When 38 teens returned to Baltimore after a month in Israel, their faces were glowing with excitement from the trip that they all agreed was “awesome” and “amazing.”
“People always told me Israel was a home of mine, but I never actually felt that connection until I saw it myself,” said Matthew Rogers, 16.
He and 37 of his peers went to Israel on a trip that was subsidized by the Baltimore Zionist District, working with the Jewish Community Center, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. They returned Sunday, July 21, to Temple Oheb Shalom, where they were greeted by eager parents, who couldn’t wait to hug their children and hear about the trip.
“I think this trip is an opportunity of a lifetime — to go for 30 days,” said Darlene Wolff, who was waiting for her daughter, Allison.
In addition to seeing the sites, the teens got to spend time with Israeli families, spend a few days on a kibbutz, build a raft and sail it on the Kinneret and attend the World Maccabiah Games’ opening ceremony.
“It was awesome,” said Melissa Eisgrau, 15. “We did so many crazy things.”
Highlights for Melissa included screaming at the top of Masada and listening to the echo, and spending time on the kibbutz. Like the others on her trip, she can’t wait to go back to Israel.
“It’s so important before they go to college to make that connection,” said Fran Sonnenschein, BZD executive director.
She said BZD has been sending teens to Israel for decades, long before there was a Taglit-Birthright Israel program. While the trip costs BZD close to $6,000 per student, participants only pay $2,560; the trip is subsidized by an endowment fund.
“We want them to understand that this is also their home,” Sonnenschein said. “They’re not there as tourists.”
That concept seemed to have sunk in with all of the trip’s participants.
“You have a home — regardless of where you come from — you have a home in Israel,” said Allison Wolff, 17.
Some were even surprised at how warm and welcoming the country was. Rogers said he experienced some culture shock when he initially arrived because of how friendly and relaxed the Israelis were. Others felt like they fit right in.
Said Arielle Messafi, 17: “You don’t feel like a minority, you’re part of the majority.”