Reform teens bond on 24-day Israel trip

BY JILL KASSANDER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Sababa. It means ‘cool’ in Hebrew. As in how was your trip to Israel? Sababa. On July 4, 23 local teens returned from Israel Bound, the first St. Louis Reform Jewish teen trip to Israel.

The 24-day visit to the Jewish homeland made a lasting impression on the teens. They have continued nurturing the close friendships formed on the life-altering trip and have already been Facebooking the new friends they made in Israel, said chaperone H. Lee Rosenberg.

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Rosenberg, the Youth Director at United Hebrew Congregation, was with the group the entire trip. Rabbi John Franken, formerly of Congregation Temple Israel, spent nine days with the teens, and Ellyn Polsky, Temple Emanuel’s director of education and programming, joined the group for the second half.

Today’s teens can choose from a variety of tours to Israel sponsored by many organizations. The teens on the trip said there were several unique aspects of Israel Bound that attracted them.

The length of the trip was an important factor for many of the teens. Having more than three weeks allowed the group to travel extensively through the nation and yet enjoy quality time in several areas rather than hopping constantly from place to place.

“Some of the other Israel trips are only 10 days long which isn’t enough time to get a full experience,” said teen Scott Bernstein.

The choice of the length of time was very deliberate.

“After the first 10 days the group had developed a more complex relationship with Israel,” Rosenberg said. “It was very important to have those extra two weeks.”

Originally, teen Jared Grafman was not looking forward to the length of time or the distance on the plane.

“Now I want to go back,” Grafman said.

Though other trips highlight the opportunity to meet Jewish teens from all over the country, being part of a group just for Jewish teens from St. Louis was an important feature for most of the participants.

“Going with people from the same town offered a different experience,” teen Elizabeth Cohen said. “We became good friends and we got to continue to see each other once we came home. It was easy to relate with others from the same area who already have some of the same shared experiences.”

Teen Matthew Silies was a little skeptical at first about going with an entire group of teens from St. Louis but the experience changed his mind.

“It really helped the trip,” Silies said. “We’ve been hanging out together ever since we got home.”

Some of the teens already knew each other, and there were two pairs of siblings on the trip as well. Sisters Jourdan and Shelby Fenster and Elana Grund and her brother Nathan looked forward to sharing the experience with each other.

“I liked having the chance to go on the trip with my brother,” Elana said. “Also, I just finished my confirmation year and I wanted to learn more about Judaism and what role it is going to play in my life.”

There are several teens that especially looked forward just to being with other Jewish teens. Jessica Null and Natalie Tyrey said there are very few Jews at their schools and it was nice to be able to connect with other Jewish teens.

Being around other Jewish teens was especially important to Jody Gerth, who attends Owensville High School in Gerald, Mo., an hour away from St. Louis.

“I am the only Jew in my school. It was great to be on this trip with 22 other Jewish teens,” Gerth said.

For the most part, the teens had very few preconceived ideas. Rosenberg said the group had two meetings before the trip so the teens could get to know one another, set goals and do some team building.

“We had them explore their relationships with Israel before the trip so they would be able to see how the trip affected that relationship,” Rosenberg said.

Some of the students were looking forward to seeing sites they had learned about in religious school classes like the Kotel, Masada and the Dead Sea. They said many people had told them it would be an emotional, life-changing trip.

“Everyone told me I would have the most amazing time,” Timothy Keane said. “I wish they hadn’t said that because it was really clich é, but everything they said was true.”

Another thing they heard a lot about was safety. Some of the parents were a little concerned about the safety of traveling to and around Israel. Null said she felt safer in Israel than anyplace she’s ever been.

“Some people made poor jokes about our safety before we left on the trip,” Silies said. “We did not once feel unsafe. Everywhere you looked there were things to protect you, like soldiers and checkpoints. They take every necessary precaution to protect everyone.”

The students were unsure of how they would react to each site and experience; however, they were determined not to force the emotions but let them come on their own.

“Each student had their own unique spiritual pilgrimage,” Rosenberg said. “It wasn’t a vacation, it was a journey.”

