Beber Camp friends, old and new, explored Israel together
[by Cynthia Canada, Special to Community]
(See full image gallery at the end of this article.)
Three high school students from Louisville experienced Israel this summer from a new perspective – that of an adventure shared with friends.
Michael Schwartz, Henry Strull, and Emily Wolff spent four weeks at Beber Camp, developing team leadership skills and preparing for the trip, then traveled with a group of about 50 teenagers and staff members to explore Israel and connect with their Jewish heritage.
Emily, a rising junior at Louisville Collegiate School, had visited Israel twice before – once after her brother’s bar mitzvah and again after her bat mitzvah. “It’s sort of a family tradition,” she said. But she found touring with peers was different; she and her friends went farther afield than she had been before.
For Michael and Henry, both rising juniors at Kentucky Country Day School, this was the first trip to Israel. “I didn’t have a lot of expectations,” Michael said. He had friends whose experiences hadn’t met what they anticipated, so while he was open to whatever came of the trip, the power of his own experiences came as something of a surprise.
For three weeks, the group traveled together, becoming almost like family as they visited sites around the country. While many of them knew each other from camp sessions in previous summers, this adventure drew travelers from both sessions, so there were new friends as well. The four staff members who accompanied the teens became “kind of our parents,” as Emily said, watching out for the campers, but interacting on a more adult level in some ways. “We respected them,” Emily said, “and they respected us.”
For Henry, the visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem was the most moving. “Just to be there, to pray there,” he said, “it was something I had really looked forward to.” That’s where the strength of community hit home for him, surrounded by hundreds of other worshipers, both friends and strangers, all of them praying.
And, he added, “You can’t tell how big it is from the pictures.” All three teenagers were impressed with the sheer size of the wall, as it extends not just up, but down into the earth. A trek through the tunnels brought home not just the religious significance but, as Michael pointed out, the amazing degree of engineering expertise required to construct the Temple.
Michael also was deeply moved by the sense of history, as well as the beauty, of Masada. The group ascended to the ancient fortress by way of the staircase, which they said took about five minutes. Coming back down the footpath took considerably longer. From the top, Michael said you could see all the way to the Dead Sea.
For Emily, it was the early morning hike in southern Israel during the last week of the trip that made the deepest impression. “We got up at about four a.m.,” she said, “and we climbed into the mountains to watch the sun rise.” Again, the range was breathtaking: a clear view into Saudi Arabia on one side, Egypt on the other, and the Red Sea in the middle.
But it was the companionship of friends – now very close friends – that she felt most strongly. “We knew we were getting to the end,” she said. “We’d been together almost all the time for three weeks, and it was like it was the last time we were going to be that close.” Time spent together on the mountaintop cemented bonds and locked the memory of this trip in place as a transformational experience.
In addition to exploration, the group met Israeli residents who gave them new perspectives, both on life in Israel and on choosing priorities and making commitments. Among the people they met were several “Lone Soldiers,” Americans who volunteered for the Israeli Army even though they had no requirement to do so.
Unlike Israeli citizens, who have a service obligation, these soldiers chose to travel around the world and serve far away from friends and family. Unlike Israeli soldiers, who are close enough to travel home most weeks for Shabbat, these soldiers have to build community where they are; it’s not an easy life. The teens expressed respect for the level of commitment and the strong belief from which that commitment must come.
Between profound moments such as these, the group had plenty of time to play. After all, what is summer vacation without play? But while summer vacation may often include exploring and shopping, it rarely involves riding camels in the desert.
When it was over, Henry, Emily and Michael all said this trip to Israel had affected them in unexpected ways. All three said without a second’s hesitation that they wanted to go back. And, as Emily said, all three were glad to come home. After almost a whole summer of constant companionship – traveling, praying, eating, napping, hiking, shopping, and camel-riding together – it was great to come back to their air-conditioned homes, their own rooms, and a little bit of privacy.
Henry and Michael received scholarships from the Jewish Federation of Louisville that were funded by a grant from the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence.