WEST ORANGE, NJ — Golda Och Academy’s ninth-graders set out Nov. 8 for the annual Na’ale program to Israel. The 10-day journey allowed them to explore Israel’s culture, history and language while celebrating and strengthening their Jewish identity. Led by GOA teachers Lev Metz and Bethany Watson and a team of experienced counselors, students experienced the beauty of Israel through hiking, walking along the tunnels of the Kotel, spelunking, chocolate-making and celebrating Shabbat together. They also spent three days with their sister school from the Merchavim region, forming bonds with students with whom they will correspond throughout their entire high school career.
For Aaron Lavitsky, Na’ale was his first trip to Israel and found it to be a truly “amazing” experience. “Our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable and tied together politics, geography and Judaism,” he said. “It made you think and experience Israel from a different perspective.”
After the group visited Yad Vashem and went to Mt. Herzl to visit Yitzhak Rabin’s grave, Dana Bluevise said, “Our tour guide’s father was friends with Rabin, which was very powerful because we had a personal connection there.”
Although Na’ale wasn’t the first trip to Israel for some, those who had traveled to Israel before saw the country in a new light. “I never took this much away from a trip to Israel,” said Itai Rekem, who has family in Israel and has made previous trips there. “I had the opportunity to see places I never toured and got to experience it with friends.”
Yet one of the most incredible aspects of Na’ale is the bonds formed by the students over the course of 10 days. “We lived together and traveled the world together,” Lavitsky said. “It made us so much more than just friends from school.”
“Some kids were new to our class and some we have known for 10 years, so it was definitely a bonding experience for us,” said Michelle Bilmes, who also said one of the highlights for her was celebrating Havdalah together on a deck of a youth hostel with spectacular views of Jerusalem. “We were all swaying back and forth with our arms around one another, singing together. It really touched me.”
In addition to their own class connections, the students also became close with the students from their sister school in Merchavim. Having spent three days together, when it was time for goodbyes, Rekem said he looked around and saw everyone crying. “We became so close from the three times we met. It was so meaningful for everybody,” he said.
“Na’ale is an opportunity for students to learn not only using their intellect, but all of their senses and their neshama (their soul),” Rabbi Meirav Kallush, GOA’s director of Israel programming said. “As a group, they hiked in the Golan Heights, tasted new foods together, spent time with their Israeli peers from Merchavim harvesting cucumbers and saw their lessons from history class come to life walking through the Kotel tunnels. All of these hands-on experiences are the way we build the living bridge between Israel and the U.S. and how we enhance our Israel education program.”