When Caleb and his friends reached the top of Masada after a hard climb, they shouted as loudly as they could and marveled at the echoes that roared back from the mountain’s rocks.
“It was spiritual, like I was hearing the voices of my ancestors, saying ‘we’re still here,’” Caleb says about this special moment from his trip to Alexander Muss High School in Israel last summer. The journey was made possible with a teen Israel scholarship from the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle.
For Ariella, making a repeat visit to Israel with the Orthodox youth group NCSY on The Jerusalem Journey in 2016 and watching her tripmates react with awe upon seeing the Kotel is a treasured memory. “It was really cool and amazing for people to see the Kotel for the first time and to share that experience with them,” Ariella says.
The benefits are numerous and deeply personal for local teens who have received Federation scholarships enabling them to experience Israel on organized trips. Benefits of these life-changing journeys include feeling a strong connection to Israel, making new friends at a shared experience in the Jewish homeland, and bringing home a deeper and lasting sense of Jewish identity.
Awarding teen Israel scholarships is one of the ways the Federation strengthens connections between the Puget Sound Jewish community and Israel and world Jewry. In 2016, the Federation awarded scholarships to 20 teens and has set a goal of awarding 26 scholarships in 2017. The scholarships are funded by the Federation, a grant from the Samis Foundation, the Charles and Lillian Kaplan Scholarship Fund, and by local donors.
To be eligible, teens must be Washington state residents and participate in an Israel program in a summer following ninth grade through high school graduation. Teens can select from a variety of organized programs, among them volunteering, arts, travel, outdoor adventure, science, sports, and study trips. Following their trips, scholarship recipients are required to complete volunteer service arranged through the Federation.
For Jewish youths exploring their heritage and identity, an Israel experience offers intellectual and visceral paths to discovery and connection. One such path is building friendships with their trip mates. “I made some really close friends that I’m still in touch with,” Ariella says.
Israel experiences also offer teens learning opportunities that can change perspectives for a lifetime. “The teachers were amazing,” says Jordan, who went on an Alexander Muss trip in 2016. “They were the best teachers I ever had.” Jordan says he gained many insights about history and about the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. As a result, “I feel like it’s easier to connect with people when I talk to people about Israel,” he says. “I have a connection with anyone who has this shared history.”
Connection is the common thread running through the youths’ reflections on their Israel experiences. Says Caleb: “The trip made me more Jewish, more of a community member.”