Monday, February 10, 2014 ~ 10 Adar 5774

We're on our way to the airport! The hugs and tears have already started as our incredible journey draws to a close.

As a quick recap of our final day:

We woke up this morning to an amazing sunrise over the Dead Sea right out our hotel windows. After our last Israeli breakfast together, we headed straight to Masada. Though we took the easier of two paths on the climb up, it was still quite the workout - but it was worth it once we got to the top and experienced the breathtaking views! Once we got some picture-taking out of the way (see group pic below), we did a morning service together on top of the mountain, and then split up into small groups to tour the ancient ruins with our guides.

masada

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 evening away with drumming, dancing, and the chance to try out various musical instruments from around the world.

Before boarding the buses, there was still one final matter of business to attend to: the highly-anticipated group count-off contest, where bus groups competed to see who could count off in Hebrew the fastest. It was definitely a fingernail-biter, but ultimately two winners emerged: Bus Gimmel and Bus Daled, who tied at an impressive 17 seconds!

camel ride negev

We closed out the night with a group schechechyanu and singing of HaTikvah - an inspirational end to an incredibly inspirational week.

Blogger's note: We hope you've enjoyed reading our Ta'am Yisrael 2014 Web Journal! This note marks our final entry - but be sure to keep following us on Twitter for up-to-the-minute travel updates. Also, we wish there was time to upload the hundreds of out-of-this-world awesome photos that we took today into our online album, but alas, it will have to wait until we are back home. Please check back by the end of the week. Thanks!

Sunday, February 9, 2014 ~ 9 Adar 5774

Our final morning in Jerusalem, we visited Yad Vashem, Israel's national Holocaust museum and memorial. As each bus group's guide explained, the architecture of the museum itself is a part of the experience: The long, triangular building starts off with level ground and spacious walls, and exhibits that explain the propaganda and racism that set the stage in the years preceding the Shoah. As visitors travel from one end to the other, following the timeline of the Holocaust, the ground slopes downward and the walls appear to cave in, reflecting the deteriorating situation.

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. "I had always heard of the pile of shoes that we were going to see, and then once I got there it was really… real," said Ariel K.

Leah R. agreed, adding: "That was somebody's. I tried to imagine a person standing there, but they don't exist anymore."

Once the exhibits began to discuss liberation, the walls slowly reopened, and the ground sloped back up. After coming through the Hall of Names, the building emptied us out into the sunshine and a glorious, triumphant view of Jerusalem was before us, leaving our group to reflect on the state of our society today and the importance of Israel as a safe harbor for Jews worldwide. The ultimate message of the museum felt both optimistic and cautionary: we may have overcome, but we must never forget.

To emphasize that message, we continued on to another area of the museum to hear the moving testimonial of survivor Asher Ud, who was ten years old at the start of the Holocaust. From his home in Poland, he and his family were sent to the Lodz ghetto, where they were put to work doing manual labor in order to survive. One by one, each member of his family was sent away, ultimately leaving Asher alone to fend for himself. "I had never left home before. Now I was here by myself," he said. "I wanted to continue to live. Every second of every day I was fighting to stay alive."

asher

Eventually, he was sent in a cattle car to Auschwitz - a harrowing experience that left him with severe stomach issues after he resisted going to the bathroom for the five days that he was in transit with no opportunity to leave the cattle car. At Auschwitz, he recalls seeing a doctor meeting the trains, and deciding with the flick of a finger who would live and who would go straight to the gas chambers. For reasons he can only attribute to luck and G-d, Asher was allowed to live, and sent to the barracks where, unexpectedly, a small piece of good fortune awaited him - he soon learned that one of his brothers was in a neighboring barrack. For a short time, at least, he was no longer alone in the world.

Their reunion was short-lived, however, and soon Asher was moved to a camp in Austria, where he was later liberated by American troops. He recalls gorging himself on food provided by the sympathetic American troops, but then quickly becoming critically ill as his emaciated body was not able to handle the shock of no longer being in starvation mode. "I was eating 12 eggs for breakfast. A whole chicken for lunch. But before long, we all got sick. Many of us went to the hospital."

