Inspiring. Transformative. Enriching. Exciting. Words alone cannot adequately describe The Anne Samson Jerusalem Journey, known as TJJ, NCSY’s premiere summer program for public school teens.
TJJ started out as just a revolutionary idea two decades ago, but it has grown and developed into a powerful program that has since touched the lives of 4,000 participants and counting. This summer, TJJ is celebrating its 20th anniversary, with no signs of slowing down or losing the incredible momentum that has fueled it since its inception.
IN THE BEGINNING
Back in 1998, the Orthodox Union began running public school culture clubs for unaffiliated teens in the tri-state area to help them explore and connect to their Judaism. Based on its initial success, the OU wanted to provide these teens with a summer program to cap off the year.
“That’s how TJJ was started, and it was unique since it was the first program created exclusively for public school students,” said Rabbi Barry Goldfischer, the founding director of TJJ, who has worked on the program since its inception. “We were really pioneers.”
“They told us it couldn’t be done,” recalled Rabbi Steven Burg, former international director of NCSY, who directed TJJ for the first few years with Rabbi Goldfischer. “But we always had a vision and believed it would succeed.”
They recruited 35 teens for the inaugural summer. “At the time, people still sent letters by mail and we mailed 3,000 letters to kids in Jewish public school,” Rabbi Goldfischer recalled. “It kind of went under the radar. We called it TJJ because the heart of the journey is Jerusalem.”
That summer was a learning experience for both participants and the staff. The trip included a unique combination of hiking and touring, optional prayer workshops and beginner’s minyan, learning Hebrew, and informal advisor-led study sessions about topics that would engage the teens and motivate them to stay connected to the Jewish community.
“The first year, we ran TJJ like an NCSY Shabbaton, with lots of fun and spirituality,” said Rabbi Goldfischer. “Our goal was to see some kind of tangible growth.”
Few could have envisioned how successful and impactful the program would turn out to be.
“TJJ changed my life,” said Mo Lidsky, an alumnus from the first year. “Those four weeks shifted my perspective on who I was, and what I thought about religion and the Jewish people.” After TJJ, Lidsky transferred from his public school in Cleveland to MTA and went on to attend Yeshivat Sha’alvim and Yeshiva University.
CHANGES AND CHALLENGES
“In the beginning, the program grew like wildfire,” said Rabbi Goldfischer. In 2000, TJJ doubled in size, with two buses, and three buses were quickly filled for the following summer. But it wasn’t meant to be. In 2001, the height of the intifada, every provider pulled out of the trip. TJJ traveled to Israel with just 12 kids, and “it was like a solidarity mission,” Goldfischer said.
The program evolved in subsequent summers, often adapting in response to terror attacks and the volatile situation in Israel. In 2002, NCSY ran Caravan West, in place of TJJ, where teens enjoyed a touring trip of the West Coast. In 2003, it was once again too dangerous to travel in certain parts of Israel, so NCSY organized Volunteers for Israel, where teens spent three weeks volunteering on an army base and one-week enjoying tours and hikes.
There was an unforgettable TJJ moment in July 2008, when the bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, IDF soldiers abducted by Hezbollah, were returned to Israel via the Israeli-Lebanese border. Instead of spending time rappelling and hiking in the North, TJJ went to the Goldwasser family’s home in Nahariya to pay a shiva call to the family and show their support.
Several years later, during the intifada in 2014, teens on TJJ Ambassadors spent several hours in bomb shelters in Jerusalem on the first night of their trip. But the regular TJJ program traveled to the West Coast instead of Israel. “Although it was a successful summer, it was very different because we weren’t experiencing the holiness of connecting to Israel and our heritage,” Rabbi Goldfischer said.
PUTTING TJJ ON THE MAP
Despite some setbacks in its earliest years, TJJ continued to grow. Its long-term success and sustainability can be attributed to generous contributions from major donors like Joseph (Yossi) Stechler, whose fundraising efforts and support helped ensure that the program could continue to be heavily subsidized.
“Back then, it was really unheard of for an Orthodox organization to have an Israel summer program for unaffiliated teens, and people didn’t really understand it,” said Rabbi Burg. “Yossi Stechler, himself a ba’al teshuva and a product of the public school system, made the case that the OU had a responsibility to put money towards subsidizing TJJ, and because of that, he really helped put TJJ on the map.”
Stechler and his wife host the TJJ buses each summer at their Israel home in Zichron Yaakov and enjoy the chance to meet the teens. Yossi is consistently impressed by their desire to grow.
“It’s hard to describe how wonderful the TJJers are, reaching for something they never knew existed before,” he said. “One summer, a young man came up to me and asked in a very cynical tone: ‘Tell me, why you are giving scholarships to TJJers?’ I said, ‘I’m in the investment business and you are the best investment I can make.’ I saw him later that summer and he told me, ‘I just kept my first Shabbos.’ It’s amazing, and kids tell me all the time to how much fun they had on TJJ and how big of an impact it had on them.”
Another significant gift was made by Lee Samson, in memory of his wife, Anne, and in 2014, TJJ was renamed the Anne Samson Jerusalem Journey. Longtime supporters of the OU, Lee became the first director of West Coast NCSY in 1971, and the Samsons helped establish the West Coast branch of the OU and the first NCSY summer program, Camp NCSY.