The earliest part of the trip included overnights in the Negev. The overwhelming experience touched each student. They climbed to the top of Mount Solomon, which gave them a better understanding of the size and physical features of the state, said Rosenberg. It also created a lifelong memory for the group.

“We were still getting to know each other,” Tyrey said. “Some of us really struggled to get up the mountain and others were able to help which really helped to solidify us as a group.”

Not every participant defined themselves as the outdoorsy, camping type which made the climb even more challenging.

“I climbed a mountain,” Alix Lewis said. “It was hard, fabulous and gave me great satisfaction. It was by far my favorite thing and I was one of the last people to make it to the top.”

The group had tefillah at the top of the mountain. Null, who hated camping before the trip, said she loves it now. Everyone recalled the experience of sleeping outdoors under the stars and how the group bonded. Lewis remembered being able to see the Milky Way clearly.

“After our hike to Mount Solomon and two days in the desert, we realized we had come together,” Martina Wolf said. “No one complained the entire time and people conquered their fears.”

Jourdan agreed.

“Several people found the climb challenging,” Jourdan said. “But everyone came together to help everyone succeed. It set the bar for the rest of the trip.”

Climbing Masada offered another physical challenge for the group. They awoke at 4 a.m. to climb the path up the mountain to watch the sun rise. Grafman was part of a small group that broke off and actually ran up the mountain.

“The night before we climbed Masada, we lay out on a hill and watched the stars. We even saw some shooting stars,” Silies said. “A few of us planned a service. It was very spiritual to climb Masada and lead the service at the top.”

Another powerful experience for the teens was the unique way they were introduced to the Old City of Jerusalem.

The teens were instructed to close their eyes as they walked up the stairs of the Citadel also known as the Tower of David. When they opened their eyes at the top they were looking over the Old City.

“When we were told to open our eyes, our guides said ‘welcome home.'” teen Allyson Schwartz said. “I realized America is not our home; Israel is what our people fight for.”

Their first day in the Old City was an extra special day for Tyrey, who was celebrating her 16th birthday.

“They had a cake for me and lifted me up in a chair 16 times,” Tyrey said.

The group actually visited the Kotel three times on their trip. It was the one site every one of them had learned or heard something about before going to Israel. Each visit to the Kotel was unique and meant something different each time for each teen.

“It was awesome, after learning about it all these years,” Schwartz said. “To touch it was to touch history: the blood, sweat and tears of our people.”

The first visit was overwhelming for some of the students who weren’t sure what to expect. Some of them were surprised by the sheer number of people from all around the world who were there.

“The first visit was unexplainable, just a complete connection to everything you’ve learned at Sunday school,” Mogerman said.

The connection to Jews around the world and just how small the world can be, came to life as well.

“As we walked up to the wall, an Orthodox man asked us where we from and we told him the United States,” Sumner said. “Then he asked us where in the United States and we told him St. Louis, Mo. He said, ‘Oh really, Ballwin or Chesterfield?’ It turns out he has a friend who lives here who he comes to visit. All the way across the world and you run into someone who knows your town.”

The second visit had added meaning for several of the teens.

“At the first visit I didn’t know what I was supposed to be saying and doing,” Bernstein said. “The second time I started to get it emotionally and began a conversation with God.”

The third visit was bittersweet since it was the last thing the group did before leaving Israel. They knew the only way to leave Israel was to say goodbye at the Kotel, said Schwartz.

“We cried the last time we went,” Wolf said. “We didn’t want it to be for the last time, for all it stood for and for everything Israel is going through.”

Throughout their visit the teens enjoyed interacting with Israelis. They had an opportunity to get together and have conversations with Israeli teens and then some Arab Israeli teens. They learned a lot from both experiences.

“I asked one of the Israeli teens what his plans were after high school and he said the Israeli Defense Force and was shocked I would ask that,” teen Timothy Keane said. “I wouldn’t be shocked if someone asked me what I was doing after high school. But in Israel they only have one choice. It was eye opening to see the difference between the two cultures.”

Preconceived judgments were put on hold after the group met with the Arab Israeli teens.

“I had learned about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict,” Elizabeth Cohen said. “I thought they would be separate and they’d all hate Israel, and they didn’t.”