Fortunately, Asher's health soon improved, and he eventually made his way to Israel, where he attended high school, joined the army, got a job, got married, and is now a proud father and grandfather. "This is my victory," he said.

Though Asher has three children and ten grandchildren, he said he has not told his story to his children.

"I didn't speak for many years," he said. "Speaking is living it. But we [survivors] came to a decision that we have to speak, so you can say not only have you read books and seen pictures, but you heard it from a man who [experienced] it through his own body. I do it because I'm sure the people who hear me will be my ambassadors when I'm no longer here to do it."

valley

We ended our Yad Vashem visit with a stop at the Valley of Communities, a maze-like outdoor monument with thousands of cities etched into sandstone bedrock, listing the Jewish communities around the world that disappeared entirely or nearly entirely after the Holocaust. Many Ta'am Yisrael participants were able to locate the names of cities where their great-grandparents or other relatives had come from. In a central enclave of the monument, we came together as a large group to say Yizkor for those who perished, and to sing HaTikvah and Am Yisrael Chai - ending a heavy morning on a positive and hopeful note.

From there, we waved goodbye to Jerusalem and made our way to the Dead Sea, where participants took a rejuvenating (if somewhat cold) dip in the salty water. It was incredible to see the stark change in the landscape between the lush, green hills of Jerusalem and the striking red mountains, barren desert, and blue sea of the Negev. (Check out more of our awesome photos in our album!)

dead sea star

Our evening concluded with a community reflection on an amazing week in Israel, giving participants the chance to think back on the whirlwind of experiences they have had so far and express how they feel this trip has changed them.

"Seeing all these historic sites really connected my religion to me," said Ari B. "Everything's actually here and everything's actually real. It made it much more empowering."

Samantha F. agreed, adding, "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."

Many students also remarked on how much they enjoyed meeting Israeli peers, and learning that, as Julia K. put it: "They like the same music. They read the same books. They act the same, basically. We could relate to them."

All in all, it was a powerful way to commemorate our final night in Israel. We're looking forward to one last day together tomorrow!

Blogger's note: We will do our best to post another short entry on the blog tomorrow before hopping on our planes home; if we are unable to do so, we will post the final day's entry after we get home and get some sleep. We will continue to post on Twitter (@TaamYisrael or www.twitter.com/taamyisrael ) for the latest updates.

Layla tov!

Saturday, February 8, 2014 ~ 8 Adar 5774

Wow, what a restorative and beautiful Ta'am Yisrael Shabbat we had together. After four jam-packed days of traveling and touring, a relaxing, fun-filled Shabbat was exactly what our group needed!

Participants were given four options for Friday night services: The Jerusalem Great Synagogue (Orthodox), Shira Hadasha (Orthodox egalitarian), the Masorti Center (Conservative), and Kol Haneshama (Reform). Many participants opted to try out something a bit different than what they are used to at home, which was a great learning experience; in our collective reflection afterward, we emphasized that by learning about others who practice differently than us, we strengthen both ourselves and our community.

Following services, we ate Shabbat dinner as a group at the hotel, joined by several relatives of Ta'am Yisrael participants who were visiting. We explained to the students that traditionally, Shabbat dinner is a time to unwind and enjoy each other's company, and a time to take a break from our fast-paced schedule during the week. With that in mind, we welcomed Shabbat with songs, LOTS of food, and some silly games and fun at the hotel after our meal.

Shabbat morning, we prayed together as a Ta'am Yisrael community for morning Shacharit services, led by our very own staff and teens and featuring aliyot (torah readings) read by several of our students: Josh S., Camey Z., Danielle W., Elijah H., Izzy H., Jordyn L., Judd F., Maya B., Alex S., Hannah B., Leah R., Max W., Meghan K., and Sydney B. It was wonderful to come together as a large group for tefilot (prayers) and reflection on the whirlwind of experiences we have had so far.

