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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

Marjorie Ingall
May 22, 2014
Congressman John Lewis speaks with Etgar 36 participants outside the U.S. Capitol.(All images courtesy of Billy Planer)
Congressman John Lewis speaks with Etgar 36 participants outside the U.S. Capitol.(All images courtesy of Billy Planer)

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.”


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.”

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.”

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.”


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.)

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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Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.