Teenage girls and boys frantically hugged one another and exchanged high-fives while their parents wiped away an occasional tear as a group of high-schoolers returned home last week after a nearly six-month stay in Israel.
Yosef Razin – a bushy-haired 16-year-old and one of the 51 members of Akiba Hebrew Academy's junior class to travel to the Jewish state – was excited that he could study history right where it happened.
"It's not just history where it took place, because I can go to the Liberty Bell here if I was talking about independence. But it's where our personal history took place, our people's – you can't describe the feeling of pride."
During their trip, the students spent five days a week studying Jewish history and going through a core curriculum, and two days a week traveling to destinations within the country that were featured in their coursework. They also spent a week in a training program with the Israeli army, as well as two weeks living with Israeli families near Tel Aviv.
And when studying the Holocaust, the group traveled to Eastern Europe, stopping in Prague and Warsaw, and seeing firsthand the Auschwitz concentration camp near Krakow, Poland.
'Amazing Bonding Experience'
"We were in the army, we climbed mountains, we all got to know each other better as a grade," said Rachel Kaplan, 16. "It was an amazing bonding experience."
Joshua Mellits, 16, noted that you can learn plenty about Judaism from a textbook, but going to the real-life country of Israel opened his eyes to so much more.
"I've been fortunate enough to have Jewish education my entire life," he said. "Until you actually go to Israel and see things for yourself, you can have a head for Judaism. But I feel like I developed a heart and a soul for it, too."
Mellits' mother, Barbra, said she had not been excited to be away from her son from September to January, but realized that it was important for him to spread his wings.
"I was already dreading college, let alone parting with him earlier than I have to for that long a period," she said. "I see that it helped him to grow in confidence, in his own capabilities and independence."
Ivy Kaplan, Rachel Kaplan's mother and a teacher at Akiba, was excited that her daughter was able to immerse herself in Israeli culture.
"I've seen the kids that come home in the past years, and they just grow tremendously," she reported. "I'm really glad that Rachel went on the trip because I knew it would be a fabulous experience for her."
Beverly Rosen, Akiba's director of marketing and public relations, stressed that although it's difficult for parents, the trip is terrific for students.
"There's a Jewish saying, 'You give your children roots and wings,' " said Rosen. "They have strong roots at home and at Akiba, and these are part of the wings to have them fly into a larger Jewish world."
Lauren Carel, 16, said that she'd especially remember the changing climates Israel offers: "You can be in the snowy mountains in the morning, and then, in the afternoon be swimming in the Dead Sea."
Echoing the sentiments of her peers, she added: "I'm looking forward to going back as soon as possible."