On the last day of June, the wheels on the bus will go round and round and 27 teenagers will set off from Atlanta on the 17th edition of the Etgar 36 bus trip across America.
Along the way, they will engage in an activity that in today’s polarized, echo chamber environment interests too few of their elders: Listening to opposing viewpoints on controversial issues and asking questions with the intention of learning, rather than gaining the upper hand in an argument.
Etgar is the creation of Billy Planer, who grew up at Ahavath Achim Synagogue, and has three decades of experience managing youth programs. “36,” he explained, comes from the “double chai” of being both Jewish and American, and “of realizing that our lives are connected to other people.”
In the past year, more than 2,400 people have traveled with Etgar, which also runs weekend civil rights history trips out of Atlanta through the South, attracting congregations and other groups from throughout the country.
“A lot of the kids who are signed up, I hear from the parents: I want them to get this, knowing full well that they don’t believe in it, that they don’t do it. But they want their kids to learn this skill,” Planer said over coffee in Decatur.
These are post-9/11 children, ages 14 to 18. Most, but not all, are Jewish. They come from 14 states; a handful are from Atlanta.
[Full disclosure: Our oldest son rode the bus 11 years ago.]
By the time the trip ends Aug. 4 in Washington, D.C. – they fly from San Francisco to Chicago and the bus rolls east – the teens will have engaged in discussions about a couple dozen headline-making issues. They will have heard from the director of Pro-Life Texas and from Planned Parenthood, from a gun rights lobbyist and from the parent of a child slain at Columbine High School in Colorado, from an opponent of marriage equality and from members of an LGBTQ synagogue.
They will have visited the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was slain; Dealey Plaza in Dallas, where John F. Kennedy was assassinated; the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City bombed in 1995; Grant Park in Chicago, site of the 1968 Democratic Convention riots; Kent State University, where Ohio National Guard troops killed four students in 1970, and the 9/11 ground-zero site in New York City.
They will have pictures from Graceland, the Grand Canyon, the Las Vegas Strip, the California coast, Zion National Park in Utah, and the monuments and memorials in the nation’s capital.
The itinerary is arranged so that on Friday nights, they will attend a Shabbat service, sampling American Jewry’s major denominations. On the trip, “We’ll talk more about Jewish cultural and Jewish historical connections to America,” than religious beliefs, Planer said.
The night before each day’s encounter, Planer and his staff will hold a “framing discussion” about the issue to be discussed.
“We need to shift what we view success looking like in a discussion. In America, we often think success is that somebody changes their mind to what you think,” rather than as an opportunity to learn what lies behind another person’s opinion, he said. The teens find the give-and-take valuable, particularly when they disagree with the speaker, as that helps them hone how they present their own beliefs.
Beyond the parents who place their children in Planer’s care, he hears from liberals who object to his giving their ideological foes a platform and from conservatives who think that just raising certain issues slants the Etgar program.
The three-week portion from Atlanta to San Francisco costs $5,800, and the full five weeks, through D.C., $7,800, covering all expenses, including travel, hotels, and meals, though scholarship funds are available.
When the trip is over, “For the kids it is a boost of confidence and empowerment, that their voice matters and that they can have a voice and need to use it. The kids grow into adulthood realizing the need to be aware and engaged.”