By Sydney Weiss
Sydney Weiss is a junior at Sycamore High School in Cincinnati. She traveled to Israel last summer using a Cincy Journeys high school Israel travel grant and spent four weeks on BBYO’s Central Europe and Israel Journey.
I have wanted to travel to Israel since before I can remember. Being the youngest of three, I watched my two older siblings leave for Israel as teenagers and come back mature and spiritual young adults. I couldn’t wait to visit the famous Dead Sea and Ben Yehuda Street myself. Whenever we would discuss Israel in Sunday school, my eyes would be glued to the slideshow presentations of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and our partnership city, Netanya. Each year, I was delighted to hear from Cincinnati’s two Chaverim M’Israel, who spoke about their home. I have always felt a natural connection to the place I longed to visit, and this past summer, I had my first opportunity to go.
In Cincinnati, traveling to Israel is a Jewish teen’s rite of passage. Cincinnati offers an incredible $11,500 in grant money for two separate Israel trips, one in high school and another as a young adult. The vast majority of Jewish teens I know seize the opportunity and travel to Israel the summer before their junior year. It practically has a place in the Jewish life cycle: baby naming ceremony, consecration, bar/bat mitzvah, confirmation, Israel travel, wedding, and funeral. I always knew I would visit Israel when I was sixteen.
This summer I took a 30-day trip to Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Israel with 25 other high school students. From Auschwitz to Yad Vashem, from the Masada to the Golan Heights, from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, it was the trip of a lifetime.
I got to experience the full spectrum of Jewish life and history. We started in Central Europe and visited sites of the Holocaust, including Auschwitz. While some sites looked like they were created from the pictures in my history textbook, others were quite different than how I imagined them. I recognized the gate, which ironically says, “Work will set you free.” The barracks were dark, cramped, and since it was summer, hot.
I knew that it would be a moving experience before I arrived, but there is something so raw and emotional about visiting sites of the Holocaust that you have heard about in books and movies in school. It may sound strange, but I remember feeling so incredibly thankful that I got to visit these places as a tourist. I’m thankful that after a few hours at Auschwitz, I got to return to air conditioning and eat nourishing food. It has been said again and again, but we must remember that if it has happened before, it can happen again. I’m proud to be a member of the last generation to meet holocaust survivors. I’m proud to tell their stories in the years to come.
From Europe, we traveled to Israel, where we experienced life in the vibrant, modern Jewish state. At the Western Wall, as is customary, I put a prayer note into one of the crevices of the wall. I had written it the night before, about things I am grateful for and my prayers for the future.
I spent a day at the beach in Netanya and shopped at markets in Tel Aviv. I visited Independence Hall. I explored graffiti art in Prague and Tel Aviv. I went banana boating in the Red Sea. I experienced the unmatched views of Marat Kosher, the Masada, and the Negev. I rode a camel, white water rafted, and swam in the Dead Sea. I bought jewelry—everywhere we went.
After visiting Israel, I feel comfortable saying that I now have two homes. Whenever I complete something that I have anticipated for a long time, my dad always asks, “Was it everything you thought it would be and much, much more?” My trip was not at all what I thought it would be, but it was much, much more. I’m returning to Cincinnati with lifelong friends, tons of jewelry, and an infinite number of memories.
Cincy Journeys is funded by The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati and administered by the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati. For more information about how to apply for a Cincy Journeys Israel travel grant, contact Cincy Journeys at firstname.lastname@example.org.