We Were All Once Refugees, My Gesher Reflections

Written by Liberty Lebos, 2021 Leaders of Tomorrow for Young Women Award Recipient

It was in the gift shop at the African Women’s Refugee Collective, Kushinate, that the feeling of what Tikkun Olam is really hit me. As I wandered around the shelves, I noticed that the words, “We Were All Once Refugees” were printed on all of the tags of the purses, baskets, and other crocheted items. Money from the items that are sold is used to support and help new immigrants, and this slogan made me think about how everyone, including Jews, have always needed to help each other.

You might think I would feel the most Jewish when I was standing at the Western wall putting in my prayer next to a hundred Jewish women doing just the same, but really it was underneath the Old City along the Kotel walls that I felt most connected to my Judaism. In the tunnels beneath modern life, I felt keenly aware and grateful of my ancestors who traveled along these walls so many thousands of years ago.

During my tour of the Kotel tunnels, my group and I were fortunate enough to view a new archaeological discovery that had only been released to the public three days before our arrival. The Corinthian fountains mounted on the wall were especially interesting to me, and I was so fascinated by the many things that we are still discovering today. Afterwards, when we made our way through the rest of the tour, we were brought to the holiest place I ever stepped foot in: A section of the western wall that had been the closest in proximity to the old Temple, the Holy of Holies.

One of the many ways that I found to connect me to my Israel experience and Jewish identity was spending time with the people I was with and doing this journey with them. Whether it was floating in the Dead Sea or hiking up Masada at 5am to get to the top just in time for sunrise, doing it with these friends by my side made this trip so incredible. Having Jewish peers is strongly important to me as we help each other reflect the values of our faith.

But it was in the everyday interactions with different kinds of Israelis that I feel like I understood what it means to help repair the world as a good Jew. When I thought about the phrase, “We Were All Once Refugees,” it brought home to me the journey that my ancestors made through the Negev to the Holy Land, through the Diaspora, to my family, and this opportunity to walk the lands of so many that have come before me. None of them could have done it alone. We all receive help along the way, and we all have to help each other. My time in Israel is something that I will never forget and though I hope to return some day, I bring the lesson of looking for ways to repair the world and help others no matter where I go.

Reinvigorated with a New Sense of Self on Gesher

Written by Sabrina Skolnick, 2021 Leaders of Tomorrow for Young Women Award Recipient

My first trip to Israel was with my family at the age of six. Given my young age, I was not able to understand or absorb the special history, tradition, culture, and rich heritage of the Jews from all over the world who built the land of Israel from a Zionistic dream. Visiting Israel as a young adult of 17, knowing that my grandparents wanted to live there after surviving the camps, knowing that my great uncle fought in the Irgun, Israel has become so much more than another country. It is my homeland. From the memories of laughter to learning from the top of Masada to exploring King David’s tunnel with some of my closest friends, my Gesher experience has reinvigorated me with a new sense of self, further connecting me with my Jewish identity.

Although I was raised in a conservative Jewish household with traditional values, Judaism felt distant to me, almost as if I had yet to experience the full extent of what it means to be Jewish. So, when I boarded the plane headed towards Israel, I took a step back because I knew that this was the beginning of a new chapter in my life. This summer, I felt connected to something larger than myself. I formed real friendships that will hopefully last me a lifetime, and I went to activities led by madrichim who genuinely cared about creating a positive Israel experience. Every Havdalah, I would look around to see the faces of teens my age with similar stories mesmerized by the community we had built together, while we sang our hearts out to the timeless songs of Young Judaea. This trip to Israel provided a break from the stresses of my life (SAT/ACT exams, the college application process, etc.) while offering the appeal of a “safe space,” free of judgment, where — after 18 months of lockdown — I could “just be Sabrina.”

The daily rigorous activities on the Gesher Tour provided us, as individuals and as a group, with joy and emotional nourishment, with kinship and friendships, with relaxation and intellectual stimulation. From daily hiking to visiting many historically significant sites, some of my favorite memories were formed during the not-so-physical activities such as a deep conversation with someone I had just met by the campfire, to the day we spent at Aqua Kef, feeling free in our homeland. This trip expanded my mind, inviting new outlooks and perspectives that no textbook could teach me. On the whole, I have taken away a newfound sense of pride, understanding that being a Jewess means representing and supporting Israel and my history, taking a stand whenever possible against antisemitism.

