My Most Powerful High School Semester Happened in Israel: Sydney Eisenberg on NFTY’s EIE in Israel

syd and friends hills

This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is excerpted from the remarks shared by Sydney Eisenberg, a student in our religious school, at Shabbat Atid (“The Future”) on Friday, October 16, 2015 when she spoke at services about her high school semester in Israel. We encourage you to learn more about NFTY’s EIE program for high school students at and to share this post by social media and email with friends who may be interested in this program for a young member of their family.

Hi everyone, my name is Sydney Eisenberg and I’m a senior at Beachwood High School. As I’m sure most of you already know, I studied in Israel for my second semester of junior year on the reform movement’s program, NFTY-EIE High School in Israel. Yes, you heard that correctly, a semester abroad in high school! Although this may seem intimidating, the experience completely transformed my life in many amazing ways.

My journey first began about a month before my late January departure date with an exciting game of Jewish Geography. For those of you who have never heard this phrase, it essentially refers to the fact that no matter where you go in the world, you will likely be able to find connections with virtually any Jew you encounter. I was added into a Facebook group with an entire group of strangers from all around North America who would eventually become my family. So naturally, being the teenagers we are, we got small glimpses into each other’s lives through introduction posts. Additionally, we connected through our many mutual friends. Personally, I discovered that one of the girls on the trip from Arizona was my third cousin! I also formed a relationship with someone who goes to the same camp as one of my friends at Solon! Whether it was from family friends, camp friends, or school friends, everyone in the group was able to use Jewish Geography in their favor to form connections before the trip began.

I got my first true taste of Israel on the El-Al flight with a typical meal of hummus and pita. Little did I know that I would be eating that every single day for the next four months… And I’m not gonna lie, I loved every second of it; one of the best things about living in Israel is the amazing food! When we landed and drove through the Judean Hills to my new home, Kibbutz Tzuba, I was in awe of my surroundings. I couldn’t believe that I would wake up to this view for the next four months instead of my snowy Beachwood backyard!

After a few days of adjusting to the time change, lifestyle, and people, we began our first day of classes. A school day at the Kibbutz is jam packed; in the morning we have a three hour long Jewish History class and a two hour long Hebrew class before lunch. This may seem daunting, but both classes are super interesting and amazing. All of the Jewish History teachers are top notch, and all have their own unique twists to the class. Additionally, they are all Americans who made Aliya, meaning they moved to Israel, so they give great advice and are easy to relate to. My teacher Aaron has a passion for keeping up with the current events of Israel, so my class focused especially on reading the news and having intense class discussions about interesting topics such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, being Jewish in America, and Israeli politics. Hebrew is also a fun class, and more often than not, the teachers took us to the Kibbutz ice cream shop and we learned to order ice cream in Hebrew! After these two classes and lunch, we had all of our general studies courses, which is what we would have been taking at our schools back home. EIE is very accommodating, and you are able to take absolutely any class whether it is in person with a teacher or in rare cases, online.

However, the fact that the school days are extra long compensate for the fact that at least two days a week, we go on Tiyulim, which means trips. One of these trips is usually half a day, so you go out and experience Israel instead of attending Jewish History and Hebrew in the classroom, and the other is a full day Tiyul.

This is one of the reasons studying in Israel is so amazing: there is so much history all around, so you can learn about a specific event occurring in Biblical times in the exact place it happened. Living approximately thirty minutes away from Jerusalem, we frequently took trips to the Old City and got to see what we were learning about with our own eyes.

syd jerusalem

Also, aside from these weekly day trips, the long school days are worth it because we took longer trips once a month. These trips were my favorite of my semester because although there was some school involved, most of the time was just experiencing Israel and bonding with everyone.

The first long trip of the semester is spent travelling all over Israel by having your typical, what we like to call, “touristy week”. On this first trip, we covered all of your “go-to” Israel spots. We climbed Masada, swam in the Dead Sea, rode camels while staying overnight in Bedouin tents, visited the beautiful beaches of Eilat, and made a ton of fun stops along the drive. In addition, we had the Israeli “gadna” experience, which is when we went through a week of army training. We lived in the army tents, ate army food, and lived a watered-down version of how the IDF soldiers live. It was both a difficult and eye opening experience and gave us all a newfound respect for the countless soldiers we saw on a daily basis.

Our next trip was a plane ride away rather than a bus ride away; we went to Poland for a week after studying the Holocaust in Jewish History class. This was arguably one of the most difficult and meaningful weeks of my entire life. We travelled to many different destinations including the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz Concentration Camp, and Majdanek Concentration Camp. To me, these were the hardest parts of the trip because I was learning the stories of Holocaust victims in the exact location where they endured the greatest hardships imaginable. However, contrary to what most would assume regarding a trip to Poland, there were many uplifting and happy moments of the trip. For example, we visited many old synagogues where we sang at the top of our lungs and danced around to get a sense of what Judaism was like in Poland before the Holocaust, and to keep the memories of our ancestors alive. Additionally, we visited the vibrant town square of Krakow, including their JCC. This JCC’s primary purpose is much different than our JCC here in Cleveland; their job is to help support the many children, teens, and adults who are just discovering that they have Jewish roots. After the Holocaust, there was still discrimination and Jews still felt a sense of fear, influencing them to suppress their identities and pretend they were not Jewish. Now, many of the children and grandchildren of these people are discovering they are in fact Jewish, and can go to the Krakow JCC to seek guidance, support, and education about Judaism. This trip as a whole impacted me more than words can express. I felt truly connected to my ancestors as I carried around photocopies of letters and images of my family that lived in Poland who either died in the Holocaust or came to America. This trip is a journey that I believe should be taken by both Jews and non-Jews alike, because it is crucial to bear witness and share the stories forever. I am extremely grateful for my teachers, friends, and the NFTY-EIE staff for making my first trip to Poland as meaningful as it could possibly be.

