REFLECTION ON THE SENIOR CAPSTONE TRIPS
By Jeremy Schooler
After a whirlwind last week, which included finishing our sea to sea hike from the Mediterranean to the Kinneret, spending a night in the Golan Heights and visiting Mt. Herzl and the Kotel, we're finally back in the USA. It feels very weird being home again, from sleeping in a room alone, to not having days packed with hikes or long bus rides, to something as simple as not using shekels anymore. However, all this down time without constantly having 60 other people around has given me time to reflect on the trip.
The first day we were in Israel, it rained. After we lugged our bags to our dorm, we had an orientation with the Muss directors. On that first day, three months seemed like it would be an eternity—there was so much we would be doing, visiting all sorts of places, some we'd never heard of traveling to two other countries, etc. And now, looking back, it has flown by. It became a routine. Every day we'd go on some new hike, or to some new city, exploring what we'd learned about in school all these years. All of a sudden, two weeks had gone by and we were off to Gadna. This was the first time we were split up for any extended period of time (into two girls' groups and two boys' groups), but all that did was allow us to grow closer with the group of 15 people in our unit, because we spent every moment together for four days.
Soon after Gadna, we left for Europe. This was one of the most memorable and meaningful parts of the trip for many reasons. Obviously there were the visits to the camps and other Holocaust landmarks, for which we had been preparing mentally and emotionally and which obviously were going to be sad. However, unexpectedly, there were parts of our trip to Europe that were actually fun and happy. I remember vividly the day we visited the Buczyna forest, which in my opinion was the most grim and somber part of the trip. Our guide Akiva told us how the Nazis would take whole communities of Jews to this forest, and throw them into huge pits. Both Benjy and Akiva then spoke to us about the young children that were buried there, and how their bodies were poured out of dump trucks into the now covered pits we were standing beside. We were all thinking about our own families, all the way across the world, that, unlike those children, we would eventually be able to go back to. At that point, our madrichim gave us letters written to us by our own parents about the Holocaust and our families' histories. As sad as that whole experience was, what we did after was amazing. We stopped at a Polish Yeshiva, where we ate, danced, and sang Jewish songs for hours. The fact that we could go somewhere that was, in my opinion, the most grim and morbid place on a trip filled with some of the most grim and morbid places in the world, and then be so joyful afterwards was incredible. It meant that we, as the Jewish people, could understand and see the atrocities in our history without letting them hold us back.
When we got back from Europe, we headed off to our volunteer periods. I had an amazing time living in Tzfat for three weeks, exploring the city, learning about Kabbalah and volunteering with the elderly. The 20 of us who were in Tzfat got very close with each other and made many memories and jokes together, but at a certain point I couldn't wait to go back to Hod HaSharon. Nothing was more consistently fun or entertaining throughout the trip than the crazy nights on campus in Hod, and I missed being with the whole group. This was probably why, when we all left for Passover break after volunteer period, I hung out with other JDS people as often as I could. We'd gotten into a rhythm on the trip (and I guess in all of our years at JDS too) of being with each other every day, so it felt weird to not see anyone for a while. And now, after almost four days back home in America, I am getting that feeling again.
My two favorite highlights of the post-Pesach part of the trip were going down south and Yam L'Yam. On our way to the very southern tip of the country, we stopped to spend a night in Bedouin-style tents and went rolling/jumping/running down huge sand dunes, which was extremely fun. The night in the Bedouin tents was one of my favorite nights of the trip, because it was very different from anything we'd done. It felt like a huge slumber party, all of us in the same tent, in the middle of the desert, singing around a campfire, and then having a big wrestling tournament on our sleeping mats. After riding camels the next morning, we continued down south to Eilat, where we were able to go snorkeling and scuba diving in the Red Sea. Snorkeling there was incredible, because with the water so clear we were able to see stunning sea life up close.
Yam L'Yam, our hike from the Mediterranean Sea to the Kinneret, was our final major trek in Israel. It seemed daunting at first, hiking more than 50 miles up hills and rocky terrains, but I can honestly say it got easier and more fun each day. We played games while we hiked, which made the time pass very quickly, and before we knew it we were near the campsite. I chose to do the harder hike each day, not taking the bus at all, and it definitely paid off in the end and felt very rewarding to get to the Kinneret completely on my own power. Once we got there, we had a great time all swimming and singing together, another one of my favorite spontaneous moments from the trip.
Right before we left to come home, we spent a day in Jerusalem, visiting the Western Wall one last time and going to Mt. Herzl. This was a very meaningful and appropriate way to end the trip and it concisely illustrated why Israel is so special. As we left to go to the airport, it rained again, which it hadn't really done since that first day. It was a fitting send off for home, with something that was was dreary, but unavoidable and necessary.
I can confidently say that this was not only the trip of a lifetime, but the greatest three months of my life. Thinking back on the trip and looking through pictures already brings back so many fabulous memories, but it also leaves me with a bit of sadness that it's over. Not just that the trip is over, but our JDS careers as well. I don't want it all to end, but since it had to, I wouldn't have changed the last three months at all.