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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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One of Planer’s most memorable moments happened when music made one kid connect with material the group was discussing about politics: “In Chicago, we were in Grant Park talking about the ’68 Democratic Convention, and we had the lyrics to ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’,’ ” Planer recalled. “A kid said to me afterward, ‘I’m a huge Dylan fan, and I never understood the lyrics before … and now I get it.’ And I realized, this is what it’s all about. You can almost hear the voices.”

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Etgar puts 32-40 incoming 10th-to-12th graders on a bus every summer for the nationwide tour. In 2004, the program began adding shorter trips during the year for schools, youth groups, adult synagogue groups, and seniors (so far, 350 kids have done the summer tour and 10,250 people have done the school-year trips). Potential summer participants apply with three brief essays and a telephone interview, which tends to weed out kids who are truly cranky about being forced by their parents to apply. (“Once, during a phone interview, a kid said, ‘Look, I just wanna go shopping around America,’ ” Planer said. “We didn’t let him in. But as an educator, I’ll often take the risk of taking a kid who might not be a model student—a lot of them rise to the occasion.”) The curriculum evolves a bit from year to year according to what’s in the news—this summer, for instance, there’s a new debate about raising the minimum wage. The 36-day trip costs a wince-inducing $7,000, comparable to a full summer at most Jewish camps. (Etgar’s revenue is all program-derived, in part because Planer doesn’t want to affiliate with any movement and wants to maintain Etgar’s independent status.)

Before the kids meet with a given day’s slate of activists, artists, musicians, lobbyists, or public servants, they have a session with the Etgar staff (there are six staffers, four of whom are former participants) to learn both historical background and Jewish perspectives on the given issues. They’re told to speak to everyone respectfully, regardless of his or her politics. The ultimate goal is to get kids interested in tikkun olam, healing the world, but they also learn a lot about the art of persuasion.

Justin Strudler, 17, said he felt enlightened by the trip’s crash course in the manipulation of public opinion. “We met with a pro-gun guy at a rifle range, and he was so intelligent. He said, ‘You wanna see me fire an Israeli pistol?’ We’re all Jewish kids; we all have a connection to Israel; we saw how he was trying to win us over. And on the other side, we talked to a great guy named Tom Mauser whose son was killed in Columbine—he wore his son’s shoes, the shoes his son died in. It was powerful. It evokes emotion. We were that kid’s age. And when someone’s talking about a political issue and he’s directly affected, it has an impact. But in some ways, it’s spin, too.”

Rossman-Reich, who attended in 2008, said, “Before the trip I was pretty self-centered. After it, I loved that I could have conversations that were about more than high-school drama.” For her, as for many kids, the highlight of the trip was the meeting with Congressman John Lewis. “It was crazy to meet firsthand with someone who had a direct impact on the future of the country,” she told me. “The whole trip is really about power—who has it, how it’s used—and how can you not talk about the civil rights movement? Congressman Lewis has amazing charisma, and talk about perseverance! He was arrested like 40 times, and he put everything on the line for what he believed in. That taught me a huge message about not giving up on something you’re passionate about.” Planer said that every year Lewis holds the kids spellbound. “Sometimes he only has 10 minutes to meet with us, sometimes much longer. But even 10 minutes is, like, dayenu. Kids say it’s the most powerful 10 minutes of the trip.” (In earlier years, during campaign season, the kids met with Barack Obama and John McCain. In New Orleans, during Katrina cleanup work, Planer finessed a chat with Brad Pitt.)

At the Grand Canyon.

There’s no way to travel across the South without trying some of the region’s famous food. (“In the South, there are three religions: football, church, and BBQ,” said Planer, whose favorite barbecue joint is Rendezvous in Memphis.) I’d suspected that Planer’s BBQ obsession—and the fact that, on a not-unrelated note, the tour isn’t kosher—might be the biggest deterrent for parents considering sending their high-schoolers on Etgar.

Wrong. “I get the biggest blowback about taking kids to meet with J Street,” Planer said of the liberal Israel advocacy group. “One dad whose kid went to day school, Camp Ramah, and USY, said, ‘I really have a problem with you taking them to an organization that says bad stuff about Israel.’ I told him, ‘Look, you’ve invested a lot in your child’s Jewish education. Don’t you think it’s time to take it out for a test drive? If a kid can’t stand up to someone saying the opposite of what they think, we’ve got bigger problems in our Jewish education system than J Street. If kids can’t hear any questioning of Israel from one person, how are we preparing their Jewish identity and Israel identity for the real world?’ ”

The kids themselves seem comfortable hearing different points of view. Strudler told me about marshaling facts on his Blackberry on the bus, trying to equip himself for a discussion with a pro-life activist. Afterward, he realized no presentation of statistics could change the guy’s opinion. “Liberally minded people like me tend to see their view as being on the right side of history, and seeing someone else feeling wholeheartedly that he’s on the right side of history is an interesting experience to have,” he told me. “It really is helpful to see the world through someone else’s eyes sometimes. It helps you learn to think for yourself.”

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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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