By Reema C. Gampel
Soon after my bat mitzvah in February 2020 my family was supposed to go to Israel on an extended vacation. This was to be my first time in the Holy Land, and I was excited. We had been planning this trip for months, and I dreamed of davening by the Kotel, swimming in the Dead Sea, and eating sabich in the Rova.
As part of my bat mitzvah preparation, I made a siyum on Seder Moed and learned about mitzvot that could only be done in Eretz Yisrael. I wanted to experience the performance of as many of these commandments as possible, not to mention birkat kohanim on a random weekday!
But, as the saying goes, “Man plans and G-d laughs.” A month after my bat mitzvah celebration the world shut down due to COVID, and our trip was canceled. Israel would have to wait.
About a year later, I was visiting Yeshiva University High School for Girls (Central) as an applicant. A dynamic upperclassman was my guide and she enthusiastically described Central Ba’Aretz, a student exchange program with a school in Israel. Although it was on a COVID-induced hiatus, I was confident that the program would be reinstated by the time I was in the tenth grade. Baruch Hashem, it was, and I am grateful that my parents allowed me to join.
It was very important that I had realistic expectations for my time in Israel. This would be my first trip there, and my initial reaction was that I wanted to tour extensively. However, this was not the focus of the program. I realized that even though the number of places I would visit would be limited, Central Ba’Aretz offered me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience life as a high-school girl in central Israel.
The group, consisting of 12 girls (three sophomores and nine juniors), departed JFK on New Year’s Eve. When we landed at Ben Gurion, we were greeted by a contingent of girls from Ulpanat Bnei Akiva Lachish. Immediately, we began dancing together in the airport. After that warm welcome, we boarded the bus to the school.
After dinner, we went to our pnimia (dorm). Before we could get settled, however, there was a blackout. Sitting on the floor in the dark we met our eim bayit, Chanie Leow, and our madrichah, Revaya Aranoff. The Israeli girls brought battery-powered lights and many, many homemade snacks.
Ulpanat Lachish is a dorm school, even though many of the girls live locally. Many of their families were displaced after the Jewish community of Gush Katif was dismantled. Girls go home on Tuesday nights and for Shabbat. Two Central girls were assigned to a local yishuv family, and we would go home with their daughters each Tuesday night. The last Shabbat of the month would be spent with them as well.
While the other three weekends were away from the school, the bulk of our time would be spent living in the dorms and attending classes and events with our Israeli counterparts. Highlights included the schoolwide Shabbaton at Givat Washington; bowling; making pita in the courtyard; building decorative benches for Israeli soldiers; and baking cookies while having a karaoke party in the dorm’s kitchen.
Adjusting to dorm life took a few days and there was some mild culture shock as I got used to attending school in caravans, which included jumping over a fence to enter the school grounds. But the staff and students were all incredibly supportive and treated us like family. We were regularly invited to various teachers’ homes for delicious dinners.
The daily activities varied, so Revaya would send us the next day’s schedule the night before. Almost every day we attended limudei kodesh classes.
During their secular class time we would return to the dorm and study for our finals.
Much of the day was unstructured and I used my free time to meet and talk with Israeli girls who did not have classes then. I made many friends and greatly improved my Hebrew, just by walking around the campus and striking up conversations.
After our first Shabbat in Jerusalem, followed by a wonderful day spent with my brother the following week (you can read Reuben’s take at 5TJT.com), time started to go by very quickly. I met my host family, the Weizmans, and they treated me, and my friend Serah Tolchin, as their own. We cooked, baked, and laughed together. We discussed many halachot that relate specifically to Eretz Yisrael, including neta revai. (In Israel, fruits that blossom in a tree’s fourth year can only be eaten after being redeemed on a coin which is thrown into the sea.) Their daughters, Serah, and I have a very active group chat.
Beyond Lachish, we toured the Knesset, rode camels in Arad, and swam in the Dead Sea. There were many opportunities to connect spiritually with Hashem, including davening at the Kotel and Kever Rachel. But what stays with me most are the people of Lachish, once displaced and now building anew, making the desert bloom.
The Central Ba’Aretz program afforded me the opportunity to live in Israel like my sabra contemporaries do. During the month I was away, I developed a strong relationship with Eretz Yisrael, medinat Yisrael, and the citizens of Israel, making many friends along the way. I acquired a unique perspective that can only come from living in the country. I will continue to share my knowledge and enthusiasm for Israel with my family, friends, and schoolmates. And perhaps one day, I too will inspire a prospective applicant to attend Central Ba’Aretz, contributing in my way to the ethic of ahavat Yisrael that is fundamental to Central’s culture.
Reema C. Gampel is a sophomore at the Samuel H. Wang Yeshiva University High School for Girls in Holliswood, NY.