Seniors Ba-Aretz

Matan Silverberg, Managing Editor, Copy

Amid a Covid-19 outbreak, the seniors managed to make their Israel trip a success full of learning, exploring and culture. Every year, the senior class embarks on a trip to Israel that is viewed by many as the pinnacle of the CESJDS high school experience. 

The Irene and Daniel Simpkins Senior Capstone Israel Trip encapsulates the many hours students spent learning about the history of the Jewish homeland throughout high school. In addition, the trip serves as a bonding experience for the seniors that they will remember for the rest of their lives. 

On Sunday, Feb. 27, the seniors departed for Israel; they said goodbye to their friends and family, hopped on a bus and headed to Newark Liberty International Airport. After a 12-hour flight, the seniors touched down at Ben Gurion InternationIsrael.

“It’s a great feeling. You are rejuvenated. You feel alive,” senior Elyon Topolosky said. “You look outside and you see Israeli flags, and you say: ‘this is really a country full of people like me.’” 

Each year, students stay at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI) campus, located in the town of Hod Hasharon. However, due to the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the class of 2020 had to abruptly cancel their trip. Alumni Zach Gross (‘20) remembers the moment he heard that he and his classmates would have to leave Israel. 

“We were told we would have one more week before getting suddenly told at 2 a.m. that we would have to get on a plane that night. Everyone’s emotions were all over the place because we didn’t really know what was going on,” Gross said. “It was really hard for us to get stripped of a once-in-a-lifetime trip with our lifelong friends, one that many of us have been looking forward to for over ten years.”

This year, after arriving at their base in Hod HaSharon, the seniors stayed in quarantine for a day and were released a day later, expecting that to be their last time being cooped up on the campus. 

During their first week off campus, the seniors acclimated themselves to Israel. They visited some of its most famous hiking sites, such as Har Gilboa, and learned about Israel’s rich biblical history through their visits to the Sataf Village and the Old City. 

“My favorite part of the first week was Friday night Shabbat at the Kotel because it was super cool to see everybody so excited for Shabbat and so many people doing the same prayers that we do at home so that visit definitely strengthened my connection to Judaism,” senior Rebecca Safra said. “I enjoyed the balance of nature sites and historical sites especially when we could learn about Jewish history in really beautiful places.”

On March 6, the course of the trip changed dramatically. Senior Julia Peppe tested positive for COVID-19, prompting many others to take COVID tests as well. Forty-five others tested positive. Senior Dalia Hochstein anticipated the outbreak, however.

“I told my parents the morning we left: we are all gonna get COVID at some point on this trip. I didn’t really think it was gonna happen during the first two weeks but I knew that there would eventually be a COVID outbreak,” Hochstein said. 

While in quarantine, the seniors tried to make the most of their time. Many days they cooked intricate dishes with help from their Madrichim, such as Matzo Ball soup. Those in quarantine appreciated the time to bond with classmates, especially those who they had not previously been close with. 

“Because you are in one place all together, it is kind of inevitable that you are going to bond and have conversations that you wouldn’t normally have with people, and get to know them on a deeper level,” Hochstein said. 

While many of their peers were stuck in quarantine, those who tested negative or previously had COVID continued with the regular programming. Throughout the week, they traveled to the town of Zichron Yaakov, hiked Har Carmel, stayed at a hotel in Ra’anana and enjoyed a free weekend. 

“There was some competition between the negative and positive people; people are trying to compete about who is doing the more fun things,” Topolosky said. “We all missed each other and I think a lot of people are on edge, but overall it is really fun.”

By March 16, everyone who tested positive was out of quarantine, and the trip returned to full swing. The seniors took part in community service to assist Ukrainian refugees, celebrated Purim in Har Carmel Shuk in Tel Aviv and went on several day trips including a hike up Masada mountain. 

Throughout the next two weeks, the seniors had two consecutive free weekends. Over the course of the entire trip, there are four free weekends; one of which was given up to quarantine. The remaining free weekends allowed students to visit their family or friends in Israel that they had rarely seen before because they lived so far away. 

“On the first weekend, I went to see my cousins who I hadn’t seen in four or five years and it was really fun to reconnect with them,” senior Eli Gordon said. “They made amazing shakshuka for breakfast and showed me around Tel Aviv which was a perfect way to spend the weekend.”

On March 23, after a couple of weeks that primarily focused on touring the country, the seniors were broken up into groups called “Chugim,” meaning electives in Hebrew. Students could choose between three paths of interest: the environment, entrepreneurship and Israeli arts and culture. They spent the following week learning about and exploring ideas related to their areas. Senior Shira Neufeld participated in the elective that focused on environmental studies.

“I gained a better understanding of the water crisis in Israel and its current and ultimate effects on the people and land of Israel,” Neufeld said. “I also gained a better appreciation for our water systems at home because we don’t realize how lucky we are that we aren’t struggling to find drinkable water or rationing it.”

The senior year Israel trip is an experience like no other. In addition to the touring of Israeli cities, hikes through stunning Israeli nature reserves and encounters with some of Judaism’s most holy sites, the Israel trip is truly a bonding experience. 

“This is the trip of a lifetime,” senior Brandon Portnoy said. “Traveling in Israel with people I have spent a lot of my life with is so meaningful and amazing. I’m so happy to have this opportunity with my friends and thankful of the school to supply it.”