We spent the rest of our Shabbat outside, with the buses competing against one another in a neighborhood scavenger hunt, and an alphabet game, where students were given large letter cards and challenged by their Israeli guides to spell out the answers to trivia questions related to things they've learned this week. Bus Gimmel and Bus Daled were the lucky winners, but of course… everyone's a winner on Ta'am Yisrael! (And certainly, we have all lucked out with weather… though the forecast predicted cold and rainy temps, we have enjoyed day after day of sunshine and cool breezes - we couldn't have asked for a more beautiful day to spend Shabbat outside.)

At sunset, we came together as a community again for a special havdallah ceremony, bidding Shabbat farewell and starting our new week together. Several special guests joined us for the ceremony, including multiple visitors from JUF's Nachshon Mission and alums of the Ta'am Yisrael program who now live in Israel. One of them even told our group that he credits his Ta'am Yisrael experience with inspiring him to make aliyah and become a rabbi. Just imagine… who knows what impact this experience will have on this year's participants!

havdallah1

After havdallah, we bundled up and headed out into the slightly chillier evening air 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. As the lights played across the stone walls, it was easy to imagine what the Old City might have looked like at different points in the city's complex history, whether with armor-clad soldiers marching in formation or donkeys grazing lazily by the gate. It's amazing what you can do with a couple of projectors (or more than 20, to be specific)!

From there, we took the teens out to experience a typical Saturday night for Israeli teens - a.k.a. the mall! Malcha Mall looks a lot like an American mall in some ways, featuring many of the same stores and architecture, but one major difference our students soon discovered: the whole food court is Kosher! Many bee-lined for the McDonalds, eager to try their first ever Kosher Big Mac. (It's the little things in life, right?)

Once we were finally able to pry the groups away from the mall, we made one final stop on our way back to the hotel: a surprise midnight visit to the Kotel.

group photo(1)

We're looking forward to another great day tomorrow - enjoy the new photos, and check back soon!

Shavuah tov!

Friday, February 7, 2014 ~ 7 Adar 5774

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem!

We only have a short time before heading out to Friday night services, but just a quick update to say we had an amazing experience touring the Old City today! Though we are less than an hour's drive from Tel Aviv, several teens have already commented that Jerusalem feels like "a whole different country". Where Tel Aviv was beachy and modern, there's something about being in Jerusalem, walking on the same ancient stones as our ancestors, that transports you to another time. There's simply no other place like it.

Groups visited the Western Wall and tunnels, the Davidson Center, and the Southern Wall, did some shopping in the Cardo, and stopped by the Haas Promenade for a photo op.

More pictures will be posted after Shabbat, but as a quick preview...

old city 5 old city 3 1old city 4 1old city 1old city 2

Thursday, February 6, 2014 ~ 6 Adar 5774

Another sunny and fantastic day in Tel Aviv!

Our buses rotated this morning, with different groups getting to experience the sites their peers visited yesterday. Some of the additional locations we visited included:

- Leket (Food harvesting for the hungry): How many clementines can 200 Ta'am Yisrael students and staff pick in two days? Prepare to be amazed: Nearly 6 tons! The staff at Leket, an Israeli anti-hunger program, told us that the results of our six buses' hard work on the farm would feed over 1,000 hungry people in Israel. Way to go, teens!

Leket

Not only did our group make a huge difference in the Israeli community through their hands-on service, but they also had an awesome time working as a team and enjoying the great outdoors. "I like picking fruit and doing things outside, so it was fun," said Diana J., who was also glad that the food she collected was going to a good cause. "That was the best part!" she said.

- Ayalon Institute: At the Ayalon Institute in Rehovot, we visited the actual site of a former kibbutz that secretly doubled as a bullet factory during the war for Israeli independence. From the back of what was (at the time) ostensibly a perfectly innocent kibbutz bakery, we descended a winding staircase to see the remnants of the underground factory ourselves. We learned from our guide that the factory produced the bulk of the ammunition used during the war - more than 2 million bullets in three years - all completely in secret, unbeknownst even to many of the kibbutz residents living above ground.

