Friday, March 27, 2015 Nisan 7, 5775

Akiba Juniors Receive a Warm Welcome Home

January 25, 2007 By:
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Sarah Eidelson (left) embraces friend Rena Asher, who just spent four months in Israel.Photo by Jared Shelly
After being overseas for four months -- and getting just five hours sleep during the span of about two days of travel -- 17-year-old Rena Asher longed for the comforts of home.

She had it all figured out: "Saying 'hi' to my dog and cat -- and my bed," said Asher, after she'd returned from a semester-long stay in Israel earlier this week.

She and 47 other juniors from Akiba Hebrew Academy in Merion had been living on the Alexander Muss High School campus in Hod Hasharon, a suburb of Tel Aviv, since late September. During their stay, the students took numerous classes, and two days a week traveled to parts of the country they were studying in their coursework.

In November, the students also went to Prague, in the Czech Republic, and Warsaw and Krakow in Poland to see where Jewish life had thrived before the Holocaust. The trip also included tours of concentration camps.

Some family members and other Akiba students joined the group for this 10-day Eastern European leg of the trip. By the time the group made its last stop in Warsaw, according to Rabbi Philip D. Field, head of school at Akiba, they couldn't wait to get back to Israel.

"It's cold and snowy, they really get to feel what Europe was like and can picture emotionally what it was like for the Jewish people," attested Field. "When we get back to Israel, the sun is shining, and the kids soak [it] up."

After the 11-hour plane ride from Israel to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, some of the students had trouble getting back into the swing of American life.

"We were actually speaking Hebrew to the people in the airport, not remembering where we were," said Asher of her first couple of minutes on U.S. soil.

Once the students made it back to the snow-dusted parking lot at Adath Israel synagogue, across the street from Akiba, they hugged their teary-eyed parents and swapped quick stories with classmates who were taking a break from their normal Monday school schedule.

Asher said her favorite part of the trip was training with the Israeli army at a military base.

"We got to shoot M-16s," she said. "We did a lot of cleaning, especially in the kitchen. We just got to see what it was like to be in the army."

Miriam Berger, 17, admitted that she needed a little more time to digest her experience before figuring out what it meant.

"I don't really know how it affected me yet until I'm back, taking in what I learned," she said.

Her favorite part was the freedom of living in dorms with the other students. "I loved just being able to go out at night and get falafel for [next to] nothing," said Berger, "and just hanging out with your friends and experiencing Israel in a way that I never did with my family."

Her connection to the country grew so deep that she is considering going back in the future to participate in a community-service project.

For her mother, Jane Eisner -- former editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer and current vice president for civic initiatives at the National Constitution Center -- this trip marked her third child's participation in the Akiba journey to Israel.

"It's a life-changing experience, even if she doesn't understand all that yet," said Eisner, "and frankly, I think the Jewish community should make it so every child can spend some substantial time in Israel. I think it's really important for their development and our continuity."

After gathering her luggage, and hugging her mother and some friends, Berger was "ready for a nap -- and Starbucks."

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