Five Louisville Teens Spent Winter Break in Israel

n a gray, drizzly December day in Jerusalem, North Oldham High School sophomore Abigail Geller stood at the Western Wall and engaged in the ritual of slipping notes into the spaces between the stones.

“I brought notes from my grandparents, parents and siblings just for this occasion. I found a big hole in the wall, and when I reached into it, I felt another hole that was big enough to keep all of the notes from my family together,” Geller said.

“While I was standing at the wall, people on both sides of me were sniffling from crying,” she observed. “This filled me with emotions and made me realize where I was and what I was doing there and I also started to cry. It was a truly spiritual and extremely powerful experience that I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to receive.”

Geller is one of a contingent of five members of the Louisville Jewish community who recently returned from the ten-day Partnership Teen Mega-Mission to Israel. The trip was sponsored by Partnership2Gether, a Jewish Agency for Israel Program founded in 1997. Louisville is part of the Midwest Consortium of communities, which is partnered with Israel’s Western Galilee area.

“The purpose of the trip was to create closer ties between teens in Louisville and teens in the partnership region,” said JCC Assistant Director of Youth Services Mike Steklof, who recruited the Louisville teens for the trip.

Some of the teens received scholarships from the Erlen-Judah Fund to help pay for the trip.

From the sensory feasts of the outdoor markets, to the warmth of their host families and the Israeli people in general, the spirited travelers shared their favorite memories of the journey.

For Gaby Melendez, a senior at St. Francis High School, staying with her and Geller’s host family on a kibbutz just outside of the northern coastal town of Nahariya, was the most eye-opening and authentic part of the trip.

The teens spent the majority of the trip with host families.

“There was a mom and a dad, a daughter who was 15 and a son who was 18. They have another son who is in the army, but I didn’t get to meet him. They also had two cats,” Melendez said. “On Friday night we ate dinner in the dining hall with our host family’s extended family. It was really fun to get to experience kind of a day in the life and be immersed in the culture instead of just touring around. It was also really nice to be surrounded by so many other Jewish people and to feel so invited and welcomed.”
The beauty of Nahariya thoroughly beguiled Lilli Russman, a 15-year-old student at Ballard High School.

“I’ll never forget the rocky shorelines, the banana trees, and everything else from our first days in Nahariya,” she said.
Climbing Masada and visiting the Dead Sea are also among her favorite memories.

“From the bottom of Masada looking up, I know we were all a little anxious to start the climb. But through lots of motivation between all of us, we successfully climbed it together, which was an incredible feeling of accomplishment and teamwork,” she said. “The Dead Sea was a really fun way to end our trip. We all enjoyed floating and painting ourselves with mud. I know we’ll never forget that experience.”

Levi Wolff, a sophomore at Louisville Collegiate School, was moved and inspired by what he witnessed at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl.

“There I truly saw the sacrifice that men and women around the world had made to keep the State of Israel alive. We walked up and down the rows and every row or so our guide would stop and read the grave, because they were in Hebrew,” Wolff said. “The most memorable grave was the resting place of Michael Levin, an American lone soldier who returned to Israel to serve even when he was on leave and had no obligation to return to combat. After his commander would not let him back into the base he broke into his own base just so he could be with his men and serve alongside them. He lost his life while in combat. The collection of hats, pins, papers and rocks left as a sentiment at his grave was a special display of Israeli pride and solidarity.”

The sights and scents surrounding him as he explored the markets of Akko intrigued Levi’s twin brother Isaac Wolff, also a sophomore at Louisville Collegiate School.
“We were able to experience the smells of fresh fish, spices, and other exotic foods,” he said. “Being in the middle of it made me feel very much a part of the environment I was in.”

He was also amazed by the friendliness and generosity of the Israeli people.

In one village ripe with citrus trees near Nahariya, Wolff and his fellow travelers spied an orange tree in one house’s yard and decided they wanted to enjoy its fruits. They went to the front door of the house, offered some money to the man who answered, and pointed at the tree.

“The man spoke in Hebrew to us until he stopped and continued for us in English. He then gave us bags of huge ripe oranges for free!” Wolff said. “He invited us in to his home for coffee so he could ask us questions about what it was like to live in the States. Unfortunately, we did not have time to share our stories with him, but I will always remember his kindness.”

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