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Chicago Teens Get a "Taste of Israel"

Chicago teens harvest crops for the needy on a recent trip to Israel.

Chicago teens harvest crops for the needy on a recent trip to Israel.

Harvesting crops for the needy, digging for archaeological treasures and singing karaoke with Israeli peers were just a small part of one day for 118 Chicago 8th graders who recently traveled to Israel on Ta’am Yisrael ( “A Taste of Israel”), a week-long program run by the Community Foundation for Jewish Education (CFJE) and funded by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

Ta’am Yisrael is a unique peer experience, enabling 14-year olds to make a connection with Israel and the Jewish community at large. Sid Singer, Acting Executive Director of CFJE and a Ta’am Yisrael program leader, noted that the program was created to address what is known as the “bar/bat mitzvah drop off problem,” in which teens “lose interest in Jewish life when they are just reaching the age where they can make a difference.”

In addition to climbing Masada and floating in the Dead Sea, the program highlighted themes of community and history. The group spent one morning visiting terminally ill children at Schneider Children’s Hospital, bringing them stuffed animals they brought with them from Chicago. Stephanie Birnbaum of Northbrook recalled, “Just seeing the joy that we brought to the children was incredible.”

To gain a better understanding of the sacrifices many people made to help establish the State of Israel, the teens heard eyewitness accounts from a Holocaust survivor at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum, as well as visited ammunition factories, battle sites and memorials of Israel’s past leaders.
“The trip taught me so much about myself and how capable we are,” commented Barrett Winston of Buffalo Grove. Hope Cohen, from Deerfield, added, “Learning about what Israel went through to become a state showed me that you have to work hard to get what you want.”

The Ta’am participants, ranging throughout Chicago from Orland Park to Highland Park, also were able to pray at the Western Wall and explore the ancient ruins of Jerusalem. Molly Fortnow of Highland Park noted, “Driving to Jerusalem and going through the underground tunnels beneath the Old City was amazing. There was so much beauty and connection to our history.”

“I saw Israel as a modern place, as a homeland and as a community,” summarized Lorne Miller of Glencoe.

The program, which began in 1998, is already preparing for its 15th trip to Israel. "We're excited to have completed a successful 2012 trip and we're moving right ahead with the 2013 trip. Our goal for next year is to take 200 kids," Singer said.

For more information about Ta'am Yisrael, visit www.taamyisrael.org.

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