By J. Kott-Wolle
Oil on Canvas, 24x30, painted 2019
Original photograph taken – 1988
When I was 19 I travelled to Israel for the first time on a teen tour organized by the AZYF (American Zionist Youth Federation). In those days there were no free ‘Birthright’ trips to Israel. Rather, I held a part-time job for over a year and saved my money to pay for the experience on my own.
I didn’t go to Israel with the intention of ‘connecting’ to my Jewish self. At that time, the role of Judaism in my life had started to wane in a big way. I no longer kept kosher (but hid that fact from my family); Hebrew school was behind me and I had traded in weekly Shabbat services for sleeping late on Saturday mornings. Honestly, I was motivated to go to Israel because my friends had gone and it looked like a huge party to me. That was my primary attraction.
Presently there are literally thousands of youth groups that travel through Israel, all with the goal of helping the cause of Jewish continuity – ‘marketing Judaism’ to a generation that appears to have only a peripheral interest in maintaining Jewish identity, religion and culture. I can only imagine the organizers of these programs wondering if their efforts have any impact at all on shaping the Jewish identities of the young people who participate. Thirty plus years later, I can attest to the fact that my youth trip to Israel ‘worked’. In the midst of all the fun and freedom, I for one, found myself very introspective during that experience. I returned home with the realization that my Judaism was no longer my mother’s responsibility but was on me now. I made a promise to myself to take as many Jewish studies classes I could find in college - where I met my husband; made a career decision to work in Jewish communal service and ensure that my children had positive experiences with both Jewish camp and education so that they’d be literate and proud Jews. In the end, the AZYF “Taste of Israel” trip was probably one of the most important Jewish experiences of my life.