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Two KCUSY alums running Nativ gap year program in Israel

Elana Goldberg
David Helfand

For the first time ever, two people from Kansas City’s USY chapter — Elana Goldberg and David Helfand — are serving as the American leaders of Nativ in Israel. Both are also graduates of the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy.

{mprestriction ids="1"}Helfand, who turns 24 later this month, is a 2009 HBHA graduate and earned a degree in Jewish studies from The American Jewish University in Los Angeles in May. Goldberg, 22, is a May graduate of Boston University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in religion. She is a 2010 HBHA graduate.

Nativ is a project of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. It is a challenging academic year program dedicated to creating and inspiring the Conservative Jewish leaders of tomorrow. Nativ, which means path in Hebrew, provides a unique opportunity to explore new directions on the journey to becoming a Jewish adult. From September to May Nativ participants are immersed in the rich and diverse society of Israel, exploring the land and enjoying a fulfilling Conservative Jewish lifestyle.

The gap-year program includes academic university classes, intensive Hebrew classes, Judaic and Yeshiva studies, and innovative leadership training. Nativ enables recent high school graduates to earn college credits for their studies while living in a classroom without walls.

Goldberg and Helfand traveled to Israel at the end of August and the program officially began earlier this month. Helfand is no stranger to Nativ, himself a Nativer in the 2009-10 school year. He studied at the Conservative yeshiva and did community service in Yerucham, two things he plans to do again while he’s on staff. For the past five summers, Helfand worked USY Summer Programs including being a rosh kvutzah (group leader) for USY on Wheels in 2013 and Eastern Europe Israel Pilgrimage in 2014.

This marks Goldberg’s 10th adventure in Israel. After spending the spring 2013 semester in Israel studying at the University of Haifa, Goldberg remained in Israel and was a madricha on USCJ’s Ramah Seminar. 

Stefanie Williams, Congregation Beth Shalom’s youth director and USY adviser, said having two young adults from here staffing this program in Israel says “so much about the Kansas City Jewish community.” 

“Internationally, the Midwest isn’t always looked at as the ones to set the highest standard, yet Kansas City has proven time and again that we have the most dedicated, most enthusiastic, most sought after young adults. The fact that two of our KCUSYers were sought after to staff this highly competitive program is an honor, something we are very proud of!” Williams commented.

Goldberg added, “A lot of people think that Jewish life comes out of both of the coasts or maybe even Chicago in the middle, but no one really thinks of Kansas City, so this is a very, very big deal for our city.”

Helfand is excited he and Goldberg will play such an integral role in this year’s program. He explained that all Nativ participants start out in Jerusalem for the first part of the program and then split into two groups for the second half of the program. Each track has two staffers, an American and an Israeli. Helfand is the American in charge of the group that will travel to Yerucham, in the southern part of the country. Goldberg and her Israeli counterpart will manage the Nativers in the northern track who are going to Kfar Hasidim. There are 70 Nativers in this year’s program.

An alum of the program, Helfand noted that more than anything it prepares the students for their future by teaching them to become independent before they start college.

“It puts you one step ahead of most college freshmen and it’s a tremendous year away from the normal life of living in the United States that allows you to go somewhere else and try something new and experience different things,” said Helfand, who along with his family belongs to Congregation Ohev Sholom.

A good amount of their time is spent taking care of administrative things. But Helfand clarified they do get time for themselves as well.

“I get the opportunity to spend my days learning a little bit, too, so I decided I wanted to go to the yeshiva as I do want to become a rabbi,” he said noting at some point during the year he most likely will begin applying to rabbinical schools. 

Nativ’s second semester, Helfand said, is devoted to community service and volunteering.

“Both tracks are at development and settlement communities that are smaller in size that really take in all the community service that the Nativers do,” he said.

He noted that Yerucham, which is about 38 kilometers from Beer Sheva, was never in the direct line of rocket fire this summer. Normally, he said, “it is safe from all conflict.”

He said the community service involves a variety of activities such as working in the fields, beautifying cemeteries and/or digging graves, volunteering in schools, working in soup kitchens and even with Magen David Adom — Israel’s pre-hospital emergency services organization.

“I did that when I lived in Yerucham, in addition to teaching English at an elementary school,” he said. “We do whatever the community needs.”

Helfand never expected to be chosen for this positon.

“I was looking to take at least a year off between graduating and starting rabbinical school. I figured this would be a great opportunity for me to give back.”

Goldberg actually applied for another position with USCJ. But the director of Nativ contacted her personally to see if she would consider this opportunity.

“You have to have some sort of involvement in the Conservative movement, it’s not just arbitrary and you have to have a deep knowledge and understanding of Israel and Judaism and Jewish education and Hebrew as well,” explained Goldberg as to why she was sought for the position. 

As a former USY Etzma Region president, Goldberg, whose family belongs to Beth Shalom, thinks the Nativ program “is very, very cool.”

“I think USY is very, very cool and I’m very excited to be a part of Nativ,” she said. 

As a Jewish educator, Goldberg said this is the perfect job for her.

“I think it’s really important to ensure the future of the Conservative movement by doing things like this,” she continued. 

Goldberg has staffed USCJ trips, but this past summer she led a Birthright trip to Israel, just as this summer’s conflict was beginning to heat up.

“I was there when the boys were kidnapped and when the other boy was killed,” she said.

“It was a very intense situation, but we did talk about it with our Birthright participants, which I thought was very important. Being a part of Birthright is learning all about Israel and being all excited to be there on the one hand, but on the other hand you have to understand the reality of what this place is.”

Goldberg emphasized once again she is happy to be working with this program because she believes in the future of the Conservative movement.

“I think this is an amazing opportunity not only for myself but for the kids there.”

As a Nativer, Helfand noted that “most every Nativer who finishes the program goes on and works in the Jewish community on their college campus, is active Jewishly and is proud of being Jewish, which is really, really important. I want to be able to give that opportunity to each and every one of them.”