More than 2,000 campers and staff members from 17 different Orthodox Union (OU) summer programs in Israel gathered this week at Park Ra’anana to celebrate Jewish unity, and underline their commitment to strengthen their bonds between Diaspora youth and the Jewish State.
Jewish music superstar Mordechai Shapiro entertained the massive crowd at the event, the largest-ever gathering of “NCSY” participants in a single location in Israel.
NCSY is historically known as one of American Jewry’s renowned educational and social programs, uniting both observant and non-observant youth. It has become increasingly involved in promoting programming in Israel and instilling a love for the Jewish State as a part of contemporary Jewish identity.
Over the course of a multi-week program in Israel, the 17 various programs combine educational, touring and social action elements specifically intended to inspire pride in Jewish identity. Some campers spend their summer volunteering across the country, others are matched with internships, and some travel with special needs campers.
“The real story here is how this event truly exemplifies Jewish unity and the potential to bring together Jews from different communities and levels of observance to celebrate a common ideal,” said New York resident Allen Fagin, executive vice president and chief professional officer of the Orthodox Union.
“We have kids who have been taught Torah their whole lives, dancing and singing alongside campers who had never opened a Hebrew text before. More than ever before, they can appreciate that whatever their previous differences, here in Israel, we are one people with one heart. If that doesn’t epitomize Jewish unity, what does?”
Rabbi Avi Berman, Executive Director of OU Israel said that the sight of hundreds of young American Jewish youth growing closer to Israel was a source of considerable inspiration. “At a time when people speak of a growing disconnect between Israel and the Diaspora, these campers are proving that just the opposite is possible. The fact is that through education and a spiritual connection, hundreds of American youth from all backgrounds will return home with a true sense of the central place that Israel has in their lives.”
“I go to public school. I don’t get to meet a lot of Jewish people,” said Natalie Grinshpun, 17, from Apple Valley, Minnesota. “But as soon as I come to Israel, I can feel the Jewish people around me, I can feel the support all the time. It makes me feel like I belong somewhere, like I am home.”
“I think people can’t really understand their Jewish identity until they come to the place of the Jewish people,” said Samantha Fern, 18, from Livingston, New Jersey. “Everything here just comes to life and there’s so much meaning behind everything.”
Jacob Winters, an 11th Grader from Deal, NJ is participating in the Yad B’Yad program run by Yachad/NJCD, which brings together teens and participants with special needs. Winters said, “No matter what program we are on, we all joined together for the common goal of having fun and bringing back the type of baseless love we need to create a better Jewish future.
“I have never been to Israel before and as soon as I got to Jerusalem I felt a connection go through my body that was like nothing I have ever felt before. At first I was skeptical about going to Israel and now I never want to leave.”