My Trip to Israel with NFTY or How I Put the Bat Mitzvah NFTY Certificate to Good Use!

By SaraAnn Yerushalmi Stanway


Judaism is a religion centered on learning. As children, we learn prayers, our Alef Bet, the holidays. As B’nei Mitzvah, we discover the Torah and our own personal faiths. As young adults, we are taught our history as a people, our responsibility to the community. And through it all, we are taught to love Eretz Israel, the Jewish homeland. But can this be taught?  No, not in a four -walled classroom, not by the best of professional educators, nor even the most enthusiastic of rabbis. But as I discovered this summer, 30,000 feet in the air en route to the Holy Land, it can be learned, and Israel would be my schoolhouse. The moment I got my first glimpse, all I could think was that in the next month, this place would become mine. I was eager for the term to begin.

Period 1 – Phys. Ed, to be completed in the Negev. Here I learned how to wake up at four in the morning and scale a mountain before eight, how to push myself farther and harder than I ever have, and how to take in the vast, unforgiving beauty of the mountains surrounding me. I learned that my counselors truly believed that the only thing standing between me and death by sunstroke was my trusty kova,(hat) and that there is nothing so terrifying as getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and becoming utterly convinced you’ll never see the Promised Campsite when I was, for a minute, unable to find my way back.

Period 2 – Jewish culture and history, which took place in Jerusalem, Masada, and everywhere in between. Evyatar, my favorite counselor, would fearlessly dress up in robes and laurels, toting a stuffed sheep and staff with him to educate us about the First and Second Temples and the Zealots’ last stand on top of Masada, where we all shouted “AM ISRAEL CHAI!” – the nation of Israel survives – into the valley below. When I pulled off my blindfold and saw the ancient and modern blend of the Jerusalem landscape for the first time, I thought of how far the Jewish people has come. And when I waited in an ankle-length skirt and long sleeved sweater on a sweltering day for my turn to pray at the overcrowded, silent women’s section at the Kotel (Western Wall)  while on the other side, men danced and sang, I realized how far we have yet to go.

Period 3 – Health, which included a free tour of all of the many lovely emergency rooms in Tiberius. It was here that I discovered that my counselors actually meant it when they said we’d end up with an IV if we didn’t drink our three liters daily.

Period 4 – Social Studies and Diplomacy, my classroom being the dinner tables in the homes of the Israeli teens who joined our group in the last week. This course, one of my favorites, united me with friends I still miss dearly and taught me how to break through a language barrier, allowed me to peer into the everyday life of teens so much like myself, but whose nurseries were built in bomb shelters, who actually knew how to avoid getting swindled in the shuk, and whose attempts to rid my Hebrew of a horrendously New Jersey accent were valiant but doomed from the start.

By the time the bell rang, my backpack was stuffed full to bursting with experiences between which the head of the trip warned us we would have to discriminate, packing some in our suitcases to remember and leaving others behind. When we boarded the plane and I stowed that precious carry-on at takeoff, I couldn’t stop myself from shedding a few tears, unsure of when school would be back in session. But even if this recess is long, one thing is for sure: I’m heading back to get my diploma.

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