Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn
Beth El's Achshav Teens Travel to Israel for Capstone Experience
Everyday, hundreds of flights touchdown at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport, carrying thousands of Jews from around the world who conclude their journeys to Israel in the same way: a rousing round of applause and cheers. This month, 14 high-school students from the Berman-Lipavsky Religious School will experience this right-of-passage, many for the first time.
Such is the case for Jessica Millman,15, and Ben Suffel,15, who like the rest of their cohort participated in the Achshav program for the last three years.
“Achshav has been a positive experience,” said Jessica Millman. “I’ve always wanted to visit Israel, but Beth El made it possible.”
“The whole group feels so connected after studying and preparing together for so long,” said Ben Suffel, whose twin-brother Logan also participated in Achshav.
Achshav is a three-year leadership development program, offered by the Beth El and Chizuk Amuno Congregations. Through hands-on learning, social programming, and a capstone 10-day mission to Israel - made possible by the generosity of The Crane Foundation, The Center For Jewish Education, and Mr. John Davison - students explored the concept of Jewish leadership, examining what a strong leader is and how to become one.
“This is a time in our students’ lives where they are starting to shape their identity, opinions, and beliefs,” said Amy Goldberg, Religious School Director. “Participating in Achshav and visiting Israel gives our students the opportunity to develop their Jewish identity during these formative years.”
The goal of Achshav is to help young Jews find their place in Jewish history, embrace their role in the Jewish community, appreciate Jewish culture, form opinions on Jewish politics, and forge their Jewish identities. The Achshav students will enjoy a holistic experience, traveling to Israel not only to visit the Kotel and the ruins of ancient synagogues but also the stalls of Ben Yehuda Market, the beaches of Tel Aviv, and trendy shops and cafés. They students will meet Jews from all backgrounds including those engaged in Torah study, as well as Jewish builders, diamond cutters, farmers, and software tycoons.
“No curriculum or school in the world can teach what a physical visit to Israel can accomplish,” said Dr. Eyal Bor, Beth El’s Director of Education. “Becoming an eye-witness to Jewish history and contemporary Israeli culture will bond these students together and strengthen their identity as Jewish leaders.”
Over three years of rigorous study, the class learned about Jewish leaders, as well as the history, politics, and culture of Israel. In preparation for their trip, the Achshav students each researched an aspect of Israeli life.
Jessica Millman taught her classmates how Israelis observe Shabbat, and Ben Suffel explored the partnership between the sister cities of Baltimore and Ashkelon. Not only did these learning opportunities help the students refine their leadership skills, they also rooted the Israel trip in the greater context of a global Jewish community.
“It’s never been more important for our kids to be grounded in the Jewish community,” said Jessica’s mother, Jennifer Millman. “Jess is having an exceptional Jewish experience, rooted in positive Jewish values, that connects her to our Beth El community and Jews around the world.”
Throughout the Achshav program, students interacted with Israeli emissaries known as a “shinshinim,” who shared their ruach Yisraelit (Israeli spirit). The students also worked with Idan Zrihen, an Israel Shaliach brought to Baltimore by the Baltimore Zionist District.
“Idan taught the students conversational phrases in Hebrew, gave them tips for bargaining at the shuk (market), and told them where and what to eat,” said Mrs. Goldberg.
Absorbing the experiences of native Israelis is an integral part of shaping a young person’s Jewish identity.
“Many Achshav students attend high-schools where they might be the only Jewish person,” said Dr. Bor. “They aren’t immersed in a Jewish community, so they’re blown away to be in Israel, a completely Jewish space from start to finish.”
For parents, having their children become active members of the Jewish community is an invaluable outcome of the Achshav program.
“Israel is an extraordinary place that leaves you feeling differently about yourself as a Jew, your Jewish community, and Judaism itself,” said Ben’s mom, Jill Suffel.
Jennifer Millman agreed. “I want Jessica to feel that Israel - just like Baltimore, Beth El, and Judaism - provides a sense comfort and belonging,” she said.
Jessica, a student at Pikesville High School, and Ben, who attends Franklin High School, recognize their trip to the Jewish homeland is a privilege.
“Having learned about Israel and getting to visit there, we have a responsibility to mentor younger Jews or anyone who is curious, about the country and its achievements,” said Ben Suffel. “It’s important to portray Israel the right way.”
Upon their return, the Achshav students will share menus from Israeli restaurants with the Religious School’s Kitah Bet (Second Grade), help Kitah Dalet (Fourth Grade) with their Israel studies, and support Kitah Hay (Fifth Grade) as they participate in Shevet Achim, a three-year cultural exchange program with Israeli students in Ashkelon.
Achshav students are expected to maintain their commitment and relationship to Israel. In the past, Achshav alumni have become Diller Fellows, a prestigious Israel program for rising high-school students offered by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
Ben Suffel welcomes that challenge. “Once we spend time in Israel, and experience all the positive aspects of the country, we’ll bring back those experiences and share our excitement for everything Israel has to offer.”
Jessica Millman agreed. “We’ll know more about Israeli culture having experienced it for ourselves,” she said. “We’ll be more connected to Judaism, Israel, and our Jewish community because of this trip.”