By now, everybody is home and exhausted, but no doubt still reeling from our packed 10-day jaunt.
The dramatic finish to our trip began with Friday's visit to the museum of illegal immigration to Israel during the British mandate period in Atlit, just south of Haifa. After driving down the coast to Ashkelon, we had a fabulous Israeli-style lunch at a wonderful grill restaurant called HaGehalim ("the coals"). We met our host families and split up for a few hours to prepare for Shabbat.
As the sun set, we welcomed the Shabbat Queen for the second time in Israel with the Masorti (the international name for what North Americans call Conservative) congregation in Ashkelon, Kehillat Netzach Yisrael. This is the synagogue where (our Religious Activities Director) Itamar's father had been the rabbi for many years. They were very happy to host us, and we all had a huge Shabbat dinner together at the synagogue, after which we sang boisterous Shabbat songs with the help of the local chapter of the Noam youth group (the Israeli equivalent of USY). We went home to our host families simply buzzing with the excitement of Shabbat evening, and slept well.
Shabbat morning we davened again with the Netzach Yisrael community, and then enjoyed a program facilitated by Itamar's older brother Alon, a current resident of Ashkelon, about our different impressions of Israel. After lunch we took a walk to the beach, and enjoyed the sun and the sand, and a few of us even got a little wet; Amos found for us a selection of Roman, Byzantine, and Crusader stone fragments on the beach. When we returned, the Noam group ran another program for us, and we concluded Shabbat with havdalah under the stars, holding hands and singing together as we reflected on the long roster of experiences of the last 10 days.
In my mind, the Shabbat in Ashkelon brought all of our experiences together. After following the steps of our ancestors in Jerusalem, tracing a path through Jewish history in the medieval period and the roots of the modern State of Israel, visiting the homes of and socializing with actual Israeli peers brought together the past and the present in a way that only Israel can do. As Moji remarked to me at one point, we had to start in Jerusalem and end up in Ashkelon, because that is the only way it makes sense. As the modern Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai captured so well in his poem, Tourists (Tayyarim), which we read on the steps leading up to the southern entrance to the Second Temple, Israel is not just a pile of ancient rocks; the real story is just as much the people who live there today.
While we waited for our pizza delivery Saturday night, each and every one of us had the opportunity to talk about our experiences, and the results were wonderful. It was quite apparent to the staff, and perhaps to the participants as well, how much all of our teens had grown in a mere 10 days by addressing issues of Jewish history and identity, by experiencing the Jewish state and exploring their relationship to it, and by immersing ourselves in the prayerful moments of Jewish life in the land of our ancient forebears and modern cousins. And, of course there was the social component - we all made new friends, learned to share and participate in the group, and gained new perspectives on respect. And then there was the ice cream...
Also, I hope to organize a couple of things in the upcoming weeks: (1) another group aliyah on Shabbat morning at Temple Israel, when we can all recite the "gomel" prayer for returning safely from a long journey; (2) an opportunity for trip participants to share their experiences with other Youth House kids; and (3) a trip reunion party. Keep an eye out for these.
One final note: many of the teens donated money that had been given to them as tzedakah to individuals, but we also took up a group collection on the bus. We collected a total of $326.70 (after all the shekels had been converted back to dollars), which we voted as a group to donate to Alyn Pediatric Rehabilitation hospital (www.alyn.org) in Jerusalem. As a special request, a fraction of the money will also be given to Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (www.fidf.org). Kol HaKavod!
Thanks again to the Khorshid Dina Harounian Israel Education Fund and our other donors who made this trip unforgettable.
Let me once again thank you for the opportunity to give your teens an Israel experience that they will never forget.