In the winter of 2005, just one year after the end of the second Intifada, I announced that Hillel would be instituting an eighth grade class trip to Israel, beginning in 2006. My letter announcing the trip read, in part:
“A central component of our curriculum is to foster a love for and to identify with the State of Israel. A love for Israel, its history, people, culture, Biblical connections, and Hebrew as its living language, all speak to a core aspect of what it means to be a Jew. In one way or another, just about every subject taught at Hillel in Judaic studies, finds a connection to Israel.
We, at Hillel, cannot imagine a stronger culmination of our students’ studies nor a better way to encourage them to remain connected in some way to Israel and the organized Jewish community. Based on recent research, the Israel experience has a significant and often profound immediate impact on most of the group participants. It helps to promote reflection on who they are as Jews, strengthening their ties to Israel and Judaism, helping them to bond with their peer community, and teaching them much about Israel and Jewish history. Much of what they have learned at Hillel will come alive in Israel.”
While many parents were thrilled that Hillel was finally joining the dozens of other day schools already sending their eighth graders to Israel, the announcement also triggered significant resistance. In the first few years of the trip, I had to reach out to eighth grade families and encourage participation. I would keep a list of the definite yeses and nos, along with the list of maybes. It took time and patience to convince the majority of families to send their children.
This past Monday, the tenth eighth grade class left for two wonderful weeks in Israel. Ten years later, the trip is a part of the fabric of Hillel Day School. Many people have no memory of those early years. I don’t remember when I stopped making my lists, but I do know that today it is just understood that everyone is going. Occasionally there is an exception, and always for a valid reason – not out of fear or philosophical opposition!
Ten years later, when I run into Hillel graduates, I always hear about the eighth grade trip to Israel and how it was the highlight of their Hillel experience. Some of these alums are now college graduates and they still tell me that the eighth grade trip was their favorite trip to Israel, even if they have gone again since that time! There is something uniquely magical and powerful about going to Israel with friends you have spent up to nine years with, learning, growing, and experiencing life together. The realization that their time together at Hillel is coming to an end, along with being in Israel together to see and feel all that they have learned over the past years, combine to create a special, unforgettable experience that the students still cherish decades later.
As I reminisce, looking back at the early communications we sent parents, I realize much has changed in our world, but the reason for instituting the trip has not changed. Israel is and always will be our Jewish homeland, a land that must be experienced firsthand to understand fully the power of the land and its unbreakable connection to our history, our story, and our God.