Ta’am Yisrael: Finding Another Home
I recently was lucky enough to staff Ta’am Yisrael as a representative of JCC Camp Chi. Ta’am Yisrael, or a Taste of Israel, is JUF’s 8th grade educational trip designed to give the participants a meaningful trip exposing them to the land of Israel and their heritage.
The highlight of the trip for me was getting to share the experience with over 20 Chi campers. Many of these participants were my campers in 2012 when I was their Shoreshim village leader. As I sat in pre-trip orientations discussing homesickness and the no electronics policy, I knew our campers would have no problem. Camp prepared us for this journey and we embarked on it together, not just as a Chi family, but as a Ta’am community.
I have been to Israel twice before Ta’am and greatly enjoyed both times. This time was different. I had never staffed a trip, let alone a trip for young teens. As we traveled to familiar sites like Independence Hall and Masada, I was treated to something I would never have expected – a new perspective on old places. Almost every place we went I had been to before, but I was now experiencing these sites through the eyes of an 8th grader.
While I stood at the Kotel with a group, taking in the holiness and history, I heard comments like “I feel so much more connected to Judaism” and “this is surreal.” We were at the holiest site to our people, a place we have learned about since we started our Jewish education years ago, and there we were with notes to put in the wall and prayers to whisper. As we sat at the egalitarian section of the Kotel and spoke a bit about the magnitude of the moment, followed by a misheberach prayer for healing, many in the group quietly wept. Never before had I felt this raw emotion in the Old City.
Twice before I had been to Israel and twice before I had ridden camels. Neither time was a very pleasant experience. But, here I was in the middle of the Negev, on a camel once again. And this time it was different. Was it uncomfortable? Did the animal smell? Did I have any idea what I was doing? Yes, yes, and no. But, I was not focused on that. I was listening to the questions the participants asked about Bedouin culture. I was learning from the 8th graders as much as they were learning from me.
Other emotional moments occurred throughout the trip. We heard first-hand accounts from survivors of the Holocaust. We met with IDF Lone Soldiers and connected with Chi Israeli campers on Shabbat. Time and time again throughout the trip, I was floored by the level of maturity and insightful questions that were asked by participants. I could tell that these teens were having an experience that would shape their lives and their views on Israel.
We left our phones at home and got on a long plan ride to the other side of the world. These teens were so enthralled with being in this new place, having new experiences with new people, that they left their “American attitude” at the gates in O’Hare. They came with open minds, ready to learn and experience new things. They tried new foods and spoke a new language (to most of us). We all learned some new songs (and are still rocking out to Goldenboy and Tel Aviv). By the end, it was clear none of us wanted to leave. Much like when the buses depart the morning after Chi Burning, we had to be pushed onto the plane and say goodbye to the place we now love. What I had in common with the 20-some Chi campers on this trip when we departed for Israel was one thing: Camp Chi was our home away from home. We now all have one more thing in common, another home away from home: Israel.
JCC Chicago is sponsoring a Ta’am Ivrit, a Taste of Hebrew Weekend at Camp Chi on April 8-10, 2016 for 7th and 8th graders. Hebrew will come alive through art, sports, music and authentic cuisine at this “teen-only” weekend. It’s like a trip to Israel, right here at home! We hope to see many Ta’am Yisrael participants and Chi campers there.
by Ari Wartell
JCC Camp Chi Operations Manager