Getting three phone calls from friends in Israel was "the best birthday present ever," Jessie Atkin said.
Almost four years after her remarkable "Journey for Identity" - the Rochester-Modi'in Partnership's three-week odyssey from Rochester to Poland and Israel - the ties formed remain strong. The experiences that 16 American and 16 Israeli teens shared had a profound impact, one that in Jessie's case inspired an award-winning play.
It was witnessing the sites of the Holocaust in Poland that particularly stimulated Jessie's creative side. She was fascinated by the different contextual experiences that each member of the group brought to the Journey. Some had experienced anti-Semitism; some hadn't. Some of the Americans had gone to school with plenty of Jewish peers; some, like Jessie, one of just four Jewish kids in her class, had not. Their education about the Holocaust was another important variable, as was their family's inter-generational structure.
How did these different elements impact each individual's Journey?
Later, as a student at Washington University in St. Louis, Jessie took a playwriting course and incorporated these themes, which continued to intrigue her, into a play. Entitled "What Will You Tell Your Children," she interwove the stories of several Jewish students before and after a trip to Poland. Jessie was encouraged to enter her play in the university's A. E. Hotchner Playwriting Festival and went on to receive top honors for a full length play.
With this honor comes the privilege of having a staged reading of her play with the help of a professional dramaturge, director and cast in the fall of 2009. Jessie's hope is that she will eventually be able to bring her play back to Rochester and share it with local high school students.
Jessie Atkin today
The Journey for Identity
Jessie was between her sophomore and junior years of high school when she went on the Journey, with her twin sister Hannah, in the summer of 2005. Beyond being "incredibly fun" she says, "JFI was really important to me, because you turn 13, you have rites of passage, but JFI was the first Jewish identity decision I made for myself. It was, 'I want to go, I want to do this'."
The Journey began when the Modi'in contingent came to Rochester to stay in the homes of their Rochester counterparts. They spent a week getting to know each other and experiencing life in the American Jewish community. The group then traveled en masse to Poland (along with Federation staff, volunteers and Rochester Holocaust survivor Helen Levinson) to witness the concentration camps and what remains of Jewish life there. Then it was on to Modi'in, including home hospitality with the Israeli participants' families, and the modern state of Israel.
Going from Poland to Israel, Jessie said, "You really learn why Israel is there and why it's necessary. JFI made me more aware of how being Jewish was a really important part of how I identified myself."
With her talents as a writer and her ability to integrate life experiences into her work, Jessie's playwriting days have just begun; in fact, she is hard at work on a second project. But her first act began with the Journey for Identity.