From 6,000 miles away, family and friends watched online and via video-conferencing as Daniel Krupka graduated from eighth grade in front of the Western Wall.
"It was the perfect place to graduate after nine years of being at a Jewish day school and learning about Israel," said the recent Abrams Hebrew Academy student.
Krupka, along with 28 others, made up this year's contingent of Abrams eighth-graders who visited Israel for two weeks as the culmination of their Jewish day-school experience.
This year's trip was Abrams' 10th, and while previous groups had held graduation ceremonies near the wall, this was the first to be up close and personal.
The ceremony was led by school director Rabbi Ira Budow, and included Abrams alumni and, for Krupka, Israeli family members, including aunts and uncles who live near Haifa.
"It was the peak of what I've been doing" at Abrams, he said, adding that he'd been waiting for this all nine years at the school.
Parents do not typically attend the trip, Budow said, though some parents plan their own visits around the time when the students will be there.
That lack of parental supervision was no problem for one Abrams student.
"Parents are boring," stated Gracie Milstein, adding that the trip was probably a better experience without mom and dad tagging along, giving the young people a chance to learn in Israel among friends.
The students saw major Jewish heritage sights like Masada and the wall, and spent their two Israeli Shabbatot in Jerusalem and Tzfat. They also got the singular experience of dedicating Torahs at a pair of army bases.
But it was by no means all work and no play: The students also had more casual adventures, including a night cruise on Lake Kinneret on a "disco boat" — a highlight of the trip for Milstein, who said that she enjoyed the opportunity to dance to Israeli hip-hop and pop music. Other outings included a Jeep ride through the Golan and a number of hikes.
Betsy Morgan, an avid hiker, cited one particular trek with "lots of rocks and climbing" at Rosh Hanikra, near the Lebanon border.
"There were high cliffs where you could see the Mediterranean Sea," she said. "I'm used to the Atlantic's green ocean, but in Israel, it's blue — it's really nice."
While some students will go on from Abrams to Jewish high schools, others will be attending public school for the first time next year.
"It's nice to know you're moving on in your life at a place so holy and important to Jewish history," said Jessica Rubinstein, on graduating at the Western Wall. "It makes you feel like you want to continue your Jewish education."
Better Than a Postcard
"The only food I could order in Hebrew by myself was falafel, and after four straight nights of that, it wasn't so much fun," lamented Leora Haber.
Haber, an eighth-grader in the Robert Saligman Middle School at the Perelman Jewish Day School, recently returned from two weeks in Israel along with 55 of her classmates. The students, many of whom had never before been to the Jewish homeland, visited many of the same sights as their peers at Abrams, including spending time in Jerusalem at the wall and taking hiking trips, though they also had their own particular experiences, including spending time in the Yemin Orde Youth Village.
"Before we went, I thought it would be mostly desert and I wouldn't feel much of a connection," said J.J. Surkin. "As soon as I got there I knew I was wrong. Even at the airport, I knew I was wrong."
Surkin said that sudden feeling came not so much from anything he saw as from something he felt — an emotion he said lasted the whole trip and beyond.
"It felt like a vacation with friends when we got there, but I realized that it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience — though I hope it's not," he said.
Before going to Jerusalem, the young globetrotters were blindfolded and taken to the famous tayelet that overlooks Jerusalem. Then the blindfolds were removed, and they saw the city for the first time.
"It's the most incredible view I've ever seen," said Haber. "It's like looking at a postcard, but I was actually there, and you could see more than just the little bit you get in a postcard."
The students also got to experience two of Israel's biggest holidays, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut — Israel's memorial and independence days, which follow one after the other.
"Memorial Day in America is all about sales and barbecue and being with friends," said Haber, pointing out how different Israel's solemn day felt.
She and her peers spent time with families of fallen Israeli soldiers before driving to Jerusalem for Yom Ha'atzmaut. The abrupt shift from solemnity to jubilant celebration was unforgettable for Haber.
"It was amazing," she said. "We were singing and dancing with complete strangers, and music was coming from everywhere. It was incredible."
One of the most memorable experiences, students said, was a weekend at the Yemin Orde Youth Village, surrounded by Jews from all over the world, including Ethiopia, Russia, Brazil — and even some Darfurian non-Jews who were granted entry because of their refugee status.
"It was amazing to see so many people from different places who could speak Hebrew, even though it wasn't their original language," said Anya Hutter. "It was something we could all connect around as Jews."
Danielle Wachs noticed other similarities. "The kids daven how I daven with my family," she said. "It's great seeing that, even though they come from Ethiopia and I come from Philadelphia, we daven the same way, and we have the same culture."