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Israel Experience The Reform Way

Israel Experience The Reform Way

Throughout high school, Max Chaiken kept asking his parents if he could go to Israel and they kept saying no.

First, the Teaneck teen was supposed to go through his Reform summer camp, but the trip was canceled — along with all Reform youth trips to Israel — because of the intifada.

Then he wanted to participate in the Reform movement’s high school semester in Israel. His parents thought it would be too dangerous.

Now that Chaiken is graduating from high school, his parents have finally relented.

“They are nervous about it in some ways, but the logic they see is I’m 18 and this is something I’ve been trying to do for several years,” Chaiken said. “They know this is important to me.”

Chaiken will be one of 10 new high school graduates leaving for Israel this fall as part of a new year-in-Israel program called Carmel.

Officials with Carmel’s sponsor, the Union for Reform Judaism, say they hope the post-high school year in Israel will grow to 40 next year and eventually become a “normative” experience for Reform youth — at least the ones who are most active in the movement.

“We want it to be a thing all Reform high school students know about and consider and many go on,” said Yonatan Glaser, the URJ’s Israel emissary.

Cosponsored by the Department of Overseas Studies at the University of Haifa and the Lokey International Academy, the program includes formal and informal learning at both institutions.

In addition to academic coursework, workshops and a bet midrash, students will receive intensive Hebrew instruction, participate in field trips throughout Israel and interact with Israelis, all from a Reform perspective.

“The Carmel program is designed to help students build a lifelong relationship with Israel,” said Rabbi Andrew Davids, co-director of the youth division of the URJ.

While the post-high school year in Israel has become de rigueur for Orthodox Jews, who flock to the country en masse to study in yeshivas, the practice is far more unusual among liberal Jews. A handful of programs do exist, such as the Zionist Young Judaea’s Year Course and the Conservative movement’s Nativ program.

Until 1997, the Reform movement had offered a small yearlong program for college students, but it was disbanded so the movement could focus more of its energy on high school Israel programs.

The old program, which had participants ranging in age from 18 to 22 and two separate tracks, “was never nurtured sufficiently” Rabbi Davids said. It “had to simultaneously meet a lot of different people’s needs with limited resources.”

“There was a feeling that when the time was right we would get back in the business,” Rabbi Davids said.

With high school travel to Israel dwindling as a result of the intifada and the idea of a “gap year” between high school and college gaining popularity among American young adults and their parents, the time seemed right to consider a program like Carmel targeting older teens, Rabbi Davids said.

Chaiken, who has deferred enrollment at Brown University to participate in Carmel, is hoping that in addition to giving him the chance finally to see Israel, the program will help him refine his career goals.

“One of the things I see as a possible career plan is becoming a Jewish professional — a rabbi or educator of some sort,” he said. “This has the potential to help me say, ‘Yes, this is what I want to do,’ or ‘No, Judaism is important but not what I want to do professionally.’ ”

For Ariel Johnston of Fairfield, Conn., Carmel is a welcome opportunity to return to Israel, where she “felt a very deep connection” during her sophomore year as part of the Reform movement’s high school semester-in-Israel program.

“I had already been thinking for a little while about deferring college,” she said. “I really wanted to have some different experiences before settling down for four years.”

Johnston, who has deferred enrollment at the Eugene Lang College of New School University, said she is looking forward to exploring more of Israel than she did on the high school program when for safety reasons her cohort was largely confined to a kibbutz.

Asked if they were worried about terrorism, Chaiken and Johnston said no.

“What I’m more nervous about is that I have so many close friends in the [Israeli] army right now,” Johnston said, adding, “In terms of my own personal safety it’s not something I choose to dwell on.”

Chaiken said he is less concerned about security than adjusting to a new country.

“I’m not only leaving home, I’m leaving the country,” he said. “It’s a different mind-set. I don’t speak Hebrew fluently. I’m going to have to walk into a Starbucks and am not going to know how to order iced tea.”

His mother, who will travel to Israel for the first time next year to visit him, is a bit less sanguine.

“This is not going to be a comfortable year for me,” Lynn Chaiken said, adding however that she knows her son will learn a lot and that in some ways Israel is safer than New York.

“I feel pretty calm about the whole thing,” she said, “but I’ve told him that if in July or August something terrible happens, we still reserve the right to change our minds.”

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