One of the first things that Emma Keith experienced after landing in Israel, besides jetlag and air that felt like “stepping into a sauna,” was a man who shook the hands of everyone in her group before telling each of them: “Welcome home.”
“It really hits that you’re in the homeland,” said Keith, of Newburyport, who returned to the United States on July 14, along with 101 other teens from 35 communities. The group had just returned from a two-week trip across Israel with the Lappin Foundation’s Youth to Israel (Y2I) adventure.
“2019 Y2I was a huge success in many ways,” said Robert Lappin, whose foundation has provided fully subsidized trips to Israel for Jewish teens since 1996. “In two short weeks, dozens of new friendships were formed, Jewish pride was strengthened in our teens, connections to Israel were established, and teens now understand what a great and unique family we are.”
Even though these teens were over 5,000 miles away, in a place many of them had never been with people they had never met, they still felt like they had arrived home and were surrounded by family. That hit home for Samara Quintero of Marblehead when she visited the Western Wall on Friday night, where the group was joined by several strangers in an ecstatic, rapidly-expanding hora.
“Everyone was so unbelievably welcoming and willing to pull me in,” said Quintero. “That was the first time I felt like any Jew is essentially family. It’s a family of 12 million people.”
Griffin Saginor of Boxford got a similar feeling. “Over the course of the trip I was telling myself, ‘Everyone here is Jewish, everyone here has something in common with me,” he said. “People would come up onto the street and they would call me ‘brother.’”
But it wasn’t just passersby on the street who danced with them and called them brother. For four days out of the trip, the local teens were joined by a group of Israelis their own age, and the two groups bonded quickly.
Jenna Tabenkin of Georgetown was surprised by how much she had in common with her Israeli counterparts. “They’re just 16-year-olds like us,” she said. “They knew about the Patriots, we were talking about certain TV shows they like to watch, like on Netflix. We found a lot of stuff we could talk about that wasn’t, ‘How do you say this?’”
Yet there were also differences, most notably about what the teens will do after high school. “They’re going to the [Israel Defense Forces], and we’re going to college,” said Quintero. “All of them were so proud to be serving soon, and they told me why, and their eyes lit up when they told me what unit they wanted to be serving in, and experiences they were hoping to gain from it. It freaked me out honestly that people my age have to mature so fast, and serve their country in just a few years, whereas I’m going to be getting the buffer between childhood and adulthood.”
The group learned more about the realities of Israeli military service through presentations by two unconventional soldiers. One was Jon Cohen, who decided to join the IDF after graduating Andover High School. The other was Mohammad Zoabi, an Israeli Arab. Because he supports Israel and serves in its military, much of his family won’t speak to him. Halfway through his speech, Zoabi told everyone that he is gay.
“Israel has the most diverse military there ever has been, so you’re seeing people from all over the world,” said Carson Shore of Swampscott. “It’s beneficial for the army, and exposes all these different types of people to others.”
Israel’s culture offers something for everyone, which Adriana Kotler of Lynnfirled appreciated. “Israel is so customizable – it is so personable, and you can make the experience what you want it to be,” she said.
The wide-ranging Y2I itinerary crisscrossed the country and offered something for everyone. The trip started in Tel Aviv, where the group toured the beachside, cosmopolitan hub and learned about Israel’s groundbreaking startup scene.
“Tel Aviv was full of vibrant young people, and the energy of being in that city was so strong,” said Quintero.
They moved onto Jerusalem, where they visited the Western Wall (notably at Shabbat, a rapturous, life-affirming event many claimed as their single favorite moment of the trip), explored the Old City, shopped at souks, engaged in a hearty sing-along while walking through Hezekiah’s Tunnel, and visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum.
“You feel like you’re time-traveling,” said Keith about Jerusalem. “You’re walking in the footsteps of where prophets and our ancestors walked – there’s nothing I can say to describe the experience.”
Quintero said she felt as though she was living 1,000 years ago as the group stayed in Bedouin tents and rode on camels in the middle of the desert. “I kept saying to my friends – oh my God, we’re in the desert, because you look out [and] it’s so beautiful, like something you’d see on a green screen – different shades of brown and oranges,” said Tabenkin.
In the early morning, the group hiked Masada in awed silence, and took turns flying the Israeli flag as they looked out over a vast expanse of bright-orange desert and a silvery, lilac-tinged Dead Sea where they’d float later that day. “You’re physically on top of the world,” said Keith.
That’s but a small sampling of everything the group did on a trip that forged powerful bonds to the homeland and to Jewish identity.
“It was remarkable to see the transformations – they gained independence, confidence, and became knowledgeable about tradition, history, and heritage,” said Stacey Comito of Peabody, a Lappin Foundation board member who joined the trip. “It was wonderful to see their love of Israel blossom.”
Keith’s journey to the homeland has had a profound effect on her life. “Being in a circle of people dancing the hora in front of the Western Wall on Shabbat, eating falafel on the street, swimming in the Dead Sea, climbing Mount Masada at sunrise, sitting in a Bedouin tent surrounded by these other kids,” said Keith before pausing for a bit. “That’s what helps me feel Jewish. It took me so long to realize that.”