As we turn in our Torah reading from Genesis to Exodus, we begin a journey that will take us on a 40-year trek through the desert following the exodus from Egypt. What’s always surprised me is how romantically this tumultuous journey is viewed by the rabbis and by Jewish tradition. It is remembered as a time of intimacy between God and the Israelites, as a honeymoon of sorts, where the Israelites grow into a people and forge the relationship with God that remains central to our tradition.
I think our tendency to look favorably on this story lies in the power of the journey it describes. Time spent out of our element, seeing new things and having new experiences, is a critical part of human development.
These kinds of opportunities, which place us in a bubble removed from the outside world, are especially powerful – and important – for teens. The chance to travel on their own with a group of peers, without the pressures of school, affects them profoundly. And to do so in a Jewish context adds a whole other dimension. For over 50 years, United Synagogue Youth has provided just such summer experiences for teenagers through USY on Wheels and USY Israel Pilgrimage. Tens of thousands have traversed the continent and traveled to Israel and Europe under our auspices. And each summer they return transformed, growing as individuals and equally important, as Jews.
One of the most frequent questions we get about USY on Wheels is, “Why would anyone want to spend six weeks on a bus?” Those who have already been on Wheels laugh at the question. Our alumni know that it is all about the journey. As we learn from the Israelites, one can wander with purpose. Deep friendships are forged through traveling and living together. A tremendous sense of accomplishment is gained from successfully making the journey from coast to coast and back. And a sense of independence develops as teens explore new places and cultures, without their families.
All of this serious growth happens while the kids have the time of their lives. Wheels participants visit incredible sites across North America, from Mount Rushmore to the Grand Canyon, Disneyland to Yellowstone. They visit museums, attend concerts and do volunteer work along the way. What I find most remarkable is that it is all created anew each year.
Each Wheels bus or Israel Pilgrimage group exists only once. We have no grounds, no fixed space. There is no coming back next summer for the same experience – the staff and group will be different, the hotels, sites and educational program will change. This impermanence creates a unique challenge and opportunity: how to create a fleeting community that makes a lasting impact? The same is true of our travel. Will there be a Shabbat in Cody, Wyoming, if we don’t pull up and bring Jewish life off our bus and into the hotel? And what does this teach our USYers? If he or she can keep kosher or pray, or celebrate Shabbat anywhere in the world, surely they can do it on a college campus or in a new city.
In the end, that is the message of the time in the desert. The community is forged by the act of journeying together. It is this experience that prepares them to be a people in the Promised Land. We take our teens on a journey so that we can ready the next generation of Jews to take their place wherever that place may be.