We spent the last week in Tel Aviv, realizing that our trip was almost at its end. Nevertheless, it was filled with laughter and excitement. On the last night, there was a tone like no other. Unanimously, we were exhausted but emotionally content with our journey, so we celebrated our experience with each other, and thus I can only describe the last night as a perfect end to a perfect trip. Coming off from the plane from Israel was a surreal experience for me; now, I can say wholeheartedly I have never felt so connect to my Jewish faith.

A Time to Recharge

As Jewish communal professionals it is essential to be to be quick on our feet, continuously adapting to the changing needs of our chanichim (participants) and broader Young Judaea community. In 2020 when challenges arose that no one could have anticipated, the practice of being adaptive became more critical than ever. When it became clear that our camps could not open and our summer Israel programs wouldn’t run for summer 2020, we quickly pivoted. Camp tzevet (staff) developed engaging virtual programming that would keep campers connected during a time of great isolation. They worked tirelessly to make sure they would be a source of comfort to campers: a virtual “home” and an unchanged constant during a very uncertain time.


Another unexpected outcome of the pandemic was a whirlwind year for Year Course 20-21. Israel tzevet quickly mobilized to find a way to safely usher in a record number of participants in the middle of a global health crisis. Once in Israel, the team dealt with multiple quarantine periods, a COVID-19 outbreak, a constantly changing itinerary for programming, and then an epic journey home in the midst of the conflict.


In year-round programming, everything had to go virtual including our Alternative Winter Break (AWB), Regional, and National Conventions. We further adapted to this most unusual summer by hosting virtual alumni events where we engaged over 1000 alumni and raised critical funds to stabilize and strengthen the organization


After a year of shifting to the virtual world, camp tzevet had to switch gears once again to reopen for summer 2021. Now the questions became, “How do we keep our campers safe?” and “How do we create a sense of normalcy for campers during an abnormal time?” Hours spent researching protocols, calling health professionals, ensuring there would be proper supplies, testing, and procedures ensued. And what an incredible summer of joy it turned out to be due to the many months of longing and the tireless efforts of our tzevet.


Young Judaea recognizes that although there is never an ideal time, there has come a time for rest.


As we usher in the Shmita, sabbatical year, this 5782, Young Judaea will join many other Jewish non-profit organizations in recognizing this important time to re-charge by giving our professional teams a mini-shmita, time off, between Yom Kippur and Simchat Torah. A time for tzevet to restore their energy, spirit, and unwavering passion for creating life-changing experiences for the future Jewish leaders of tomorrow. We hope this extra time away will allow all of us to regroup after a year of endless challenges.


To our incredibly devoted and hard-working tzevet, thank you for all you do!


To the community of alumni, supporters, and extended family, thank you for your unwavering support!


We hope you have found time to recharge and prepare for the year ahead.


Shana Tova and a G’mar Chatima Tovah.

YJ Alum Sparks Jewish Family Magic at Home

By Ariel Stein

I have always loved social media and blogs as a place of inspiration. Around the time my older daughter was born, I was scrolling through my Instagram feed, looking for Jewish parenting and lifestyle ideas and I realized that I was hardly following any Jewish mom accounts on social media. Then I realized that there really weren’t many Jewish moms on social media putting out that kind of content and it inspired me to start sharing my own Jewish motherhood journey. It began with posts about my daily life with kids, Shabbat, and Jewish holiday celebrations. Now it’s been almost 5 years since I started my blog, and it has evolved into an amazing place where I have connected with thousands of people. It has been so nice to have this online space where we can share each other’s homes and family traditions to get inspiration and a sense of community, especially during the last year and a half.


