When we first came on the scene, The Jerusalem Journey (TJJ) was an Israel-based NCSY summer camp looking to expand its scope. The program had previously focused on introducing young men and women to Jewish religious life, holy sites, and experiences. Given that these teenagers were about to begin college, however, there was a clear opportunity here to address a prevalent and controversial topic on American college campuses – the State of Israel itself. Rabbi Ben Gonsher reached out to us to make the case to a potential backer.
Right away, we put our research caps on, and the wheels were in motion. We began by sifting through piles of camper essays, notes from meetings, tentative schedules, and survey results. We believe that it’s critical to implement this kind of groundwork long before the cameras get involved.
Our aim was to find and give voice to the unwritten insider perspective. Using the materials the camp provided us, we initially understood TJJ as a chance for campers to engender a warm connection with the Jewish homeland. Thanks to TJJ, they would be emotionally prepared to face up to anti-Israel sentiment when they returned to America.
Then we took the step that would come to define the message of TJJ: we spent entire days chatting, individually and off the record, with numerous incoming campers. We learned, to our surprise, that they were largely from Israeli families that had moved to America. They already had an emotional connection with Israel; most of them had visited multiple times and had extended Israeli family!
By the time we scheduled our shoot days and prepped for the interviews, we had dug deep enough to uncover the key ingredient, the authentic identity and ideals of TJJ. We were ready with a different approach that accounted for the true nature of the program and its participants. We focused our attention on how spending the summer with TJJ had an impact on the campers’ understanding of hard-hitting ethical considerations such as the democratic nature of the Jewish State and its policies in Yehuda and the Shomron. Campers would return home with vital firsthand knowledge of the issues.
The TJJ program was launched as a direct result of the donor’s response to this film. NCSY was able to get the camp off the ground thanks to his immediate pledge of a quarter million dollars of seed money, with plans to expand gradually over the next few years. Of his own initiative, the donor also shared the video among his friends and acquaintances and quickly gathered even more patrons and sponsors for TJJ.
The fundraising team was inspired to follow up on the direction we had laid down for them and to increase their goals and expectations. The video circulated among all the staff and brought viewers to tears. Most movingly, Rabbi Gonsher remarked that we had helped the whole staff articulate their mission to themselves and even influenced the way they approached their jobs. Thanks to our persistence in getting to the bottom of the matter, they understood their undertaking more fully and had internalized it in a new way.
Our process made us active participants in TJJ, and we were pleased and proud to be partners in such a success.