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June 16, 2017  RSS feed
Front Page

Text: T T T

Understanding connection to Israel through students’ eyes

By BURL PETERS Special to the Jewish Press

Hillel Academy eighth graders (L-R) Sadie Jacobson, Ruthie Winoker, and Maya Goldenberg during the school’s annual trip to Israel. Hillel Academy eighth graders (L-R) Sadie Jacobson, Ruthie Winoker, and Maya Goldenberg during the school’s annual trip to Israel. Having worked as a middle school teacher at Hillel Academy for more than 13 years now, I have always viewed the eighth grade trip to Israel as the students’ culminating experience, watching in wonder as the kids come back from their trip with such a transformative spirit.

Students, who you may think went just to have a good time come back talking about Israel like they have visited some magical land. I knew what we said as a school about the trip being the biggest piece to the Jewish education they have received. However, having never been to Israel myself, I was always amazed, yet a bit confused, by this connection they could feel to a place they visited for just two weeks.

I have visited plenty of places in my life. I never came back feeling like that place was just as much “my home” as my home. Yet, every year, this is a phrase so many students come back saying, “Israel is my home.” I guess I never really understood it ... until now.

(L-R) Devin Chernin and Max King praying at the Western Wall (L-R) Devin Chernin and Max King praying at the Western Wall This year, for the first time, I was given the opportunity to travel to Israel with my students. There was so much anticipation for me and the eighth graders throughout the year. I am the son of a Protestant minister, who converted to Judaism at marriage. So, much of the Jewish identity our Hillel Academy students claim as theirs, was not always mine.

Over the years, I have learned much about my religion through Hillel Academy and its students. One of those things, however, was not Hebrew. To get me prepared for the trip, many of my eighth grade Algebra students spoke to me predominately in Hebrew throughout the year. They said, “If you are going with us to Israel, you are going to need to know some Hebrew.” They were right. By the time the trip came around, I knew enough to know if someone told me their grade was 100 percent or if they asked me if I was crazy. Maybe not the most useful phrases in Israel, but it helped in class.

(L-R) Stella King, Sarah Weiner and Sadie Jacobson, overlooking the Dead Sea. (L-R) Stella King, Sarah Weiner and Sadie Jacobson, overlooking the Dead Sea. Once the trip came, I felt both nervous and excited. I know this feeling was the same for so many of the students. There were so many of us who had never been to Israel and it was exciting. The trip was made up of so many parts and extraordinary moments.

Cosmopolitan Tel Aviv

We spent the first four days in Tel Aviv. We explored Old Jaffa and viewed the beautiful beaches and skyline of Tel Aviv from the hilltop of Abrasha Park. The cosmopolitan and international feel of Tel Aviv was unmistakable. We spent our first Shabbat in Tel Aviv going to services. Later the kids, and adults, got to play at the park and in the sand and surf of one of Tel Aviv’s many beautiful beaches. That evening we watched the first Shabbat come to an end with a picturesque beach sunset, with so many Israeli flags (left over from Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations) flapping in the breeze. It was the perfect end to a true Shabbat experience.

Hillel Academy students riding camels through the Negev. Hillel Academy students riding camels through the Negev. Connections flood in

We moved on to Jerusalem as the next leg of our journey. Our first stop in Jerusalem was at Tayelet Haas, a promenade overlooking the Old City. This was the point of the trip where the connections of so many life experiences flooded in. The students were singing bracha that I had heard them do hundreds of times before, but doing them in that spot, suddenly they had such powerful meaning.

Later that same day, we visited the Kotel. I was so excited, I nearly followed the women to the women’s side. I watched our boys touch The Wall. I soaked it in and knew that for some it was their first time doing so. Eighth grade boys aren’t always the most sentimental group of people, but you could tell they felt a deep connection there.

As I approached The Wall for the first time, placing my note and the notes of a few others from school into it, I felt an overwhelming peace and began to openly cry (for the second time that day). If nothing more happened on the trip than that experience, it would still have been worth it.

The fun adventures continued for the next week with so many activities: exploring the Kotel tunnels and the waterways of the City of David, visiting Mount Herzl Cemetery (the Israeli version of Arlington), traveling north to Kibbutz Degania, jeep rides in the Golan Heights, donkey rides, water hikes, visiting Tiberias aside Lake Kinneret, and welcoming in Shabbat and spending it in Jerusalem.

More tears at Yad Vashem

Following our second Shabbat, we visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial. Having been through the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. close to a dozen times on Hillel’s seventh grade trip, I am rarely brought to tears by it anymore. However, Yad Vashem became a completely different story. Our guide, Adina, spoke with such emotion about each display, really trying to make us understand the scope of the atrocities on personal/individual levels. She spoke so eloquently and passionately, in her British accent, about her great grandmother and her grandmother’s ordeal during the Holocaust. By the end there were very few dry eyes. Students hugged and supported one another through the emotional experience. It was such a moment of bonding for all of them, not only to each other, but to the place. Adina stressed to all of us the importance of Yad Vashem and Holocaust remembrance within the land of Israel. We all felt it.

Then joy on Lag B’Omer

Luckily, the emotional experience of Yad Vashem was followed that evening by the absolute joy of experiencing Lag B’Omer in Israel. I had heard for years about how in Israel they light bonfires to celebrate this holiday. I just never understood how that could be that much fun. Leave it to Israelis to turn a fire into a party. We collected some wood throughout the day in order to start our own fire. When we got to our designated location, we soon realized we did not come at all prepared for this over-the-top occasion. The group of 8-year-olds next to us made our fire look like a candle next to theirs. They were dancing around it like the boys in one of our eighth grade novels, Lord of the Flies. Our kids were loving it.

Our next few days included so many memorable moments, like the trip was building to a crescendo. We drove from Jerusalem to the desert, where we rode camels. We spent the night in a Bedouin tent, after learning about Bedouin culture and sharing a gorgeous meal with them. We woke early the next day to hike the Roman ramp to the top of Masada. Sunrise across the mountains and the valley below was just spectacular, even with only a few hours of sleep. We hiked through the Ein Gedi oasis, playing in the waterfalls. We tested out our buoyancy and if we had any cuts we didn’t know about in the Dead Sea.

Putting things in focus

As we returned to Jerusalem for our final stint, we held a joint morning prayer service at an egalitarian section of the Kotel called Robinson’s Arch. As I stood and prayed with my students at The Wall, the entire trip came into focus.

For years, I didn’t understand what so connected our students to this place, Israel. How could two weeks do that? As we prayed, it dawned on me that I, and they, knew the prayers we were saying primarily because of Hillel. The tallis I was wearing was brought back to me from Israel by an eighth grade group many years before. At that moment, I realized I was experiencing what all the students experience at some point in the trip: feeling wholly Jewish and connected completely to Israel. It isn’t two weeks that makes the connection. It is the many years of learning, hearing, and wondering about how Israel connects you to your Judaism. Israel isn’t just a culminating experience or a final piece. It is what connects us all to our faith.

Burl Peters is a math teacher and the Middle School Division director at Hillel Academy. Along with Peters, Hebrew teacher Mozie Goldenberg and several parents accompanied the 17 eighth graders on the trip to Israel, May 3-19.

This was such an amazing

This was such an amazing experience for these students! Thank you for sharing this good news.

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