the family stands together smiling, next to a large stone relief of a menorah
Andrea Sobel with her husband Jim and daughter Tovia next to a menorah in the Cave of the Coffins in Beit She'arim

A familiar face in an ancient cave

I went to Israel and found my daughter in a cave. It’s not every day that someone gets to say that.

Last week, as part of the Parents’ Pilgrimage, we visited our 15-year-old daughter, who is spending the semester studying in Israel on the URJ Heller High (formerly NFTY-EIE), a high school semester abroad program sponsored by the U.S. Reform movement.

One day, parents joined students on a tiyul (field trip) to visit Beit She’arim National Park, Gan HaShlosha National Park and the Bet Alfa Synagogue. Rather than staying at the kibbutz where the students now live, we stayed the night with family in Haifa, and caught up to the group at Beit She’arim in northern Israel.

a picturesque lake ringed with trees and hills
A natural warm water poor at Gan HaShlosha National Park in Israel (Photo/Wikimedia-Zairon CC BY-SA 4.0)

We arrived just after students and parents embarked on their exploration of the ancient burial caves at Beit She’arim. We walked by each cave opening until I heard the familiar voice of their teacher, the same Jewish history teacher our two older daughters had while participating in Heller High.

We bent down and made our way through the cave to find her class. I saw my daughter sitting on the ground taking notes and I sat down beside her. I whispered into her ear: “It’s crazy, I just found you in a cave in Israel!”

After exploring the caves where Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, a top religious and political leader and the compiler of the Mishnah (oral law) was buried, we went to Gan HaShlosha National Park in the Lower Galilee. There we swam in the deep-blue, spring-fed pools and had a “fish pedicure” as the fish nibbled on our feet.

Our final stop for the day was near Beit She’an, located on the northern slopes of the Gilboa mountains. There we visited Bet Alfa, a sixth-century synagogue with an incredible mosaic floor. The history of this zodiac mosaic floor is a whole other story.

In just one day we saw the most minuscule fraction of the many magnificent wonders of ancient Israel. Jews have fought so hard — and continue to fight — to have the right to live in their ancestral homeland; I can see why.

We’re blessed and fortunate to have given our daughters the amazing opportunity of experiential learning and touring Israel for four months. The 11-hour school days are intensive with three hours of Jewish history — after all, they need to cover 4,000 years — and two hours of Hebrew before starting their general studies courses. It’s truly experiential learning; after they learn about a historical event, they travel to that site to experience it firsthand.

Long school days also allow them to take longer tiyuls. Among the vast adventures are their week of being a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, including shooting a rifle; visiting a concentration camp and nearby community in Poland where they experience the contrast of death during the Holocaust and the rebirth of a Polish Jewish community; and their yam l’yam (sea to sea — Galilee to Mediterranean) 40-mile hike across the state of Israel, eating matzah all the way, since it’s during Passover.

As we prepare for Passover next month, I think about Passover last year when we knew our daughter would be studying in Israel the following year — and when she said, “Next year in Jerusalem,” she meant it.

Andrea Sobel
Andrea Sobel

Andrea Sobel lives in Burlingame, where she is a member of Peninsula Temple Sholom.