Buffalo Grove resident Jamie Horwitz has been learning about Israel since preschool. This summer she got to live those lessons as one of 53 teenagers to take a four-week trip to the Middle East nation.
“We learned about the Kotel, about Jerusalem, but actually getting to experience all the places that I learned about gave me a deeper meaning than sitting in my Sunday school learning about it,” the 17-year-old said.
Horwitz was one of eight teens who discussed their experiences at a dinner Wednesday at the in Skokie. The campers answered questions from JCC staff members and Larry Goodman.
The Lillian and Larry Goodman Foundations heavily subsidized the trip, providing $2,500 scholarships to each of the incoming high school seniors. Goodman also went to O’Hare International Airport to see the teens off, talked with them online through Skype during the trip and facilitated programs, including a meeting with the mayor of Be’er Sheva and a chance for the teens to do acting classes with students at the city’s L & L Goodman Theatre and Acting School.
“I'm interested in young people understanding modern Israel history,” Goodman said. “There's nothing better for understanding Israel and the Middle East than going there.”
The American teens and their six counselors traveled with 16 Israeli campers and four Israeli counselors. They visited Jerusalem, Eilat, Be’er Sheva and the Golan region and spent time hiking, camping, learning and living with Israelis.
Highland Park resident Laura Mintzer said traveling to Israel changed her life and made her want to advocate for the country.
“I'm a Jew and I've just kind of known that's where the Jewish people are, but I didn't really have as strong of a connection,” she said. “When I thought about Israel, I thought about Jerusalem because I didn't really know any better.”
Like all Camp Chi campers, Mintzer spent her summers in Wisconsin learning about Israel’s history, culture and current events through The Goodman Modern Israel History Program. She plans to return to Camp Chi as a counselor and share her experiences with other campers.
“We're going to be able to give our campers our vivid memories of being in a place and having an experience,” she said. “They look up to us. If we're excited about something because we're passionate, they will be too.”
Goodman said that he feels it’s particularly necessary to for youth today to learn about Israel.
“It's important that we understand the Middle East and it's important to know that for the world's benefit, Israel has to remain a strong independent nation,” he said. “It's given so much to the world.”
Many of the teens said the trip has changed their way of thinking.
Taylor Harris of Vernon Hills said her dad forced her to go to temple and Hebrew school until she was 13, but she never considered herself religious. She decided to have her Bat Mitzvah, the Jewish coming of age ritual, along with two other campers, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Now she’s considering spending her freshman year of college in Israel.
“I never felt more religious or cultural in my entire life,” Harris said. “I want to go back to Israel.”
Mintzer said having Shabbat dinner with an Israeli family inspired her to try to celebrate the day of rest with her own family.
“When you get older, it gets so chaotic at home that it's hard to step back and take the time to observe Judaism,” she said. “Since I've been back from Israel, I take the time on Friday night to have Shabbat with my family. I've done it every week since I've been back.”
Aaron Appelbaum of Buffalo Grove said he was also inspired to do family Shabbat dinners at least once a month. But he said the thing that affected him the most was a night spent camping in the desert.
“I was alone in the middle of nowhere and there were millions and millions of stars,” he said. “I just looked up and I don't know what happened, but I was just in awe. I've never seen anything like that before.”
While he said he was nervous about going, Appelbaum was thrilled he went.
“This was the trip of a lifetime,” he said. “I couldn't ask for anything more.