The teens talked about YouTube videos, movies and music and discovered they are very much alike in their tastes.

“They are kids just like us,” Daniel Ornitz said.

However, the teens were surprised by their counterpart’s depth of knowledge about politics.

“All the Arab Israeli teens know about American politics,” Wolf said “It really amazed us how well informed they are, compared to our lack of knowledge of Israeli politics.”

The teens became acquainted with Israeli politics after they saw the security fence with graffiti written on both sides of it. They learned not everyone agrees with the government’s solution. Lewis plans on learning a lot more about it.

“I didn’t really like the feel of the security wall,” Lewis said. “It should be in parts, it doesn’t need to be everywhere. It can cut right into the middle of families. There has to be another solution.”

The teens also learned a little bit about being an Arab in Israel.

“We hadn’t thought about their side of the story,” Benjamin Mogerman said. “They face intolerance every day because they are the minority.”

Being part of the minority is something the Israel Bound teens are familiar with from living in America, said Tyrey.

“At home, the only time I am used to being surrounded by Jews is in a synagogue,” Tyrey said. “When we were on a busy street in Tel Aviv, our tour guide, BG, told us everyone around us is Jewish — they may not be practicing Jews but they are Jewish.”

One of the most poignant events on the trip was unplanned. The group came upon a military induction ceremony when they were visiting David Ben-Gurion’s grave. They were invited to watch the ceremony.

“It was difficult to see very young people having to take on that responsibility,” Null said.

The new inductees were given a Tanach and a gun. It was such a “what if” moment and humbling experience for Silies.

“Many of them were just three months older than me,” Silies said. “Seeing their faces I realized I would be heading back home to go on with my life and not have to deal with a war in my country. It really put things in perspective.”

The playing of Hatikvah during the ceremony was very emotional for the group.

“To see them doing that for their country and feeling that you belong there made it really meaningful to be in Israel and share in that moment,” Wolf said.

The learning and bonding with each other, with Israel and with their Judaism took many forms for the group. Celebrating Shabbat in Israel offered special insights for the teens.

“When I used to think about Shabbat, I would think about Friday nights, maybe a high school football game,” Schwartz said. “In Israel, on Shabbat everything is closed down. It is a time to stop and reflect; soldiers come home to their families. It is really a special chance to relax from the busy week, even secular Jews observe the holiday.”

Schwartz said the importance of Shabbat was driven home by a chance conversation with an Orthodox Jewish man at the airport who was taking the same flight back to the United States. He asked her to tell him something she had learned after a month in Israel. Schwartz told him she had discovered that “Shabbat was not boring.”

“He told me that was the most important thing and he loved the fact that I was excited about Shabbat and bringing it back to my family and community,” Schwartz said. “When we lit the candles that Friday night we came home, I knew Shabbat connects all Jews all over the world one day each week. “

Their new connections to Judaism followed the teens home. Several of them talked about wearing kipot regularly, wearing Jewish jewelry, putting up mezuzot and being more active in their congregations and Jewish community life. They expressed feelings about being more open about their Judaism in their non-Jewish communities and becoming more informed.

“Let me preface the conversation by saying you really cannot describe a trip like this,” Jourdan said. “It is a life-changing experience. Even the most articulate person cannot find the words.”

Some of the teens said that once they returned to St. Louis they just wanted to turn around and go right back to Israel.

“It was the best 24 days of my life,” Gerth said. She plans on doing Shabbat more actively at home, being active in post-confirmation opportunities and being a teaching assistant at Sunday school.

One thing that stuck out to Null is how even those who didn’t feel close to Judaism before the trip had new connections.

“I’m just looking forward to the opportunity to return,” Null said. ” “I think every Jewish teen should go to Israel. It is the most fun I’ve ever had.”

Perhaps the biggest lesson the teens brought home was community.

“We started off as strangers and end up as friends,” Bernstein said.

Null said she came home with 22 best friends. The teens have spent every day together since they returned, according to Jourdan.

“In Israel there are so many Jews, you know you aren’t alone,” Keane said. “Now, even when I am the only Jew in the room, I know I am not. I am closer to God and Judaism than I ever was before.”