As Louisa (Lulu) Youngerman waded effortlessly in the Dead Sea, making playful attempts to reach its bed, she was awestruck by the experience.
“This is everything that I heard about and more,” says Lulu. “This is magical.”
Lulu attended the Tucson Hebrew Academy from kindergarten through eighth grade, and her excitement about traveling to Israel began to build about two years ago. On May 8, she and eight classmates and their chaperones set off on a journey that would bring to life a country they’d learned so much about in the classroom.
During the 11-day trip, the group visited Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, the Western Wall and the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem and the pools of Ein Gedi. The group also enjoyed Bedouin hospitality, spent time on a kibbutz, attended a memorial service for Israeli soldiers in Arad, rode camels through the desert, toured the Israeli Children’s Museum and hiked up Masada at dawn.
This year marked the 14th annual journey to Israel for THA eighth graders; 320 students have taken the unforgettable trip thus far.
Janae Newhouse-Waine says that since her first days of kindergarten, this trip has been a major talking point. Seeing photographs and hearing other students share stories kept her interest peaked. But pictures and academics pale in comparison to the reality of visiting Israel, she says.
At first, being in Tel Aviv felt surreal and to quell her enthusiastic disbelief Janae kept reminding herself they were actually in Israel, she says with a laugh.
The action-packed days didn’t slow her down, Janae says, but staying positive and in the moment was a cardinal rule. There were numerous stops that inspired Janae including the Dialogue In The Dark exhibit hosted by the Israeli Children’s Museum — a world renowned showcase that simulates the vivid, sensory-rich world experienced by the blind and vision impaired.
Ultimately, what Israel has to offer THA students is beautifully indescribable, she says, and certainly has a life changing impact.
“There are so many sites that are breathtaking, and in close proximity to each other,” Janae says.
“It’s just so powerful, and such a strong realization.”
Rabbi Billy Lewkowicz, THA director of Judaic and Hebrew studies, says he is utterly impressed that interest in the annual trip grows each year. And he feels proud of the supportive parents who help make the venture possible.
Through the Weintraub Israel Center’s Partnership2Gether school twinning program, THA eighth graders spend the year working with, and getting to know, pupils from the Shikma Regional Junior High and High School in Hof Ashkelon via Skype and WhatsApp.
When everyone finally meets in-person, the sense of community is warm and welcoming, he says.
“We felt like we’re not just visiting a country, but visiting family,” Lewkowicz says.
Students not only build a strong connection to their heritage, they also develop a greater sense of self, he says. And this invaluable trek through Israel presents an education far beyond lectures and assignments.
“What you do there, you cannot do in a classroom,” he says.
Throughout the year, THA students participated in various fundraising efforts to help finance the trip, including a jog-a-thon, babysitting during parent teacher conferences, selling locally sponsored raffle tickets and working concessions at events including the Tucson International Jewish Film Festival hosted by the Jewish Community Center. The Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona also provides much appreciated sponsorship, says Lewkowicz.
Jonathan Ben-Asher, head of school at THA, says his first venture as a student chaperone was uniquely moving.
“It was incredible seeing the trip through the kids eyes,” Ben-Asher says. “And seeing them connect with the people, and the history was very powerful.”
Ben-Asher, a THA alumnus, says the Israel trip was not an option when he was in the eighth grade. Now, the annual event is the pinnacle experience for students, and further exemplifies the school’s all inclusive curriculum, he says.
Eighth grader Katherine Kanter, another THA student since kindergarten, couldn’t wait to take this special voyage. Even at a young age, before experiencing her Jewish homeland, Katherine felt deeply connected to Israel, she says.
As the first day unfolded and Katherine strolled the welcoming streets of Tel Aviv with her class, overhearing conversations in Hebrew and feeling right at home in Israel surpassed her expectations, she says.
“Everyone in Israel felt like family, and they treated you like family,” Katherine says. “It didn’t feel foreign to me, and I didn’t expect that at all.”
Another standout moment for her was praying at the Western Wall. The group arrived at the historic site in the evening hours, after celebrating Israel’s Independence Day in Jerusalem. As they approached the holy monument, Katherine was amazed and now feels even more deeply connected to Judaism, she says.
Overall, traveling to Israel was unforgettable, and she wholeheartedly recommends taking advantage of this wonderful opportunity.
“The trip was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Katherine says.
David J. Del Grande is a freelance writer in Tucson.