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Community members explore dimensions of Israel on summer travels

Ben Sargus, left, with Avery Shultz and Hayden Jones of Phoenix, at the Dead Sea

The Big Trip Israel

From June 3–July 1, Ben Sargus traveled on Camp Daisy & Harry Stein’s Big Trip Israel. A camper since third grade, Ben, a University High School junior, has been active in NFTY (the Reform Jewish Youth Movement, formerly North American Temple Youth) and is one of Temple Emanu-El’s madrichim (youth leaders), serving as a teacher’s assistant and b’nai mitzvah tutor.

The busload of 34 teens traversed the land, staying at hotels, kibbutzim, and youth hostels on this journey of a lifetime. They floated in the Dead Sea, snorkeled in the Red Sea, rode camels, and visited historical sites and museums. As volunteers, the group painted benches at a youth shelter. They also visited with pediatric cardiac patients at Save a Child’s Heart, an Israel-based international humanitarian organization that provides life-saving heart surgeries and follow-up care for children from around the world.

On Mount Herzl, Ben heard stirring stories of fallen soldiers and the need to keep protecting our homeland. Two lone soldiers — one French and one British — joined their group for dinner and spoke of why they were fighting for Israel. Ben also was moved by the Western Wall. He says, “In facing and touching the Kotel, it became more important and I felt more connected to my Judaism.”

USY Israel Adventure

Katya Cohen prepares to mount a camel in the Negev

At the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s annual awards celebration in May, Katya Cohen received the Rabbi Arthur R. Oleisky Teen Recognition Award. This prize included a $500 stipend toward Israel travel that Katya used for the month-long United Synagogue Youth Israel Adventure. Katya, a Catalina Foothills High School senior and Congregation Anshei Israel member, has been active in her school and community, and has attended Hebrew High, USY, and Camp Ramah. Before this sojourn, she stated, “Being raised with a Jewish identity, I have come to understand the importance of celebrating my Judaism. This trip is the next step to exploring myself Jewishly and developing strong bonds and lifelong connections with other Jewish teens. As much of my family lives in Israel, I hope to gain a stronger connection to my heritage.”

Here are some of Katya’s favorite memories of the July 1-30 trip with 35 other travelers:

• Dining at a family-owned Druze restaurant, eating their food and learning about their religion and customs

• Sleeping in sleeping bags under the stars in the desert in Mitzpe Ramon and then rappelling down the mountain the next day

• Sleeping in a Bedouin tent in the Negev, tasting their cuisine and embracing their culture

• Taking part in an archaeological dig at Tel Maresha, finding remnants of pottery and bones

• Snorkeling in the Red Sea near Eilat

• Visiting David Ben Gurion’s home and grave and being impressed how his possessions were left just as he wished

• Touring the Blind Museum where the tour guides are blind or visually impaired. The group walked through seven rooms in the dark, using their other senses (taste, touch, smell, and sound) to navigate.

• Visiting the Olympic Museum, which highlighted Israel’s history in the Olympics and partaking in hands-on activities

• Performing tikkun olam (repair of the world) with “mitzvah maven” Danny Siegel. They packed lunches for the homeless before driving two hours to clean a horse ranch where they do horse therapy.

• Viewing the workshop at Jerusalem’s Yad L’Kashish, a non-profit organization that provides low-income elderly with creative work opportunities and support services. Katya purchased her brother’s tallit there for his upcoming bar mitzvah.

• Experiencing a “powerful” three-hour tour of Yad Vashem

Katya, who had never been out of the country and knew no one beforehand on this adventure, made “amazing new friends” and came away, in her words, “with three needs — the need to learn Hebrew, the need to keep Shabbat, and the need to return to Israel.”

Birthright Israel

Birthright travelers Risa Silvers and Max Baruch at the Western Wall

Max Baruch and Risa Silvers, University of Arizona sophomores — he a pre-business major, she in pre-nursing — traveled on Israel Free Spirit, a Birthright trip sponsored by the Orthodox Union. From May 20-29, both first-timers to Israel followed the group’s 10-day itinerary.

“The most significant part of the trip was being able to interact and learn about Jews of differing ethnic backgrounds and levels of observance,” Max says. “Each city we toured had different types of Jews; it was amazing seeing so much diversity in such a small population of people. In visiting [my] Orthodox family in Israel, it was a great experience seeing their lives in comparison to my own as a Reform Jew in Tucson.”

Risa says, “Birthright was a truly unforgettable experience that I am so thankful to have been on. I didn’t know that I would fall in love with a whole country within the span of 10 days. Learning about the history and the people that make it such a beautiful place was an honor. Rafting on the Jordan River was a highlight, as was celebrating Shabbat at the Western Wall.”

