Billy Planer, Founder & Executive Director
Cindy Karol, Director of Operations
Eli Friedman-Heiman, Associate Director
Geoff Gross, Associate Director
Etgar 36 takes teens and adults on journeys across America exposing them to hands-on learning experiences in history, politics and activism, with the goal of empowering and inspiring them to get involved and create change. We foster the American Jewish voice by espousing the Jewish value of recognizing that there are many sides to an issue, and then meeting with representatives of differing viewpoints. Participants grapple with key issues, discover their passions, develop what they believe and learn how to use their voice. Etgar 36 engages our community with the Jewish traditions of political and social activism and tikkun olam.
Jewish teachings and practice are at the core of every Etgar 36 journey.
A major tenant of any Etgar 36 journey is to understand the concept of elu v’elu - these and those. During our summer program for teens, as we meet with representatives of all sides of political issues, such as abortion rights, marriage equality and the second amendment, we practice this teaching to ensure that the views of all people we interact with are heard and respected. Inspired by the Talmud, which takes painstaking measures to include multiple voices of a debate, we teach our participants the lost are of civil discourse. They come to understand that just because a point of view may be different than yours or not the "winning" voice of a debate, we should not dismiss it as it may be of value to help us understand ourselves and the world better.
Countless times in the Torah we are commanded to take care of the stranger for we know what it is like to be "the other.” A major tenant of any Etgar 36 journey is to understand the concept of being created b'tzelem elohim - in God's image and, therefore, we are all connected. On our Civil Rights journey, which we take schools and synagogue groups on during the academic year, we engage the participants not only in the 1960s Civil Rights movement but relate it to current times and other marginalized groups. For example, we visit the Names Project, which houses the AIDS Memorial Quilt. We discuss how a disease that, at first, was thought to only impact a community that did not have power and a voice in America (the gay community in the early 1980s), was allowed to go untreated and not discussed. Yet, 30 years later, every part of our population has been impacted by HIV/AIDS, stressing the point that we are all connected and what impacts one, impacts all.
A fundamental belief of an Etgar 36 journey is that once you humanize the “other,” you can't dismiss or hate them because we are all connected. Participants on an Etgar 36 journey begin to view people not as the "other" but as "Another". Another human being created in God's image. As we read from the Haggadah during Passover, "In every generation, a person is obligated to see him or herself as though s/he came forth from Egypt.” Our participants come away with a strong sense of tikkun olam - to become involved with other’s struggles and the responsibility to change, improve and take ownership of our world.
Although Etgar 36 is an intense educational experience, we also recognize that experiencing all that God has blessed us with in this great nation is a powerful and transformative experience. Built into our summer program are opportunities to enjoy concerts, museums, comedy clubs, poetry readings, and Broadway shows, as well as the awe and beauty of our national parks and canyons.
Our Rabbis understood that, as Jews, we were often not accepted into other countries and communities, so they developed the concept of "dinah de-malchutah dinah" - the law of the land is the law of the land. This helped calm the fears of the host country that we would follow their laws. Over the past 240 years we have not only become accepted in America, but have become a powerful community and voice. On Etgar 36's journeys, we help Jewish teens and adults learn about our rich history in America and help them understand the importance of being at the forefront of social movements. This is another example of where Etgar 36 has stepped into a void to solve a dilemma. As a community, we do a great job of connecting Jewish teens to their spiritual home of Israel but most of these students will not live there but will remain in America. Etgar 36 helps make a connection between their Jewish identity and physical homeland of America. As the Atlanta Jewish Times said about the Founder and Director of Etgar 36 “Billy Planer might not be the first to recognize that a strong Jewish identity can develop through travel in America and not just through trips to Israel and to Holocaust sites in Europe, but he has done as much or more than anyone to put the idea into practice."
The Jewish teachings, traditions, education and experiences on our journeys help our participants realize that a powerful entree to their Jewish identity and community can be via social and political activism.
We use text, film and history and hands-on experiences to teach our lessons and help our participants see what appears to be only secular through a Jewish lens. For example, when traveling into Las Vegas we study Jewish gangsters and their involvement in building that city. When in New York City, we visit the site of the Triangle Shirt Factory and discuss the major impact of the fire in that building which was the involvement of Jews in creating labor and zoning laws, as well as the union movement that impacted the development of this country.
Before we meet with groups and individuals representing multiple sides of an issue (abortion, guns, marriage equality, etc.) we frame the overall issue and bring in Jewish texts that address the issue and explore the Jewish views of the issue. There are also numerous opportunities for discussions on Jewish spirituality, belief and theology and participants are exposed to various denominations and their practices through our Friday night Shabbat services.
Our goal is to actually blur the line between Jewish wisdom and what appears secular so that the participants develop an identity that is a seamless blend, enriched with a strong and powerful connection to their Jewish beliefs and values.
Etgar 36 subscribes to an educational model we call "percolating education.” We understand that many of the lessons we infuse throughout our journeys will reveal themselves for a long time after the participant steps off the bus and surface at various stages of their lives. Alumni have spoken about how the trip influenced them to reengage with Judaism when they got home, from being motivated to attend Hebrew School or synagogue to getting involved with a Jewish youth group. Etgar 36 has been cited many times as a major influence on what college and program of study the alumni choose and many have said their choice of career path can be linked to their time on our bus.
Our program is aimed at influencing people to open their eyes to the world and feel connected to the issues and people around them. We have seen and heard about many alumni getting involved in local political campaigns, as well as volunteering with a specific issue they learned about and became passionate about while on an Etgar 36 journey.
Teachers have contacted us about alumni standing up in class and teaching about a historical event or an issue they learned about and synagogue religious schools and youth groups have structured their program around the journeys we run for their students.
Please see our supporting material and website for some of the many comments, e-mail reflections, essays and articles which alumni have written regarding the impact Etgar 36 has had on them.
Etgar 36 recognizes that Jewish wisdom can, and should, be applied to every situation and experience that our participants encounter, from gleaning personal knowledge and growth to opening up the doors to activism in order to help shape a better world.
We explore Jewish identity not only in terms of our history, but in ways that go beyond the traditional pillars of Jewish education, such as the Holocaust, Israel and religious practice. For example, this summer we were able to configure our journey so that we were in Cleveland, OH for the Republican National Convention and in Philadelphia, PA for the Democratic Convention! We met with and were inspired by Jewish leaders of both parties. Although our students are not old enough to vote in this coming election, their unique experience will most certainly have a profound impact on their lives.
Additionally, we have found success by making sure that we couch Jewish wisdom in popular culture by taking advantage of making use of video clips, music lyrics and current TV and movie references that also illustrate the Jewish wisdom we are imparting. We find it so important to make Judaism relevant and meaningful in everyday life and have found success when we do not try to dissect and separate the participant’s Jewish identity from their secular identity, but show how they compliment each other and blend into one cohesive individual.
These concepts of Jewish wisdom have led to the success of our program, as well as the “success” of the thousands of lives we have touched!
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