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On a more uplifting note, our third trip was my favorite. For a week, we hiked from the Kinneret on the east side of Israel all the way to the Mediterranean Sea on the west side of Israel, hence the name Yam l’Yam, the Hebrew phrase meaning “sea to sea.” This trip heightened all of our relationships because we had a week to work together navigating the hiking trails of Israel. The best part of the trip in my opinion: no phones. I turned my phone off before we began and only turned it back on once we reached the first hostel at the end of the long hike. This was when I totally fell in love with Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, because the views were absolutely breathtaking.

Aside from all of these amazing experiences NFTY-EIE gave me, I also learned a great deal about Israel, my identity, and I now look at the world through a completely different lens. One experience I had that impacted me immensely was a morning service at the Kotel with the organization, Women of the Wall. We thought we were just attending a typical morning service at the Wall, but ended up making history. If you don’t already know, Women of the Wall is an organization that fights for gender equality at the Kotel. Women are not allowed to have Torahs on their side of the wall but men have more than enough. One of the goals of this amazing organization was to obtain a Torah on the women’s side and complete a full service with it. This is exactly what we did. A few men on the other side of the barrier were helping the women and passed through a full sized Torah. This was revolutionary because never before in all of history had women been able to sing, dance, and pray with a Torah in front of the Western Wall. When the religious men on the other side realized what was going on they shouted at us, poured water on us, and fought to steal the Torah back. However, we stood strong and ended up completing the first ever Torah service on the women’s side of the Wall. This was a very transformative experience for me, because here at Fairmount Temple, I have never felt like my gender stopped me from freely expressing my Judaism. I wore a tallit at my bat mitzvah, and it wasn’t even a question of whether or not I would read Torah. Additionally, I have grown up learning and praying alongside boys. This inclusive environment made me passionate about the issue of gender equality at the Wall, and influenced me to stand up the way I did.

That morning is something I will remember for the rest of my life, because I was a part of making history by standing up for what I believe in. However, I was able to do just that every single day in Israel. Israel is full of controversial debates and topics, and we discussed a number of them in Jewish History. Ultimately, we had these discussions because everyone in the class had a different opinion and was able to voice their unique viewpoint and learn about themselves and others in the process. Additionally, living in Israel made me realize how truly important it is to understand both sides of any conflict, because usually, both sides have a valid point. I will carry the critical thinking skills I learned over the course of the semester with me for the rest of my life in addition to my values that were strengthened throughout the experience.

Aside from all of my experiences and everything I have learned, the friendships I made in Israel are what I value most about the experience. Now, I have best friends from all over including places such as LA, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Arizona, Canada, and of course Israel. Now that I’m a senior and I am travelling a lot to visit colleges, it is amazing to know that no matter where I go in the country, I will always have a place to stay and a friend to show me around. I have already visited my best friend in California twice, and am anticipating many more reunions soon to come. These are my friends that will last a lifetime because we all share a unique bond and understand each other, Israel, and the world in ways that nobody else can.

With all of this said, it is sad that there are very few people in our community here in Cleveland that have attended this amazing semester in Israel program. I would recommend this to anyone and everyone, and it’s never too early to start considering this amazing opportunity. Yes, you can study abroad in college, but this is something completely different in it’s own amazing way. Learning to live on my own in high school gave me a newfound maturity and awareness of the world that would be impossible to understand otherwise. Overcoming the challenges I faced, such as not having my parents to go to for every little problem, makes me confident that I will have an easy transition into college. Not many high schoolers can say they lived across the world for a semester having the most remarkable time of their lives, and I feel so lucky that I am one of the few who can. I could not thank NFTY-EIE for the opportunities they have given me, and am excited to see what’s in store for my future and also the future of this amazing program.

Lastly, and most importantly, I would like to thank everyone here at Fairmount Temple for making this trip happen. Without the encouragement from the Rabbis, and the generous scholarships the temple provided, I may not have been able to have this incredible experience. With that said, there are many amazing scholarship funds available for this kind of program that help turn this dream of a semester in Israel into a reality for so many. If you, a friend, or a family member are passionate about doing my program or one similar to it, there are so many resources that can help get you to Israel!

If you have any questions about NFTY-EIE, my experience, or Israel in general from my perspective, feel free to come up to me and ask me anything! Thank you and Shabbat Shalom.