When Lou Balcher began running the Young Jewish Leadership Concepts (YJLC) Pocono Rafting Weekend down the Lehigh River 30 years ago, nobody had cellphones and internet use was limited to a few scientists.
And if you were a teenager or young adult wanting to visit Israel, you actually had to pay for it. Birthright wouldn’t come around until years later.
Today, technology and world travel is ingrained among youth.
Yet that shouldn’t diminish the experience when young adults from the Delaware Valley and other parts of the Northeast Corridor assemble July 28 to 30 for what Balcher said will be a memorable experience, beginning with a Center City Shabbat dinner.
He just wishes more were willing to take a leap of faith.
“It’s more challenging every year,” said Balcher, who contended that young adults tend to wait until the last minute to commit to the trip. “Young adults are less willing to explore on their own. They’re less adventurous in terms of taking risks because of their need to be connected to the internet.”
While there’s no ban on phones or iPads, Balcher warned that there’s no guarantees they’ll get a connection while on the water or camping. That shouldn’t be a factor, he said, because of the busy itinerary.
One highlight will be hearing stories from the 1976 raid on Entebbe, Uganda, which took the life of Yoni Netanyahu, brother of Israel’s prime minister. They’ll hear from one of the hostages, Benny Davidson, along with former Mossad agent Avner Avraham, who participated in the daring rescue of about 100 hostages.
Both were in Philadelphia this time last year to participate in ceremonies at Congregation Mikveh Israel, where Netanyahu is memorialized, commemorating the raid’s 40th anniversary.
“I didn’t know Yoni, but I’m the leading witness to his sacrifice,” Davidson said then. “I’m deeply grateful to him and his friends for bringing us back alive.”
Davidson, who was on a Bar Mitzvah trip from Israel to the U.S. when terrorists took over the plane, is returning to make sure the next generation hears his harrowing story.
“Many young professionals have no conception,” said Balcher, who’s had speakers such as Sally Edelstein, wife of the former Israel ambassador to the U.S., along with a panel of eyewitnesses to the Gaza war at past events. “It’s an important story to share because it connects them with Israel.
“We originally started the program around an Israel trip — promoting Israel by holding activities for young adults to meet each other. It grew to up to four times a year. We had 400 to 600 each month. We had trips to Jamaica and Costa del Sol as well.”
Eventually, those numbers dwindled, and the YJLC had to recalibrate. Today, summer whitewater rafting in the Poconos and a winter ski weekend are among the few programs left.
“The goal for the weekend is for young adults to come together and connect with their heritage and with Israel,” Balcher said. “Hopefully, at least a few of them will go on to become our leaders in the coming years.”
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