Joyce Zeff Israel Study Tour: Connecting Across the Generations

Apr 28, 2022

Denver teen Sonya Hay, who took part last summer, is a third generation ISTer. Sonya’s mother, Fran Sterling, traveled on IST in 1982, and Sonya’s grandfather, Harry Sterling, who was, at the time, the president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE), is credited with helping to start IST. The program, which is now one of the last remaining U.S. community trips to Israel for teenagers, is celebrating its 50th year and boasts some 3,000 alumni. 

All three generations in the Sterling family gathered with JEWISHcolorado President and CEO Rabbi Jay Strear to reminisce about IST and its origins.  

In fact, it turns out that the Sterling family connection to the program goes back even a generation earlier than Harry’s. His father, Sam Sterling, was a Denver lawyer who, in the 1940s, was reported to have sent both money and guns—yes, guns—to the Haganah, the underground Jewish army in Palestine fighting to establish a Jewish state. 

In a 1997 interview with Westword, Sam talked about attending a meeting of the Allied Jewish Council where he stood up and announced a pledge of $250 to support the cause, as well as “a case of rifles for Palestine.”  

According to the Westword article, Sam was asked by Rabbi Herb Friedman, then head of Temple Emanuel, about a “clandestine arms-procurement ring in the United States, headquartered in New York City. The country was split into four regions…. Friedman asked Sam if he would head up the mountain region, which stretched from Montana to Texas.” 

Fran recalls how her grandfather, who she referred to as “Papa Sam,” said that, despite his efforts, he never thought he would live to see a world in which there was an official State of Israel. And though Sam never talked about his covert efforts to support the nascent country, his dedication made an impression on his son Harry. 

Said Fran, “I remember that, for a brief time, my father wanted to make aliyah. When I was a young girl, he took us to the Burger King restaurant on Happy Canyon Boulevard, sat us down, and told us we were moving to Israel.” Harry said he eventually decided against it: “I was pretty well settled here, and I would have to do something to make a living. There was no demand for lawyers in Israel back then.” 

Rabbis Eisenman from Rodef Shalom, Zwerin from Temple Sinai, Lipshitz from Beth Joseph, Laderman from Hebrew Educational Alliance, Steinhorn from BMH and Foster from Temple Emanuel, conceived of the trip in 1970. With rabbinic and congregational support, and the support of Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado, Harry recalls having helped launch IST with other community members, including the late Selma Cohen z”l. “We needed a community trip to Israel,” Harry said. The first trip departed in 1971. 

Fran said her IST experience “was formative. It’s part of why I went back (to Israel) in college. I had to figure out what place Israel was to hold in my life.” And while the 1980s version of IST was spiritual, educational, and social, she and her daughter agree that the trip has changed—a lot.  

This past summer’s version of IST included exploring a multitude of narratives by meeting with Bedouins, Palestinians, and Israelis. “Hearing from people who live [there] was amazing for me,” said Sonya. “I was a little worried that we wouldn’t hear or see what life is like; we had the opportunity to visit with people who we don’t always hear from, which I really appreciated.”   

Today’s complex and sometimes contradictory narrative about Israel and how Jews in America support the Jewish state was a topic of many discussions on IST. Said Sonya, “We had students on IST who were very supportive of Israel and people who were the opposite and who did not agree with Israel’s handling of the West Bank. It was really valuable to see how diverse our opinions were,” she said. The modern version of IST also invites Israeli students to join the trip for part of the time, providing a teen’s view of life in the Jewish state. 

Said Sonya, “I’m the only Jewish person in my friend group at East High School. Now, coming back, I can share my firsthand experience of the people who live there and the kids and what their lives are like. That is something unique that IST has provided.” 

IST has also equipped her with other valuable skills as she looks ahead to college. Sonya said her IST group became so close because they learned to practice empathy, especially when it came to differing opinions, and to manage conflict when people disagreed.  

Said Rabbi Strear, “IST in its current form is really intended to empower young people to be able to have informed conversations about Israel on many levels, but also to do that with an understanding of their own sense of self. The trip is designed to show students the richness and dynamism of Israel, and to create a sense of lasting connection that transcends whatever the issue of the day may be.” 

For Sonya, her connection to Israel is also part of her connection to Judaism. “I decided pretty early on when I joined BBYO and the Jewish affinity group in high school that I was interested in leadership roles as a young Jewish person.” She says that even before traveling on IST, she had already decided that being active in her Jewish community would be part of her college experience. “For me, it is important to identify as a Jew.”  

JEWISHcolorado’s Summer 2022 trip will depart in early June with more than 80 teens. IST is supported by RootOne and numerous donors. For more information, registration links, and a sample itinerary, visit https://www.jewishcolorado.org/joyce-zeff-israel-study-tour/

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