In semester program, teens bond with Israel and each other

Reuben Grossman sums up his four months living in Israel with that one perfect moment under the stars.

The 17-year-old and his co-participants in a high school program in Israel had spent the day in a Bedouin community in the Negev, learning about desert Arab culture. After sunset, the teens spread out on the sand. A hot breeze blew. Someone played a guitar.

“This was a moment of such amazement,” Grossman recalled, “sitting with my friends in Israel, the land every Jew wants to be in. It was so peaceful and amazing being in nature, but also the real world.”

The Burlingame High School senior is back home after a semester abroad. He and 13 other Bay Area teens who took part in the NFTY-EIE High School in Israel program say they will never forget the experience or the friends they made.

Launched in 1961 by the National Federation of Temple Youth, the Eisendrath Inter­national Experience is the Reform movement’s flagship Israel trip for high school students. The program, which holds three sessions a year, is named for the late Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, a longtime leader of what is today the Union for Reform Judaism.


High school students from the Bay Area who recently spent a semester in Israel photo/urj

Seventy-three Jewish high school students from across the United States took part in the 2015 spring semester program. Living on a kibbutz near Jerusalem, they spent most days taking classes such as math and science, along with Jewish history and intensive Hebrew. They also got out and about, with extended trips to Tel Aviv, the northern Galilee region and south to the Negev, as well as five days in Poland visiting concentration camps.


The goal of the program is to strengthen participants’ connections to Israel and have fun while doing it. By all accounts, the Bay Area teens were not disappointed.

“It’s the most beautiful country I’ve ever been to,” said Rudy Brandt of Berkeley. “Up north is the snow, then down south snorkeling. There is every kind of beauty in nature and civilization. Israel is this pocket of what is most beautiful about the world. We saw it all, and I felt so lucky.”

Brandt, the 17-year-old daughter of Jewish Federation of the East Bay CEO Rabbi James Brandt, had spent many summers at URJ-Camp Newman and has been active with NFTY. But she had never been to Israel before.

She said that when she first heard about NFTY-EIE, she wasn’t open to interrupting her normal life for four months, but after hearing more she decided she had to do it.

Israel “had always been this foreign concept,” she said.  Signing up for the program was “a leap of faith, and I’m grateful that something inside me made me click that button.”

Grossman, who lives in San Mateo, said the program’s classes were excellent, especially the one on Jewish history. He said field trips made that history come alive, and cited as an example one the group took after studying the Bar Kochba Revolt. The students traveled to Betar, site of the fortress where Jewish rebels made their last stand against the Romans, succumbing to defeat in 135 C.E. Similarly, after reading about the Canaanites, the students visited Tel Gezer to explore the ruins of the Canaanite city-state.

“I feel I learned 4,000 years of Jewish history while I was there,” Grossman said. “It helps you become such a better advocate for Israel and your people.”

The students also climbed Masada, swam in the waters off Eilat, celebrated Passover with host families, hiked from the Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean and spent a week on an army base getting a taste of boot camp.

Jonah Arquilevich said that week as a mock soldier will stand out in his memory, mostly because of one overeager moment.

The 17-year-old senior at Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo, along with other EIE students, was ordered by the IDF trainer to make a 10-second dash. At the command zuzu, Hebrew for “go,” Arquilevich and a friend tore out, racing 50 yards beyond the finish line. “We forgot about the timer and kept running,” he remembered with a laugh.

The San Anselmo teen added that through the experience, he “gained a lot of respect for people in the army. I got a glimpse of how hard the army can be and what you have to put into it to defend this country. It boosted my level of respect and love for Israel.”

Beyond forging bonds with the Jewish state, the students bonded with each other as well. “I can now say some of my best friends live across the country,” Arquilevich said. “You can’t help but bond and feel a connection at the end of this.”

Added Brandt, “We’ll always love each other. I’ve connected with every single person on this trip.” 

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.