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A Different Kind of Summer Vacation: Jewish Teens Take a Bus Across America

Through music, politics, and barbecue, Etgar 36 trips help high-school students develop a sense of identity as Jews and Americans

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Congressman John Lewis speaks with Etgar 36 participants outside the U.S. Capitol. (All images courtesy of Billy Planer)
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Is the thought of your teenager being home all summer driving you nutballs? Are you imagining him kvetching about being bored but unable to find an internship or job, sleeping till noon and then expecting to be fed, monopolizing the TV when you have important marathons of Game of Thrones to get through? If you’ve got some disposable income, here’s an idea for getting that kid out of your hair and having him actually learn something on his time off from school.

Etgar 36 is a nonprofit Jewish educational program that takes teenagers on 22- or 36-day summer bus trips across America, to learn about ethics, morality, decision-making, policy, and the role of Jews in American social movements. The focus is on teaching kids about both American democratic principles and Jewish values.

In the South, kids meet with religious leaders who worked and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and draw connections between the civil rights movement and the Passover story. In Memphis, they hear about the role of music in integrating America. In New York City, they look at labor issues through the lens of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. In Washington, D.C., they meet with both AIPAC and J Street to talk about Israel. “The goal is create civil discourse, to let kids ask questions about both sides of issues—basically, it’s me trying to create a community I want to be part of,” said director Billy Planer. “We’re all connected, and debating and discussing big ideas should be the norm, not the exception.”

The kids seem receptive. “The trip was life-changing for me,” said Ben Chasan, 18, who participated three years ago. “I was never really politically inclined, but going on Etgar and talking to the people we met and seeing the country really turned me on to public service and politics.” Today, he is president of his school and on the board of his local JCC’s Teens as Leaders community service group. “Etgar not only gave me the passion for politics, but the confidence that I could get involved,” he said. (He was also chosen to be in the Senate Youth Program, where he met President Obama and Justice Antonin Scalia.)

“I live on Long Island, where you tend to be in this bubble of other Long Island kids,” Chasan told me. “Nine out of every 10 kids around me is Jewish. But elsewhere in the country you won’t find a Jew in a 25-mile radius! Seeing Memphis and California—places I’d only read about—was definitely eye-opening. I realized that every state has its own culture. And I developed a better appreciation of different ways of worshiping and being Jewish.” Etgar kids go to Friday night services at different congregations—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist—throughout the trip. “When I tell people we went to a gay and lesbian synagogue in Dallas, they’re flabbergasted—they think of Texas as this entirely intolerant place,” said Chasan. “But you can’t stereotype. That’s something I learned on this trip.”

Kiki Rossman-Reich, 22, went on an Etgar trip at 16 and is now on staff. “Here’s what I tell my younger cousins,” she told me. “If you want to spend the summer doing sports or hanging out by the pool, that’s fine, but if you want to grow as a person and grow in character and find out how you feel about huge topics in America, go on this trip and meet people from across the country and get your eyes opened.”

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Planer started Etgar in 2003 when he was running youth programs at an Atlanta synagogue. “We were taking the youth group to Disney World every year, and I really started to think we could do better. We should be doing better,” he recalled. “And I sat down with a map and realized, ‘OK, I’m interested in history, politics, activism, travel, and American Jewish identity.’ So, I put them all together on the map, logistically and thematically. I wanted kids to feel connected to the world around them and passionate about the issues that impact us all.”

Billy Planer.

The notion of experiential learning was important to him. “Growing up in the ’80s in the South, we didn’t have the terminology for different learning styles,” Planer said. “I was a lazy, unmotivated student. I was always more interested in pictures than text, and I always wondered what moments in history looked like, what the weather was like, what the gunfire or singing sounded like.” On his own Ramah Seminar in Israel trip, he stood on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean as a guide asked, “Why are you here?” “I answered, ‘On a map, this place is just a blue dot. But here we can see it and smell it.’ And the guide said, ‘That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.’ I thought, ‘OK, maybe I’m dumb, but maybe I’m onto something.’ ” (I was on that tour, by the way, and went to Camp Ramah in New England with Billy.)

The notion of being both American and Jewish is central to Etgar’s mission. “When I was in the Hebrew Academy in fourth or fifth grade, our teacher asked, ‘Are you an American Jew or a Jewish American?’ You were supposed to walk to one side of the room for one and the other for the other. I thought, ‘This is a weird question,’ and stood in the middle of the room. She yelled at me. She wanted the Jewish part to be the important part—that was the right answer—but to this day I still don’t know which is more important. They’re both in me.”

Etgar is Planer’s attempt to reflect this duality. “In Jewish education we tend to connect our kids to Israel but not to America. Kids would come back from Israel and say, ‘That’s how to be Jewish; you have to live there.’ And at Camp Ramah on the Fourth of July, we had red, white, and blue cupcakes. I like cupcakes, but there was no discussion: Why are we celebrating this day? Can we talk about this one country that has really kept its promise to the Jews?”

Experiential education, as a buzzword, is very hot right now. In the wake of Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences, many educators today appreciate that different people learn in different ways. “Experiential education is about allowing for multiple entry points into learning,” said Mark S. Young, project coordinator for the Experiential Learning Initiative at the William Davidson Graduate School of Education of the Jewish Theological Seminary. “It’s about asking: How can I reach all our learners in different ways—through music, sports, dance, journals, discussions, pictures, and artifacts? It’s great as a way to deliver content and it’s great as an engagement tool, when there’s good facilitation and reflection.” Young pointed out that an informal group setting (like camp, Hillel, or a tour bus) can be a terrific catalyst: “When everyone’s sharing experiences and reflections and personal narratives, we’re all guides for each other. Everyone’s a teacher.”

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A Different Kind of Summer Vacation: Jewish Teens Take a Bus Across America

Through music, politics, and barbecue, Etgar 36 trips help high-school students develop a sense of identity as Jews and Americans