Seeing firsthand makes a difference

Seeing firsthand makes a difference

Visiting GOA seniors reflect on the Iran attack and their relationship to Israel

GOA seniors pick strawberries at Kibbutz Ketura on Good Deeds Day in March.
GOA seniors pick strawberries at Kibbutz Ketura on Good Deeds Day in March.

The war in Gaza did not stop 28 seniors from Golda Och Academy in West Orange from proceeding with the annual 12-week Neshama trip, encompassing a week in Poland in February, followed by an extended stay in Israel.

Only seven seniors decided to forgo the Israel part of the trip, where the teens partake in what Head of School Rabbi Danny Nevins describes as “a traveling seminar” of tours, presentations, and lectures, but no formal assignments, tests, or grades. Their GOA teachers don’t come with them; rather, Neshama is directed by Israel-based educational tour guide Rabbi Robert Kahn and staffed by local counselors and security personnel.

Rabbi Nevins came to visit, however, while he was recently in Israel with heads of Jewish day schools from 13 countries, during which he spoke at Conservative Judaism’s headquarters in Jerusalem about his new book, “Torah and Technology: Circuit, Cells, and the Sacred Path.”

“I’m really pleased how strong this group is,” Rabbi Nevins said. “They have a really positive attitude. They recognize they are in Israel during a historic moment, and it’s incredibly meaningful to Israelis that they have come. Because they are here for three months, they are not just witnesses but participants.”

The students hike, volunteer, participate in workshops, engage in seminars on political advocacy, and visit historical, religious, and cultural sites, all the while perfecting their Hebrew skills and learning about current events.

We spoke to four of the seniors less than 24 hours after Iran bombarded Israel with missiles and suicide drones in the wee hours of April 14. They were staying in Kibbutz Ketura in the southeast, following a Shabbat where they fanned out to different host families across the country.

“When we got to Ketura, one of the first things we did was sit in a circle and talk about where we were last night and how we feel about what happened,” Zach Siegel of South Orange said. “This made us feel comfortable and safe.”

Zach said that after October 7 he posted messages supportive of Israel on Instagram.

“But I didn’t realize there was a certain level of disconnect that I felt toward Israel from afar in New Jersey,” he said. “Being here, helping evacuated families clean up their houses at Kibbutz Saad, visiting Sderot, and volunteering on farms with Hashomer Hachadash — seeing firsthand the effects of what happened and hearing the heroic and tragic stories from the people who were on the kibbutzim and the frontlines — has made me feel so much closer to Israel and opened my eyes to how much more we can try to be doing as American Jews.”

Zach added that Neshama “has provided us with a unique lens to learn about what’s going on in Israel. There’s a big difference between classroom learning and experiential learning; we’re in the moment and living it. When Rob is telling you the history of the place where you’re standing, it really sticks with you, and you associate that piece of information with the experience you’re having, which helps you recall and retain it more. It’s so much more meaningful and impactful than something that can be attained in a classroom setting.”

Eliana Finkel of Pine Brook said that her favorite class in school is history, where she’s studied concepts of war and diplomacy. “But the experiential learning teaches you what real-world applications of these concepts look like. Being in the heightened political climate of Israel, we see what laws can do, we see military tactics being put into place. Living through these vague concepts we are taught from textbooks teaches us a lot of valuable lessons we can process more than we could in a classroom setting.”

A few of the 28 Golda Och Academy seniors in Israel on their 12-week Neshama trip.

“This is one of the best learning experiences I’ve had in my life,” Yuval Krispin of Cranford said. “It’s been an incredible way to learn. When we go out and hike and get a lesson on where we are, when we do something with our hands or see something with our eyes, or talk to someone about their experiences, we can absorb the information so much better and understand it from a point closer to Ground Zero, which is super awesome.”

The program’s weeklong “Many Faces, Many Voices” segment gives the teens an opportunity to listen to a variety of people — Palestinians, settlers, Arab Israelis, chasidim, Bedouins, peace activists — and consider many perspectives.

Yuval, a self-described “huge Zionist” with Israeli parents, found his beliefs challenged when the group heard from the sheikh of a Palestinian village who was stymied in his attempts to build a house for his grown son’s family, and then heard the other side of the story from a resident of the neighboring settlement that was preventing the Palestinians from building those homes.

“Hearing both sides, I felt this huge conflict building up inside me,” Yuval said. “It’s hard to differentiate which view is true, and I’ve been swaying back and forth since that day. My connection to Israel hasn’t changed — I love it to death, and it will always be my home — but how much do I agree with the current politics and policies?”

