Connecticut HS Students Share Israel Experiences

[June Laub and Ryan Howe, two Jewish high school students from West Hartford, CT, earned scholarships to travel in Israel from the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford. Each student wrote an article about her/his life-changing experiences in Israel. The articles offer the students’ first-hand accounts in exploring and developing their Jewish identity, and their leadership capabilities.]

By Ryan Howe

Ryan Howe puts a note of wishes for his family after he prays at the Western Wall.

Before I left for Eastern Europe and Israel this summer, I was really nervous about how my trip would turn out.

I had never gone to an overnight summer camp, so I wasn’t used to being away from home. I also didn’t know anybody on my trip beforehand, so I was worried I would be lonely and unable to make friends. However, I ended up having the best summer of my life. 

I applied for the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford’s Israel Travel scholarship for the L’Dor V-Dor trip that travels to Europe for one week, and then to Israel for four weeks, to help me broaden my global perspective on life. I had heard about Israel in the news and learned about it in Hebrew school, but I knew that traveling there would let me experience firsthand what Israel is really like. I wanted to walk in the footsteps of my ancestors, to see the sights and to be among people who share the same religion and beliefs.

I also wanted to make new friends on this trip and meet people from all over the world.

I knew it would be a meaningful experience for me to hear others’ perspectives, and it turned out to be a life-changing experience.

Before heading to Israel, we spent a week in Poland and the Czech Republic, learning about the Jews who lived there before and during the Holocaust. I had the opportunity to see where my ancestors were killed during the Holocaust, and to reflect on what they went through.  

The portion of the trip in Israel was even better, as we spent four weeks traveling the country and learning about the history of Israel from the times of David and Solomon to the very relevant and current Israel-Palestine conflict. I am a big history buff, and I loved learning about Israel’s past. Actually standing in the place where all of that history occurred was truly special, and it was much more meaningful than simply learning about it in a classroom setting.

When we went to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a holy and historical place of prayer and pilgrim-age sacred to the Jewish people, I felt connected with Judaism in a way I have never had before. 

I imagined all the other people before me who had come to this sacred place to pray and leave notes, and I felt that God was listening to my prayers and reading the note I left on the Western Wall. 

This trip also offered an emphasis on Tikkun Olan, which is Hebrew for “repairing the world.” While in Israel, I participated in a four-day program during which I worked with various organizations doing volunteer work. I volunteered at a food distribution center for the hungry in Jerusalem, visited a subsidized elderly home, and worked at an organization that gives employment to at-risk teen-agers and teaches them life skills so they can maintain a job.

The act of being face-to-face with people and helping them has further encouraged me to get more involved in social justice. As a result, I have been more involved with my synagogue, as I have found a greater connection with my Judaism.

Throughout the trip, I realized that I could quickly make friends and be independent, which will be crucial for me in college next year. Now that I’ve been home for a while, I am starting to miss the friends I made, as well as all of the amazing experiences I had. I hope I get the opportunity to go back to Israel when I am older, on the Birthright trip or studying abroad in college.

By June Laub

Molly Howard, June Laub and Isabel Hoffman lead Saturday morning services.

I was born in Israel, as was much of my father’s side of the family. My family moved to West Hartford, CT. All my life I’ve wanted to explore the country that contains my family’s history. I never had the opportunity to explore my homeland with open eyes and an open mind. I wanted to receive answers to my questions and develop more questions once I arrived in Israel, as questions only lead to more exploration.

I felt a responsibility to myself and the Jewish community to be educated on the history of Judaism, as this knowledge would allow me to be more active in the Jewish community. I knew once I arrived in Israel, I would thrive in an environment where I was surrounded by the history of my ancestors. 

That’s why attending the Union for Reform Judaism’s Heller High School in Israel last summer was hands-down the best four months of my life. I arrived at the airport not knowing anyone, and left with personal connections to everyone there. We lived and attended classes on the beautiful Kibbutz Tzuba, nestled in the Judaean Hills, rich with history. Every day I was amazed that that was where I was going to high school. 

Heller High engages teens in leadership development and personal growth, emphasizing the importance of Jewish education, prayer, and personal commitment to repairing the world. I applied for and earned a scholarship to attend the program from the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford

One of the most special aspects of the program was the exposure to Hebrew; much of my family knows the language and it holds a special place in my heart. The Hebrew classes at Heller High, combined with casual conversations with my madrichim (counselors), combined with going out into Israel as someone really living there, improved my Hebrew substantially. I hope to continue learning Hebrew here in West Hartford, and in college. 

The general studies and the teachers who taught them were great. However, the main course of the program, the entree if you will, was the Jewish History course. “J-Hist,” as we affectionately called it, was the best “class” I have ever taken. My teacher, Evan Wertheim, is a brilliant, amazing person. I still text him from time to time for a quick check-in, life advice, or just to say Shabbat Shalom. Evan understands the importance of shaping young minds, and teaching the next generation of Jews where we came from and why we matter as a People. We had engaging discussions, meaningful projects, and our dozens of tiyulim (trips) built on what we were learning. 

Before my semester in Israel, I didn’t participate in many political discussions because I felt that I lacked substantial factual evidence to form an opinion. Going to Israel has given me what I needed to be more involved in politics. I will be able to vote in the next presidential election, and I gained the tools I desired to educate myself on these topics further now that I’m home.

 We also traveled to Poland, which was as painful as it was important. My family members were killed at Auschwitz, as well as at several other concentration camps. The Poland trip was a deeply meaningful experience, during which I found connection to my family, and to the suffering and strength of Jews throughout history. I grew closer to my friends, as we held each other up throughout the emotionally-charged week. I gained a deeper understanding of the importance of the continuation of the Jewish People, and how I am a part of that. Leaving Poland and flying to Israel was profoundly moving, and I grew emotional when we touched back down in the Jewish State.

This trip was instrumental for my intellectual, Jewish, Zionist, and spiritual growth. Heller High was exactly what I needed. I am now more informed, more independent, more grounded, and more of a Zionist. 

 Once I graduate high school and begin college, I know I will face challenges. I will encounter people against Israel, or against Judaism as a whole. Heller High supplied me with information I can use to educate others with misconceptions they have, as misconceptions are often the root of hate. If I can help one person, they can help another, and a chain reaction can be set off. I am a strong believer in the power of the Butterfly Effect.

Visiting Israel exposed me to differences in culture that forced me to examine how I previously lived. I now compare Judaism there to Judaism in America. I can appreciate a culture in which my father was raised. Traveling is a great way to learn about other societies, and to see your own in a different light. We should analyze how we do things, and an effective way to do this is by seeing how other people do things. We can’t forget that different and wrong are rarely synonyms.