Every teen trip I take to Israel—and there have been many, starting with my own time on Ramah Seminar in 1983—has a song that comes to define the experience. Our Naale students put many songs on their Spotify bus list, and I have enjoyed getting to know their music, but I relate most to one played by our Israeli staff, החיים שלנו תותים, “Our Life is Strawberries.” Hanan Ben Ari recites a list of difficult experiences in life, and then says, but really, “there is no right to complain, our life is strawberries.” By which he means, there are just so many blessings, and he proceeds to list some of them.
I feel the same way about the six days I have spent with Naale, starting at Newark Airport, and heading soon into Shabbat here in the holy city of Jerusalem. Yes, some things have been hard as our students catch up on sleep and acclimate to the experience. Yet there are so many blessings each day, it is hard to notice them all. I am grateful for the extraordinary planning that went into this trip by my colleagues Rabbi Meirav Kallush and Rabbi Rob Kahn, and by the great dedication of our faculty members, Ms. Michelle Pierce and Ms. Leah Jankoski, both of whom are visiting Israel for the first time. We also have four wonderful young Israeli staff who bring good cheer, enthusiasm, and enormous patience to the team. I am especially grateful to the families who have raised these 29 ninth graders to love being Jewish, and who have prioritized their Jewish education at GOA.
For the first day or two it seemed that this group was going to be extremely quiet, even shy, but I think they were mostly exhausted. With each successive day they grow more inquisitive and more responsive. The program has been incredibly active—Rob Kahn likes to keep his groups hiking, and we have walked for many hours each day. We hiked in gorgeous settings up north such as the Banias, Tel Dan, and Mt. Arbel, feeling the splash of waterfalls, and gazing down on the Kinneret Sea as we descended a steep cliff. We have rafted on the Jordan, biked in the Hula Valley Nature Preserve, and ridden donkeys while wearing the costume of ancient Jews in Kfar Kedem. Along the way there have been some bumps and bruises—none of us is accustomed to being quite this active day after day—but thankfully everyone is OK, and rightfully proud of themselves for trying new and challenging experiences.
This morning we walked to the Old City of Jerusalem, and as always, I found myself emotional passing through Jaffa Gate. We led the kids through the Armenian and Jewish Quarters until we finally looked down on the Temple Mount. The students had time to approach the Kotel, to caress its stones, and to put prayers of petition or thanksgiving in its ancient cracks. We then walked to the “Ezrat Yisrael” platform where you can see the original ground level of the retaining wall, the rubble left by the Romans, and imagine our ancestors coming to this sacred place in prayer, just as we were doing. Several students, boys and girls, volunteered to help me lead the prayers, and we paid special attention to the paragraphs that mention Jerusalem. Because Rabbi Kahn is a kohen, we said the priestly benediction the way it is done daily here in Jerusalem, and I felt a strong sense of blessing come over our group.
The sun is already descending to the west, and we will soon watch as it turns the Old City walls golden, and we welcome Shabbat. There will be prayer options tomorrow, and time to rest and absorb the blessings of being here together. While I will be leaving the group on Sunday, I feel enormous gratitude for the chance to share this holy experience with them. Life really is full of strawberries!
Rabbi Danny Nevins, Jerusalem