Fostering Israeli relationships

Wildcats at a Jerusalem restaurant, from left: Alyssa Silva (University of Arizona alum/ director of Jewston at Houston Hillel), Or Maoz (former UA Hillel Israel Fellow), Michelle Blumenberg (UA Hillel executive director), Amalia Mark (former UA Hillel staff/Hebrew College rabbinical student), Sam Sherer (current UA student)

Just as Michelle Blumenberg, UA Hillel executive director, nurtures her students, so does she nurture her alumni and staff, whether in Tucson or in Israel.

From May 25–June 7, Michelle traveled with her partner, Richard Covell, to Israel. They spent a few days with a private tour guide and the rest on their own. This gave Michelle the opportunity to meet with former UA alumni and Hillel staff. The pair also encountered
Birthright groups all along the way. Michelle found it interesting to compare Israeli and U.S. newspapers, especially as she and Richard were in Israel when new elections were called after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition. On May 30, the Knesset voted to dissolve itself which triggered these new elections set for September 17.



“Arizona in Israel”

(L-R) Olivia Schneider (University of Arizona), Claire Naiman (Tucsonan, Arizona State University), Father Nael Abu Rahmoun, Sam Sherer (UA), David Graizbord (UA professor), and Andrew Rosenberg (UA) at Christ Church in Nazareth. Not pictured: Ana Serratos-Gonzalez (UA)

David Graizbord, UA associate professor of Judaic studies, and Leonard Hammer, visiting professor of Judaic studies and human rights, headed this UA faculty-led summer study abroad program. For seven weeks, from May 13-June 26, five students — four from the UA and one from ASU, an ethnically, religiously diverse group — took the course. May 13-23, before their arrival in Israel, course preparation took place online, with students reading and learning about ancient, medieval, and early modern Jewish history. Once in Israel, classes and field trips were divided between Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Jezreel Valley College in Afula.

Graizbord touts the two principles of this program: leading courses in a seminar setting, and turning the classroom inside out — doing fieldwork, hearing guest speakers, and attending a one-week symposium. Coursework began with the roots and development of the Jewish people and their civilization and continued with the transformation from the early modern period to modern Israel. Students received a comprehensive overview from these distinguished UA educators.

Israel volunteer

Abigail Ben Shabat in the underwater tunnels at the City of David

UA student Abigail Ben Shabat is spending the entire summer, through October, volunteering on Kibbutz Bar’am in northern Israel.

The Ben Shabat family hosted past shinshin (Israeli teen ambassador) Ron Benacot in their home for six months. During that time, Abigail and Ron became close. Originally, Abigail, a Tucson Hebrew Academy and Basis Tucson North graduate, was considering volunteering in Guatemala; however, Ron encouraged her to assist in Israel. Ben Shabat’s Israeli-born father grew up on a kibbutz, making this experience more special.

On the kibbutz, Abigail works in the Elcam factory, an engineering facility that produces medical products. From 6 a.m.-2 p.m., she cleans the factory inside and out, including bathrooms, dressing rooms, cafeterias, and work areas. Upon her return, she plans to continue her UA studies.

Gap year in Israel

From September through May, four Tucsonans will spend a gap year immersed in Israeli life.

Geva Ozeri, a University High School graduate, will spend nine months with Nativ, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s college leadership program in Israel. This includes a semester studying in Jerusalem and a semester of community service. He will do Ulpan (intensive Hebrew study) followed by working at the Yemin Orde Youth Village near Haifa. Established in the early 1950s on Mount Carmel, Yemin Orde provides a home, a school, and a safe haven for at-risk immigrant teens, integrating them into Israeli society. Geva is part of Jewish National Fund’s Plant Your Way to Israel program. JNF created this program to support its forestry efforts while assisting young people in their efforts to fund a trip to our homeland.

Jillian Cassius, a graduate of The Gregory School, will also pursue the Nativ gap year program, attending Hebrew University for a semester before working at the Yemin Orde Youth Village during the second part of the year. Jillian, a 2018 recipient of the JFSA Women’s Philanthropy Bryna Zehngut Mitzvot Award, will use its $613 gift (relating to the Torah’s 613 mitzvot) toward this Israel travel.

From the middle to the end of August, Aaron Green, a CFHS graduate, traveled on Birthright before beginning this year’s Young Judaea Year Course. The program consists of three components: volunteering in Tel Aviv-Yafo, an academic semester in Jerusalem, and a special interest month. For his volunteerism, Aaron has applied for training as a first responder paramedic with the Magen David Adom.

Aliya Markowitz, also a CFHS grad, will be part of Aardvark Israel (see related story). She will take classes on Zionism, Hebrew, psychology, and conflicts of the Middle East. She also will have internships in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Participants will live in apartments with roommates and commute on public transportation to immerse themselves fully in Israeli society.

Time to share

Since Israel summer travel filled this space, the Sept. 27 P.S. column in the Rosh Hashanah issue will cover other notable summer trips. Keep me posted at the Post — 319-1112. L’shalom.