Igniting the Spark: A Year in Review from the Director of Teen Education

By Erica Cohen, Director of Teen Education

As I reflect on this past year, I can’t help but feel incredibly fortunate to be part of something truly special. Working with teens has always been a passion of mine (I always say I’ve been doing this since I was one, which is now about 20 years!), but this year has been especially rewarding. I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of our teens’ Jewish journey during a particularly complex time, and witness their growth. It has been nothing short of inspiring. 

Seeing how our teens harness their leadership and engage with their traditions and community is heartwarming. It’s not just about teaching; it’s about guiding and nurturing their curiosity, their questions, and their desire to connect with something greater than themselves.

One of the most fulfilling aspects of my role has been witnessing the excitement that comes with planning meaningful events and activities. Whether it’s a retreat, a volunteer project, or a discussion group, seeing our teens get excited about their Jewish identity and heritage is truly infectious. Their enthusiasm reminds me why I do what I do—to help ignite that spark of curiosity, passion and lifelong engagement.

This year, we’ve had some incredible moments. From deep discussions about Jewish values to fun-filled events celebrating holidays and traditions, every interaction has been an opportunity to learn and grow together. Led by the National Mazkirut, we pivoted as a movement to refocus on Israel after October 7, and they found powerful ways to weave in the complexities, nuance, and growing tensions. More than ever, we sat at the crossroads of Zionism, Pluralism and Tikkun Olam, demonstrating that these are stronger when they are in harmony, and relieving, perhaps even for a moment, the societal pressure to choose among them.

What’s been particularly rewarding is the sense of community that has developed. We’ve created a space where teens feel supported, valued, and empowered to explore their Jewish identity on their own terms. It’s about creating an environment where they feel safe to ask questions, express doubts, and ultimately find their own path. Led by our Regional Mazkiriot in the Northeast, Midwest and Texas, teens planned and led programs for their peers throughout the year. In the spring, teens in LA and Atlanta heard the call to action and began to organize to bring YJ Teens to their communities. We will be starting the coming year with a record 31 Teen Leaders across the movement, and we are certain this is only the beginning.

Looking ahead, I’m excited about what’s to come. We have some amazing plans in the pipeline—more engaging programs, meaningful discussions, and opportunities for our teens to connect with each other in new and exciting ways. I can’t wait to see how they continue to evolve, both individually and as a community. We are building a staffing structure to support our regional growth, and developing new organizational partnerships that will elevate our ability to meet this important moment.

I am extremely grateful to have an incredible professional team who worked hard this year to ensure that the teens were supported and set up for success! Amit Castel joined us in September as the first Young Judaea Central Shaliach in over ten years, and is serving as our director of Israel Education. Our year-round team this year included Allegra Levone, Barak Levy, Lea Kamil, Eitan Weinkle, Chaim Steinberg, Sara Kasler and a number of event and convention staff. Our work would not be possible without this tremendous team.

So, here’s to another year of learning, growing, and celebrating our shared journey. Working with teens has been a privilege, and I’m grateful for the chance to be a part of something so special. Together, we’re shaping the future of our community and helping our teens find meaning and joy in their Jewish identity.

Thank YOU to the teens who are part this movement for allowing me to join you on your journey. Here’s to many more inspiring moments ahead!

#BringThemHomeNow

Through small acts of solidarity, we, as Jewish camps, have the power to effect change on a large scale and strengthen our communities.

CYJ Sprout Lake is honoring Omer Neutra, a former camper of who is currently being held captive, by creating a list of daily actions to keep the mission of freeing the hostages at the core of the Jewish community. Join us in one of the most important missions – time is ticking!

Print this Flyer for ways YJ Camps and YOU can continuously help to #BringThemHomeNow

 

My Year Course Experience: Gabe Hirsch

By Gabe Hirsch, Year Course 23-24 Participant

Year Course provided me with the unique opportunity to not only live in Israel, but connect with people from all around the world. It allowed me to create tight knit bonds with people no matter the circumstances that we experienced.

Year Course began for me in Jerusalem. In this time I was given a safe space to truly show who I am. Kiryat Moriah is the perfect place for making new connections as there is no place to hide, people came to me and introduced themselves, and I did the same to others. In this first month the standard was set for my Year Course experience. It was to be a year where I not only met and connected with new people, but experienced life with them. Additionally, during my time in Jerusalem I was allowed to both learn about the history of the place I was living, as well as begin to appreciate it myself. However, that appreciation was quickly shifted to something else.

