A number of Louisville teens traveled this summer to Israel, and Community talked with four of them about their experiences. All four were first-time visitors to Israel, and they all said they were deeply affected by the journey.
Jonah Goodman, a senior at St. Francis High School, wasn’t really sure what to expect from the trip until he started writing essays for his scholarship applications. He realized then that he was “blindly supporting” Israel as the home of the Jewish people, but he really didn’t know what was so great about it other than that. He wanted to better understand the significance of the Jewish state and form a real emotional attachment.
By the time he returned home, he had learned that it was possible to support the people and the culture of Israel and connect to the place, whether or not he supported specific actions of the government. Jonah said that the bonding experience with other travelers was great, just like any “summer camp kind of thing,” but he came away with a deep appreciation for the Israeli culture and people.
At the same time, traveling companions were important. Although it seemed sometimes like too much time was spent on buses, traveling from one place to another, those hours afforded opportunities for growth and intellectual maturing. While it would have been nice to spend more time in smaller hotels outside the cities, getting to experience day-to-day life in Israel, the travel time from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv or to the Golan Heights resulted in conversations, debating and sharing ideas that might otherwise not have happened.
Ally and Bailey Doctrow, both juniors ad DuPont Manual High School, also felt like they grew in their travels. Ally called the trip “eye-opening.” She was expecting to have a great time, having heard stories from other campers and counselors at GUCI over six summers.
Those friends had told her that their trips had changed their lives, but she doubted that it would affect her own connection to Judaism as much as her friends told her it would. She found that the level of trust that Israelis have with strangers was heartwarming; she was amazed that people who had lived their whole lives in a land that is constantly threatened could be so open, in spite of the hardships.
She said, “The mood of walking out in the street just felt different than the U.S., and I loved it.” For an American citizen who is a member of a religious minority, it was special to experience being a part of the majority; simple things like pre-torn toilet paper and automatic elevators to help keep Shabbat added to the unique experience.
Bailey said, “This summer was the best summer of my life.” Before she went, she was just expecting to have a great time. Now, having visited “a place that every Jew dreams of visiting,” her perspective has changed. Seeing a different culture and way of life opened her eyes to how different people can be and made her more aware of what is going on around her.
Charles Bessen, an 11th-grader at Louisville Collegiate, went expecting to “tour sites and have a good time,” and he did. He didn’t think much about whether he would enjoy the religious sites, but again, he did.
He said, “I really enjoyed the Old City, and I liked Jerusalem a lot more than I thought I would.” Unlike at home in the U.S., Charles found that it was “easy to be Jewish” in Israel; it comes down to being a part of the majority for the first time. Before he went, Charles says he really didn’t have an opinion about Israel, but now that he’s been there, he values it more and considers it an important part of his Jewish heritage.
The young people brought back transformational memories of places around the country. Jonah described arriving at Masada at 4 a.m., in time for an amazing sunrise. He said, “We watched it go in just a few minutes from being just an orange ‘shadow’ to suddenly cresting over the horizon and blazing out to illuminate everything.”
Ally loved the four days spent hiking and camping in the desert; her most inspiring moment was on a morning hike in the Negev. The tour guide told everyone to find a place on the mountain to be alone. “There was an exquisite view of what seemed like an endless stretch of scenery. On one side, we could see Jordan, and on the other, we could see Egypt. I was amazed by the fact that a place so beautiful exists, and that I was able to see such a beautiful place with my own eyes.”
Bailey said that she knew they were going to hike, but she had no idea how much. Nevertheless, she enjoyed it more than she expected because of the friends she hiked with. Especially noteworthy was Mount Shlomo, which is considered the hardest mountain to climb in Israel. Bailey was nervous but felt like she had to try – it was the personal challenge of a lifetime.
“Climbing Mount Shlomo was probably one of the hardest and scariest things I have ever done,” she told me. “Reaching the top of Mount Shlomo was the best feeling in the entire world. It made the whole trip worth it!”
Both Jonah and Charles commented on Israeli food. Jonah described it as being “the same dishes but different.” Charles was more specific; he said that “there’s no good shwarma here, or good falafel – the food [in Israel] is superior.”
Would they change anything? Well, Ally and Bailey had some travel difficulties with one cancelled flight. They and three other teens arrived a day late after spending an extra night in a hotel in North Carolina, and it was a little scary traveling alone on their first trip out of the country.
Once they got there, though, they said they forgot all about the beginning – they were having too much fun. Other than that, the consensus was that it would have been great to spend more time in small towns, interacting with Israelis and getting better acquainted with the language and the culture.
And do they want to go back to Israel? The answer was a resounding, unanimous “yes!” Visiting the Western Wall, going to the Dead Sea, riding camels and hiking at Massada and in the desert all were wonderful experiences, but more than anything, the connection to their Jewish roots, reinforcement of their beliefs, and the experiences with Israeli people and culture surely will take them back to the land of Israel in the future.
The four teens were among 27 young people who received scholarships from the Jewish Foundation of Louisville to help with the costs of their trips to Israel this summer. Jonah also received assistance from the BBYO International Office, and Bailey and Ally from the Jewish Heritage Foundation for Excellence.
They all expressed gratitude for the opportunity to go to Israel, and said it wouldn’t have been possible without the support of these organizations.