Zach Goldberger

By David Zenlea

Zach Goldberger, head of Teen Mission, had me at “Domain-neutral educational philosophy.”

“You can’t really give somebody a test and say, ‘Are you connected to Israel?’” he explained. “Domain-neutral educational philosophy is assessing the development of how [teens] engage with Israel.”

And here I thought I was going to be interviewing a cool camp counselor about falafel stands and camel rides. 

To be clear, Goldberger is cool, a personable 26-year-old who loves sports and music — a serious vinyl collection and floor-standing speakers lurk in the background of his video-call screen. He also assures me the Teen Mission he’s leading this summer will provide plenty of opportunities to eat.

Yet the intentionality — kevanah — with which he speaks typifies what makes Teen Mission different. There are, of course, many organized youth trips to Israel and have been for decades. However, by the 1990s it had become clear that these efforts, typically run by individual synagogues or, conversely, as part of national programs, resulted in fewer young Detroit Jews going to Israel compared to other communities.

The solution was a community-wide intensive program. The first “Miracle Mission for Teens” as it was initially called, took off for Tel Aviv in July 1996 and has been a fixture ever since. Coordinated by Tamarack Camps and Federation, it draws from multiple synagogues as well as from the generosity of Sue and Alan Kaufman, who enable the maximum number of students to be able to attend with minimal financial barriers.  

The Detroit Teen Mission has been a fixture since 1996.

“These are teens who would otherwise not have a chance to go to Israel but for this trip, whether it be financial reasons or just opportunities,” noted Alan Kaufman, adding that this in fact describes most teens in the area. “There are those who have the opportunity via the school they go to, but the majority of the Jewish population in the city do not have the opportunity to go to Israel but for the Teen Mission.”

The success of such efforts are hard to argue with: Detroit now ranks among the top of comparatively-sized communities in terms of Jewish young people who have visited Israel, according to the 2018 Detroit Jewish Population Study. “We’ve seen such great results in notes from kids who have gone, and hearing from their parents,” said Kaufman. “Hearing all the good news has kept us going.”

In 2016, Tamarack Camps took on a formal role in organizing and staffing the trip, although it remains open to all local high schoolers. Multiple studies have found both summer camps and trips to Israel to be effective means of connecting young people to Judaism. Consider a month-long Israel experience run by Jewish camping professionals a way of stacking the deck.

“As a camping agency, we feel in a unique position to provide that camp experience: camaraderie on the bus; a strong itinerary; voices that help tell the stories being centralized to the journey,” said Tamarack CEO Lee Trepeck. “The right balance of entertainment and education is something we take pride in.”

Goldberger epitomizes that balance. He began working as a counselor more than a decade ago at a sports camp run by the Union for Reform Judaism, where his ability to meaningfully engage campers came to the attention of Rabbi Josh Bennett of Temple Israel.

“He had a very, very positive attitude towards both the job and the opportunity to be a mentor to young Jewish teens, and I think that combination was really exciting to watch,” said Bennett. 

Bennett brought him to Detroit in 2017 to fill a youth director role at Temple Israel. He moved on to Tamarack last year as head of its Teen Leadership Village and soon thereafter took on Teen Mission.

“Zach had the right combination of maturity, fun, and wisdom that motivated a group of our teenagers to really want to be a part of his conversations,” said Trepeck. 

Goldberger is presently earning his graduate degree at Brandeis University and is part of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship/Davidson Scholars Program. We caught him during a break in his studies to talk about how he became a camping lifer and what’s in store for Teen Mission participants this summer. 

“I went to camp and never actually left”

The best description of my professional life is that I went to camp as a camper in 2008 and never actually left.

I grew up with a speech impediment, which I still have, and I didn’t want to speak to anyone. I went to camp just because someone handed me a pamphlet and said, ‘You’re tall, you play basketball, and they’re opening up a Jewish sports camp [6 Points Sports Academy] an hour and a half from Raleigh [where Goldberger is from]. I said, “OK” but there was a part of me that was kicking and screaming out the door, because I was scared to speak. There’s a little bit of a biblical connection to Moses, with his speech, although I didn’t know it at the time.