“Lee Samson’s vision, and generous philanthropy in memory of his beloved wife Anne, has enabled thousands of unaffiliated public school students to connect with their Jewish heritage through an incomparable Israel experience,” said Allen Fagin, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.
EXPANSION AND IMPACT
As a result of TJJ’s initial success, Jewish Student Union (JSU) clubs were created in public schools in the early 2000s, as an outgrowth of TJJ. “At that time, in 2001 and 2002, public schools kids were not the focus of NCSY, but because of those two programs, TJJ and JSU, we made public school kids a priority,” said Rabbi Burg.
As TJJ grew, the program also became more streamlined, with a full curriculum of educational materials, professional staff training, and tremendous developments in terms of strategic outreach and engagement.
“The buses are now geographically organized, with each region having its own bus and staff who continue the relationships after,” said David Cutler, the director of NCSY Summer. “We also have a more formal curriculum, with a targeted, focused approach to help us inspire the teens.”
In the summer of 2010, when TJJ had grown to five buses, the program held a “Yom TJJ” in Israel, where staff and teens from all the TJJ buses came together to celebrate with a barbecue at Gan Sacher and a concert by musician Chaim Dovid. This was the impetus and blueprint for what would become Yom NCSY, a mega event that has recently reached the thousands.
Building on TJJ’s success and popularity, NCSY introduced TJJ Ambassadors in 2010, a five-week trip for public school students that combines touring, leadership training, community service, traditional Beit Midrash study, as well as Israel advocacy. In 2013, NCSY launched TJJ Plus as a second-year program for TJJ alumni. However, in 2014 it relaunched as TJJ Ambassadors Poland. TJJ Ambassadors Poland allows public schools to teens to discover Jewish history in Poland before touring Israel through the lens of Jewish leadership and social action.
“TJJ, and all of its programs, are truly transformative,” said Cutler. “Our research shows that 80 percent of the kids stay connected afterwards, and many become Shomer Shabbat.”
A 2015 study by Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College found that 92% of TJJ alumni feel emotionally attached to Israel and 95% say it’s important for them to marry a Jew. The study concluded that “TJJ propels many of its alumni to higher Jewish engagement” and “produces significant Jewish engagement and identity among young people who were not raised in Orthodox homes.”
INGREDIENTS OF SUCCESS
What makes TJJ so successful? Beyond the touring of a typical program, it gives public school kids a rare opportunity to tap into Israel’s holiness, forge lasting friendships, and learn about the beauty of a Torah-observant lifestyle.
“TJJ is one of the purest forms of education and inspiration that NCSY does, particularly geared toward a non-Yeshiva audience, and it is the pride of the organization,” said Rabbi Moshe Benovitz, managing director of NCSY. “TJJ attracts kids who are thirsting for this kind of experience: a meaningful, real, and concentrated opportunity for growth, and it’s truly transformative.”
The talented advisors are also key to the program’s long-running success, and most importantly, they ensure that TJJ alumni continue to learn and grow even after those incredible four weeks in Israel come to an end.
“Instead of TJJ being the end point for working with these kids, we know the real work begins when they come back home, by getting them to stay interested and connected,” said Rina Emerson, an advisor on the first two years of TJJ and now the CEO of NY NCSY and Managing Director of NCSY.
Even though the trip is only four weeks long, it’s often a two or three-year commitment from advisors, and for many it’s a lifelong relationship. “I have advisors from years ago, who now have families of their own, who still call their TJJers to wish them a good Shabbos, and attend their weddings as well,” said Rabbi Goldfischer.
TJJ alumni also serve as advisors, which only further enhances the experience for both participants and staff. Netanya Stein, 21, an alumna of TJJ as well as NCSY’s GIVE and JOLT programs, will be an advisor on TJJ this summer for the second year in a row.
“My favorite part TJJ is showing kids the beautiful parts of Judaism, and how it can enhance your life in a positive way,” she said. “I can really relate to my TJJers’ experiences and connect with them on a deeper level.”
And even after they get married and begin a life of their own, advisors continue to return to TJJ. Rina Emerson worked on TJJ with her husband, Dov, in the early 2000s. C.M. Nimchinsky and Chayim Gerson met while working on TJJ Ambassadors in 2014, got married the following year, and have been working as TJJ Ambassadors program directors since 2016. This year, their third summer, they will be bringing along their 9-month-old daughter as well.
“We love working together with these incredible teens, seeing them grow and be inspired, and being able to have a small fingerprint in that growth,” said C.M.
THE FUTURE OF TJJ
Where will TJJ go from here? The plan is to expand the program even further and to reach as many public school teens as possible, through JSU clubs and other outlets, and to open more buses under the branding of TJJ. This summer, there will be over 500 teens on 14 buses connected to various TJJ programs.
“For every one of the kids on TJJ, there are hundreds more kids who could benefit from the same program,” said Rabbi Benovitz. “We are far from done and satisfied and want to keep reaching as many kids as possible.”
“I expect that in a few years, we’ll have 20 buses and double the size of the program,” added Cutler.
There are also future plans to possibly organize a TJJ style trip for parents, in partnership with the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP).
“NCSY, and TJJ in particular, has been so successful at inspiring and educating the next generation of Jewish leaders,” said Rabbi Micah Greenland, international director of NCSY. “As we celebrate TJJ’s 20th anniversary, I look forward to seeing the program expand and reach new heights, while building upon its previous successes to continue impacting thousands of teens in the next 20 years and beyond.”