As I try to absorb the horror of the war between Israel and Hamas, it is amazing to look back and realize I spent my summer in Israel just a few short months ago.
My name is Claire Eisenstadt, and I am a senior at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, Il. When I was born, my grandmother made me a life member of Hadassah, so attending Young Judaea summer camps and programs always seemed to be in the cards for me. From Young Judaea’s CYJ Midwest to Camp Tel Yehudah, then most recently to the 2023 Young Judaea Gesher Israel Program, all my summers have strengthened my Jewish identity and set me on my current path.
To say my time on the Gesher program was amazing would be an understatement and it was only made possible by the generosity of Hadassah and the 2023 Leaders of Tomorrow Scholarship, which I learned about from my parents. My mother is a Hadassah member and my father is a Hadassah Associate.
While this was not my first trip to Israel, it was my first time being there knowing the language. I felt as if I was returning home. From the moment I landed to my last hug goodbye three weeks later, I made the most of this once-in-a-lifetime experience. The programming, touring and free time gave me a chance to explore Israel and gain a well-rounded perspective on the country.
One especially impactful experience for me was meeting with Arab students at their high school. As a diaspora Jew visiting an Arab school, I initially felt out of place. But after talking with these teens in small groups, I felt more connected to them. The wall that traditionally stood between Arabs and Jews disappeared. As we talked, we found similarities. Now we follow each other online.
I know that the purpose of the high school visit was not to solve the Middle East conflict, but rather to forge new relationships that break stereotypes. My takeaway was that change starts with building relationships. I left that program with two new friends.
Because the Gesher program provided time for interactions like that, it ensured that all of us would understand the significance of making peace through friendship. Our understanding will spread to others as we encounter similar opportunities in the future.
Another outstanding experience I had was visiting Jerusalem again. I felt the force of Zionism while standing in the shadow of the Kotel (The Western Wall). With every step I took, I knew my ancestors had been there before, which gave me a sense of comfort and home.
Every day, the Kotel plaza is filled with locals and tourists, the religious and secular, Jews and non-Jews. Seeing the Wall with my own eyes and placing my hands on it was surreal. Being able to touch the Wall ignited a spark that made me realize the Kotel’s magnitude and my role in Jewish society. I could feel the spiritual weight and prayers of others who have come before me. Though Jews worldwide speak different languages and live in different countries, everyone looks to Jerusalem when they pray.
Later on during the trip, we attended a concert where I met people from other Israel summer programs. For some of the participants, it was their first time in Israel and they were spiritually elevated by this new connection to their Jewish identity. After seeing so many teens excited to be in Israel and connecting with our homeland, I believe that the future of the Jewish people is bright.
Though Israel is small, it is a powerful place where people from around the world often come in search of meaning. For me, Israel has a significant place in my heart. It will always be my second home.
I hope with all my heart for peace.