Junior Journey: Exploring Israel’s Epicenter

Sam Arneson
As our journey in the Holy Land comes to a close, the Class of 2019 has been settling into the city of Jerusalem just in time for Shabbat. In these past two days, we’ve been able to explore the physical city and its people, all the while learning about its rich ethnic, religious, and racial history. And of course, we’ve been shopping (sorry, mom!) and eating to our heart’s content!

To start, yesterday (Wednesday) we took about two hours in the morning to embark on a geo-political tour of Jerusalem; where we traveled and learned in our tour bus about relevant present-day topics in Jerusalem, such as the West Bank and differing political parties. The tour gave us a broad understanding of the Old City as a whole, and later we had the choice of zooming in on either the Christian or Jewish Quarter through a guided walking tour.

After these fascinating (and extremely photo-oppable) explorations of whichever quarter we chose, the Class of 2019 reconvened for lunch in the nearby marketplace. I went for the shawarma, and after an ice cream stop, we headed for the Western Wall with great anticipation. What would we feel when we gazed upon these ancient stones that mean so much to our people?

As the crowds of people thinned, and the shimmering, sun-bathed wall unveiled itself, a collective gasp rippled over our grade. After almost two tumultuous weeks in Israel, we’d finally made it to the middle of the epicenter: the Western Wall.

Once I made my way through the throngs, I planted my palm on the warm stones, gazing upward in some kind of dazed shock. For me, the Western Wall is more than just a historical landmark of our people; it’s a place that’s helped me discover central parts of myself. To be here at this very moment in time, soaking up the sun’s rays, connecting to my Judaism so fiercely, all the while surrounded by my class...felt like something close to magical.

All too soon, our twenty allotted minutes at the wall came and went, and after many photos (yes, including Polaroids) we went back to the hotel. Those who had family left with them, and the rest of us went to Ben Yehuda street to shop and nosh.

I made good use of my time on Ben Yehuda; and went on a frantic goose-chase for the perfect present for my mother. All too soon, I had to leave for an ACT lesson over webcam, but that night certainly was very fun.

The next morning (today), we rose early, and headed to Yad Vashem; quite possibly the world’s most famous Holocaust memorial. We were very apprehensive; and were not sure what we were supposed to feel once we got there. However, Mr. Wolgel cleared the air when he explained to us that everyone would experience the memorial in different ways — some would have emotional reactions, others would be intellectually stimulated, and some wouldn’t be impacted. He told us that any of the above reactions was perfectly okay, and with that mindset, we headed inside.

I can’t speak for others, but Yad Vashem struck a chord deep within me. I lost fifty-two members of my family in the Holocaust, and for the first time, I felt like I had the space to truly grieve and remember this horrible tragedy that my family and so many others went through. I could tell others were feeling similarly, and I felt better knowing that I was not alone.

I emerged feeling like I’d been through a washing machine, but although I was shaken, I was clean (if we’re going with that metaphor). Being able to release my emotions was healing, and I gained a sense of empowerment to continue spreading the ever-present message: “never again.”

Later today, we toured Har Herzl; Israel’s burial site for fallen soldiers. Seeing all the different graves, markings, and sentiments left by loved ones was extremely powerful, and left us feeling many different things.

Soon after, we were given the chance to process the day at an art studio in Jerusalem. There, we took our feelings and translated them into art on pieces cut out of a blank map of Israel. After sharing our piece with the group, we connected all of the parts to make a vibrant, colorful map that reflected each of our unique experiences. This experience was lovely and low-key, which was just what we needed after such an emotionally charged day.

After all that walking, talking, creating, and feeling, we were all feeling very hungry — but not for long. Right after the art activity, we enjoyed a delicious dinner at a restaurant in Jerusalem, where I think I ate more carbs than humanly possible. Once dinner was finished, some people headed to a nearby market, and others (myself included) left for the hotel — we were all feeling very tired.

All in all, I think I speak for everyone when I say that these past few days have given the Class of 2019 a nuanced understanding of Jerusalem; this city that seems to be the epicenter of our religion.

However, in general, thanks to our teachers, tour guides, and experiences, we’ve been able to gain this high level of understanding of many places throughout Israel (not just Jerusalem) which, in my personal opinion, is necessary for the development of one’s Jewish identity. We can’t wait for Shabbat, and don’t even want to think about leaving the Holy Land in just two days!
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The Jewish Community High School of the Bay (JCHS) is a unique college preparatory high school committed to integrating deep learning, universal wisdom, and Jewish values. We empower each student to embrace their Jewish identity, generate empathy and compassion, delight in lifelong education, and improve the world.