USY Summer Travel Experiences Transform Young Lives
There’s a quote that says, “Travel far enough, you meet yourself.” And it’s true. Just ask the parents of USYers who have been transformed as they have prayed atop mountains, visited concentration camps, danced with friends to local music and so much more as part of USY summer travel experiences.
Robin Gilman and her husband, who live in New Jersey with their two teens—Sam, 17, and Rachel, 15—didn’t participate in USY growing up, but were thrilled when they discovered it through their synagogue, Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg, New York. “Our synagogue is such a loving, warm environment; you’re just welcomed with a hug and genuine interest in your family,” she says. “As parents, that’s the greatest gift we can give our kids, and I feel USY is run the same way. Our kids are taught Judaism in such a warm, inclusive environment.”
Sam, a high school senior, first became interested in USY in the 8th grade and has since served on his regional board and now on the international board. His first USY summer travel experience was “Classic” USY on Wheels, which took him coast to coast across America over six-and-a-half weeks as a 15 year old. “They got to pray at the Grand Canyon and at Crater Lake, so prayer wasn’t just prayer; it was in an amazing environment,” describes Robin. “The teens help lead the services so they’re part of them rather than just sitting passively.”
The experience was so positive that Sam took his journey farther and deeper as a 16 year old—going on the Eastern Europe/Israel Pilgrimage where he connected with his Jewish history. Sam’s grandfather is a Holocaust survivor who fled his apartment in Berlin in the middle of the night to escape the Nazis. Robin knew the pilgrimage traveled near the apartment and reached out to USY leadership to see if it would be possible to have the bus pass by and point it out to Sam.
“The person in charge said write me up the story of your dad’s escape and I’ll see what I can do,” Robin remembers. “When they were in Germany a week into the trip, I received a call from the leader, David, letting me know today was the day they were bringing Sam to the apartment. The experience turned out to be moving for the entire bus. It was no longer a story of someone’s escape, but of Sam’s grandfather’s escape. This part, and every other part of the trip were just done with so much thought and heart.”
After the group visited concentration camps in Poland, for instance, they let off steam by going to a Polish music festival. And after seeing Sam’s grandfather’s apartment in Germany that left the teens feeling emotional and sad, the leaders planned a night out bowling. They also broke into small groups at the end of each day to talk about and process what they had seen.
The Eastern Europe/Israel Pilgrimage then perfectly culminated in Israel. When Sam and his fellow USYers arrived, Robin shares it wasn’t just about seeing the sites, but about learning to become better Jews and to cherish each day and moment. “It was more than a trip for teens to Europe and Israel,” she says. “All the participants experienced so much self growth and it really reinforced their love of Judaism.”
While this summer Sam is working at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, the connections he made during his USY summer trips are never far. When Robin and Sam recently visited colleges, he called his trip leader from two years ago and the three met for dinner. “His leader is still a very important part of his life,” says Robin. “Also, David, his leader from last year, is truly one of the people Sam looks up to most. When you put your child in someone else’s hands, it’s a very scary thing to do, but I would send him anywhere with USY.”
Tracey Levy and her husband, who live in Central Florida with their three daughters—Caitlin, 25, Eliana, 19 and Shaina, 17—were also thrilled to discover USY and its teen travel opportunities through their synagogue, Congregation Ohev Shalom. Tracey grew up in a non-practicing Jewish family, while her husband is a Jew by choice, so they never had a youth group experience.
“We didn’t know a lot about youth groups, so when our synagogue introduced it to our family, we knew we wanted our daughters involved,” says Tracey. Growing up, the girls were active in Kadima and USY, but were competitive dancers, so they could never leave for the entire summer. “When they entered the age where they could, we wanted it to be with kids who were coming from all over and some knew each other and some didn’t. I could trust the USY program and knew they’d be successful there.”
During the summer, Caitlin enjoyed her regional encampment, which was more local and only lasted about a week. For Eliana, her USY summer travel has consisted of USY on Wheels, East, “Classic” USY on Wheels and USY Israel Adventure. Shaina went on DREAM USY: An Adventure in the Dominican Republic and Eastern Europe/Israel Pilgrimage.
“What I wanted for them was exactly what happened: They met people from all over the U.S.—kids who weren’t involved in the everyday drama that comes with growing up, so they could leave that stuff behind on the trips,” says Tracey. “They still have these Jewish friends—sometimes they talk daily or every few months, but they still talk.”
The girls were also able to see parts of the U.S. and other countries they never had the opportunity to because of their dance schedules—stopping at interesting and different places and celebrating Shabbat beachside or atop a mountain. “These experiences were so impactful and uplifting to them,” says Tracey.
There were emotional experiences, too, like visiting concentration camps, and Tracey was amazed by how the USY leaders were trained to deal with these. “It was super heavy and hard to get through, but the staff knew how to navigate it and manipulate it so that in the end, it turned into something positive. Shaina came back feeling hopeful for her Jewish future rather than distressed or scared. That’s a USY thing, and something I would not have been able to accomplish for her as a parent.”
“Then, after doing all this heavy stuff and getting the history, the trip ends with being in Israel,” she says. “It’s such a ‘wow’ experience and a great timeline. I wouldn’t change any of these experiences.”
While Tracey knows trips like these can be financially difficult for many, she says she would “pay all that money again” because of everything her daughters learned. “They learn things you try to teach them all their life in one summer,” she says, “about being independent and living for long periods of time with people who are different than what you’re used to at home. It’s difficult because in a few short years, you’ll be sending them away to college, but you want to prepare them to leave, and this is part of it. It’s worth every dime and the time away from them.”
Want to know more about USY summer travel? Visit here.
USY Summer Travel Support Is Out There
If you are on the fence because of finances, reach out to your synagogue, Jewish Federation or International USY office. It may take some work, but scholarship money is out there. Click here for these and other ways to save.