By Seth Finkle
Recently, I returned from a professional development trip to Israel. This trip is part of the Merrin Fellowship for Teen Engagement that I was chosen for more than a year ago. This fellowship is for JCC professionals who work with teens. The program includes 18 months of webinars, project development, and four seminars throughout the country, plus one in Israel. The Israel trip is the biggest component as we spent 10 days traveling the country and experiencing some very intriguing teen initiatives.
One of the most notable programs is called “Ultimate Peace.” This is an Ultimate Frisbee organization that has Jewish and Arab teens playing Ultimate Frisbee together. The participants learn and practice Ultimate Frisbee in their hometowns, and every few months they get together for “hat tournaments.” All participating player’s names are put in a hat and drawn at random to form mixed teams. The games are played and the entire program is based on five core components: mutual respect, friendship, non-violence, integrity, and fun. They also have a leadership program where players can become junior coaches and travel to the US for a Friendship Tour. While in the US, they go to schools and talk about how the experience has affected their lives. It was inspiring to hear how a game many of us played in college is having such a positive impact on so many children and helping to break down cultural and perceived barriers.
As I think about this trip, the fellowship, the connections I have made and the friendships that have been created, I realize how fortunate and thankful I am for this opportunity. I am thankful for the chance to grow as a Jewish professional and learn from experts in the field. And I’m thankful for the support I’ve received from my family and friends—including friends in Israel—who I now consider family.
I had the opportunity to extend my stay in Israel and was especially thankful to spend some time with Noam Spector, a former Summer J-Camp Shlicha (emissary). When Noam told her mother about the trip, she promptly responded with, “Ok, Seth will stay with us for the weekend!”
During Noam’s two summers in Rhode Island, her parents trusted us to take care of their daughter and make her feel welcome in the states. The children, staff, and Rhode Island community embraced her and made her feel, in her own words that “Providence is a second home.”
In return, this love and care are what I received when I spent Shabbat with Noam and her family in Israel. From the moment I was picked up in Modi’in, I was hugged by Noam’s mom Ziva who immediately made me feel welcomed into their home. Words cannot fully describe what I felt when I met her mother, father, sister, and their dog Bon Bon. Noam’s family treated me like I had known them for years and as if I had grown up in their family.
One night, Noam’s mother and I got into a philosophical conversation about many things including Judaism, the reason Israel should exist, why I feel so strongly that there should be a Jewish State, and (perhaps most importantly to her) why having Noam at J-Camp was so important to us. After thinking about this for a while there was only one word that I felt answered everything: mishpacha—family.
I explained to Ziva that Noam became part of our family—the Alliance staff family, the Rhode Island Jewish communal family, and the Summer J-Camp family. The campers immediately felt connected to Noam and Israel because she jumped into camp with enthusiasm and embraced the spirit of camp. She changed our program for the better and changed me as a camp director.
As an American, I feel so grateful to feel connected to an Israeli family. I told Ziva and Noam that they truly are a second family to me and that I appreciated their hospitality more than I could express. I left knowing I will always have family in Israel. In fact, when I visit Israel again, if I do not drop in on the Spector family, I will be in trouble. Ziva would make certain of that. (And I can’t take that kind of guilt from a Jewish mom!)
SETH FINKLE is the Director of Camp Haverim and Teen Programming Coordinator.