There’s no shortage of summer programs designed to introduce American Jewish teenagers to Israel.
What J-Tag Fellows offers instead is an immersive cross-cultural experience for both American and Israeli teenagers, featuring travel and recreational activities, sure — but also chances for social action projects and leadership opportunities.
“The difference in this program is that it’s heavy on the peoplehood aspect,” said Yoav Cohen, the Westchester Community Shaliach, based at the Rosenthal JCC in Pleasantville, who was an adult leader of the program. “They do everything they would do on other trips, but they’re traveling with Israelis and there’s a lot of responsibility put on them.”
The encounters between the Israelis and Americans, said Cohen, were intended to help them “discover how to learn to work with each other. They’re finding the cultural differences, and how they are different and how they are similar.”
In Israel, the group participated in Israeli dancing, hiking and rafting, helped pick apples for needy families, toured such sites as the Dead Sea and Masada, and experienced Shabbat in Jerusalem and Safed.
Once the group came to the United States (the itinerary began in Israel) activities included a bike tour of Washington, D.C.; visits to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan, Ground Zero and the Statue of Liberty, and the High Line, as well as plenty of pizza consumption, ball games, talent shows, and contemplative Shabbat experiences.
A key feature of the program, which ran from June 28 to July 28, was a week in Savannah, Ga., where the teens ran a camp for economically disadvantaged children. Originally started by the 92nd Street Y, the J-Tag Fellows program is based at the Pleasantville JCC, in collaboration with the Sid Jacobson JCC in Roslyn, the Kings Bay Y in Brooklyn and others in the New York metropolitan area, as well as peer institutions in Israel. It is supported by UJA-Federation of New York.
Designed for students entering grades 11 and 12, one of the program’s distinctions is that participants remain connected throughout the year.
The program comes during a time of increasing interest in fostering relationships between Jewish teens as a means to increase American high school students’ sense connection with Israel. A 2014 study by the Avi Chai Foundation found that high school students who developed personal relationships with Jews from other countries increased their sense of being part of a worldwide community of Jews. This sense of belonging, in turn, caused teens to feel a greater connection to Israel, which they began to view as a collective project of the Jewish people. J-Tag 2015 attracted teens seeking responsibility, like 17-year-old Clara Eskwitt, from Fairlawn, N.J., who had specifically sought a program that combined leadership and community service, “something that had value and substance.” Others, like Julia Levy from Roslyn, L.I., were happy to have done something that offered more of a connection to Israel and Israelis. For one of the young Israelis, Shir Alwog, a 16-year-old from Shoham, in central Israel, encountering Christians in Savannah and offering them a glimpse of Jewish individuals was a significant benefit. She also appreciated the chance to have deeper interactions with her American counterparts.
Sherry Levy, whose daughter and son both participated in this summer’s program, said, “They got more out of this than I imagined. It was more meaningful than I thought. Their self-esteem soared.”
Those transformations are part of the goal, said organizers.
“On one level, they’re seeing how to make a difference in the world, and in themselves,” said Cohen. “Our kids have been running a camp in Savannah for a few years, and they have made a difference and a big impact. At the end of the program, our kids move forward.”