When Tucson Hebrew Academy eighth graders Emily Youngerman and Alyssa Lee first spotted the Western Wall in Jerusalem, they squealed to each other, “Look! It isn’t just a picture anymore!”
While most Tucson eighth graders finished up their year with paperwork and exams, the THA eighth grade class spent 10 action- packed days touring Israel. Sixteen students and two chaperones went on this year’s trip.
“The goal of the trip is to go beyond the scope of the classroom,” says Rabbi Billy Lewkowicz, THA director of Judaic and Hebrew studies and lead chaperone. “Up until this moment, Israel has just been a picture on a postcard, and now they have joyful memories and the pride of being in the Holy Land.”
THA’s middle school program includes modern Hebrew language and Judaic studies in addition to the academic curriculum, which also features creative writing, art, drama and music. THA goes from kindergarten through eighth grades, so the annual Israel trip is a culmination on many levels — of friendships, scholastics and cementing Jewish identity before students graduate to attend secular high schools.
To afford the Israel adventure, the eighth graders and their parents spent the year fundraising through individual babysitting, holding group yard sales, raffles and pizza drives, selling art work, writing grants and serving as vendors at the Israel 66 Celebration. This is THA’s 12th year to send a group, with a grand total of more than 300 students participating.
The 10-day trip was coordinated through an Israeli company, Jewish Journeys, beginning in Tel Aviv with a day trip to Independence Hall and an overnight stay on a kibbutz. Other excursions included camel riding through the Judean desert, hiking up Masada, floating in the Dead Sea, touring Jerusalem’s Western Wall and City of David tunnels, visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum, studying Mishnah in the mystical city of Safed, discovering ancient Chanukah artifacts at an archaeological dig, hiking in the Golan Heights, kayaking down the Jordan River and boating on the Sea of Galilee. The group interacted with a vast array of Israelis, from Holocaust survivors and rabbis to soldiers, kibbutz workers, students and archaeologists.
Youngerman remembers “salivating over hearing about the eighth graders’ Israel trip since I was a first grader. At THA we watch each group travel then graduate, so there are no words to describe the experience when you go yourself. It is such a tight knit group, a family.” Her most meaningful experience on the trip was a morning service atop Masada.
Noah Meyer agrees. “It was an awesome experience, and the group was so much fun to go with,” he says. “My favorite places were Jerusalem, Masada and the overnight experience on the Yad Mordechai kibbutz.” One memory which really stood out to Meyer was playing football with Rabbi Billy and the group on the beach near Tel Aviv.
On the kibbutz, Meyer recalls teaching the Israelis how to make s’mores, which they had never heard of, and how to play American football with a football they purchased from the local shuk, or market. “The entire experience gave me a new perspective on my Jewish identity,” Meyer says, “and it was a great way to tie up eight years at THA.”
Regarding security, Lewkowicz says a guard assigned by the travel company regularly liaised with the police and army. The guard accompanied the group at all times, mostly as an extra tour guide. “Most students said they felt safer in Israel than in most places in the U.S.,” Lewkowicz says, “and the heightened sense of security yields an even greater sense of freedom.”
That bond was put to the test when one of the eighth graders twisted her ankle early in the trip. “The next day was the hike up Masada,” says Lewkowicz, “and this group had such an excellent attitude. No way were they leaving her behind! Everyone just carried her and gave her piggy back rides all the way up, with such joy!”
THA students who have participated on the Israel trip in previous years typically go on to participate in Tucson’s Hebrew High and remain active in the Jewish community. “Everyone wants to go back,” Lewkowicz says. “Israel has the power to deepen connections, awareness and feelings. Even the spirits of the students themselves are enhanced.”
Deborah Baker, Meyer’s mother, agrees. “The trip is completely transformative. Their reviews are so extremely positive that it inspires the community to raise the funds every year to make it happen.”
“They experience so much by being so openly Jewish,” Lewkowicz explains, “and that amazing experience forms a powerful bond.”
Sarah Chen is a freelance writer and blogger who lives with her husband and two children in Tucson.