Daniel Weinblatt was homesick.
"The first few weeks felt like a year," he lamented. "It took so long to get used to the program and everyone there, and I felt very homesick. But after those first few weeks, the program flew by."
Weinblatt was part of this year's junior class from Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy (formerly Akiba Hebrew Academy) who spent a semester studying at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel.
It was Weinblatt's first trip to the Jewish state, and he admitted to being surprised when he got off the plane to see how much it all seemed to look like America at first, though he said that the Hebrew billboards and bumper stickers really stuck out.
The school's campus is located in Hoda Sharon, just outside Tel Aviv, and when they're not living in the dorms or studying on campus, the students move around a lot, touring different parts of Israel and spending two weeks living with a host family.
The students visit all the major sites throughout Israel, including Masada and the Western Wall, which Weinblatt said was far different from what he imagined.
"I came away thinking that the important thing isn't the wall; it's the people that were praying there," he said. "It's amazing for all these Jews that are here to see all these people. I'd never seen that many Jews in one place."
Even though he has relatives in Israel, the experience of living with a host family was particularly memorable for Sam Sittenfield. He stayed with his host family for a weekend during Chanukah and spoke of making latkes as a particularly special moment of his visit.
"We don't even make latkes at home, so that added a whole new dimension to life with my second family," he said.
Several students also cited the eye-opening experience of visiting Arab villages in Israel.
Leah Apple said that, regardless of political ideology, many Barrack students were extremely pro-Israel and tended not to think about the other side.
"When we visited the Arab Israeli villages, we saw how poor some of their lives are," she recounted. "The roads are unpaved, it's disorganized, and they feel they can't be part of the society, even though they're Israeli."
David Carel was also struck by the experience, saying that the tour altered his perspective, and forced him to examine Arab Israelis' status as citizens and the distribution of resources within Israel.
New on the Agenda
A relatively new addition to Barrack's Israel program includes a 10-day trip from Israel to Eastern Europe, first to Prague, then to Krakow and Warsaw.
The time in Prague gives the students "a precursor to how this wonderful civilization — culturally, religiously, architecturally — was destroyed by the Nazis," explained Rabbi Philip Field, head of school at Barrack.
"It sets the foundation for a firmer understanding of what's to come down the road," he added, when the group moves on to Poland and studies the Holocaust firsthand, including visits to concentration camps and deportation sites.
"When you get there, they're so huge and preserved that it seemed like they could be up and running in a day," said Shasha Borowsky, another first-timer abroad.
Weinblatt added that the structure of the Prague and Poland trip showed how much culture and history had been destroyed by the Nazis, and was an effective way of teaching students that crucial part of Jewish history.
Field noted that the school had sent more than 1,000 students to Israel over the past 25 years, and that the five-month trip is almost always a life-changing experience for the majority of them.
"You can't experience the emotion the way you can when you go there," noted Sittenfield. "It touches you in a way a textbook can't."
Field added that, somehow or other, Israel always manages to perform its magic on the students, despite the day-to-day reality of living in the state, which can sometimes be trying, bureaucratic and even downright difficult.
"There's a mystical and a magical quality to Israel," said Field. "It's important for every Jew to experience that."