[by Holly Hinson, Special to Community]
(See full image gallery at the end of this article.)
The first time Jennifer Davis visited the Western Wall she was walking hand in hand with other young women. She didn’t know who was beside her, however, because she was blindfolded. As part of an exercise to learn trust and solidarity, the very first stop on Jennifer’s trip to Israel was to go directly to Kotel, the Western Wall – “the first amazing thing in a surprising and amazing adventure,” she said.
As part of The National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY): The Jerusalem Journey, Jennifer was one of hundreds of youth to embark on the three-week Israel trip on July 3.
Jennifer, 16, a junior at DuPont Manual High School, attended with seven youths from Cincinnati as part of a regional NCSY group that she has been involved with for more than two years. “They know me as that kid from Louisville,” Jennifer joked. “I have been going to regional conventions at least three times a year since freshman year.”
This NCSY group is where Jennifer learned of the opportunity to go to Israel, a journey that literally began with the blindfolded exercise at the Western Wall. “When I opened my eyes after they took the blindfold off, it was amazing,” said the teen.
“Here we are by something still standing strong after 4,000 years, and it will be here for another 4,000 after we leave,” she noted. “It is the same as we Jews still standing strong as a people. It was a deep personal experience; I felt like I finally found it, made it where I belong, at my home, at my homeland.”
Having the opportunity to worship in a different environment or in a different way was another highlight of the trip, said Jennifer. “We woke up at 4 a.m. and hiked through the Sinai Desert, We were split up in the dark and we sat on rocks and prayed to God. It was really one-on-one. In a synagogue, everyone is praying at once, and you are afraid you are not being heard, but here you know you are being heard. It was really personal.
After that, we hiked up this mountain for over two hours, and I was beginning to wonder, but it was worth it. That sunrise was about the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen.” The group also made a trip to Masada.
For the youth participating in the trip – more than 300 in all – each busload was paired with a partner bus, sharing activities and staying at hostels together, “creating a sense of community,” said Jennifer. “We spent the first two weeks bonding and making connections with people we had never met before. Part of that was also learning more about ourselves. We were introduced to what the rabbi called PDP, or Personal Displays of Positivity,” she said.
“The idea behind PDP was that we are all connected,” she continued, “even before we know one another. The rabbi said, ‘this is my family – these are my sons and daughters.’ He told us we could respect and love even before we really know someone. We learned that we have to love ourselves before we can learn to love others and to grow.”
While the teens were involved in a veritable potpourri of activities during the three weeks – faith group activities, sightseeing, recreational activities, worship, even camel riding in the desert and tubing in the Red Sea – Jennifer said one of the tours that really made an impact was the visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust Memorial museum.
“At the Children’s Memorial, they took us in this pitch-black room and we could hear a voice speaking all the names of the children under 18 who were murdered. Then it looked like hundreds of candles were lit, but it was really only five – all the rest were mirrors and reflections – that were meant to represent each child that had been killed. …just hearing those names of all those 4-17 year olds, the names of some children my same age,” she said. “It was so sad to think of that many innocent children, thinking what they went through.”
For Jennifer, the idea of solidarity with other Jewish teens was a very appealing component of the trip to Israel. “I feel really changed by this trip. I feel like my faith is much stronger, and I’m more open about it. I now know Jewish teens just like me. They face the same things I do, and these people are always here for me even if they’re far away. I just realized I’m not alone. I have the greatest sense of communion with the others who share my faith.”
As memorable as her first trip to the Wall was, Jennifer said the group’s second visit to the Kotel tunnel near the end of her three weeks was even more so, marking it her favorite moment of the trip.
“We were there for our last Shabbat, and we were on one of the rooftops of one of the buildings,” she explained. “We could see every single person dancing and singing – even the Israeli soldiers. We could see the men on one side, praying and more serious but also dancing in their black and white hats. The women were on the other side – their outfits were more colorful – they were rejoicing and dancing in circles and singing, even though no one even knew each other. Just seeing so many people come to one place – all for the same reason, all for their religion.”
Jennifer said that when they visited the Cave of Machpelah, she witnessed an amazing sight when she saw spontaneous singing and dancing. “ I assumed that this kind of thing must happen all the time.” But the rabbi there told her that in his four years of taking trips to Israel, he had never seen that happen before. “It was random and it was amazing,” said Jennifer.
Jennifer said she is so grateful for the scholarship she received from the Jewish Foundation of Louisville funded by a grant from the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence that allowed her to make this incredible life-changing journey.
“Israel is just this very special place that every Jew feels connected to – no matter how religious. If they are confused or lost, they have that connection. They can just go there and find themselves.”