Shortly after the pandemic began, my older daughter’s preschool closed and my husband began working from home. I found myself taking care of a 1-year-old and homeschooling a 3-year-old full-time from our modest 2-bedroom Brooklyn apartment, while my husband worked remotely out of our bedroom. This time forced me to get more creative with practicing Judaism at home. Without the regular programming of our local synagogues or typical family gatherings, I realized it was up to me to make the Jewish holidays and Shabbat feel meaningful for my family. Despite the fact that we had a virtual seder over Zoom for Passover 2020, I made sure to cook special recipes and teach my daughters about the holiday through fun crafts and activities. The same was true for the high holidays and Hanukkah later that year. For the first time in my adult life, the responsibility of making the Jewish holidays “happen” for my kids fell on me and not my parents or the greater community.


I was inspired to share my experiences of raising kids with a strong love for Jewish traditions more on social media and I got an overwhelming amount of positive feedback. And thus, Jewish Family Magic was born! It is an online platform that supports parents with resources to bring Judaism to life in their homes and a community where parents raising Jewish children can come connect and collaborate.


My experiences growing up in Young Judaea have influenced me as a person and in the way that I parent. I was a camper and staff member at Sprout Lake and Tel Yehudah for 7 years and was an active member of my local YJ club and region throughout high school. My time serving on my club, regional, and national Young Judaea mazkirut taught me invaluable leadership skills that I still use today. My experiences on Machon and Year Course also played a huge role in fostering my love of Israel. I majored in Judaic Studies as an undergraduate at The George Washington University, staffed a YJ Israel summer program in college and went on to earn my MA in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Later on, I served as the Director of Israel Programs at Northeastern University Hillel in Boston, MA for three years and got to work with hundreds of students to help strengthen their Jewish identities and their connection to Israel.


To this day, I still use the pillars I learned in Young Judaea to guide me in life –  Jewish identity, Israel, pluralism, leadership and social action. One of Judaism’s principal beliefs is that all humans are created “B’tzelem Elohim” – in the image of God, and therefore of inherent dignity and value. Every person on this earth – regardless of race, gender, religion, orientation, age, or anything else – contains Godliness within them. Now more than ever, I am thinking about what actions I can take to uphold the value of B’tzelem Elohim and being an example and teacher to my daughters. I’m committed to practicing empathy, compassion, and set a personal example for my children everyday. The Jewish value of “Tikun Olam” is the idea that the world is broken and it’s up to each of us to repair it. Our world is hurting and my prayer is that we all continue to do our part to heal it together.


“You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” -Pirkei Avot 2:21


The pillar of social justice is always at the top of my mind and heart. At times, I have felt overwhelmed with the amount of work I still need to do personally and how far we still have to go as a global community. But I’m reminded from my upbringing in Young Judaea that big, systemic change doesn’t happen overnight and we can all make small changes in our own lives everyday.


Today as a mother, online content creator and Jewish activist, I often think about my time in YJ in the work I do. I am incredibly grateful for the lessons I learned and skills I developed in YJ, which still impact me today. I hope to raise my daughters with a love of Israel, Jewish values, and to be proud of their Jewish identities and to inspire other Jewish millennials to do the same.

Named one of the New York Jewish Week’s 36 Under 36 Jewish change makers in 2021, Ariel Stein is the founder of Jewish Family Magic, an online platform designed to make Jewish living fun and accessible for the whole family. Ariel is the founder of the motherhood blog ‘Ariel Loves,’ where she shares Jewish living inspiration. Ariel is a former Camp Sprout Lake (2001-2003) and Tel Yehudah (2002-2004) camper and attended Machon (2005) and Year Course (2006-2007). She served on the Tel Yehudah Board of Directors from 2012-2016. Keep up with Ariel on instagram @Ariel.Loves, @JewishFamilyMagic, and visit JewishFamilyMagic.com.

A Smile Goes a Long Way

Written by Nicole Perez, Camp Judaea and Camp Tel Yehudah Alum 87-98

I always knew that Camp Judaea was a magical place, but after what transpired this summer, I am convinced that someone spread magical pixie dust all over the campground. This is the only way I can explain how a rustic campground in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains holds so much meaning and touches so many people across the continent year after year, and one generation after another.

At Camp Judaea, it doesn’t matter if doesn’t matter if you are coming to camp for the first or second session, or if you are from Puerto Rico or Atlanta, because the moment you receive two new Camp Judaea laundry bags, you are officially part of the CJ family. From then on, the Adon Olam will be sung while playing imaginary musical instruments, you will find yourself making up silly bagel songs, and before you know it, you are already starting the countdown for the following summer to do it all over again.

