Waking up at 4 a.m. was tough for Eitan Kleinman. The sky was still dark, and at first, his 14-year-old body wanted to continue sleeping. But once he realized that he was rising to take an early morning hike up Masada, he was raring to go.
After reaching the top, Kleinman and 33 other members of his eighth-grade class from Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley admired the stunning, mountainous views from the historic site.
"We prayed at sunrise," said the teen. "That was great. That's sticking with me."
Kleinman's trip was part of Abrams' annual eighth-grade class trip to Israel. During a two-week stay in May, the group received their diplomas at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, rode camels and floated in the Dead Sea.
"They got to enjoy their religion, and they got to enjoy the fun aspects of Israel," said Dr. Sherri Klemow-Shevlin, president of the board of directors at Abrams.
Initially, a few children and parents admitted to being concerned about safety because of the region's recent spate of terrorist attacks - which has indeed proven so intense that the trip was canceled in 2003 - but once the group landed, those fears seemed to dissipate.
"I thought I'd be freaking out because of terrorists, but I really wasn't scared at all," said Sarah Carlson, 14.
The People Connection
Abrams was not the only Philadelphia area school to send young people to Israel. The Robert Saligman Middle School of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School in Melrose Park sent all 42 graduating eighth-graders to the Jewish state. The school's aim was to build connections between their students and Israelis.
The kids spent two days with children from the Re'ut school, a pluralistic religious school in Jerusalem. The students bonded so much that the Philly contingent met their counterparts three other times during the trip.
"The people connection is critical," said Jay Leberman, Saligman's head of school.
The teachers at Saligman also arranged a dinner with 45 Israel Defense Force soldiers at a restaurant in Tiberias, up in the north.
The kids brought the soldiers hats and T-shirts from Philadelphia sports teams, and afterward, the soldiers and students exchanged e-mail addresses so that they could keep in contact in the future.
"It was really nice being with them and talking with them," said Rebecca Carpey, 14.
The Saligman group also spent a night in a Bedouin tent, and found their hosts to be extremely hospitable to Americans.
"This is a part of Israel not a lot of people get to see," said Carpey. "It's nice to see how they live."
Much like the students from Abrams, the Saligman kids did not feel as if they were at risk while visiting Israel.
"I didn't feel at all like there was danger," said Carpey.
And the shared hope at both schools was to create interest in visiting Israel again.
Said Leberman: "The trip is intended not to be a culminating experience, but to whet their appetite to go in the future."