What do you get when you combine 185 eighth graders, 41 staff, six coach buses, and one action-packed week touring Israel? Ta'am Yisrael: A Taste of Israel, a life-changing program of JUF's Community Foundation for Jewish Education, which celebrated its 16th successful trip to Israel in February.
"It's interesting when you hear about things in Hebrew school, but when you come here and actually experience everything, it makes you think about things in a whole different way," said participant Samantha Fleishman.
Parents, too, said they saw changes in their children who have returned from the program. "My eyes get misty when I think of the love of Israel and the depth of joy about being Jewish that the week brought into my daughter's life," said Susie Wexler.
Check out excerpts from the 2014 trip blog below for your own "taste" of Ta'am Yisrael:
We woke up to a sunny, mid-60s day, with the gorgeous Tel Aviv beach and palm trees making for a scenic drive as we set off for our destinations.
Our bus groups traveled to Rabin Square, the Palmach Museum, Independence Hall, the Ayalon Institute, and tikkun olam volunteering sites. At Leket, a food harvesting program for the hungry, we picked nearly six tons of clementines-enough to feed more than 1,000 hungry Israelis!
Nighttime brought more new friends as we traveled to Kiryat Gat, JUF's Partnership Together region, for icebreakers, dinner, and a HUGE dance party with Israeli peers. Although the teens had known each other only a few hours, it didn't take them long to form conga lines, dance to "Gangnam Style" and sing Miley Cyrus songs at the top of their lungs like they'd been friends forever!
At the Beit Guvrin Archaeological Dig, teens played anthropologist, crawling through tunnels and digging for artifacts. "It was fun going through the holes, and seeing what people carved and how they lived," said Eli Wolfson.
Our final evening in Tel Aviv, we were treated to a private preview of a brand new show at the Nalaga'at Center, which promotes disability awareness. Students were amazed by the capabilities of the talented performers who have visual and hearing impairments, and especially enjoyed getting to meet the actors after the show. "It was cool to see how they worked in different ways than us," said Izzy Heichman. "It was really interesting and impressive. I mean, I can't even play an instrument, and they can!"
From there, we ventured out to Tel Aviv University's weekly Israeli dancing night, which attracts about 500 people every week. Our bright orange t-shirts and multicolored hats quickly overtook the massive gymnasium dance floor as our teens put their newly learned dance skills to the test!
What an amazing experience touring the Old City before Shabbat! Several teens have already commented that Jerusalem feels like "a whole different country" compared to Tel Aviv's beaches and modern feel. There's something about walking on the same ancient stones as our ancestors that transports you to another time-there's nothing and nowhere like it!
After four jam-packed days of traveling and touring, a relaxing, fun-filled Shabbat was exactly what our group needed. After havdallah, we headed out for a mesmerizing viewing of the Tower of David "Night Spectacular," a breathtaking outdoor sound and light show that brought the citadel to life with laser light depictions of the history of Jerusalem. From there, we took the teens out to experience a typical Saturday night for Israeli teens-a.k.a. the mall, complete with a kosher food court!
One final stop on our way back to the hotel: a surprise midnight visit to the Kotel.
Our final morning in Jerusalem, we visited Yad Vashem, Israel's national Holocaust museum and memorial. As we walked down the winding path, many of our participants said the exhibit that most moved them was the famous display of shoes that had been left behind by people who died in the camps. "That was somebody's," said Leah Rubinberg. "I tried to imagine a person standing there, but they don't exist anymore."
In addition to touring the museum, we heard from survivor Asher Ud who told us, "You heard it from a man who [experienced] it through his own body. I [tell my story] because I'm sure the people who hear me will be my ambassadors when I'm no longer here."
After a stop at the Valley of Communities, we made our way to the Dead Sea, where participants took a rejuvenating (if somewhat cold) dip in the salty water.
We awoke to an amazing sunrise over the Dead Sea right out our hotel windows. After our last Israeli breakfast together, we headed straight to Masada. It was quite the workout-but it was worth it once we got to the top and experienced the breathtaking views! After a morning service together on top of the mountain, we split into small groups to tour the ancient ruins.
From there, our buses veered off the main road and took us down a dirt path right into the midst of the desert for a Bedouin-style celebration of our week together. Participants went on camel rides,
learned to make pita over the hearth, enjoyed a delicious fire-roasted dinner, and partied the afternoon away with drumming, dancing, and the chance to try out various musical instruments from around the world.
We closed out the evening with a group shehecheyanu and singing of HaTikvah before heading to the airport-an inspirational end to an incredibly inspirational week!
For more information, visit www.taamyisrael.org.