- Beit Guvrin Archaeological Dig: Ta'am Yisrael teens played "anthropologist", crawling through tunnels and digging for artifacts that might reveal insights into life in ancient Israel. Though our groups didn't uncover any major new archaeological discoveries, they did fill hundreds of buckets with dirt while trying! "It was fun going through the holes, and seeing what people carved and how they lived," said Eli W.

dig 2

- Save a Child's Heart: Several of our buses visited Save a Child's Heart in Holon for their tikkun olam site, a nonprofit that brings children from developing countries who have life-threatening heart problems to Israel for treatment. It was an incredibly moving to meet the children and hear their stories of hope and triumph.

For our final evening in Tel Aviv, we were treated to a special, private preview of a brand new show at the Nalaga'at Center, which promotes disability awareness and provides work opportunities for Israelis who are deaf and/or blind. Jobs are available at three locations: blind waiters work at the "Blackout" restaurant, where patrons dine completely in the dark; deaf waiters work at the "Kapish" silent restaurant; and, of course, as our teens witnessed firsthand, both deaf and blind actors perform at the Nalaga'at Theatre.

The show we previewed was called, Is There Anybody Out There?, and spoke to the perpetual feeling of anxiety experienced by deaf-blind people due to never knowing who may or may not be in the room beside them at any given moment. Though the premise was serious, the excerpts we saw were uplifting, depicting deaf-blind people overcoming challenges in their lives and achieving things they never thought they could, like making friends and dreaming about starting a family of their own. "The message is yes, somebody is there," said Gal, the show's assistant director, who spoke with our group before the show.

Needless to say, our students were amazed by the capabilities of the talented performers, and especially enjoyed getting to meet the actors on stage after the show. Since many of the actors are both blind and deaf, the only way we were able to communicate with them was via touch or through interpreters who spoke tactile sign language (in fact, the word "Nalaga'at" is Hebrew for "please touch"). It was a unique and profound experience for our students that reinforced the message that has been the unofficial theme of the past few days: we are all connected.

"It was interesting to see how they can communicate without hearing or seeing," said Charlie G.

nalagaat

Izzy H. agreed, adding, "It was cool to see how they worked in different ways than us. It was really interesting and impressive. I mean, I can't even play an instrument, and they can!"

After dining at the Nalaga'at Theatre's restaurant, we then ventured out to Tel Aviv University's weekly Israeli dancing night - a lively event that 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. In addition to cutting up the dance floor, we also made a lasting impression on everyone in attendance by announcing our donation to a nonprofit that builds wheelchair ramps so that individuals with disabilities can also participate in Israeli dancing.

Next up: Looking forward to a fun, spiritual, and relaxing Shabbat in Jerusalem! Please note that there will be no journal, Twitter, or photo album updates during Shabbat. However, new photos were just posted tonight, so check them out! We will do our best to post a quick update tomorrow afternoon if we have time, but just in case… Shabbat shalom!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014 ~ 5 Adar 5774

Our first full day in Israel did not disappoint! We woke up to a beautiful, 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 various sites today, including:

- Rabin Square: What better way to experience the sites and sounds of the city than from Rabin Square? We got acquainted with the bustling, urban center of business and culture that is Tel Aviv, and also stopped by the Rabin memorial. To impress the significance of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination upon the students, Bus Aleph’s guide said it was “like an earthquake”.

- Palmach museum: Through a truly impressive tour that engaged all five senses, we learned about the Palmach (the Israeli armed forces that predate the formation of the IDF), and almost felt like we were experiencing life in the Palmach ourselves. The tour featured eerily realistic reenactments of different aspects of life in the Palmach at every turn, including life-size mannequins, smoke, flashing lights, booming sound effects, fast-paced video vignettes, and even synthetic smells, like the delicate aroma of coffee wafting through the air in a model café. Bus Aleph had the special treat of meeting a man named Tzvi Cohen who fought in the Palmach himself. Tzvi shared his story with our group, and showed us his picture featured in the museum archives. Students were very engaged and eager to take pictures with a real-life war hero!

- Independence Hall: We learned about how Israel became a State, and even sat in the room where its very statehood was declared. Very cool glimpse into Israel’s history!

