A trip to Poland and Israel is a significant experience for any young person who makes the trip, but for eight teens from Louisville, it was an opportunity with 46 of their best friends, and they brought back memories that will last for a lifetime and, for many of them, a different perspective on their Jewish identities and aspirations.
Julia Bessen, Zach Ellis, Abbigail Geller, Ethan Grossman Joey Schuster, Max Strull, Andrew Tuvlin and Isaac Wolff went on Beber Camp’s trip to Israel and Poland with a large group of teens from other communities with whom they have shared many summers.
“Having the opportunity to visit this holy land with my lifelong friends was a dream come true,” said Ethan Grossman.
The group went to Poland first, stopping at several Holocaust sites. They also had time to explore Krakow and Warsaw. They did not talk much about that part of their trip, but were eager to share their Israel experiences.
“It was cool to go … and see country the Jewish people have put together and to be there after being in Poland and seeing all the atrocities happened there,” said Abigail Geller. She enjoyed seeing what the Jews have done in Israel. “I did not feel safe in Poland,” she added. “It was such an uncomfortable feeling. And in Israel, I had chills as soon as I landed. I felt really safe in Israel like I was at home.” Going from the lowest point in recent Jewish history to “being surrounded by Jewish people was an amazing feeling,” she said.
In Israel, the group toured the entire country from Akko and the Golan in the north to Eilat in the south with stops in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, S’fat, kibbutzim and more.
In Akko, Julia Bessen explained, they stopped at a Druze restaurant where the owner served Druze food and told them a little bit about his religion. The group described the Druze as a small, close-knit community that follows a strict and secretive religion. The only way to become a member of the group is to be born into it, and if a Druze marries someone of a different faith, that person is no longer considered a member.
The only thing the man would tell them is the Druze “believe in peace and loving all people,” added Geller.
The hostel the group stayed at in Akko was near a mosque, so “we heard the call to prayer” early in the morning, Geller said. “That was not something you would hear in Louisville.” For her, it was an example of different cultures “coexisting in one small city.”
In contrast, when the group stood on a hill in the Golan Heights, overlooking the Syrian border, “our tour guide gave a speech about what was happening on the other side and we could hear the artillery,” Joey Schuster said.
For Schuster, the visit to S’fat was one of his favorite experiences. “Everyone enjoyed it,” he said. It’s the mystical city of Israel. Everyone’s very spiritual there.” They learned a bit about Jewish mysticism. “As we walked around the city, we felt a very different vibe from the rest of Israel,” he explained.
For Julia Bessen, a night in a Bedouin tent was memorable. “He gave us tea and told us about his people,” she said. “And the tea was really good,” Geller interjected.
While they were with the Bedouin, the group rode camels at sunset and ate and slept under tents in the open dessert. “There were so many stars,” Bessen noted. “It was a one-of-a-kind experience.”
There was also a sunrise hike in Eilat along the borders with Jordan and Egypt. “We were hiking mostly in the pitch black,” observed Geller, and by the time we got to the top of the mountain, it was beautiful.”
The hike started at 4 a.m., Max Strull remembered, and lasted an hour or an hour and a half. “There was a really cool view when the sun started rising,” he said. “It’s not something you get to do every day.”
As they approached Jerusalem, the travelers from Louisville had a surprise in store for them. When they got off the bus at the overlook, to their delight, Cantor David Lipp was waiting for them.
Once in Jerusalem, everybody had places they enjoyed – the Old City, the shuk on Ben Yehuda Street, the Western Wall and the tunnels beneath it, the light show at the Tower of David. For Grossman, it was his favorite part of the trip.
Free time is often a scarce commodity on group trips to Israel, but this trip included a weekend during which some members of the group spent time with family and friends in Israel and the rest of the group went to Kalya Kibbutz overlooking the Dead Sea.
Grossman and Strull spent the time on the kibbutz, exploring. “It gave us some needed down time to reflect on our experiences,” Grossman said.
Bessen used the time to stay with a friend. During the home stay, her friend “took me around the city and showed me her favorite restaurants. It was less of a tour and more of a real life experience.
“I’ve been talking about going to Israel all my life,” she continued. “I heard about Israel and how people went and how important it was, but I had never gone before. Going with this group of all best friends, when we got there I felt so at home.”
Bessen also felt a strong urge to learn Hebrew. “It was frustrating being there and not knowing language,” she said. “At same time, I was thinking how amazing it was – it’s a language from Bible and Torah. We can read the prayers but don’t really know what they mean. It made me want to learn Hebrew and live there for a while.
“When you hear Hebrew, you can pick up on some words, like in Hebrew you learn the root of words, but I want to learn the whole Language that people used so long ago,” she stated.
“Being around so many Israelis made me proud to be Jewish,” she continued. They’re all proud to celebrate their Judaism. On Shabbat, the whole city of Jerusalem shuts down. That’s something I’d never experienced in Louisville. It could never happen here, and I enjoyed that aspect. It made me proud.”
The trip was a way to connect with friends in a foreign country, Strull said. There was as strong Jewish component that he said “was really exciting to do” and felt like the way he practices Judaism at home.
Most of the participants said that after visiting Israel, choosing a college with a larger Jewish population is more important to them now than before. Bessen is eager to take Hebrew in college and Geller wants to pledge to a Jewish sorority.
Many of them received scholarships that enabled them to make this trip, and many were funded by the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence
Max Strull received the Ellen and Milton Cantor Israel Scholarship, which was established in 1997 to help teens experience Israel during their junior or senior years in high school. “Thank you to the Cantor family,” he said, “You helped provide such a special experience. I don’t know if would have been able to go without it.”
All of the teens expressed gratitude for the scholarship help they received and/or to their parents for the gift of this Israel trip.