Last month, Tucson Hebrew Academy graduate Davis Yalen had the kind of Israel experience every Jewish parent and educator dreams of.
He enjoyed floating in the Dead Sea: “It was such a cool experience, because I’ve heard about it, and learned about it in school.” Riding on the world’s second longest zip-line, in Gush Etzion, was “super fun.” And visiting the valley where David fought Goliath, he says, “I really felt the connection to what actually happened there.
“But I think my favorite part of the trip was the Western Wall,” Davis says. “When I put on tefillin, and I went close to the wall, and I said Sh’ma, it was such a different experience. I felt my Jewish identity instantly become stronger.”
Davis traveled to Israel May 12-23 with 12 eighth-grade classmates and two teachers from THA.
It was THA’s 18th Israel trip, says Rabbi Billy Lewkowicz, the school’s director of Judaics and Hebrew. Although Lewkowicz did not serve as a chaperone this year, he notes that the kids had the benefit of being accompanied by Yoni Green, an Israeli native who taught at THA the past two years, and first-grade teacher Robin Garcia. Their group also included a tour guide and two Israelis in their 20s from the tour company.
One big thrill for the students, says Lewkowicz, was meeting their friends from Tucson’s Partnership2Gether region of Kiryat Malachi and Hof Ashkelon face to face, after a year of texting and Skyping with them as part of the Weintraub Israel Center’s school twinning program.
After looking forward to the trip through all their years at THA, says Green, the students “expect a lot, but when they started to feel it and get into it, it was much more than they expected.” At one point, he heard one of the kids say, “We have a home in Arizona and another home here.”
Perhaps the most special moment for the students, he says, was when they saw the Western Wall for the first time. “It was at night, and I had them cover their eyes, and then when they walked in front of the wall and uncovered their eyes … it was a very emotional moment for them and for us.”
For Green, the trip was eye-opening. “I was in all these places before, but it was very unique to see it through the kids’ eyes,” he says.
Hadlie Polonski, who attended THA from first through eighth grades, says the trip was “amazing.”
Kayaking on the Jordan River was “a major highlight” for her. “It was a lot of fun, and it was really great to bond in a different way,” she says. She also got a charge out of the zip-line adventure.
Shabbat at the Western Wall was another favorite moment. “It was a different experience than anything we’ve had in Tucson,” she says. “We were split up, but on the girls’ side, we were dancing and singing and praying. It was a lot of fun.”
Although the THA classmates were close before the trip, Hadlie says, “it was completely different living with them for 10 days — but it was really great.”
Funding for the trip included grants from the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona, which supplemented fundraising by students and parents.