[by Holly Hinson, Special to Community]
(See full picture gallery at the end of this article.)
Six local teenagers – Ben Bass, Amanda Berman, Daniela Reuter, Katie and Daniel Segal and Elana Wagner – participated in Camp Livingston’s Solelim 2013 Israel trip this July. They joined more than 60 other youth from across the region to experience the wonder and history of Israel.
For years, these teens had heard about opportunities to take youth trips to Israel through friends or family, their synagogue or organizations like BBYO (B’nai Brith Youth Organization). Most had expectations about what the trip would be like – with a few fears, mostly unfounded.
“I did not expect to feel so safe in Israel, “said Amanda Berman. “I thought it would be scary with a lot of soldiers around, but really I didn’t have to think once about my safety.”
Katie Segal said she thought there would be more of a cultural boundary. “Most people spoke English and only occasionally would you meet someone you couldn’t communicate with, but there was always someone there to translate.”
Daniela Reuter agreed. “I was surprised by the amount of English I heard. I know everyone there learns English in school, but we learn Spanish here and I could never go to a Spanish-speaking country and be okay on my own. I was surprised by the amount of stores and signs all in English.”
Daniel Segal said he was pleasantly surprised at the freedom they were given to roam freely around the markets and explore.
But whatever their initial misgivings or misperceptions, the teens all agreed it was a remarkable and transforming trip.
With a slate of activities encompassing everything from snorkeling, swimming and riding camels to sharing Shabbat with host families, the teens experienced the many cultural riches of Israel while learning more about their Jewish heritage and identity.
Daniel said he was amazed at the variety of activities that the group managed to squeeze into one day. “We slept in Bedouin tents and then got up at 3:30 in the morning and climbed Mt. Masada and then toured Masada and went to the Dead Sea.”
“But wait, remember, before the Dead Sea, we swam in those natural springs,” added Elana Wagner, with a laugh.
Amanda said some of the best moments of the trip were the unexpected ones, like rolling down the Kassui sand dunes in the middle of the desert. “I have to admit I was exhausted after we hiked up the dunes and not looking forward to it, but when we rolled down, it really turned out to be one of my favorite activities of my trip – because I thought where else in the world could you do something like that? It really made me think about everything Israel has to offer, what an interesting place it is. It’s such a small country but it has it all – desert, mountains, beaches.”
Beyond the recreational and fun activities, the trip afforded the group many opportunities to deepen their understanding of Jewish culture by being immersed in the land, language and customs of the country. One consensus among the teens was that they felt changed by the things they learned, the people they met, the experiences they shared. These all have deepened their connection to their homeland – and their faith.
“I was impressed by the fact that in Israel you don’t have to be religious, go to services, or do anything special. You were just Jewish no matter what. You didn’t have to go out of your way to show it or believe in it, you were always, no matter where you were or what you were doing, 100 percent Jewish,” said Daniela.
Elana said she felt more connected to her faith by seeing in person all the sites she had heard about for years. “When we were in the Old City and we did all these tours, I knew the history and heard some of the stories before,” she said, “but being there seeing where it happened just made it more real.”
“Going to Israel, where everyone is Jewish,” added Katie, “you feel a real sense of community – you just feel at home.”
Daniel agreed. “Here in America, as Jews, we are a minority, but there, we are the majority so there is never any anti-Semitism.” He explained how that was so different from an American Jewish teens’ experience.
“We did a program before when we went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. We all started talking about the times where we faced anti-Semitism and everybody had two or three or even four stories about this, but our Israeli tour guides had never once faced anti-Semitism. I was shocked but I guess it makes sense because everyone there is Jewish.”
Amanda said she felt a greater tie to her ancestors after making the trip. “When I think of all the effort that everyone put in to make Israel a country, it just makes me so proud to call myself a Jew. It’s so great knowing Israel will always be there for me and there is a place where everyone is like me.”
For most of the teens, one of the most impressive experiences in Israel was visiting Kotel – The Wall. Katie explained, “It’s the only wall left standing from the original Temple – which is our biggest holy site. Other religions have more sites, but this is the one site that is the most important to us.”
Amanda said she believes The Wall represents all the struggles Jews have faced over time, but somehow managed to overcome. “We are still here and still standing strong and proud – just like The Wall. It is moving to me to see how so many types of people are still coming to see it every day – even though it’s a wall – it is still actually bringing people together.”
“This is something we’ve learned about and we’ve seen pictures of since we were little,” said Katie. Finally being there and touching it, “it’s something you’ve only dreamed about or imagined. It was very spiritual and you feel very connected with your Judaism.”
Seeing firsthand how Jews in Israel live their lives and practice their faith offered interesting alternative perspective for the youths.
Katie and Daniel stayed with a host family who were their cousins and found that the military is a big part of life in Israel, since service is compulsory – girls are required to serve two years and boys, three years.
“We talked about the army and what’s always surprising is whenever you ask anyone who is an Israeli about this they are never afraid of going in the army,” said Katie. “They already know what jobs they are going to do and they look forward to it. “
Another aspect of Israeli culture that seems very different to American teens is the different emphasis on their faith traditions. “We celebrated Shabbat with our host family and we did nothing at all on Saturday,” said Elana. “There were no cars at all on the street. In fact, one hotel had a special elevator where you didn’t have to press buttons because on Shabbat no one is supposed to do any work. I thought that was so cool.”
Amanda recognized that Jewish teens in Israel lead a very different life.
“One thing that really changed me is the one weekend we stayed with host families and I met a girl my age. Hearing about her life in Israel – it was so different from mine,” she said, “even though we’re both Jewish and around the same age. It really made me look outside of what I’m used to – opened my mind up to Israeli culture and I feel a strong connection to Israel now.”
“I try very hard to not take things for granted because I learned my life in America is a lot easier than most in Israel,” added Daniela.
The teens all agreed the trip was a life-changing experience. Five of them received scholarships from the Jewish Federation of Louisville that were funded by a grant from the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence – and they couldn’t be more grateful for scholarships that made this trip possible for them. The Segals also received assistance from the Ellen and Milton Cantor Israel Scholarship Fund and the Camp Livingston Scholarship Fund.
“My view of Israel has definitely changed,” said Daniel. “I see what we all see on the news – all the violence. People think all of Israel is unsafe – but I did not feel that way. It was life-changing because it was like not being a minority anymore, being with people that are just like you. I am so grateful to my sponsor for being able to have this amazing experience with my friends. I would love to go back some day.”
Amanda said, “This was really a once in a lifetime opportunity. Israel is a wonderful country and I really consider it my homeland. Just knowing how old the land itself is and what’s happened there it was very exciting for me to be a part of that history. I want to thank my sponsors for this great opportunity I was given.”
Katie said, “I’ve always been proud to be Jewish but I feel more connected to it now. I always thought I would live in Louisville, but I think living in Israel is a possibility now. I’d at least go back for a semester abroad. I definitely want to return.”
“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” said Elana. “I know it’s something I’ll never forget. I felt a real sense of belonging there. It means a lot that someone would help me out with that so I say thank you.”
Daniela said the trip changed her life. “I got to experience what so many Jews before me have or wanted to. And for my family, everyone who hasn’t gone or died before they could go, I came for them and I touched and prayed to the wall for them. I say thank you very much to my sponsor for not only making me a better person because of this trip, but for connecting with my family and Israel.”