Back to Israel: Yes Way, Jose!
In just under a week, I will be heading to Israel for my 5th trip. For the 3rd time, I am lucky enough to staff Ta’am Yisrael, a trip for Chicagoland 8th graders to experience a taste of Israel. To say I am excited is an understatement. For months, I have been counting down to the trip. Even though this is a work trip, it is a highlight for me every year. I don’t mind the late nights and early mornings, or windy bus ride to Masada and the Dead Sea. I don’t love the camel rides, but I don’t mind getting on one every year. You see what makes this trip special to me is sharing it with over 30 Chi campers. Prior to arriving at Chi in 2012, I was a counselor for 8 years in Pennsylvania. At Chi, I have worn many hats over the years from program director to village leader and Try Chi Director. This trip is so special to me because I get to go back to my days as counselor work directly with the participants. I am proud of my role on the Camp Chi team, running a lot of the logistics and behind the scenes world, but I sometimes miss being “in the field.” Each day over the summer, I take a break from the phones and computers to get out in camp and see everything in action. This trip is great for me because it has me spending the entire day with the teens, exploring Israel and facilitating dialogues, while doing everything they do and racking up over 15,000 steps each day- the sole reason I bought a Fitbit. But if we were backup to my first trip to Israel and tell 7-year old Ari that he would be counting down the days to another trip to Israel, I’m sure I would have stared in disbelief and said something like “No way, Jose!”
In the summer of 1996, I traveled with my family on a 3-week trip to Israel. The first week and a half my parents led a family trip from our community and the second part of the trip my parents attended a conference and my sister and I attended a day camp through the conference. The thing was that I HATED it. I don’t remember exactly what I hated, but I remember missing the foods I knew, TV shows in English and missing my friends from camp. Because even as a first grader, I wanted to spend my summers with my camp friends, not in some country where the only TV I understood was the Summer Olympics. I was the youngest kid on our trip by about 4 years and it showed; I was constantly trying make things fun, but fun for a 7-year old is not fun for anyone else. When my sister’s hat blew off her head during our Jeep ride through the Golan Heights, I eagerly volunteered to climb the special fence and retrieve it. As I tried to hop out of the Jeep, I was quickly grabbed and told to let it go, even though my sister was upset. I learned later that the fence was barbed wire and the grassy hills were a mine field. I remember being at Rosh HaNikra, the breathtaking grottoes over the Mediterranean Sea, and wanting to sprint across the bridges while the waves crashed across, being tackled multiple times by some of the older kids and my new babysitters on the trip (whether they liked it or not). And I will never forget getting the hotel door closed on my fingers and screaming, insisting that I was dying and there was no saving me. (I’ve always had a flare for the dramatic.) When I ask my family about the trip, they don’t usually bring those things up. They remember that I nicknamed everyone on our bus (something I still do all the time), loved making freshly squeezed orange juice for everyone, renaming Jerusalem the Hilly City instead of the Holy City and that I was obsessed with our bus driver and begged to stay on the bus at many stops to hang with him instead of experiencing whatever they adults were doing. Needless to say, when we got back to the United States, I didn’t expect to rush back to Israel.
That all changed in 2011, when I finally returned to Israel with Birthright with 3 of my best friends from my old camp. This time, I absolutely loved it, relished in the experiences, sharing the memories with my peers and extending our trip a few days to see some of our Israeli friends from camp. After that trip, I was eager to go back. Along came Ta’am Yisrael in 2015 and I jumped at the opportunity. The itinerary from year to year changes slightly, but I am well versed in what we will experience and I am excited to see the same sights again in a week or so. While the sights don’t change, the people do and that is what makes the experience. I have been on this trip twice and have had 2 vastly different experiences. My first year, my group was very interested in discussing the history of the places where we were standing. Last year my group preferred to discuss Israeli politics and the government’s positions on various issues. Of course, as I had six 13 and 14-year old boys each year, so I also put up with the many fart jokes and the usual teenage banter, but quickly move past that to real, very mature and deep conversations. Getting to share what for many of them is their first trip to Israel and for nearly all of them their first peer-based trip to Israel, is so incredibly special to me. Each year it is as if it is my first trip to Israel and I get to see our homeland through their eyes and have my experience shaped by their experiences. And I promise them each year that the food is actually amazing and (while we have almost no time to watch it) the TV there is in both English and Hebrew and that if a door closes on your hand, it will not kill you. I tell them what I wish someone had said to me in 1996 (although it would have gone right over my head)… take this in, cherish it, remember it and do whatever you can to come back to Israel time and time again.