For their entire time at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, almost every student looks forward to the eighth grade class’ annual trip to Israel. Sadly, like many other things this year, the trip was canceled for the second consecutive year due to COVID. However, Mirowitz staffers were able to plan an alternative for their eighth-graders.
In a typical year, students and staff head off to Israel for a two-week trip. During the trip, they travel throughout the country, try new foods, bond as a group and create everlasting memories. Though most of this can’t be done without actually going to Israel, parts of it can still be captured in a COVID-safe environment.
From May 11-14, Mirowitz did just this as the eighth grade class of 2021 went on a camping trip to Camp Manitowa at Cedar Point, about 100 miles southeast of St. Louis. Students weren’t able to walk through ancient streets, visit landmarks or experience the aura of Israel, but they were still able to make lifetime memories and strengthen friendships.
“This year is less about Israeli culture, but what’s nice about this year is that it meets more of the group bonding aspect of the program,” said Rabbi Scott Slarskey, Mirowitz’s director of religious life. “You can build a paper Kotel, but it’s not really the same as going to the Kotel Plaza. You can talk about Yad Vashem, but it’s a very different experience to walk through the museum. … One thing that we learned last year, to be perfectly honest, is that trying to replicate an Israel trip without actually going to Israel is just a little bit sad.”
No matter how much time and effort the Mirowitz staff put into it, they found it impossible to manufacture the millennia of history of Israel in southern Illinois. The trip was still a great success but objectively very differently from what it would’ve been in the Holy Land.
But Mirowitz did find a few opportunities to bring Israel to their students instead of bringing their students to Israel. One of the aspects that students look forward to most when preparing for their trip to Israel is the cuisine.
“I was definitely looking forward to the food,” Kol Rinah congregant Caleb Arnow said.
Fortunately, the food was one of the things that the Mirowitz staff was able to deliver despite the geography.
“[Our shinshin helped] us cook Israeli food over the fire,” Slarskey said, referring to the Israeli teen who deferred army service for a year to spend time here to spread passion and knowledge of Israel.
Even though the vast majority of the class would have preferred a trip to Israel, there were some benefits to staying in the Midwest.
“One activity I really enjoy doing was canoeing,” said Audrey Roberts, who belongs to Central Reform Congregation. “We were split up into groups of three, and we canoed to this little cliff where you can go cliff jumping. It was so much fun being with all of my friends, in the water and getting to do something I had never done before.”
All in all, the main purpose of the annual Mirowitz eighth grade trip was realized. Bonds that will last a lifetime were strengthened.
“There is one specific memory that stands out in my mind,” Audrey said. “It was the very last night, and Caleb and I decided to leave the campfire and go look at the stars. We were sitting together, talking and having fun. It was such a fun memory.”
Understandably, even though the trip went well, there’s still some lingering disappointment that it wasn’t Israel.
“I really wish that I was able to go to Israel this year, but I understand why it’s not going to work this year,” Caleb said. “I’m still happy to [have been] able to go on a trip.”
Nevertheless, when students from the eighth grade class of 2021 look back on this trip, they’ll recall similar memories to those of a different Mirowitz class that did go to Israel, albeit in a different setting.
Rabbi Slarskey said: “The stories that people tell are the way that they connect with each other. It is really a priority for us to give our students a chance to connect with each other, to build new stories of themselves and to reminisce a little bit. I’m just really glad that we get a chance to do that this year.”
Ohr Chadash Teen Page staff writer Ilana Boyer is a student at Whitfield School and Ohr Chadash Co-Editor-in-Chief Jordan Eisen is a student at Parkway North.