Last summer, Lauren Kondrad worked for something other than a bit of extra pocket money. She wanted something that meant far more to her: a trip to Israel.
"Ever since kindergarten, I've wanted to go and experience it for myself," said Kondrad, a 10th-grader from Mount Laurel, N.J. "When an opportunity came up, I worked my butt off all summer to pay for it."
This Chanukah, all her hard work came to fruition when she and 17 other teens from Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel traveled to the Jewish state as part of the Reform synagogue's first trip for confirmation students.
"We were very, very excited about having this. It's not the first trip to Israel we've sponsored, but this is the first time that we did a confirmation trip," said Errol Schlessinger, director of the religious school.
Over 12 days, the group traveled throughout the nation – to Tel Aviv, the Galilee, Haifa, Tiberias, Jerusalem and the Negev. They even had the chance to stay on a Reform kibbutz, and celebrate New Year's Eve there.
"At first, I didn't want to go because I didn't think at my age I'd get the same experience out of it, but my parents really wanted me to go, and it meant a lot to them," said Elyse Cohen, 16, of Marlton, N.J. "As we got further along in the trip, I realized that it wasn't all about the big tourist spots. It was about staying with and connecting to the people. We got a little taste of everything."
Though the kids really liked meeting Jews halfway across the world, for some, like Max Hans, Israel's main attractions of Israel reverberated the most.
"I had so many favorite parts, but seeing the Western Wall really made me feel a lot of emotions that I never knew before," said Hans, 15, also from Marlton. "I didn't expect to feel the presence that I felt when I was there. It felt like being home."
According to Schlessinger, plans for the trip, which left on Dec. 22 and ended Jan. 2, have been in the works since 2004, and confirmation students from the classes of 2005, 2006 and 2007 – or 70 potential travelers – were invited to be a part of it.
Though the temple has been in existence since 1959 – first as Temple Emanu-El in Willingboro, N.J., and now at its current location – the synagogue hadn't planned a trip like this for its youth, partly because of safety concerns.
"Next year, I want to go back with the synagogue, which does a trip every year," said 17-year-old David Ellner, a resident of Cherry Hill, N.J. "I feel like I was awakened to something. There is more to life than just waking up, going to school, doing homework, eating dinner, talking on the phone and going to sleep. In Israel, people put their lives on the line every day to protect what they fought so hard to get."
Rabbi Andrew Bossov, leader of the congregation, and teacher Suzi Freedman chaperoned the nine boys and nine girls, who also had the opportunity to dedicate a grove of 1,000 trees the synagogue planted last year in honor of the temple's recently retired Rabbi Richard Levine.