As an 8th grader, I was faced with a big choice - a three-day trip to Washington D.C. or a week-long adventure to Israel through a program once named “Ta’am Yisrael” or “Taste of Israel”, and now known as “IsraelNow”. The decision required some thought, but the chance to explore my Jewish heritage was more appealing than visiting D.C.'s historical sights.
The anticipation built up as the plane landed in Israel. I had no clue what this place was like; I only knew of Israel through stories and my religious studies. As soon as I stepped onto Israeli soil, I was on cloud nine. I felt such a powerful sense of connection in the brief moments of stepping out of the plane. Ta’am Yisrael offered a full immersion into Jewish culture, exceeding all my expectations in a short period of time. This trip gave me the chance to learn about Jewish traditions, Israel's history, and interact with other Jewish teens. All of these things helped in shaping my identity at such a pivotal point in my life.
Every day was an adventure. Sleep came at a premium, but who needs sleep as an 8th grader? The adrenaline and excitement fueled me. Oh… and the shakshuka! We trekked up Mount Sinai, explored the bustling markets of Jerusalem, had plenty of falafel and Israeli cuisine, and left a prayer I wrote at the Western Wall, a piece of me that still remains there.
What made the experience even more meaningful was meeting and forming connections with Jewish teens from different backgrounds across the Chicagoland area. Their stories, viewpoints, and the deep conversations we had made me realize that I was part of a community connected by our shared history and values.
My week in Israel wasn't just a trip; it was a crucial point in my life where I found a sense of independence and curiosity that has stuck with me. This trip allowed me to experience Israel as a vibrant, living part of my Jewish identity. I returned home not just with memories, but with a deeper understanding of my Jewish identity.
The true value of my Ta’am Yisrael experience wasn't just from what I learned or saw, but from the perspective it gave me. It allowed me to see the diversity of the Jewish community, connect with my roots, and understand that my Jewish identity will forever be a key part of who I am. It affirmed that I am a small piece of a much larger puzzle that makes up Jewish culture.
Now, I should mention one part of the trip that you must keep in mind - our visit to the Dead Sea. Now, nobody warned me about sunburns, so I’m going to warn you! Imagine the surprise (and everlasting sting) when I realized that the sea's salty water doesn't quite agree with sunburns. It's a memory that still brings a smile to my face, and a gentle reminder to pack extra sunblock next time. This experience, along with the countless others, continues to shape my life story as I continue my journey as a young Jewish adult.
About the Author: Stone Gomberg is a junior at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He is studying Advertising in the College of Media and has a passion for research and consumer insight. He is heavily involved with Jewish life on his campus and was a member of the Lewis Summer Internship Program at the JUF. In his free time, he enjoys watching sports, traveling, and indulging in a variety of foods.