Students back from 3 months in Israel

Photo Courtesy of Maya Taylor-Prince
Golda Och Academy student Maya Taylor Prince.

Students from Golda Och Academy in West Orange returned home this month after spending about three months in Israel.

Golda Och Academy is a private independent K-12 school with a dual academic curriculum in the culture and tenets of Conservative Judaism.

The students who went to Israel were participating in Golda Och’s Neshama, which is something the school has been doing for the past 32 years.

“We don’t take classes or ‘go to school,’ but we learn in a more hands-on way, like traveling to the City of David and learning about the history there, or staying in the West Bank and hearing from the political perspectives of people on opposite ends of the spectrum,” said Chloe Elder, a member of the Class of 2024. “I consider it a much more efficient way of teaching, and I find myself even more eager to learn.”

Neshama begins with a week in Poland, exploring the Jewish roots that developed in the region from the middle ages, how Jewish life and practice evolved and developed, what challenges each community faces, how they dealt with it over almost 2000 years until the holocaust and, of course what took place before, during and after, according to Rabbi Meirav Kallush, a rabbi in residence at the Golda Och.

From Poland, students go for a 12 week seminar in Israel: they hike all over the country, meet Israeli peers and many Israelis from different walks of life.

“Through those encounters – the ones that we plan and curate and the ones that just happen from living in a country for 3 months, our students get a deeper, broader, nuanced understanding of our homeland,” Kallush said.

During their time at Golda Och, students study the history of our people and of Israel but seeing it and engaging with the community brings another dimension to the classroom learning, Kallush said.

“Most of the students go because they want to be in Israel, they are ready to learn and engage in a different way than they have for the past 12 years,” Kallush said. “They want to be together, to explore, learn, have fun with peers.”

Traditionally, the school sends freshman to Israel at the beginning of their high school year.

“We call this trip Naale,” Kallush said. “It is a ‘sneak preview’ to Neshama. For 10 days the grade explores the country: a few hikes in the North, a few hikes in the Judean Desert and spending time in Jerusalem.”

Following the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, the school evaluated the situation and considered canceling the trip.

“Back in November it did not look like we could go,” Kallush said. “By the end of December early January, although there was still fighting and still many hostages in Gaza, the Israeli government approved for teen tourist and student groups to come to Israel under different security and safety guidelines than in previous years.”

“When Israel gave the green light, we decided to go,” Kallush said. “We had many conversations with parents and students explaining why and the updated security and safety guidelines.”

Maya Taylor-Prince, a member of the Class of 2024, was among the students who arrived in Israel in late February. She said she thought it was important to go to Israel to show her support.

“Although Israel experienced horrible atrocities, it’s still our home, and I came because I feel safe as a Jewish woman here,” she said.

The trip made her see the world in a different light and from different perspectives.

“I think it’s led me to appreciate my life more, and to always support Israel and its people in times of tragedy,” she said.

Elder said she decided to go to Israel in spite of all that is happening because she loves the country and knew she would regret it if she didn’t.

Photo Courtesy of Chloe Elder
Chloe Elder in Israel.

“I fully trusted the school that they would make sure we were always safe, and they have done that. I think coming on this trip was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” she said. “I believe I’ve grown into myself a lot more on this trip.”