Sam Weiss: No more pain: A senior’s struggle for normalcy


SAM WEISS, 17
HIGH SCHOOL: Granada Hills Charter High School
GOING TO: Ohio State

Sam Weiss, 17, was a medical mystery for most of his life.

He suffered from wrenching chest and stomach pains no doctor could properly diagnose. By last December, his condition had worsened to the point where he was physically shaking and frequently losing consciousness.

“I didn’t understand that that wasn’t the norm — that I wasn’t supposed to feel that,” he said in an interview.

Then, about two months ago, he underwent a surgery for a twist in his esophagus and eight ulcers.

As a graduating high school senior, the San Fernando Valley resident is preparing to reinvent himself as a college student living a new reality: a life without pain.

“For the first time ever, I feel good, and it’s amazing,” he said.

He added, “This is my reset button.”

Sam boasts a list of achievements that would be impressive even for a person who didn’t live his first 17 years in chronic pain.

For three years, he dedicated himself to independent study after his illness precluded him from regular enrollment at Granada Hills Charter High School.

As president of United Synagogue Youth’s (USY) for the Far West region, he leads the organization’s activities and conventions in Arizona and California.

He also tutors bar mitzvah students, including special needs students, and plays guitar, ukulele and piano. He also sings.

“Music is like the equivalent of my intermittent Shabbat. … I just sit back and relax and enjoy the sound, and my mind goes blank,” he said, adding that before his surgery, playing music was one of the things that enabled him to mute the pain.

But his career interests lie elsewhere: When he enrolls at the Ohio State University in the fall, he will be studying as a pre-medical student.

“The fact that he wants to be a doctor blows my mind,” Merrill Alpert, USY’s Far West youth director, told the Jewish Journal. “I was sure the kid was going to be a rabbi.”

His passion for the Jewish world notwithstanding (Sam called himself “extremely Jewish”), his decision to seek a medical education stemmed from the figures in his life who have brought him the most relief, as well as the most frustration.

“That was the worst day of my life, when a doctor said, ‘Yeah, this whole pain thing — it’s not going away. This is something that will be there forever,’” he said.

For years, doctors told him his pain was psychosomatic, that it was all in his head. He wasn’t satisfied with that answer. Finally he found a doctor who wasn’t satisfied, either.

After researching his condition on the internet, Sam came across a surgeon named Miguel Burch at Cedars-Sinai, who he thought could help, and convinced his parents that he should have surgery. Sam underwent a 5 1/2-hour operation that involved temporarily removing his stomach from his chest cavity.

Since the operation, he’s lost 30 pounds, works out nearly every day and now runs a 7-minute mile.

Explaining his decision to pursue pre-med in college, he said, “I can be that surgeon that helped me.”

With a pain-free life stretching out in front of him, Sam said his deliverance is “both bothering me and inspiring me,” as he wonders what could have been had he lived his whole life without pain.

“It’s not really fun to think about,” he said. “And yes, I struggled and it made me the person that I am, but who could I have been?”

Luckily, he has the rest of his life to answer that question.

Kelly Gould: From professional acting to social action


KELLY GOULD, 17
HIGH SCHOOL: Home-schooled and College of the Canyons
GOING TO: Undecided

If Kelly Gould looks familiar, there’s a reason. The 17-year-old Santa Clarita resident has already had a successful acting career that would be the envy of many older actors, appearing on sitcoms such as “Rita Rocks” and “Jessie.” 

But when Kelly was about 14, she decided to give acting a break. 

“I was getting into high school and starting to get involved in USY [United Synagogue Youth],” she said. “Acting wasn’t what I absolutely loved. It was something I did because I had always done it.” 

She comes from an acting family. Her mother, Valerie Gould, is an acting teacher and both of Kelly’s older siblings acted. Her father, Tom Gould, is an importing consultant.

“I gave it a break and didn’t really miss it very much, so I haven’t gone back,” Kelly said. “Maybe after or during college it might be something I will pursue.”

The truth is, right now, Kelly doesn’t have a lot of extra time in her schedule — she’s busy saving the world. 

“Kelly is super passionate about repairing the world,” said Sarah Hartnig, youth director at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, where Kelly has participated in USY activities for the last year, since switching from the smaller chapter at her family’s synagogue in Santa Clarita, Congregation Beth Shalom. 