As everyone knows what happened on October 7th I won’t speak on it. However, what I will speak on was Young Judaea’s quick and intelligent response.

Within 3 days of the tragedy the entirety of Year Course was in one of the Safest locations in all of Israel. Kibbutz Ketura, The next month and a half here became one of the most meaningful parts of my year. We volunteered, helping around the kibbutz where reserves were missing, and helping those who were displaced living in Eilat. We integrated within the kibbutz, joining Shabbats, movie nights, and pool nights, becoming a stronger community even through a time of uncertainty.

During this time the most significant piece was how quickly my relationships strengthened. People on the other section that I had barely talked to became some of my best friends that I still talk to everyday. Kibbutz Ketura cultured the family feel of Year Course that was continued throughout the rest of the year, each and every member of Year Course is another brother or sister.

As life within Israel began to stabilize we returned back to our starting cities. Strengthened by our time in Ketura as well as ready and excited to welcome home those who left. We then finished our semester bringing the culture we had created to the rest of the program.

The final section of time that we had was when we switched cities. I moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. This move curated the true flourishing of relationships, friends became closer, and we began to value our limited time together. In addition many found meaning in helping the Israeli community through their internship, or in my case by working with Magen David Adom, the ambulance service in Israel. Being able to be on the ground helping individuals who needed emergency assistance gave me the chance to feel proud of myself for being able to contribute positively to the country.

As my time on Year Course came to end I began reflecting on what I believed the most significant and meaningful parts were, and to me, the single most important part of my year was the culture. The Young Judaea organization creates a fundamentally strong community for not only individuals to flourish and learn more about themselves, but weave strong relationships with one another that transcend time zones, cities, and countries.

As I return home from Israel and begin my time at college, I am thankful for the impact this year has made on me. Living in Israel taught me the importance of deep, meaningful, and strong connections between people I love, and I look forward to carrying that mentality with me onwards into my future endeavors.

My Year Course Experience: Lara Lew Strauss

By Lara Lew Strauss, Year Course 2023-2024 Participant

Wow, what a year.

Year Course has gone by in a flash. It was such a wonderful experience, beyond what words can describe. I have come away with a heavy and beautiful appreciation for Israel, its culture, the people who live there, and my role in the Jewish community. More so than ever before, I am filled with gratitude. The opportunity to explore and adjust to a new country, specifically Israel, is a privilege anyone would be lucky to have.

I had never heard of Young Judaea before embarking on Year Course. I delved into the program blindly with no friends or acquaintances, and came away with so many connections and so much love. People I didn’t know existed nine months prior became central to my life as we took on incredible experiences together through programming, such as snorkeling, volunteering in melon fields, picking strawberries, wine tasting, and filling our spare time with laughs and delicious meals out in the city. I never felt alone in a country halfway across the world, which speaks to how highly Young Judaea fostered a community amongst participants.

Since arriving at Ben Gurion airport on the first day of Year Course, I have felt so safe with the Young Judaea staff. The staff are always accessible, and have done excellently in communicating information and addressing our individual needs. This past year of 23-24, Year Course has performed exceptionally in adapting programming and making participants comfortable following the attack on October 7th. Our relocation to Kibbutz Ketura was done seamlessly, and maintained our quality of life the best it could.

Just one week after arriving home, I already find myself reminiscing about the places I enjoyed in Tel Aviv. I practically lived at Bograshov Beach, or at Shuk HaCarmel, or at the cafes along Habima Square. I would spend mornings walking as far as I could along the coast before my roommates would even wake up. I loved taking public transport to go to my internship without using navigation applications, to feel like I fit in with the locals. In Israel, I was confidently independent. The best moments of independence were those where I would walk the streets of Tel Aviv alone and randomly run into another Year Courser, which just made the city feel so personal and familiar. I felt so comfortable with my surroundings and so consumed by them, and I have never felt that way about any other place.

My biggest takeaway from the spontaneity with which I made decisions while on Year Course is that it is a blessing to be able to wake up and choose to do what fulfills you everyday, with no restraints. For those nine months, I lived life exactly as I chose. My goal for the future is to keep that attitude in my daily life, where life is what you make of it. Although all of us alumni will now undoubtedly have more responsibility as we embark on our next steps, we will maintain our freer spirits and stronger passions for adventure.

I could not be more grateful for my experience in Israel, the friends I made along the way, and the ways in which I underwent personal growth.

