By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – What does an “amazing” Jewish teen experience look like?
For Heather Fiedler and David Jacobs, it’s a trip to Poland and Israel, with a chance to meet Polish-Jewish teens and engage with both countries in meaningful ways.
That might sound like the typical March of the Living itinerary, but the trip Fiedler and Jacobs are organizing has a couple of fundamental differences. For one, it will take place over the December school break, when the majority of potential participants are actually available.
“We noticed that kids in Greater Hartford were not signing up for March of the Living,” the annual international program that coincides with Holocaust Remembrance Day in April, says Fiedler, executive director of the West Hartford-based Jewish Teen Learning Connection (JTConnect).
In feedback from teens and their parents, Fiedler and Jacobs learned that the timing of the March of the Living trip conflicted with AP exams, preventing many would-be participants. So the two decided on the wintertime excursion.
Not only did they want to make the trip accessible time-wise; they also wanted it to be affordable. Once the cost was determined – $5,300 per teen – Jacobs approached the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford to discuss grant opportunities.
“We have donors who set up scholarship funds to support kids in need who want to go to Israel,” says Kathryn Gonnerman, communications director of the foundation. “We are really excited about the JCC-JTConnect program and we want to make sure that people know that our Israel-experience scholarships are available.”
The two-week trip, open to Jewish and non-Jewish 11th and 12th graders from Greater Hartford, will be led by Fiedler and Raz Newman, director of Israel programs at the Mandell JCC. Fiedler says that participation on the trip will have no effect on a teen’s eligibility for the Taglit-Birthright Israel trip, as long as he or she is under 18.
“We think that this is the type of trip that could really change a kid’s life,” says Fiedler. “We want to give them a taste of the amazing culture of Israel, with the understanding that they’ll go back again [with Birthright]. They’ll come home with a much deeper understanding of the importance of the land, especially now. As we’ve lived through the recent conflict, Israel gets a really lousy rap in the media. Kids listen to what’s going on around them and question what is true – what they hear in the news or in Hebrew school. Once they experience Israel for themselves, they have a different relationship to the country.”
The first six days – from Dec. 18 to 23 – will be spent in Poland, at Holocaust-related sites including the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz, and Majdanek, and in the modern-day Krakow Jewish community. From Dec. 24, the group will be in Israel, not only touring the usual sites, but also engaging in volunteer opportunities in Afula-Gilboa, sister region to Connecticut’s Jewish communities.
JTConnect will provide a pre-trip class for participants, who will then share their experiences upon their return.
“These teens could become ambassadors to the Jewish community, not just encouraging younger kids to go to Israel or check out this program,” Fiedler says, “but also for the idea that young people can find meaning of their own in what happened in the Holocaust and in Israel, whatever their politics.”
Fiedler says that the trip might be the key to engaging a Jewish teen not inspired in the classroom or other traditional venues. She recalls the revelation of an 8th grader from Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford, on a class trip that Fiedler was leading. “At the Kotel, he said to me, ‘This place used to be just a poster hanging in my classroom; now, it’s part of who I am.’”
Registration deadline is Sept. 12. For more information visit yachad.net/jtwow/a-journey-to-remember. For scholarship application guidelines: jcfhartford.org/scholarships.