CTeen Summer participants have transformed their connection with Israel into a proactive movement, spearheading initiatives of support and solidarity across high schools and universities back home.
Recent events in Israel have really hit home with one particular demographic back here in the United States: The growing group of alumni who have participated in CTeen summer trips to Israel. While the average Jewish American teenager certainly has some sort of connection with the Holy Land, having personally been there, and even visited the southern portion where the horrific massacre of October 7 took place, these teenagers feel the gut-punch on a deeply visceral level.
But more than just reeling from the horror of the carnage, this deep connection has galvanized these teenagers, serving as an important anchor during these difficult times. For many young Jews across the country, there’s a certain sense of grief and aloneness that has come along with the reality of this unimaginable pogrom. While many have come to Israel’s aid and expressed vocal support, many others have not. Specifically among younger Americans, the condemnation hasn’t nearly been universal nor swift, and only compounded by further vilification of Israel and Jews in general.
Perhaps most troublesome of all is the rampant apathy, a callous indifference from so many of their peers just going about their lives without even a mention of the shock and pain their Jewish friends must be experiencing.
Put it all together, and many are feeling alone without allies, left to play defense with, and about, their Judaism.
For these teenagers blessed with the experience of their lifetime and the ensuing deep connection to the Holy Land and their Heritage, this is decidedly not the case. With remarkable resilience and courage, they are demonstrating pride and joy about their sacred Jewishness and land.
They aren’t playing defense at all. They’re on the offense, serving as beacons of light in their respective surroundings, bringing fellow Jewish teens together and offering support, hope, and Jewish pride. And many of them are doing so in some of the most hostile places for such activity in the country: college campuses.
For Gaby Czarnecki, an alum from a trip in the summer of 2022, it’s more than just recent memories. Passionately taken by the land, upon returning that summer, she decided to go to college there for the year, enrolling in ITC (Israel Tech Challenge) of Herzliya. As fate would have it, she was in the States on that dark day of October 7 for personal reasons, and with school out of session for the foreseeable future, she’s been spending her time visiting her alma mater and speaking about Israel to the students there.
“Going to Israel allowed me to explore different cultures and people. I left feeling truly connected and overjoyed that I can call myself Jewish,” said Czarnecki. “Unity and love fills the people of Israel. The Jewish spirit shines bright especially during these tough times.”
It is this spirit of unity and love that Czarnecki is bringing to the students in her hometown. And she’s not the only one; alumni from all past years are rallying their communities in various ways, like in the case of Asher Furman, an alumni from the Heritage Quest trip from this past summer. Appalled by the events and sensing the acute lack of solidarity in his local high school, Furman, along with a few other Jewish teens, worked together to create a Jewish club in his school, and quickly arranged a solidarity gathering for his local community, the Amity Regional High School of Woodbridge, Connecticut.
“The purpose of these trips is to empower our youth to be leaders and advocates in their communities,” says Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky, Vice Chairman of CTeen International and Executive Director of Merkos 302, “Its powerful to see how at such a critical time in the history of our people, these teens are stepping up and leading the way.”
For Hannah Gordon from New Jersey, an alum of the trip to Israel in the summer of 2021, the energy she felt then, is washing over her ever more these days. “The second I got off the plane in Israel, I could feel that I was in an indescribably important place. However, most of my connection was formed as I traveled through the country, seeing and touching evidence of our rich history in the land and learning about Judaism and Israel with my trip leaders and peers. I left the trip with new best friends and an understanding that you cannot separate Israel and the Jewish people,” she said. “Now more than ever, I am deeply grateful that I have this connection and the tools I need to stand up for Israel during such difficult times.”
Gordon is putting that feeling into practice: In just a few days, she organized a challah and brownies sale at her college and raised close to $2,000 for Hatzalah in Israel. Fact Sheets about Israel were included in each sale.
Sarah Strent, an alum from the trip in the summer of 2019, now studying at Penn University, wasn’t even planning on becoming an Israel ambassador–but that’s exactly what happened. At an event for Jewish unity for Israel on campus, she saw no other option than to spontaneously get up and address the crowd. Her visible passion, concern, and pride left a profound impression on everyone assembled.
Jewish pride and a strong sense of Jewish identity is not exactly an easy thing to come by these days. In an age of doom scrolling and overall indifference, these summer trips to Israel forge deep and everlasting ties in the hearts and minds of Jewish teenagers that a thousand lectures could never produce.
Learn more about CTeen’s summer trips at: cteensummer.com