A tour of the Panama Canal, up-close experiences with wild monkeys, and a taste of authentic Jewish life created the ultimate CYP Panama Encounter for a group of young professionals from around the country.
Hors d’oeuvre in hand and breathtaking views of Panama city sprawled out before them, Nearly 100 young professionals mingled while enjoying a delicious BBQ spread. The rooftop social event brought together a group of young professionals on a “CYP Encounter” in Panama with the local Chabad Young Professionals community. A comedian, and a mentalist, both members of the CYP community as well, entertained the crowd with their acts following a rousing Havdalah ceremony.
Immersive tourism has become wildly popular amongst the younger generation. The modern and new-age tourism style seeks to discover each destination’s culture and meaning in a non-commercialized fashion. People want to experience the unique sights, sounds, smells, people, and challenges of the local people. Interactions with the native community are key to the experience.
With this in mind, the CYP Panama Encounter brought over sixty young professionals together for a weekend getaway to Panama City. The trip sought to give the visitors a window into the culture and to integrate with the local Jewish life. The authentic experience saw the city’s natural beauty and rich history complement the storied culture and the local Jewish community. The post-Shabbos rooftop event with the neighborhood CYP was the climax of the fascinating fusion. New connections were formed, and continued relationships began to sprout.
The newest addition to a series of trips for young professionals, the Panama Encounter was planned and coordinated by Rabbi Hershy Weinstein of CYP International at Merkos 302 and directed by Rabbi Beryl Frankel, director of CYP. Previous trips have been to Guatemala and Russia, with more destinations in the works for the coming year.
“The CYP Encounter project was born out of the realization that true spiritual growth is best discovered outside of one’s natural environment,” explained Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky, Executive Director of Merkos 302. “Far from the familiarity of home, the trips allow the YP’s to detach from the whirlwind of life and identify their true priorities.
Led by Rabbi Yaya and Devora Wilhelm of CYP Upper East Side, the high-paced trip was a tremendous bonding opportunity for those who joined. In the exotic and unfamiliar streets of Panama City, the group connected over their diverse backgrounds, different parts of the world, distinct personalities, and the broad spectrum of religious observance. The Wilhelms’ high energy and irresistible charm set the tone through the ice-breakers, classes, and discussions they led.
“While I usually prefer smaller and more intimate groups, I would not have changed a thing,” said Ms. Stephanie Blitshein, an Account Manager at Playground Software in NYC. “Everyone brought their own energy and uniqueness, which made the trip into what it was. As we are all single young professionals, we are all going through the same stages in life. Being with people on the same page brought up relevant conversations and allowed us to connect over shared experiences.”
The schedule was packed, with enjoyable trips and daring adventures filling every moment. Touring stops included Casco Viejo – the historical old city of Panama, and the lush Panama Rainforest. A boat ride through the famous Panama Canal passage cutting through the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Along the Canal, the tour was greeted by the exotic and feisty White-Faced monkeys which inhabit the islands.
In addition to the catered meals, the group stopped to dine at many of the delicious local eateries. Mouthwatering Panamanian classics were enjoyed in Kosher settings, from modern, elegant steakhouses and top-of-the-line burger joints, to casual breakfast spots and craft bakeries.
Meaningful conversations and purposeful group sessions were sprinkled throughout the trip. Participants were strongly taken by a group discussion on relationships led by Rabbi Ari Laine, titled ‘The Simple Method to Everlasting Relationships,’ the world-renowned author and local Rabbi enthralled the group with insights into dating and marriage from a Jewish perspective.
Rabbi Mendi Karniel, the local Shliach in Panama City, as well as Rabbi Sholom Meir and Rochel Holzkenner of CYP Los Olas, FL, were tremendous resources in planning the trip and interacting with the young professionals throughout. Mrs. Holzkenner spent the Shabbos afternoon engaged in deep conversation with the group about navigating the contemporary challenges of dating.
“Each activity, meal, and even bus ride was filled with food for the soul, allowing us to somewhat experience the metaphysical along with having a convivial time!” shared Ms. Shana Stall, a real estate agent who joined the trip from Los Angeles.
Local Jewish community members invited small groups of young professionals to join their families for Shabbat dinner. The blend of native culture and the familiar Shabbos atmosphere had a profound effect on all.
“My favorite part of the trip was definitely Shabbat, and talking to others, they all agreed,” shared Blitshein. “Going to local families was very special and remarkable. It was so insightful to meet the local Jews, eat their food, hear about the community and the lives they live. I loved seeing how they practice Judaism there. “
The buzz was palpable in the room as the crowd trickled back into the local Chabad House following their respective Shabbos meals. A farbrengen was scheduled with Rabbi Mendi Karniel, Shliach Panama City. The farbrengen was overtaken with exciting tales of the Shabbat meals; each group was convinced that the meal they attended and the family who hosted them was the best. For many young professionals, the experience showcased the ability of successful people from similarly untraditional backgrounds to embrace and celebrate Shabbos and Judaism coupled with a delightful family life. For most, the experience was simply enchanting.
Nitzan Goodman, a software developer for Lockheed Martin in Plano, TX, joined a previous CYP Encounter in Guatemala. He returned for this trip, bringing along five friends. “After the incredible experience I had in Guatemala, I couldn’t let my buddies miss out on this opportunity,” said Goodman. “On the last trip, our group formed an amazing bond over the rigorous hikes and spectacular volcanoes. Here in Panama, we learned so much from the connections we developed with the local YP community, seeing their balanced lifestyle of juggling business, family and spiritual life. Amongst all the adventures and fun, we discovered people living lives of true meaning.”