Finding Jewish Identity, Adventure, and Connections in Israel

Teens from Nashville’s Jewish community participated in the Get Connected program in Israel. This year marks the program’s return following the Covid-19 pandemic.

Rachel Duben, a 15-year-old Nashville native, toured Israel with the Jewish Federation’s Get Connected, a program designed to help tenth and eleventh grade students foster a connection to their sense of Judaism, their peers in Nashville and to Israel and its people. Rachel and eight other teens spent two weeks in Israel, from June 6 to 19.


Rachel’s answers were edited for clarity and length.


Describe your Israel trip.

When I first got there, we were pretty much exhausted [after] two days of sitting in an airplane doing nothing. We got to our hotel and essentially, we just crashed at that point.


The next day, we met our hosts and we stayed with them for four days. Meeting them for the first time was a mix of so much excitement but also being nervous because previous to the trip, I’d only talked to my host one time and so it was really nice to meet everyone in person. It’s definitely cool because we did a lot of activities, just games to get to know each other. We helped garden at their community center, and we hung up ceramic butterflies on the walls and then we went home for the night.


Next day, we went to Save A Child’s Heart. They’re a bunch of really cute kids that we got to hang out with and it was a really interesting experience. All the kids were there [because] they had to have some sort of surgery on their heart; a lot of them were from surrounding countries. It’s a nonprofit and they gave them heart surgeries and whatever they needed for survival. So we got to play with them and they were all really sweet and cute. After that, we walked around and went to a park and had a picnic lunch.


And then we went to Dizengoff Center, which was the largest mall in the Middle East. That was really interesting; it was huge. I think it was over five stories.


We went to a garden of some sort. It started raining while we were there, so we hid under a tree for five minutes until the rain cleared up. After that, we went to the aqueducts and did some exploring. The water was really cold because it was underground, and it was really deep; the water was up to my waist at the deepest part. We had Shabbat dinner with our hosts and I got to play games that I had brought with me. We were all very competitive, so that made it a whole lot of fun.


The next day was a free day with [our] host and while everyone went to the beach, [my host and I] went exploring in a forest with a stream. We brought our swimsuits and went swimming. And then we went [back to the host’s house] and hung out. That was pretty much the time with our host; definitely didn’t feel like it was four days.


After we left our host, we went to Tzfat, which was a really cool city because they paint the outside of buildings blue, so that you can always see the sky. We had lunch in Tzfat, we went shopping and we had a mini history lesson type thing. Then we went to the Lebanese border, which was really, really interesting. We went with a man from a kibbutz, and he took us to the border. We also met Lebanese soldiers on the border. They were really sweet. It was the first time I saw a gun that big and wasn’t scared of it because I knew I was safe.


The soldiers got on a boat ride in the Kinneret and that was beautiful because on one side you have the city; on the other side, you have the mountains. It was really pretty.


We went on a waterfall hike, which was pretty. It was a very short hike because for one part of it, it was just trees and flowers and bushes. And then the other part, you were on a wooden bridge over a waterfall. We went to Jerusalem and that was really, really cool. It was my first time in Israel and my first time in Jerusalem. It reminded me of New York City. It had the hustle and bustle of New York, but at the same time it had a stillness that you wouldn’t find anywhere else.


The next day, we went to the Western Wall. It was almost surreal because we did a tour of what’s underneath the wall, which is just more of a wall. Part of it was destroyed and the part that was destroyed was the closest part for a sacred rock. So we’re praying there, praying to the stone that is the closest stone you can get to talking to G-d.


We all decided to explore the hotel and we went downstairs for dinner. I want to say it was a buffet, but it was bigger than I was expecting. There were a lot more options than what I was expecting. There was chicken, potatoes, noodle soup, a bunch of hummus, pita and there was a whole dessert table and a bunch of fruit.


We went to a Bedouin village, and we rode camels. It wasn’t your typical riding camels in a circle. [We] got to ride them in the desert, which was really, really cool to see. The next morning, we woke up at four to go hiking and see the sunrise. There wasn’t anything like it; there’s nothing like that feeling because [I was] at the top of a mountain just watching the sun rise with nine people [I] just met a few weeks ago. And we were all together talking, taking pictures and watching the sunrise.


We went to the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea mud is like clay; I was expecting mud. We just completely covered ourselves in mud. We went to the Armenian Quarter, and we saw the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and there’s a ladder that can’t be moved, [the immovable ladder]. On the 18th, we went exploring one of the cities and they had a lot of flowers that I liked. They were all flowers that we don’t have here in the U.S. All the flora and fauna [were] really cool.


What was it like sharing a space with nine other teens you’d just met?

There was a bit of chaos, I’m not gonna lie. A bit of drama. But it wasn’t weird for me because I’ve been at summer camp my whole life, like Jewish sleepaway camp. So, for me, it wasn’t that strange. It could have been different for the other girls.


What would you say was the most rewarding experience for you?

Probably when we hiked the mountain because we were exhausted. We got rewarded with a beautiful view and just really crazy picture opportunities. And the archaeological dig because [we] were given a pickaxe and a flat shovel. One person found a coin and I found a bone.


What would you tell other Nashville Jewish teens about Get Connected? Would you recommend it? Why or why not?

I would because it’s definitely a trip that you will remember. You don’t get another trip like this one. There is birthright, but I have a feeling it’s going to be different because it’s a lot more people. This one was definitely personalized in a way because — at least for me — I still talk to my hosts. You’re not going to be upset if you go.


What did you learn about your Jewish identity? How did you grow as a person on this trip?

For me, at least, I’ve always known that being Jewish is a part of what makes me special. I just didn’t know how special it made me until I went to Israel where we have our own area, we have our own space and it’s not strange; it’s not weird that you’re Jewish. Because, like, in Nashville, there’s maybe one to two Jews per class. And it’s really cool to see a space where there’s a lot of Jews, but there’s a lot of Jews of different types.


You mentioned history lessons. Did you learn anything surprising about Israel?

It was really interesting because one of the museums we went to was just of Jewish people in general. It was really interesting to see because I’ve always been a science person. Some of the scientists that I’ve learned about, when it came to biology, chemistry last year, it was really cool to see that they were actually Jewish. A lot of people know that, yes, Albert Einstein [was] Jewish, but it also turned out Niels Bohr and Rosalind Franklin were also Jewish, which really shocked me because typically when you research them, that’s not the first thing that pops up. It’s what they did. So Rosalind Franklin, for her it’s X-ray, and for Bohr, it’s the Bohr model of the atom.


Do you see yourself going back to Israel?

I mean, probably on birthright. Luckily that’s still an option as long as it’s before your 26th birthday. The trip was definitely something that if I had the chance to do again, I would, because it was very special.


What would you tell other kids your age about Get Connected?

It really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You get one chance, so I’d say do it. Just go; you’ll have fun. I promise. It’s not going to be a trip that you’re going to forget in a month.


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