“All the programming she does through USY, she is always thinking about the impact this could have on the community and how to maximize the positivity,” Hartnig continued. “She is an amazing kid, very genuine and someone who really loves community service. You feel it.”

Kelly recently headed up the entire social action/tikkun olam portion of a weekend-long event for the Far West USY region. Some 100 teens participated in the gathering at the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, where they assembled care packages for soldiers overseas, and filled and decorated flower pots for local retirement home residents.

And she and her family have been involved with Guide Dogs of America ever since Kelly chose to raise a puppy through the organization for her mitzvah project. 

“Our job is to get it socialized,” she explained. “We teach it basic obedience. My parents took it to work, I would take it to classes — everywhere you can think of. You want as many people to be around it as possible so it gets desensitized.” 

The process was so gratifying that they ended up taking on two more dogs after the first one.

As a youngster, Kelly was home-schooled. But since the age of 15, when she passed the California High School Proficiency Examination, she has taken a full load of classes at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita. “I love the college setting,” she said. “It’s so much more serious than maybe my high school would be.” 

This summer, Kelly will return to Camp Ramah in California in Ojai as an outdoor specialist (leading hikes and helping with the ropes course, among other activities), after serving as a counselor for 12- and 13-year-old girls last summer. 

“I never had the chance to go to Jewish summer camp as a kid,” she said. “So getting to work there was an amazing experience. I just love the community. I still am in contact with all my campers; I got to adopt like 16 little sisters.”

Shortly after camp ends this year, Kelly will leave for Israel and spend a year there through Nativ, a program that aims to create Conservative Jewish leaders. She will begin by taking Hebrew and religion classes at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem; the second half of her stay most likely will be spent volunteering near Haifa at an agricultural youth village for immigrant high school students, she said.

And while Kelly anticipates completing the college application process while in Israel, she’s not sure where she might end up or what she’ll study. “I am kind of playing that by ear,” she said. “I sort of assume I am going to change and what I want is going to change a tremendous amount in the next year.”

One thing that likely won’t change: her commitment to making the world a better place.

Don’t blame the USY’ers – blame the adults


On Monday, the international board of United Synagogue Youth (USY) voted to junk the Conservative teen group’s requirement that its top leaders date only Jews. Instead, the leaders are supposed to “strive” to “model healthy Jewish dating choices” (whatever that means). A number of online reactions have lamented the move as evidence that the Conservative (sic) movement is furthering the decline of American Judaism in the direction of anything-goes.

But don’t blame the USY’ers.

It’s true that USY leadership has full control over its own leadership requirements. In fact, the rule about interdating was instigated in the 1990s by USY’s leadership on its own. But teenagers don’t make decisions in a vacuum. On issues relating to endogamy, the adult leaders of Conservative Judaism don’t always seem to know what they want – and when they do, what they want is not always good-for-the-Jews.

For example, earlier this month, leading Conservative rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz put forth, and then withdrew, a proposal to allow Conservative rabbis to perform interfaith marriages in which the couple agrees to raise the children as Jews (ironic, given that even by Conservative rules, half the children of such unions are not Jews).

Conservative Jews supposedly consider some rabbinic actions – accepting patrilineal descent, converting uncircumcised men – to be so unacceptable that violating those “standards” can result in a rabbi’s expulsion from the movement. One such standard is performing and even attending only in-marriages. But it’s an open secret that some Conservative rabbis do go to interfaith ceremonies. Two of my friends who were ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary have told me they attended intermarriages by friends and family members.

The actions of lay Conservative leaders can be even worse. Though it received virtually no criticism or even attention, a recent international president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Judy Yudof, boasted of her past presidency in an extremely inappropriate forum: the wedding announcement her family submitted to The New York Times three weeks ago regarding the intermarriage of her daughter in a ceremony performed by a minister.

Not coincidentally, in 2003, Yudof was the initiator of a movement-wide reconsideration of traditional Jewish beliefs about homosexuality that led to Conservative Jewish acceptance of gay rabbis and even gay marriages within a decade. If the Torah’s expectations for bedroom and family life can be jettisoned in one area, why not in another?

I’m a past International President of USY. I remember murmurs and grumblings among some of the regional and international teen leadership in the 1980s about how we were expected to observe Shabbat and keep kosher when some of the most prominent adult leaders were flouting Jewish law in public on a regular basis. But the requirement to observe Jewish law as a prerequisite for holding respected leadership roles prompted a spiritual transformation in my life. Even if my initial observance of Shabbat, for example, was mostly driven by ambition for success in USY elections, mitzvot have their own power, and the benefits of USY’s leadership rules are still with me more than 25 years later.

