Lena Elkins is a part of the Young Judaea Marketing Team in Israel. Having recently graduated from the University of Oregon, she made Aliyah in August and now resides in Tel Aviv.
I have now lived in Israel through two wars. I have been minutes away from terrorist attacks and have survived the shared Israeli experience of calling loved ones to make sure they’re safe. This past week’s bus attack in Tel Aviv was no exception- the moment I heard the news it shook me to my core, millions of upsetting thoughts racing through my head. But then I watched as Israelis bravely continued on, celebrating life, and a certain level of sanity was restored. I have accepted that this is the reality of living in this country, and getting through the trauma of these experiences has only made me closer to my new Israeli family, and this new place I call home.
Shortly after making Aliyah, I began working for Young Judaea. I was instantly inspired by the amount of involvement our program participants have in all facets of Israeli society, including volunteering in Magen David Adam (Israeli Red Cross). Knowing that three of our current Year Course MDA participants were at the scene of the Tel Aviv attack last week, medically trained and ready to assist, brought me an immense amount of pride. This is Young Judaea, I thought. This is modern day Zionism at work.
Although I didn’t grow up in Young Judaea myself (I’m from northern California, where Young Judaea isn’t well known), I know dozens of young people who have grown up in YJ summer camps and have gone on to participate in Year Course. This includes my sister, who after graduating from high school attended Year Course not knowing a single person. During those nine months, I watched the gap year transform her life. Year Course supported her in evolving into who she is now: a strong, passionate, educated Zionist who proudly serves as a solder in the Israeli Defense Forces. Although Madi is a very special young woman, her experience is not unique. Year Course has the profound ability to improve the quality of someone’s life, to enhance their future, and present opportunities never thought possible.
From what we see on the news, I understand why American parents fear sending their children here for long term programs. I see it in my own parents, who now have two daughters living in Israel as Israeli citizens, one serving in the IDF. It isn’t easy. But I also see the other side, the side that makes programs like Young Judaea Year Course so essential. If young American Jews don’t understand Israel, how are they expected to love and support it? How can they build a relationship with this country if they’re not here, at least for a short time? This is what I find most beautiful about Year Course: young people given the opportunity to invest in their relationship with Israel. Young people investing in themselves and their Jewish identities by immersing themselves here. And most importantly, young people feeling they’re making an impact and a part of the Israeli story. To me, as a Zionist, there is nothing more powerful than that.
I don’t regret not going on Year Course as an 18 year old, because my path through college led me to making Aliyah anyway. But there is nothing I can encourage more to high school seniors than to take an opportunity like this. This is your chance to become a part of a story, a future and a vision so much bigger than yourself. This country can become a part of who you are, and that will last a lifetime. Not many 18 year olds can say that.