart their values on another generation.

Although knowing that I, along with other educators in Israel, have had a role in these achievements, it is up to the Jewish community in North America to give these teenagers and others like them the opportunity to stay involved with Israel even after their return home.

It is inspirational events like the return of Shalit that remind us of the lasting impression that positive experiences in Israel can have on Diaspora youth, and maintaining their impassioned relationship with Judaism and Israel for years to come.

Arie Hasit is an educator at Ramah Programs in Israel and is beginning the Israeli bet midrash program at the Schechter institute. The views expressed in this article are the author's alone.