I’m proud of the times when USY’ers have led the way in publicly modeling Jewish observance – despite frequent poor choices by adult Conservative Jews. But for how long can they be expected to do so?

David Benkof constructs the Jerusalem Post Crossword Puzzle, which appears weekly in the Jewish Journal. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter (@DavidBenkof); or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

Outstanding Graduate: Michael Sacks — Leading the way


As a key leader in a number of organizations at Sierra Canyon School in Chatsworth, it’s hard to imagine that Michael Sacks ever felt left out. After all, the 18-year-old senior is student body president, chapter co-founder and co-president of Future Business Leaders of America, team captain of the speech and debate and mock trial clubs, and business director and opinion editor of the school paper, The Trailblazer. 

And yet …

“As an observant Jewish student at a secular school, I often felt as if I was the ‘odd one out’ for keeping kosher, observing Shabbat or missing school on Jewish holidays,” he said. 

The answer for Sacks was United Synagogue Youth (USY), the Jewish youth group associated with the Conservative movement for which he now is international president.

“USY provided me with a community of empowerment, one that truly allowed me to become comfortable with my Judaism and with myself,” said Sacks, a former regional vice president and president and international board member.

As president, he travels to the East Coast a few times per year to help set up conferences and communicate with the organization’s leadership. Sacks also serves as representative of six states in the West, including Hawaii, making sure “all operations on a youth level are continuing on a day-to-day basis.”

His personal initiatives at the organization involve connecting USY alumni with present members. Sacks said he is creating an alumni college database of former USY members to help prospective college students navigate the application process. And for two years, he has worked on USY Speaks, which he said “reaches out to every single congregation that has a USY chapter in the country, urging the congregational leadership to afford a past or present USYer [a chance] to speak about his or her experience in USY.” 

[Next Grad: Sepora Makabeh]

Along with his work at USY, the Calabasas resident attended Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, a Jewish summer camp in New York, where he was a counselor-in-training for children with special needs. 

An accomplished student, Sacks will attend Harvard in the fall. When he’s older, Sacks wants to work for an institution like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. “I always thought those were cool,” he said.

In addition to his keen interest in government, Sacks is passionate about social issues. He is the chapter president of the Human Rights Watch Student Task Force at his school, where he sets up speeches, conducts informational sessions and leads social action campaigns. In 2011, he founded Bridging the Gap, a club that brings in speakers to talk about the Middle East conflict. 

Sacks said his ultimate goal in life involves making an impact on the world that extends far beyond the confines of Southern California. “I realize that I have been blessed with opportunity at every step of the way,” he said, “and I hope to make the best of those opportunities.”

USY rally against guns


On Dec. 25, at its international convention in Boston, United Synagogue Youth (USY), the Conservative movement’s 20,000-member youth group, elected Michael Sacks, a senior at Sierra Canyon School in Chatsworth, as its new international president. 

The next day, Sacks and 30 other USY members from the Far West region joined a crowd of more than 1,000 — most of them teenage members of the youth group — in Boston’s Copley Square for a rally to end gun violence.

“It wasn’t a rally for or against gun control or something like that,” Sacks said. “It was a rally against gun violence, which is not a political issue.”

Among the speakers at the Dec. 26 rally were Colin Goddard, 27, who was shot four times in the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech and now works for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and Pastor Corey Brooks, who leads a nondenominational Christian church in Chicago and spent 130 days in 2012 walking from New York to Los Angeles in an effort to draw attention to the gun violence endemic to inner cities. 

Sacks, 18, is a member of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills and is also president of USY’s Far West region, which includes Southern California, Arizona, Southern Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Hawaii. The first member of the region in 15 years to become USY’s top youth officer, Sacks said he believes Conservative youth are joining the Jewish community in taking a strong stand against gun violence. 

“This is a problem that is affecting our youth,” he said, “and our youth is taking action to make sure it isn’t a problem in the future.”

