by Zachary Rolf

You can teach kids from books, show them documentaries, bring in guest speakers, and so on, and so on. But the learning – the real life learning – that takes place when you put a group of kids together in (supervised/controlled) intense immersion-like programming is unmatched. We know how tremendously impactful Jewish summer camps are. As Jewish professionals, it’s on us to create experiences like that year-round.

Two years ago, 20 teens from Central Synagogue in Manhattan explored the streets of Prague. Last year, 30 discovered Berlin. This year, 38 teens traveled with us to Amsterdam in mid-February. The letter below is an excerpt of one posted to our youth programming blog and sent to the parents of the young travelers. (You can cruise through the rest of the blog to see photos and read reactions from the students themselves.) You just can’t make this stuff up. What happens on these trips in terms of students’ connection to Judaism is nothing short of magical.

Dear Parents,

When we dream up these study trips, we have incredibly lofty goals for what we hope to accomplish. In a period of 4 days in a foreign city, we hope that the students:

  • Learn about the city we are visiting.
  • Connect to the Jewish history and community.
  • Form a cohesive group, made up of students in 10-12th grade, in order to process the experiences in a safe/nurturing environment.
  • Take something home with them. We want them to use the city, which is on another continent, to help them find something new about their own Jewish identity that will then have an impact on how they experience Judaism back home.

All in four days…

Whether on our blog, on Facebook, or on Instagram, you have seen our pictures. You can see what we saw. Our itinerary shows you where we went on a given day. Through the daily blog postings, you are able to take a peek into the mind of an emerging Jewish adolescent who is processing profound experiences in real time with his/her peers — sharing their views throughout it all.

But you are not able to feel the atmosphere that exists within this group — the safety they all feel, obviously in terms of their physical safety, but also their emotional and spiritual safety. The thoughts, laughs, and tears that were shared have brought this group to a new level. Yes, in just four (very full) days.

I am excited for your kids to return to you tomorrow so that you’ll be able to feel it. You undoubtedly will. Ask them to share stories: what they ate, who they got to know better, how XYZ made them feel, what they were surprised by, etc. Ask them about the fire alarm in our hotel and watch their faces for a reaction. Ask them about how challenging it was for a group of 43 people to cross the streets while trying to avoid cars, trams, and bikes! Ask them about Havdalah in the park, or about singing Hashkiveinu at night in the dining room of our hotel. Ask them everything, and I promise you will be able to see, hear, and feel the impact that these students are capable of making on one another.

On behalf of everyone at Central Synagogue, I want to thank you for everything you do to help them to not forget this feeling or this experience.

Ribbet collage

Zachary Rolf is the director of youth engagement & outreach at Central Synagogue in New York City.