As Shelly Makias of Philadelphia climbed the snake path at Masada and then saw where the Jews ate, bathed, and prayed when they lived there, Jewish history, she said, felt so much more “real” to her.
“Everybody’s telling you stories and telling you to believe it, and when you get there, you see everything everybody is telling you is true.” Her visits to other historical sites personalized biblical tales. “Everything that was said in the Torah — you are so close to it. You feel so connected to all the stories that happened many, many years ago.”
For Makias and 20 of her eighth-grade classmates, the Abrams Hebrew Academy’s annual graduation trip to Israel brought years of study — of Torah and of Jewish history, ancient and modern — to life, deepening their connections to Israel, to fellow Jews worldwide, and to God.
In a meeting with NJJN, students bubbled over with memories of the April 30-May 11 trip, which included a graduation ceremony in an old Turkish magistrate’s complex above the Kotel and the donation of a Torah — the ninth time they’ve done so — to the Israel Defense Forces.
Julia Flax of the school located in Yardley, Pa., said the trip was a culmination of what Rabbi Ira Budow, the director of Abrams, had taught them about the history and meaning of the holy sites in Israel. “The purpose of the trip was to finally experience what he was talking about,” she said.
For Shayna Swartz of Newtown, Pa., visits to the Kotel and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, made her feel like these ancient Jews “were there, like they were literally standing in that spot thousands of years ago.”
But the visits to the Western Wall and the cave left her feeling close to others as well. “Thousands of Jews have been going there, and you feel like you are connected with them. You feel we are one nation,” she said.
The holy sites were a poignant religious experience for Stephanie Klebanov of Feasterville, Pa. Seeing them up close made her “feel closer to God, more connected to God.” She was also buoyed by the presence of other Jews. “Everyone else is there for the same reason, and you feel a closeness between everyone.”
Lauren Williams of Philadelphia had never been to the Kotel. Upon finally visiting Judaism’s holiest site, she said she “felt really connected to Hashem.”
The group’s proximity to 2,000-year-old sites moved the students.
“I felt like we were walking around in history,” said Kaila Simmens of Philadelphia. “All the buildings you walk past, you could feel the spirituality.” And just having the opportunity to actually touch the Kotel, the Kotel tunnels, and Masada brought Israel’s history home for Gavriella Weinstein of Yardley.
But the students also learned about modern Jewish history during their trip, in particular the Holocaust and the wars Israel has fought.
Holocaust survivor Mickey Goldman, who spoke at the graduation ceremony, shared his experiences of World War II, living in Israel, and his job as an investigator at the Eichmann trial. Julia Flax said she was moved by Goldman’s telling the group how he was arrested by a Nazi after running back home to retrieve his tefillin. Afterward he told them, as Julia remembered, “I came to Israel, and thank God I’m here” and “you can go from wherever you are, and you know you have a home, a safe haven.”
Their visit to Har Herzl, Israel’s military cemetery, was an illuminating experience. “It is amazing that these soldiers don’t have the option of going to the army or not,” said Micaela Soyfer of Feasterville. “They are protecting Israel and saving us from bad people. … I think it is the reason we have Israel and why it still stands today.”
Several of the girls were particularly affected by the graves of lone soldiers including that of Michael Levin, from Philadelphia, who was killed in the 2006 Lebanon War. It moved Agam Halperin of Philadelphia to learn that thousands of people came to Levin’s funeral, as it demonstrated that “we are all a family.”
Said Shayna Swartz, “Lone soldiers from America and throughout world could be risking their lives to fight for Israel because they know it is their homeland.”
“When I saw all the people that died for our country, that was sad,” said Hoshen Shmila, originally from Haifa. “They were not from Israel; they came to the army to save our lives.”
This was Abrams’ 19th consecutive eighth-grade trip to Israel. They even visited in 2003 during the second intifada when they were “the only school in the entire land of Israel,” said sixth- and seventh-grade Talmud teacher Rabbi Isaac Leizerowski, who added that Abrams takes care to ensure the trip is affordable for each student.
Besides the ancient aspects, the students also experienced modern Israel. Eden Shavit of Newtown noted the contrast between the holy and the secular. “In Israel, lots of things happen at the same time: people sitting on the beach on phones, or at the Kotel or Masada praying,” she said. One could be in Jerusalem, “touching places that are close to our hearts,” or in Tel Aviv, where it is “all brand new.” Newer still, a week before the official opening, they were given a tour of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem.
They came to appreciate the variety of religions welcome in the Jewish state. “It invites all religions, obviously Judaism, [but also] Muslims, Indians, Catholic, Christians,” said Micaela Soyfer. “You hear on the news that Israel is so horrible — they do this and that. In the end, they bring everyone together. All religions can worship who they want and whatever they want.”
The two Shabbats during the trip proved to be very special for the students. “Everyone is different, but on one day they get together in the same place and all do the same thing,” said Ellie Tamarkin of Philadelphia.
After spending time at the Kotel during Shabbat, the first time she had the opportunity to do so, Stephanie Klebanov decided to dress more modestly and wear skirts and long sleeves. As she prayed at the wall she was moved to tears. Still, she said, “I didn’t feel embarrassed or in any way out of place. Nobody judged me. I felt very comforted there and very safe.”