Israel | Local

Long-awaited Israel trip full of wonder for THA eighth-graders

(L-R) Eliana Siegel, Ellah Ben-Asher, Elana Goldberg, Sigal Devorah (Tucson Hebrew Academy teacher), Breanna Yalen, Lily Isaac, Shira Dubin, Eliana Tolby, Dani Lee, Ava Leipsic and April Glesinger (THA parent) at the Western Wall. (Courtesy Breanna Yalen)
Clockwise from top left: Eliana Tolby, Lily Isaac, Dani Lee and Eli Graizbord-Michelson work on a dig in a cave at Bet Guvrin National Park. [Courtesy Tucson Hebrew Academy)

Seeing, hearing, smelling, actually being in Israel is magical for Tucson teens who spent years studying about the Jewish state at Tucson Hebrew Academy. It is a powerful experience for eighth-grade graduates to travel with classmates and teachers, building lifetime friendships and memories. Twenty-one students made the trip this year, which took place May 14-25. THA has been providing this experience for 15 years.

“I flipped out to be in Israel,” says Breanna Yalen, a THA graduate. “I’ve been waiting since first grade to go on this trip, and it was nothing compared to what I had thought before.”

THA Head of School Jon Ben-Asher and students wear tefillin for morning prayers at Masada. (Courtesy Tucson Hebrew Academy)

“The students learn about Israel, and Jewish history, culture and values,” says Jon Ben-Asher, THA head of school, who was one of the chaperones for the trip. “But in Israel everything is tangible — it is in the air, under your feet, in the language, and every experience we have makes Israel real and gives the students a feeling of the oneness of being Jewish.”

Visiting Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center created some of the most meaningful moments for Yalen.

“This was a sad experience for me, and some of the exhibits really spoke to me,” she says. Several of the other students had family members who were victims of the Holocaust, which made the experience more immediate. Some of the information presented surprised her. She had not known that often children were killed first in the camps. “I was especially moved by the memorials to the children,” she recalls. “I related because I am still a child.”

Six candles illuminate one room at the Yad Vashem. “The sparks of just six candles are reflected in the room’s mirrors and windows, serving as reminders of the six million who died,” Yalen explains.

Colorful stones left at the grave of American lone soldier Michael Levin at Jerusaelm’s Mt. Herzl military cemetery. (Courtesy Tucson Hebrew Academy)

While at Yad Vashem, the students also opened letters written to them by their parents. “It was a very emotional moment, and many of the kids were crying,” says Ben-Asher. He said their guide interpreted all the exhibits in a very profound way.

Visiting the Western Wall also affected Yalen, who said it enabled her to feel more connected to G-d and to her Jewish ancestors. Being there on a Friday night, she says, seeing so many people there praying and dancing and singing, children playing and the notes that people left in Wall, allowed her to feel the spirit of Shabbat in ways she had not expected. “It was an amazing feeling to be around so many other Jews and being there with my friends and teachers made it more meaningful,” she says.

“The Western Wall was the most powerful experience by far,” says Aiden Glesinger, who attended THA for seven years. “It was magical and I loved it so much that I made a speech to the other boys about wanting to continue to be Jewish.” He says his fellow THA students agreed that they felt the same way.

Students from Tucson Hebrew Academy and Shikma Regional Junior High and High School in Hof Ashkelon participate in an ice-breaking exercise. (Courtesy Tucson Hebrew Academy)

Sigal Devorah, who teaches Hebrew and Judaic studies in first grade at THA, was born and raised in Israel. This was her third time as a chaperone for the eighth grade trip. “It is the best reward seeing how amazingly they connect to what we have been instilling in them for so many years,” she says. “Going straight from the airport to the Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, standing inside with a very tired group of kids that for 14 years longed to be in Israel, and singing HaTikva right there, where Israel was declared a state, is one of my moving moments on the trip.”

THA students enjoy Bedouin hospitality at Kfar Nukdin. From bottom left: Elana Goldberg, Jonah Parnaby, Eliana Siegel, Ellah Ben-Asher, Shira Dubin, Dani Lee (Courtesy Tucson Hebrew Academy)

“Taking a trip with your classmates is like traveling to a new place with your family,” says Devorah. “You feel comfortable sharing your feelings, crying at the first sight of the Kotel, and pushing each other up Masada at 4:30 in the morning. You care for each other and you share this lifetime Jewish experience with your friends and you suddenly connect and feel as an integral link in this long, Jewish nation’s chain.”

“I have been an educator for 25 years and I have never seen this level of learning that happens on these trips, “ says Ben-Asher. “But even though our trip to Israel is like a walking THA classroom, there are also elements of it being a party.” Fun activities, he says, included swimming in the Dead Sea, shopping, riding donkeys and camels and meeting the students they have gotten to know through the Weintraub Israel Center’s Partnership2Gether school twinning program. Using Skype and WhatsApp, THA eighth-graders spent the year working and making connections with pupils from the Shikma Regional Junior High and High School in Hof Ashkelon.

The first minute when the Tucson kids and the Israeli kids meet can be awkward, Devorah says. But the shyness doesn’t last.

“After they meet with each other face to face for the first time, and spend a fun-filled evening of games, music and planting trees, preparing dinner together by the bonfire, sleeping at their houses, playing on the beach, and taking a trip together to Bet Guvrin, both groups leave with an uplifting feeling that they have made friends for life,” she says. Bet Guvrin is a national park, known as “the land of a thousand caves,” where students can work on an archaeological dig.

Ryan Spitzer (left) and Breanna Yalen at the Kfar Kedem Biblical village (Courtesey Breanna Yalen)

Riding donkeys, rafting on the Jordan River and shopping were among the fun times, says Yalen. “The donkey ride brought out the Western in me,” she says. “I even bought a tee-shirt that says ‘Do it on a Donkey.’”  Glesinger also enjoyed the rafting.  Glesinger says the rafting was a competition; he and Yalen were on a raft with three other girls. “During the rafting we got tipped over, we fought for first place, and even though we started out last, we ended up first,” he says. It gave them a sense of freedom to be on the river and was a great workout, says Yalen, who had never been rafting before.

Shopping yielded gifts for family and friends back home. In Tzfat, Yalen bought her brother a tallit for his bar mitzvah, which will take place next October. She was fascinated with different cultures and the beautiful clothing, especially among the Bedouin. “Everything seemed so alive in Israel,” she says. Even the ice cream, she declares, is the best in the world.

Elana Goldberg (left) and Breanna Yalen at Kfar Hanokdim (Courtesy Tucson Hebrew Academy)

“The whole trip was exciting and fun and we never stopped from morning to night,” says Glesinger. “I loved it, especially going with my friends from class and my teachers. It made our friendships stronger.” Both Glesinger and Yalen say they plan to go back to Israel. “I have to go back,” says Yalen. “Israel is a place where I feel I belong — it sparked a sense of Judaism in me that I don’t think I had before the trip.”

The trip to Israel is accomplished with a lot of hard work by students and parents who hold fundraisers for the trip. They sell food and drink at events such as the THA STEM Festival, the Tucson International Jewish Film Festival and an event at the Gaslight Theater.

“I want to express my gratitude to the students, parents, individual donors, the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, the Weintraub Israel Center and the Tucson businesses that all help support this trip,” says Ben-Asher.

“As head of school I see how powerful the THA education is and in Israel I see them really get it,” he says. “Their souls catch on fire and burn bright in Israel, and I know they’re going to stay connected and continue to be Jewish.”

Korene Charnofsky Cohen is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.