"It was right before Shabbos and [the tour leaders] led us to the Wall and had us close our eyes and then open them when we were right in front of the Kotel," remembered Ungar, 16, of his experience with Ramah Israel Summer, which is affiliated with Camp Ramah. "It was an amazing feeling, after hearing and reading about this place for all this time and finally being there."
After spending last summer touring Israel with his peers, the Playa del Rey resident feels a stronger connection to the country and his Jewish roots.
Ungar is not alone. The Jewish Agency of Israel reports that in 2006, 7,870 high school students participated in Israel programs. But while the decision to go may be an easy one, the process of selecting a program is not always so simple. Countless organizations offer a variety of different types of programs, making overwhelming the task of finding the right fit. So, how can a prospective traveler narrow down the options?
"First [interested teens] should think about their goals in going to Israel," said Sara Polon of Tlalim Tours, a Washington, D.C.-based company that creates tours for the Passport to Israel summer program of B'nai B'rith Youth Organization (BBYO). "Are they looking for a religious experience, a more outdoorsy adventure, an educational experience or maybe a community service experience?"
Teens can also start with programs aligned with the branch of Judaism with which they affiliate. Another consideration is the amount of time the youngster is willing to spend on his journey, as the programs range from a quick 10-day excursion to six weeks or more.
Jewish youth movements like USY (United Synagogue Youth), BBYO, Young Judea, Habonim Dror, NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) and NCSY (National Conference of Synagogue Youth) offer a variety of programs that are often open to both members and nonmembers. In fact, 50 percent of BBYO's Passport to Israel participants are not affiliated with the organization.
In general, these trips offer a combination of sightseeing, outdoor adventures, community service and Jewish education. But some of the youth movements also offer programs that emphasize just one of these aspects. USY offers Etgar! Outdoor Adventure Israel for teens who would like to spend the summer hiking and exploring the outdoors. Similarly, NCSY's G.I.V.E. program focuses on community service. In addition, some of the youth movement trips include Eastern Europe. Participants often visit concentration camps before making a pilgrimage to Israel.
The highlight of 16-year-old Daniella Kaufman's NFTY trip last summer was a re-enactment of the liberation from Terezin, a Prague concentration camp, and then a cruise to Israel, mimicking the boat ride refugees took.
"We had a chance to arrive in Israel just as so many Jews did so long ago, and experience the feelings they felt when the port of Haifa, their gateway to freedom, came into view," remembered the Valley Village resident.
For students in search of an academic experience, there are plenty of options. The Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel, a five-week program for high school juniors, selects 26 applicants from diverse Jewish backgrounds to study Jewish texts and explore Israel.
InnovationIsrael is a four-week program in which students take courses at Tel Aviv University and visit environmental, high-tech, bio-tech, medical, art and film studio facilities. For those looking for religious academia, NCSY offers Kollel (for boys) and Michlelet (for girls). Both programs focus on Torah study. NCSY also offers "Shakespeare in Jerusalem," an Israel experience coupled with an "on-the-road" English literature course.
Students who want to spend their summer doing community service can explore Sar-El (the National Project for Volunteers for Israel), an Israeli non-profit that offers adults and teens 17 and older the opportunity to work in Israeli army bases and hospitals. Camp Tawonga, a Jewish summer camp based in San Francisco, is offering a Teen Service Learning trip to Israel where participants will work four days a week with locals on important community projects.
While programs vary in cost, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles' Israel Connections/Experiences (ICE) program offers financial aid for many teens and young adults between the ages of 15 and 26 who have not yet visited Israel.
"We want to help every young person go to Israel for the first time," said Deborah Dragon, The Federation's vice president of public relations. ICE offers grants and scholarships with the help of more than 80 local Jewish agencies. The group funds 250 to 300 trips per year. The Jewish Free Loan Association, also a Federation agency, offers interest-free loans for Israel trips.
No matter which options young travelers choose it is clear that a summer in Israel makes a profound impact in the life of a Jewish teenager.
After her USY trip last summer, Daniela Bernstein, 16, of Los Angeles is already thinking about returning. "The trip cultivated my love of Israel and the complete realization of how crucial Israel is to Judaism and the Jewish people," said Bernstein. "I am already planning my next visit."
For information on financial aid and referrals for a variety of Israel programs, call The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles' Israel Connections/Experiences (ICE) office at (323) 761-8342.
For information on Ramah Israel Seminar, visit www.ramah.org.il
For information on BBYO's Israel programs, visit www.passport2israel.org
For information on USY's programs, visit www.usy.org
For information on Young Judea, visit www.youngjudea.org
For information on Habonim Dror, visit www.habonimdror.org
For information on NFTY in Israel, visit www.nftyisrael.org
For information on NCSY's summer programs, visit www.ncsysummer.com
For information on the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel, visit www.bronfman.org
For information on InnovationIsrael, visit www.innovationisrael.org
For information on Sar-El, visit www.sar-el.org
For information on Camp Tawonga's programs, visit www.tawonga.org
For information on the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles' Israel Connections/Experiences (ICE), visit www.jewishla.org/lajewishteen/html/iep.html