Whoever thought that it would be possible to send a group of 13-year-old kids halfway around the world to come back with memories, lessons, and friends to last a lifetime? Let’s just say that when I first heard the idea by the Rosenthal JCC (RJCC) in Pleasantville, it seemed highly questionable. But over the last year, I participated in the Global Jewish Connections program, a sister city exchange between the RJCC and Shoham, Israel. The goal of this program was to build connections between bat/bar mitzvah-age kids in Westchester and kids the same age in Shoham, so that we can bond and understand the way each of us lives in the modern Jewish world. There was a similar exchange among seniors in high school.
In April, after regular monthly meetings at the RJCC and a month of Facebook communication, it was time for the Israelis to visit us. Every single one of us – both Americans and Israelis – described this visit as one of the best weeks of our lives! There were enough tears on the last day as our new friends departed to fill the Atlantic Ocean between America and Israel.
When we arrived in Israel five months later in August, my friends and I ran off of the airplane platform into the waiting arms of our Israeli friends. We were greeted by our host families and then taken to the host homes where we would stay for the 10-day trip. My host family could not have been more lovely, and they all went so far out of their way to make us all feel at home.
Spending a week in a foreign country among your peers, you notice several differences in lifestyles. One of the main ones is that Israeli children are raised to be much more independent at an earlier age. Every night, we all got together as a group without our RJCC mentors and went to the park, or watched a movie at someone’s house. It was exhilarating for us Americans to experience a lifestyle with more freedom.
Yet, the trip was not just about teenagers hanging out with our friends. I learned so much about my heritage on this trip, and I feel much more connected to Judaism and its deep roots. On the first day, we visited a “living bible” nature preserve, where we performed a number of daily activities that the 12 tribes of Israel would have had to do in order to survive. In Tel Aviv, we went shopping at an outdoor market, and as Inball, our Israeli friend, described, it was a culture shock. I never imagined being in such a crowded space where everyone was speaking a different language and there were so many different sights and smells and tastes!
Still, that was nothing compared to the culture shock of the Old City of Jerusalem! Ever since I was little, I have always dreamed about going to the Western Wall and putting my wish into the stones of history. My dream finally came true! We were there for the important reason that Mason, an American in the group, was getting bar mitzvah’ed! It was very special to be part of such a holy ceremony. Afterwards, we had a group discussion about the segregation of men and women at the Wall. For the Israelis, including the girls, this was perfectly normal. For the Americans, we felt this separation meant that women are treated as second class. This emphasized the point of the group: to find the differences and similarities between our lifestyles – and to accept them.
Several other exciting experiences of the week included swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, visiting Haifa (which is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful places in the world), and of course, a moving tour of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum.
Global Jewish Connections is an amazing program, and I feel so blessed to have been a part of it! As Or, an Israeli in our group said, “I will remember you guys FOVEVER, and next year you are all coming to Israel again!” Truthfully, we all do plan to return to the holy country and keep in touch with our lifelong friends who live halfway around the world. Another quote that I think sums up the experience is by Noam, my Israeli host sister: “You will always have a home in Israel – in my home!” Thank you Global Jewish Connections for an unforgettable experience.