And so I went for a summer — and I felt the most comfortable I’ve ever been. My staff and the counselors were there to be the support systems that my parents and teachers tried to be, but I didn’t want it from them. For some reason it was camp where I really felt the most comfortable and could be my best self. 

I was able to find a home and a community that accepted me for who I am, and also wanted to see me succeed. Whatever I have — whatever anybody else was dealing with — didn’t really matter at camp. 

I remember, my counselor for color wars asked me to emcee for our team. I go, “You want to have me on the mic? You know I have a stutter.” And he said, “Who cares?” Camp is an experiential environment where kids learn things and also can put them into practice. 

Detroit now ranks among the top of similar-sized communities in terms of Jewish young people who have visited Israel.

It’s also a laboratory for experiences in Judaism as well. I was able to learn how people celebrate Shabbat in New York, in Texas, and California. Coming from Raleigh, North Carolina, I didn’t really understand Havdalah and things like that. You’re able to bring that home with you — become a more confident person and more confident Jew as well.

“Something to make a career out of”

I came back as staff all through college. In that role I was a basketball coach, and also a staff person, and then the program director at 6 Points in 2016. But I knew I wanted more. In the last year, when I was program director, Rabbi Josh Bennett at Temple Israel was a visiting rabbi. He became a very important mentor of mine, and still is. He got me to know that the Jewish professional world is something to make a career out of.

“Educate them in a way that creates better dialogue”

I left Detroit to keep on developing my career at Brandeis. I’m getting two masters, one in Jewish education and one in Jewish leadership. Today, I’m taking a class in Jewish topics where we’re talking to an organization who deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and bringing Jewish professionals to Israel to educate them in a way that creates a better dialogue. I [also] take classes in human resources development, about the professional world and adaptive leadership. 

The Wexner Fellowship happened during my first year in graduate school and has been a great part. It’s a graduate fellowship, run by the Wexner program out of Cincinnati, Ohio, and the Davidson foundation as well, who has really close ties to Detroit. It’s a mentorship and it’s a great sense of network, as well. 

“It’s not a cookie-cutter program”

Leaving for the 2014 Mission from Metro Airport. The missions take an enormous amount of coordination between staffs at home and in Israel.

I think what’s really great about Teen Mission is that the staff, the rabbis, the communal leaders are all in. For bigger organizations and bigger trips, you might meet the staff when you get there. A lot of the times Teen Mission participants will meet a rabbi for the first time, but they’re part of the Detroit community. So you’re familiar with the organization, familiar with the staff.

Other trips don’t get them for 24 days. And it’s not just 24 days. It’s the months before, as they’re communicating with me, as they’re communicating with the Federation, Tamarack, and the shuls and rabbis. There’s constant contact. That’s to make sure that it’s the most comfortable experience for everyone. It’s not mass produced, it’s tailored to be the experience of a lifetime, and it’s great for the Detroit community. And for those on the trip, it’s not going to be a cookie-cutter program. That’s not how we run. That’s not how you create a connection with Israel.

“I want to be a guide”

On college campuses, with the rise of BDS and things like that, I want kids to be best prepared to deal with those tough and challenging situations. But — this goes to my Jewish philosophy of education — I never want to impose any opinions… I want to be a guide. An emotional guidance and a spiritual guidance to help navigate those situations.

“Our culture is steeped in breaking down barriers”

For this year, the RootOne grant made the trip significantly cheaper. The initial ground cost was $7,095 — that also included a $500 COVID fee, which was the testing and things like that to make sure we were going to be safe. But through the RootOne foundation, each participant gets a $3,000 voucher that is also attached with certain pre-Israel trip educational requirements. So now the ground cost is $4,095. We applied for this grant because our culture is steeped in breaking down the barriers and making sure that every kid is able to have these experiences.

For more information on the Detroit Teen Mission, click here.

(Zach Goldberger photo by Ilene Perlman.)