Calendar Girls Picks and Clicks Nov. 1 – 7: Dry Bones, Striped Pajamas, Homeless Art


SAT | NOVEMBER 1

(PLAY)
Art Shulman has been called “the Neil Simon of the San Fernando Valley.” “Misconceptions,” the newest work from the playwright of “The Rabbi and the Shiksa,” revolves around a series of misunderstandings in a town where things aren’t always what they seem. Produced by J.E.T. Productions-West, “Misconceptions” promises to be serious, humorous and full of unexpected twists. Sat. 8 p.m. $16. Through Nov. 23 (Fri., Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m.). The NoHo Actor’s Studio, 5215 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 309-9439. ” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ hspace = ‘8’ align = ‘left’>them how to create saleable works of mosaic art. “Pieces of Hope” will showcase the organic artwork this community has created from recycled materials, including pottery, serving dishes and small furniture. Proceeds will go to the artists. You’ll also have the opportunity to meet Alpert, Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster and the artists themselves at the opening. Sun. 2-5 p.m. (opening). Free. Through Dec. 1. 9 a.m.-10 p.m. (Mon.-Thu.); 9 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri.-Sun.). Alpert Jewish Community Center, Pauline and Zena Gator Gallery, 3801 E. Willow St., Long Beach. (562) 426-7601, ext. 1421. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.piecebypiece.org.

(BOOKS)
Even as adults, most of us could plead guilty to relishing a favorite children’s book. “Once Upon a World Children’s Book Award Festival” honors a fresh breed of children’s book authors, and this year the Museum of Tolerance’s new Youth Action Lab will recognize Ellie Crowe (“Surfer of the Century: The Life of Duke Kahanamoku”) and Gretchen Woelfle (“Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer”). Gala attendants will also have the opportunity to make a surfboard bookmark, create a campaign button, and listen in on Ina Buckner-Barnette, “The Sunshine Storyteller.” Ah, to be a kid again. Reservations are required for this special event where a sign language interpreter will be on hand to provide assistance. Sun. 1 p.m. Free. The Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 772-7605. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.jewishla.org.

(CONCERT)
Some of the biggest names in Jewish music will take the stage during “Voices From the Heart,” benefiting United Synagogue Youth programs. Debbie Friedman, Moshav, Theodore Bikel and Craig Taubman will rock the afternoon away at a concert honoring Temple Aliyah’s Cantor Mike Stein and Alan Weissman, outgoing president of the Pacific Southwest Region. You already know all the words, so come and sing! Sun. 4:30 p.m. $36 (children), $72 (adults). Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (818) 986-0907. info@yuvalronmusic.com, or click ” target=”_blank”>http://www.jccatmilken.org.

(MITZVAH DAY)
Several synagogues’ young professionals groups — including Stephen S. Wise Temple’s W Group and Sinai Temple’s ATID — will be making a difference on Mitzvah Day by volunteering at Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters’ Camp Max Strauss. Volunteers will participate in an information session and tour of the camp, provide mentorship to children ages 7-12 and launch a special “Guinness World Records” event. This is your chance to pitch in and help, while making friends with like-minded Jews who really care. Sun. 11-3 p.m. Free. Camp Max Strauss, Glendale. Specific directions will be given after registration is confirmed. (310) 889-2230. Register at ” alt=”ALTTEXT” width=”320″ height=”467″ vspace = 8 hspace = 8 align = left />(CARTOONIST)
Brooklyn-born Jerry Kirschen moved to Israel in 1971, changed his name to Yaakov and started drawing the daily cartoon strip “Dry Bones.” Now in its 35th year of publication at the Jerusalem Post, Kirschen (nicknamed — surprise, surprise — “Bones”) will appear in Los Angeles to present his politics and his oft-quoted cartoons at an event hosted by CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America). Mon. 7:30 p.m. $8. Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega, Los Angeles. (310) 652-7353.
” target=”_blank”>http://www.camera.org.

(HEBREW)
Wanna communicate with your Israeli friends in their native tongue? Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles and the Israel Aliyah Center is giving those of us who need help keeping up with our Hebrew-speaking friends some much-needed relief. This comprehensive Hebrew Ulpan class for adults starts soon, so don’t wait to sign up. Mon. 7:30 p.m. (beginning), Wed. (advanced). $300 for 10 classes. Beth Jacob, 9030 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 248-2450 or (310) 892-9821. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.cjs.ucla.edu.

