In helfman

By Rabbi Jordan Helfman.

I want to start better articulating visions of what a Reform Jewish journey looks like for teens at Holy Blossom Temple – a journey that includes participation in שנת נ”צר Shnat Netzer – a gap year program offered by the Reform Movement between the end of secondary school and the beginning of university – or whatever life path one has chosen.

Rabbi Jordan Helfman

Rabbi Jordan Helfman

I did not participate in a gap year program.  I remember stumbling back into my dorm room after my first Friday night at my university’s hillel, knowing that I had come to university Jewishly immature.  Why was everyone standing in line to wash their hands in a sink strangely positioned at the side of the dining room, distant from any toilet? And when walking away from that faucet, why were they eerily silent, staring at me if I tried to talk to them? [Answers here.  Most Reform Jewish deemphasize the role of rituals regarding the Temple in Jerusalem, but some reclaim these rituals with new meaning.]

Having met students who participated in gap years, I know I would have been better prepared, both Jewishly and academically, had I taken a year to enrich myself as a human being.  But instead I went straight from high school to university, following my community’s expectations, and not knowing anything different.

Now, you – parent, grandparent, teen, younger kid – know about Shnat Netzer.  You (or your child/grandchild) will not have met my highest expectations if you have not seriously considered a gap year in Israel with the reform movement.

This is only one element of creating a new culture at Holy Blossom Temple – where becoming a Bar Mitzvah is just a start to a Jewish Journey that includes deep and meaningful teen involvement and attendance in a gap-year program before university, college or any other ‘next station’ on life’s journey.

While there are many options for gap year programs, including social justice initiatives in North America and around the world, none teach what it means to
be a Reform Jew in a deep Jewish context the way that the שנת נ”צר program does.

I first learned about this program during my time co-directing the British NFTY equivalent, Liberal Jewish Youth – נוער ציוני רפורמי (Reform Zionist Youth).  The members of the youth movement that had participated in Shnat Netzer were capable educators, mature leaders, and driven with a vision of what an immersive Reform Jewish life can be like.

Shnat Netzer has three elements – all of which are avenues to living a Reform Jewish life, and make participants struggle to articulate their relationship to God, Torah and Israel.

·        Kibbutz Experience – Time spent living on a Kibbutz (often a Reform Jewish Kibbutz like Lotan or Yahel, but this isn’t always possible due to numbers, funding and timing).  This is an opportunity for the group members to bond with each other and others their age on the kibbutz, and start to explore what it means to be a part of an intentional Jewish community.

·        Options – There are a few options presented every year, including living in a shared apartment in a city and doing social justice work with area youth, continued kibbutz experiences, or, some years, hiking the length of Israel and learning about the country on the way.

·        Etgar (challenge) or Machon (institute) – Machon L’Madrichei Chutz L’Aretz is a program formed in 1946 to educate youth leaders from around the world in Israel.  It is a fantastic and more academic leadership training education
program.  Etgar is an exercise in communal living, based in Beit Shmuel – the home of Progressive Judaism in Israel – that focuses more on informal education and what it means to live a Reform Jewish life.  While both are amazing opportunities, participants need to choose one.

As we help create the expectation of a Jewish Journey amongst our youth, we help prepare them for a full Jewish life through lifelong friendships.  When participants return for their next stage in life, they have a strong support network, a better sense of self, and a drive to bring Reform Jewish values to others.

I look forward to being your (and your children’s.. and/or grandchildren’s) partner on this journey.  Please be in touch.


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