Yaakov Katz, an 11th -grader at Yeshiva Boys High School, had an idea.
“I said, ‘Why can’t we go to Israel?’ ”Katz recalled.
Prior to graduation, students of the high school had historically embarked upon some sort of excursion. Although previous classes had traveled nearby, Katz maintained that he and his seven classmates wished to go abroad.
Katz began investigating the matter. He spoke with several members of the Pittsburgh Jewish community. His classmates researched travel costs. Collectively, the group approached the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh with a request for assistance.
Upon review, the Federation considered the length of the trip and nature of the travelers. Ultimately, four $1,000 grants were provided.
“The Federation was pleased to offer this support,” said Sue Linzer, the Federation’s associate director of planning and director of overseas operations.
After receiving the Federation grants and other outside funding, the students began planning.
In late January, they developed an itinerary. The students wished to see Israel’s holy sites, sample what learning was like in some of its yeshivas and experience its culture. And for nearly 10 days in May, the students did just that.
They prayed at the Western Wall and the cave in Hebron, where tradition says the biblical patriarchs are buried. They visited the City of David complex in Jerusalem’s Old City and the excavations outside the southern end of the Temple Mount. They studied at Chabad yeshivas in Safed, Tel Aviv, Hebron and Holon, swam in the Dead Sea and hiked in Tel Dan National Park, Ein Gedi, Masada and the lower Galilee. And throughout each experience, the students maintained a strict diet.
“We ate shawarma for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Katz said.
“It kept it at a low cost,” explained Rabbi Yisroel Altein of Yeshiva Boys High School.
Beyond routinely eating shawarma, the students also followed another practice. At every stop along their way, they studied a piece of Chasidic literature. This educational decision facilitated learning in diverse locations.
The students studied on the bus from Pittsburgh to New York, at the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s resting place in Cambria Heights, N.Y., and between flights while waiting at the Istanbul Ataturk Airport.
In Istanbul, the students also donned tefillin during morning prayers and explained the function of the traditional phylacteries to onlookers.
Reflecting on the trip, student Baruch Bar-Nir, an 11th-grader at Yeshiva, said, “We visited a lot of holy places and saw the Jewish people. It was very inspiring.”
Ari Rafkin and Yissachar Shollar said that the trip was something that they will never forget.
While the memories remain, several weeks have passed since the students returned to Pittsburgh. The settings are familiar, and the taste of shawarma has dissipated. However, Yitzchak Lutsky claimed that there is still something left to enjoy:
“It is great being as a class together and going somewhere with friends.”
(Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)