Tikkun Olam sites:

- Children’s hospital: At the children’s hospital in Petach Tikvah, Chicago’s sister city, Bus Aleph teens helped bring some fun into the lives of pediatric patients through a monthly hospital birthday party put on by world-famous Israeli actress Gila Almagor, who starred in Steven Spielberg’s Munich.Having had a difficult childhood herself, Gila now devotes herself to making dreams come true for terminally ill children through the Gita Almagor Wishes Foundation.

“I have never disappointed a child. But sometimes, unfortunately, they disappoint me,” Gila told the group following the party, noting with sadness that sometimes the children she tries to help don’t make it to the birthday party or wish fulfillment that she has planned for them. The children she serves are not all Jewish – they come from all religions, cultures, and walks of life. “God doesn’t have a GPS,” Gila said. “It can be anyone.”

The birthday party included an amusing clown show and a moving private concert by famous Israeli musician Moshe Ben Ari (In case you missed it on Twitter: Talk about inspirational… a renowned musician singing “Shir La’Ma’a lot” (Psalms 121), a prayer for the sick, to young cancer patients, was definitely a “wow” moment). Ta’am Yisrael students also had the chance to personally deliver felt blankets to the hospital that were handmade by the seventh graders at Moadon Kol Chadash.

Wheelchair Basketball - 2

- Center for the Disabled: Bus Bet personally hand-delivered the stuffed animals they brought to children with disabilities at Tel Aviv’s Center for the Disabled. Countless hugs and high-fives later, students heard from a Paralympic athlete who has been coming to the Center since he lost his leg to a grenade during a terrorist attack when he was 10. After being inspired by his uplifting message of surmounting physical challenges, the teens then got to try out a Paralympic sport for themselves during a lively game of wheelchair basketball.

“We basically got to be in the same position as these people who actually have disabilities,” said Lauren C., who said she gained a new appreciation for the daily struggles of people with physical challenges, especially after playing wheelchair basketball. “They live like that. We could hardly get by for just the time we were there,” she said.

- Chimes: Bus Daled had the unique opportunity to visit Chimes, which does amazing work to support adults and children with mental and physical challenges. Ta’am Yisrael students had a great time dancing with Chimes participants and delivering the stuffed animals they brought to donate.

(Additional details on the archaeological dig, fruit picking, and other sites that Buses Gimmel, Heh, and Vav visited will be posted tomorrow once all groups have been to those locations!)

Nighttime brought even more new friends for our teens, as we traveled to Kiryat Gat, JUF’s Partnership Together region, for icebreakers, dinner, and of course, a HUGE dance party with Israeli peers. Though the teens from across the Atlantic had known each other for 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 together like they’d been friends forever!

Want to see all the fun for yourselves? Check out the latest photos and videos posted online! (The link was e-mailed out this morning for anyone who needed it.) We look forward to another great day tomorrow!

Layla tov!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014 ~ 4 Adar 5774

Welcome to Israel!

For those who have not been following us on Twitter (@taamyisrael), just a quick update: after an eventful day of traveling and weather delays, we are very happy to let you know that 145 members of our group have landed safely in Israel, and the remaining 74 are not far behind! The flight attendants on our JFK-TLV flight were full of compliments about our amazing group of students, who have remained in high spirits and were model passengers during the flight.

We can't wait to have our whole group here together shortly -- we will keep you posted! Follow us on Twitter for the most up-to-the-minute updates, or check back here later tonight.

UPDATE: The London flight has arrived, and we are all happily settled into the hotel. We're thrilled to finally have everyone all together in Eretz Yisrael! After a special welcome ceremony on the shores of Jaffa, made even more perfect by the breathtaking view of the Tel Aviv skyline at night, everyone enjoyed a delicious meal at the hotel, complete with every kind of Israeli salad you could imagine (and of course, chicken schnitzel, hot dogs, and spaghetti for the less adventurous eaters)!

Looking forward to our first full day in Israel tomorrow! Stay tuned -- and in the meantime, check out the new photos posted at the link we gave out at orientation.

Layla tov!