What began as a one-man operation to expose Jewish teens to a bit of travel and some fresh ideas 13 years ago has grown into a successful venture that helps scores of teens and adults expand their horizons.

Etgar 36 is a recipient of the Mintz Family Foundation Award for Creative Jewish Education and in 2008 was named one of the nation’s most innovative Jewish nonprofits by the Slingshot Guide.

Congressman John Lewis speaks to Etgar 36 participants outside the U.S. Capitol.

Congressman John Lewis speaks to Etgar 36 participants outside the U.S. Capitol.

The program for teens is celebrating reaching its teen years with a bar mitzvah party Saturday night, Jan. 30, hosted by founder and director Billy Planer. The event will include the premiere screening of a documentary on Etgar 36 and a panel discussion involving some of the people who speak to participants on the trips.

Planer spoke to the Atlanta Jewish Times about the celebration and his organization.

AJT: Why are you throwing a party?
Planer: We’re celebrating that the program has grown from a small startup to really becoming something that impacts 1,200 people a year who come on our journeys. How we’re contributing to moving the world further along, teaching people the history of political activism and developing that and their American Jewish identity, and getting them to talk to each other — people who they might disagree with. It’s really about showing off that we’ve grown to this point where we are a much bigger program now than just this little startup 13 years ago. It just seemed natural to get the word out to a wider audience about what we are.

 

AJT: What did you envision when you started?
Planer: I have to be honest: I didn’t envision where we are now. When I was a youth director at the Ahavath Achim Synagogue in the ’90s, I started taking the youth group on a yearly Disney World trip, and I was thinking we could and should have a better, deeper, smarter program with the teenagers. I decided we should go to a different city every year, where we engaged in the history and culture and the sights and issues of each city. I realized that’s where my passion was. That first summer trip in 2003 was when this really started.

 

AJT: What does the name Etgar 36 stand for?
Planer: Etgar is the Hebrew word for challenge, and 36 is the double chai of being Jewish and American, so it’s the challenge of melding identities into one unified person.

Etgar 36’s 36-day and 22-day summer trips include the Grand Canyon.

Etgar 36’s 36-day and 22-day summer trips include the Grand Canyon.

AJT: How do you fund all this?
Planer: It’s programmatic funding. We cover our own costs through the trips. I thought I would have to go the traditional route of going to funders and foundations, but I realized with the same amount of time and effort to cultivate funders and foundational support, I could sell trips during the winter. Now we run 30 to 40 trips in the Southeast during the winter, all the way from fifth-graders at day school to empty-nesters to every group in between — interracial groups, interreligious groups. We’re not your typical Jewish nonprofit educational venture where you’re funded by people. We get zero funding from foundations or Federations or things like that.

 

AJT: What do you get out of it personally?
Planer: In this world it’s very easy to become cynical and frustrated about where we are politically and with the slow pace of change and involvement of people in changing the world. I wake and realize I’m doing something about that. It is really a wonderful, phenomenal feeling, knowing I’m doing my little piece to help move us forward by engaging people in the political process and letting them be empowered to create a change, with travel, history, politics and political discourse, and bridging the gap. One of the fundamental philosophies of the program is that we are all connected, so what impacts you impacts me. It’s amazing to be able to do what your passion is and what speaks to you and make a living doing that. What could be better?

What: Etgar 36 bar mitzvah celebration

Who: Director Billy Planer

Where: Ahavath Achim Synagogue, 600 Peachtree Battle Ave., Buckhead

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30

Information: 404-456-6605 or etgar36@etgar.org