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Israel the JCC way

Staff Birthright trip to run in November


With a goal of enriching JCC staff knowledge of the Jewish homeland, JCC Association will be running a Taglit-Birthright trip to Israel for young professionals from Sunday, Nov. 8 through Wednesday, Nov. 18. The trip will be open to any young professionals working at JCCs or in other Jewish communal organizations.

In May 2014, JCC Association held its first Birthright trip for 20 young JCC professionals from as many JCCs. Participants ranged in age from 22 to 29, a bit older than the typical Birthright participant included those who work in fitness and recreation fields, donor relations, sales and membership, camp, teen programming and early childhood education. Most had never visited Israel before.

Two of them were Abbey Henkin, director of fun at the JCC of Southern Nevada, who had never been to Israel before, and Ross Houston, manager of sports and leagues at Bernard Horwich JCC in Chicago, who had visited as a child. They recently shared what they got out of the trip and why JCC staff who are eligible should take advantage of the opportunity.

What did you hope going on the trip would do for you? Why did you feel it was important to go?

Abbey: I was working at the Siegel JCC in Delaware, and my executive director at the time, Ivy Harlev, had just returned from a JCC Association trip to Israel and absolutely lit up when she talked about her experience. I was hoping that through this trip, I would make similar connections and be able to speak about Israel through my own personal experiences and not just what I had heard from others or read in a book.

Ross: I last visited Israel when I was 10-years-old, and in all honesty, my most vivid memory from that trip is how cool the water slide was at our hotel in Eilat. It goes without saying that as an adult, I felt like I could have a greater understanding of the impact of visiting such a historic and holy place, not to mention that as a professional in a Jewish organization, this trip could help me connect to my members on a much more deeper level.

What did you enjoy most from a professional standpoint while there?

Abbey: Being in Israel as a professional helped add focus and meaning to our trip. While we got to go to many of the famous “tourist” sites, it definitely did not feel like we were there as tourists. The debriefing conversations that we had throughout the trip were something I really enjoyed, and it definitely helped us brainstorm ways that we could take what we were seeing back to our perspective JCCs.

Ross: I loved visiting the matnas (community center) in Modi’in. It was amazing to get to talk with the sports director in order to see how different programming was over there, yet how we both faced similar challenges in our roles.

What did you like about your co-travelers? Was there something to be gained from going on a trip filled with “professional Jews”?

Ross: My co-travelers honestly “made” the trip. As a 29-year-old, my fear was that I would be the “old man,” in that visiting Israel was more about reconnecting to my Judaism and having it help my career, rather than partying. Luckily, my fellow Jewish professionals were on the same page as me, although we still had plenty of fun!

Abbey: What did I like about my co-travelers? EVERYTHING! It was amazing how close I felt to this group of diverse individuals. We came from different JCCs and organizations, some of us were married, some engaged, some single, some more religious than others, some new to the JCC world and some that grew up in the JCC world. I loved that we all had the commonality of being passionate about the JCC world. Each and every one of the participants had something unique to offer. As far as there being something to be gained from a trip with “professional Jews,” the benefits of this trip are amazing! The network of support, resources and friendship that we all left the trip with are something that I know will last a lifetime. Our trip’s Facebook group is still active and I know that I can trust this group of people to confide in, use as a sounding board, and lean on at any time!

Most valuable take-away for work?

Abbey: As a professional in the JCC world, Israel is an important piece of the puzzle. Now, having seen, walked, tasted, smelled and experienced Israel first hand, I can incorporate it into my work in truly genuine ways. I would not have been able to say that before this trip.

Ross: I got the opportunity to network not only with peers from JCCs around the country, but from halfway around the world as well. It really gave me an amazing sense of perspective.

Best thing you got out of it personally?

Abbey: This trip made Israel real for me. I had studied about Israel since I was young, but this trip transformed Israel from another country, to a place that I call home. I came back from this trip wanting to integrate more aspects of Judaism into my life and I have been successful in doing so ever since.

Ross: I felt a deeper connection to my own spirituality. This experience definitely helped reaffirm my pride in being Jewish.

How have you integrated the experience into your work? In what ways did it allow you to grow professionally?

Abbey: After coming back from this trip, I have integrated my experiences into work more frequently than I ever would have thought. One of my favorite days of camp is Israel Day, where the kids travel to different parts of Israel; make crafts to sell at the shuk (market), float on floating devices in the “Dead Sea” (pool) and much more. Incorporating Israel into the programs I create at the JCC is important to me on a personal level now. As a professional I continue to challenge myself to incorporate different aspects of Jewish values, Israel and Jewish history and I believe this trip has helped me do that.

Ross: One of my biggest takeaways from my Israel trip was how passionate the Israelis I met were. It made me want to instill the same amount of passion and devotion into my own work.

What would you tell an executive director thinking of sending staff?

Abbey: YES PLEASE! I hope that every young professional in the JCC world has the opportunity to go on a trip like this. Your staff will grow personally and professionally and they will return with a new perspective on Israel and an invigorated passion for the JCC. This trip is truly a gift, both to the individuals that attend, and the people they are able touch when they return.

Ross: For the right person, this is the opportunity of a lifetime – one that he or she will be forever grateful for.

For more information or to register for the JCC Staff Birthright Trip, visit this page and follow the instructions. Be sure to select Routes Travel—Amazing Israel Nov. 2105 trip.

See you in Israel!

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