This year, after months of uncertainty, Summer 2021 arrived and the gates of 48 Camp Judaea Lane opened to parents and campers full of anticipation, excitement, and smiling faces. Unfortunately, a few weeks in, sadness, heartache, and unimaginable loss flooded the gates with the collapse of Champlain Towers South. Campers of all ages, staff, and alumni were faced with a mix of emotions. Coming together was the only next logical step, because truth be told, that is what Young Judaea had taught us. Wasn’t that the meaning of Tikkun Olam? It was our turn to try to heal, and it was our own community that needed mending.

In typical Young Judaea manner, we did not waste any time and got to work. Private messages were exchanged to check on the families and friends that were personally affected by the tragedy. Messages were sent to the families offering clothing, food, and even temporary homes, anything that they needed to get back on their feet. CJ families were posting on social media messages of hope, strength, and support. Old camp pictures were posted to remind us of all the good times we had shared. Campers left camp for just one day so that they could be a shoulder to cry on for their CJ friends who were victims of the collapse.

This tragic accident has also personally brought me a mix of emotions, especially in the case of the children who lost their father in the Surfside tragedy. In the very near future, my two children will be losing their father to ALS. Every summer I see the pictures of my two beautiful kids either dancing Rikkud, screaming with excitement during Bikkurim, or playing sports, all with huge smiles on their faces surrounded by their camp friends. How will those pictures change once they lose their father? Will I see them dance again? Will they lose their beautiful smiles? Will they want to be embraced? How resilient will they really be? But after witnessing CJ’s involvement in the Surfside tragedy, I think I can take a step back, take a deep breath, and thank my lucky stars that my family belongs to the Young Judaea movement. It gave me a sense of gratitude.

This summer while in CJ, three long-time Judaeans decided to return to camp after losing loved ones to this horrific tragedy. They could have chosen to be anywhere in the world, a vast array of places to choose from to try make sense of this nightmare, but they decided camp was where they wanted to be. It was so comforting to know they had a place where they could go to be surrounded with so much love, a place their loved ones probably would have wanted them to be.


Their decision to go back to CJ also served a much higher purpose for my family and for that I will forever be grateful because it taught us one of life’s most valuable lessons, and one day, maybe not now, they will be able to fully understand what I am talking about. The three that returned to camp did not know my children prior to this summer, even though as life would have it, I went to camp with their parents. But it was destiny for them to meet, to spend time together, and to learn from one another.

In one specific situation one of them walked right next to my daughter with a big smile on their face. My daughter noticed it immediately and it made such an impact on her that she wrote to me about it. She wrote that she was so amazed that a person who had just been through such loss would have such a huge smile on their face and look so happy all because they were back at “home.”

While reading this from my daughter, I could not stop the tears from pouring out. First, I was in awe that of all the smiles she had seen in her lifetime this one had resonated with her.  I also felt a sense of relief, like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. These three teens had just suffered an incomprehensible loss and they chose to be at camp with their friends, a place where they felt at peace and surrounded with such an immense amount of love from their CJ community. In the end, what happened was that we all learned one of life’s most valuable lessons and that is: whatever you think you can’t handle, you actually can, and that we have more strength than we give ourselves credit for.

I think I finally got the answers to my prayers. Yes, my children will be resilient; yes, the smiles will return; yes, they will have many shoulders to lean on when they will need it; and no, my kids will not go through life’s challenges alone. Their camp family goes beyond their eda (age group), it will be any person that at one point or another was part of the Young Judaea movement. They will be surrounded by love because that is what we do as a CJ family. And every year, from June to August, my kids will be at 48 Camp Judaea Lane, scurrying on those awesome white rocks, and wearing a big smile on their face, and who knows, maybe someone else might be watching them and need that smile on that day.

Young Judaea thank you for providing us with the most beautiful, supportive family anyone can ever ask for. And more importantly, thank you to the person that decided to spread their magical pixie dust over camp 60 years ago because now we all have a place, we can call home.