Summer Israel experiences can be transformative opportunities for American Jewish teens, and those of us who spend all year making these experiences as incredible as possible have been wrestling with the looming question mark that is the summer of 2021.
One colleague, reluctant to reimagine the popular Israel trip they run, remarked at a recent meeting of program executives that, “people need a little hope right now.” And as an eternal optimist, I couldn’t agree more.
At the same time, the realist in me is concerned that we are doing our teens a disservice if we follow the same keep-all-options-open-until-the-last-minute playbook that we (appropriately) used last spring, when Covid-19 threw all of our lives into chaotic uncertainty.
That’s why The Bronfman Fellowship, which I run, has decided to announce now that we will not be taking our group to Israel next summer. In light of the ongoing impact of Covid-19, and with guidance from public-health experts, we will instead run our 2021 fellowship in the Berkshires.
Put simply, we are deciding early to make our Plan B into Plan A — so we can spend the next months making sure that plan is as terrific as possible for the 26 high-school juniors who are ultimately selected for the program.
We did not arrive at this decision lightly. For 34 years, Bronfman Fellows have built a pluralistic community through a transformative intellectual and personal journey in which they learn to see the world through a broader lens. That journey traditionally begins with five weeks in Israel, and continues with a series of seminars in North America during the students’ senior year.
This year, our fellows’ journey will instead start in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains in Connecticut, at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. While there is no way to eliminate risk, the public-health experts we have consulted believe that a domestic experience in a camp-like setting can likely proceed more safely than a trip requiring international travel.
How did we land on this difficult decision when summer is still so far away? The answer lies in how we understand our mission in working with young people.
We believe that young people possess solutions for the future that have not yet been imagined today. We also believe that to tap into their creativity and problem-solving capacities, young people must develop the skills associated with resilience and adaptability: taking safe risks, accepting change, grappling with nuance, and adjusting to new circumstances.
Our program is a testament to the magic that happens when young people with diverse interests, identities, backgrounds, and perspectives come together around shared texts and experiences. The in-person, immersive nature of our fellowship summer paves the way for lifelong friendships, intellectual pursuits, and breakthroughs in community-building.
During the frenetic uncertainty of last spring, our team built elaborate contingency plans. Our “multiple scenarios” approach was exhausting, but we were determined to keep hope alive.
We ended up running our program virtually, and it worked out far better than we could have imagined. While the adults — faculty, staff, fellows’ parents — were wringing our hands over what might have been, the students were busy forging a path forward in this new reality.
There were late-night jam sessions, many shared emojis, and new slang to learn. There were phenomenal intellectual conversations, lots of laughs, and a remarkable amount of fun. New friendships blossomed, some of which may not have taken root in the same way had we been operating in person. Young people are far more resilient than we give them credit for, and the teens and college students we work with have accepted the limitations we’re all facing with brilliance, bravery, and ingenuity.
And so we have decided to model the resilience and creativity that we’ve seen — and hope to encourage — and embrace our best opportunity for a superb, in-person immersive experience.
In her parable “Welcome to Holland,” Emily Perl Kingsley offers a roadmap for resilience: “If you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things…about Holland.”
I first encountered this essay years ago, and it has resonated with me throughout the pandemic. While Jerusalem will forever remain The Bronfman Fellowships’ Italy, the Connecticut Berkshires are our Holland. By deciding now that Holland is where we’re heading, we’ll be able to embrace that particular journey with full hearts—and incredible plans.
Becky Voorwinde is the executive director of The Bronfman Fellowship.