Giselle Weiss of Livingston said one of the “many faces” was a woman who impressed her as “an extreme Zionist who totally believes that Israel belongs to the Jewish people and that the only people who should be citizens are Jews, and that Palestinians and non-Jews could only be residents. That was an interesting perspective I’d never heard before. It forced me to struggle with my own opinion. I believe Israel should be a Jewish state, a place that is safe for Jews, and I never really considered that taking away some rights from others would ensure that. I don’t know how I feel about that idea … but I also don’t understand how we can assure the safety of the Jews in Israel.”

Giselle has been to Israel five times and said it is “the greatest place and the most important thing in the world to me. It’s hard to acknowledge its many flaws, but it’s great that we are learning about them.”

Eliana added, “A lot of flaws come from misunderstanding, so I think our job as American Jews is to continue getting involved in dialogues with different perspectives, continuing to learn and not be closed-minded. The ability to hold room for drastically different opinions allows both sides to feel seen and valued and heard.”

Rabbi Nevins said these deep reflections are what the Neshama trip aims for.

“We are trying to train to them to love Israel, and also to think critically because it doesn’t help to hear a simplistic storyline,” he said. “We want them to wrestle with the complexities of this place.

“This is the 32nd cohort of Neshama, and we notice many of our former students have gone on to be leaders on campuses in the U.S. and some come on aliyah and serve in the IDF. They are all, in their own ways, engaging seriously with Israel and Jewish leadership. More than academic goals, we want them to feel they are nuanced in their understanding of this place and will be able to respond to less nuanced sentiments they may encounter.”

Rabbi Meirav Kallush, GOA’s director of Israel education, said a critical part of Neshama is “getting them involved in Israeli society outside of the bus. Our base is Agron Youth Hostel in Jerusalem, and we never take a bus to the Old City. We walk because the idea is being with people and getting to know the geography. We encourage students to go for home hospitality weekends to family or friends to really experience life in Israel on a deeper level.”

Rabbi Kallush said that GOA’s 10-day November trip for ninth-graders had to be postponed until the late spring. Neshama went forward only after close consultation with the Israel Police and the Homefront Command.

“During covid, we said, ‘If the state of Israel said we can come, then we’ll find a way to come,’” she said. “After October 7, that feeling was even stronger that it was our responsibility to come if Israel said we could. We like to talk about values, and sometimes it’s harder to act on them, but in this case we are doing it.”

The Neshama itinerary does have to be adjusted sometimes as per the authorities’ guidelines, she acknowledged.

“Our senior classes have been in Israel at the height of the second intifada, and during rocket attacks from Gaza Strip or the North, and parents know we shift our programming as directed by the police situation room. We follow their guidelines exactly. One day recently, for example, our students were supposed to go to the Old City, but the situation room advised against it, so we went to the Biblical Zoo and had a picnic. It was still a fun morning out in Jerusalem.”

When they do get to the Old City, and particularly the Western Wall — called the Kotel in Hebrew — it’s always an impactful experience spiritually and culturally.

Giselle, for example, said, “I have always been a super strong believer in God. I was raised to believe that everything is in God’s hands. Being here has only strengthened that belief. When I go to the Kotel, immediately my body feels different — perhaps it’s just in my head, but I choose to believe it’s not. I just feel so connected and safe here, even with everything happening now, because I am in God’s hands. My faith protects me from being scared.”

For Zach, standing at the Kotel makes him feel closer to Judaism even though he “doesn’t possess much of a belief in God. It’s been eye-opening on this trip to see so many different levels of faith in God across the Israeli population. It’s enlightened me about how faith can look in different communities. Our experience in Poland affirmed that I don’t believe in God, but it’s been so interesting to go through these experiences with friends like Giselle who do and be able to gain something from these experiences — to be able to learn about faith.”

Yuval noted that when the group was at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh, they witnessed clashes between the feminist Women of the Wall organization and ultra-Orthodox worshipers.

“When I hear people at the Kotel yelling that the Reform movement is murdering God, the last thing I ever want to do is be like them. I don’t want to go all the way to the left and I don’t want to go all the way to the right, but the middle is so vast it’s hard to find yourself. This trip has helped me find my place and reason within myself a level of Judaism that I want to practice.”

Rabbi Nevins emphasized that alongside heavy experiences, the students “are also having a good time, going to the beach in Tel Aviv, spending an overnight in the Negev Desert in Mitzpeh Ramon, and staying at Kibbutz Ketura.”

“I’ve really connected with the community aspect of Judaism,” Eliana said. “I’ve seen how Jews come together in times of urgency and grief. I appreciate the resilience of the people. We had a class in school called Modern Israel, and I felt educated on the history, but my love of Israel was more surface level. Now, seeing Israel under threat and how much scrutiny it’s under across the world made me appreciate Israel more.”

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