For an Israeli tour guide/security guard, taking a group of Jewish Americans to the Kotel is old hat.
But even Elad Baritzky, who works in that role for The Jewish Journey, was surprised at how impactful the moment was for a group of Abrams Hebrew Academy eighth-grade students.
“I thought that, taking young people, they wouldn’t really connect,” said Baritzky, who normally guides high school students. “But I was mistaken, because when we were in the Kotel, they got really, really, really excited, like nothing I ever saw. … You could see in their eyes, at the graves of Mount Herzl, [the cemetery of] the fallen soldiers, people were really, really emotional. They were only 14 [years old], but you could see people connecting. It was amazing to see that, amazing and surprising.”
For the 19th year, Rabbi Ira Budow, director of Yardley-based Abrams, took the school’s eighth-graders on a graduation trip to Israel. The trip from May 1 to 10 took the students to typical places like the Kotel, Yad Vashem and Masada, as well as to less-usual destinations, such as the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, the Cave of Machpelah in Hevron and Gan Hashlosha National Park in the country’s north. The students also dedicated a Torah to the Israel Border Police.
With the support of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks, Budow said, every eighth-grader who wanted to participate could do so without financial obstacles.
“We’ve been learning about Israel and about how ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ we always say in our prayers. And this year, we got to be in Jerusalem and Israel after all these years of learning the geography, the way they lived, the customs, everything,” student Julia Flax said. “To finally be here for our eighth-grade graduation is absolutely amazing.”
The trip included a graduation ceremony at the Kotel. Every year, the school gets a special person to make an appearance, and that person this year was Michael “Mickey” Goldman, a Holocaust survivor who interrogated Adolf Eichmann. Goldman was one of two witnesses at Eichmann’s hanging and cremation, and he participated in throwing Eichmann’s ashes into international waters.
“A lot of people today, millennials especially, are forgetting about the Holocaust,” Budow said. “I wanted our students to understand that this man was able to put away a villain of villains. The kids were very fortunate. He was very warm with the kids.”
The trip marks the end of the students’ education at Abrams, many of whom have been there for years. During those years, Israel has been a paramount part of their education, through Hebrew classes and a curriculum that covers the country’s geography, history and contemporary issues.
Budow said he wants students to leave the trip as representatives for the state of Israel, having seen the positive aspects and depth of the country. The eighth-graders got to see religious coexistence in the country, for example, on a tour they took of the Arab market.
“They saw Christians; they saw Muslims,” Budow said. “They saw that Israel allows these religions to observe their own faiths. It’s an important message to our children that Israel is a democratic country that allows other faiths to be in the land of Israel.”
Especially in light of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement on college campuses, Budow wants students to be able to get a sense of the real Jewish state before they head to high school.
“I want [the students] very much to have a religious experience, to understand their teachings that they had at Abrams,” he explained. “I want that experience to come out alive. I want them to see the history of our people, what our people sacrificed for the land. I want them to know that this is not an easy thing to accomplish, having Israel. I want them to appreciate what the people here do for us to have Israel, and I also want them to understand that Israel is a modern country. … I want them to know that being Jewish in Israel is coming home.”
For their favorite parts of the trip, the eighth-graders named the Kotel, the Cave of Machpelah and Kfar Kedem, where they learned how ancient Israelites lived 2,000 years ago.
“We spent the week in Israel with my class, and we just loved it,” student Sam Abramov said. “There wasn’t a minute I didn’t cherish. There wasn’t a minute that I didn’t love about this trip. It’s a little sad that we have to go back. I always thought of Israel as the Holy Land, OK, wow. But I actually come here, and it’s just, walking outside, there’s just a spark in my heart for this place, and I just don’t want to leave.”
Budow said the school used to take the students on a graduation trip to Williamsburg, Va., but he felt that they should take them somewhere that connects more with their Jewish education. He wants the students to end their education at Abrams with an experience that will stay with them forever.
“It’s a bridge to continuing to come back to Israel,” he said. “We get them started, and we emphasize on the trip that we need you to be a supporter of Israel and we need you to come back to Israel and we need you to study in Israel. … This is not an ending. This is not a closure. This is just the beginning.”
Because Abrams only offers classes through the eighth grade, the students will continue their secondary education at other schools, such as Kohelet Yeshiva High School, Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy and various public schools.
One student, Stephanie Klebanov, is headed to public school, but her Jewish journey is far from over.
“[This trip] inspired me to dress more modestly, become more religious in a sense,” Klebanov said. “Before, I was just like every other secular Jew. The Kotel and other holy places inspired me to become more. Now that I’m changing, in a sense, it might be a bit more difficult, but I can get through it.”