Reflections from YJ Teens Leadership, ’23-’24

From the National Mazkir
Jonny Jentis

It has been an honor to lead the National Mazkirut this year. I look back on the year, and despite the tumultuous world we were thrust into, I can only think of how proud I am of everything National Maz and I have accomplished. From running one of the largest National Conventions in years, to kickstarting involvement across the country in areas we haven’t been able to reach for years, this year has been more than anything I could have imagined.

More than what we accomplished, I am grateful for the wonderful people I have gotten to meet and work with throughout the year. I want to thank my dear friends, Sari, Ilan, Dora, Leo, and Noah for being so devoted and passionate throughout the year and without whom I could not have done anything. I also want to thank Sara, Erica, Allegra, Amit, and all the other wonderful YJ staff who worked so hard to help us be successful; without their support, nothing we tried this year would have been possible. Although it seems as though my time at YJ Teens is coming to an end, I will always remember how spectacular my experience was and I cannot wait to continue to see how future Mazkiruts will make YJ flourish.

From the Northeast Mazkir
Sam Orshan

My time this year on the Northeast was very transformative. I had the privilege of ushering in a new era for Young Judaea and YJ Teens with the consolidation of the Northeast region. I was able to run a successful event every month this year as the Mazkir. My favorite event this year was the Havdallah hang and I hope Northeast can run even better programs next year and grow the region even more.

From the Midwest Mazkir
Akiva Weinkle

This year gave me a tremendous amount of hope for the future of the Midwest Region. All year I got to see the ruach of Midwest YJ both in person, at Pittsburgh events, and through pictures for Chicago. However, the highlight of the year was Midwest Convention where over 50 Midwesties, over half at their first convention, showed up to build community and memories. I got to see young leaders step up and take on the challenge of growing this region moving forward and I can’t wait to see what they do.

From the Texas Mazkira
Shira Babajanov

This year YJ kids at Texas had many successful programs that highlighted the community service, Jewish, and Zionist aspects of Young Judaea. This year we raised our attendance and started building up our region with the city committees to ensure programs run as best as possible.

From the (newly reopened) Southeast Region,
Lila Duke

Thanks to several months of tireless work and the endless support of our Young Judaea staff and National Maz, the Atlanta YJ Teens organization is up and running again! Although we have had just a few events so far, including a CJ Rikkud, a movie night, and a pool party, the spirit and community of those who attended have been evident and suggest a strong Young Judaea presence in the Southeast soon in the future!

From the (newly reopened) YJ West Region
By Hallie

We are so excited to have started the LA region! We will have year round events once a month starting next year with the goal to make an impact, bring our community together, raise awareness on Israel, and have fun!:heartpulse::flag-il:

Alum Spotlight: Julie Kolman Powell

By Julie Kolman Powell
Sprout Lake, Tel Yehudah, Year Course 1984 Alum, Former Regional Mazkira

It took me less that 10 minutes to decide I was attending the Young Judaea
Alumni trip back in January 2024 to Israel, and 8 months to process it.

Like always, I communicate first with my running shoes.

This past week, and without telling anyone prior, I ran three half marathons, in three states, three days in a row. I did this with Gili Adar’s picture on my back which was given to me by her parents at her grave when I visited Israel. I never met Gili, but she was a Israeli Scout at Camp Tel Yehudah, a camp I love and a camp my daughter loves.

Gili’s parent’s described Gili as ‘their sunshine’ and the world’s sunshine. Anyone that met her apparently remembers her smile and that she lit up a room with her beautiful blond hair and her personality. Her parent’s told us she loved traveling and seeing the world. So, I took her with me to Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah and told her story to people in places that likely would never have heard it before. Gili and I ran 13.1 miles in each state. Every day people would ask me about who was on my back. I told them about Gili’s spirit as described to me by her parents and I shared with them what happened on October 7th, and of her murder by Hamas. In Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho some of these folks had never met a Jew before, or anyone from Israel, or heard the story of October 7th. They asked questions and they blessed me and the Adars. Gili’s parents and I communicated on Facebook and I was so moved by how much this gesture meant to them.

On the third day I was tired. It was mile nine in Utah. I wasn’t sure how or where I was going to find the energy to finish and all I could see were fields, endless fields. I remember driving around the Gaza envelope on our trip and seeing a similar image, the fields where the Nova victims and survivors ran for their lives. In their memory, I took off like a rocket. I came in third that day in my age group.

I hope in some small way I honored their lives and the lives lost at Nova. We must never forget them. They are all important to their friends and family and to me.

To the hostages, ”Be Strong and Survive.”

To their families I think of you everyday.