(FASHION SHOW)
Couture and charity go hand in hand at Brandeis National Committee’s Fashion Show and Luncheon. The San Fernando Valley Chapter of the committee will be holding a designer fashion show to help raise money for medical research. The event will bring us one step closer to curing neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease. Mon. 10 a.m. $75. Marriott Hotel, 21850 Oxnard St., Woodland Hills. (818) 347-4786. ” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ hspace = ‘8’ align = ‘left’>interested in supporting the organization. Last year the event was held at the swanky Celadon; this year, guests can enjoy the cool vibes of Bar Lubitsch. Wed. 7 p.m. $20 (or $10 if you bring canned food, toiletries or cereal to donate to JFS’s food and shelter program). Bar Lubitsch, 7702 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. (323) 761-8800, ext. 1220. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.art.ucla.edu.

THU | NOVEMBER 6

(PLAY)
When Eliza Jane Schneider got her hands on a second-hand ambulance, she decided to embark upon a 317,000-mile journey across America for her world arts and cultures senior thesis at UCLA. Schneider has since adapted her research of
” target=”_blank”>http://www.elizaschneider.com

FRI | NOVEMBER 7

(FILM)

” target=”_blank”>http://www.landmarktheatres.com, or click

I found unity, friendship and tzedakah in Anaheim


Imagine walking into a room full of 1,000 Jewish teenagers from all over North America who are singing in unity and celebration of their Jewish heritage.

This was the sight at the 2007 United Synagogue Youth (USY) International Convention. From Dec. 23-27, the Marriott Hotel in Anaheim became the center for teens from all over North American attending an amazing weeklong convention packed with social action projects, Jewish studies and most importantly, a focus on tzedakah.

What made this one of the most unbelievable experiences of my life wasn’t just the location, or even the number of people, but rather the friendships I made and the social action projects that we as a group helped bring to the world.

USY, the youth arm of the Conservative movement, is made up of 17 regions that span the United States and Canada. Every year at the convention, the 17 regions enter the grand ballroom of the hotel in an epic opening ceremony full of ruach (spirit) and regional USY pride. The roar from the crowd was intense, and it was clear that these Jewish teens were ready for what would be the most amazing week of their life. After the USY regional presidents introduced their regions, 2007 USY International President Aaron Jacobs banged the gavel, a roar of excitement swept through the crowd, and the convention began.

Since this year’s theme was tzedakah, we spent much of our time focusing on the many different mitzvah projects that we can do to help the world. Every day, USYers gathered in limmud (class sessions) in which we studied what Judaism said about the many different situations involving the giving of tzedakah. How much should we give? And to whom do we decide to give it? In addition to the discussions, we took part in helping make more than 1,000 tzedakah boxes.

The most extraordinary experience at this year’s International Convention was the walk to raise awareness of the genocide in Darfur. On the morning of Dec. 26, all 1,000 convention delegates walked out of the Marriott Hotel for a three-mile march around the Anaheim Convention center. It was the first time I had participated in any kind of protest to fight for a cause, and, most importantly, it is a cause I feel connected to. Thousands in Darfur have been killed, left homeless and brutally injured. This is a national issue that needs to be addressed and stopped today! As Jews, we have been victims of genocide, and we promised we would never let something such as the killing of the Six Million Jews take place again. Yet a very similar situation is taking place in Darfur. We as a Jewish people need to unite and stand up to the rest of the world to help these victims.

At the end of the march, something amazing happened. Every single USYer started screaming, “One more time!” over and over. Without any warning at all, everyone rushed back outside the hotel in an attempt to do the march again. No one was satisfied with just one march. We felt there was much more that needed to be done and that there was so much more that we could accomplish. Soon everyone started joining in chorus of the song: “We’re not going to take it any more.” Unfortunately, we were forced back inside the hotel vicinity by the professional staff, but this situation showed me that when we as a Jewish people unite, we can accomplish anything.

Finally on Dec. 27 at 11:55 p.m., newly elected 2008 USY International President Adam Berman banged the Presidential gavel, thus officially ending the convention. Through all the activities and excitement, what I will always remember in addition to the march for Darfur are all the people I met and the friendships I made. The true beauty of USY International Convention lies within the people themselves. It’s hard to think that some of your best friends could live more than 1,000 miles away. But USY is a place where teens come together from all over the continent and form friendships based on the common ground of their Judaism and a desire to change the world for the better.

In the words of Far West USY President Kesha Dorsey, “an international convention exemplifies the reason why over 1,000 Jewish teens give up their individual winter vacations to gather; USY provides for opportunities beyond the educational and religious aspects. The sense of young Jewish unity carries so much weight that makes us determined to show the world that we are the next generation of Jews, and that a wave of passion will keep us strong!”

Matt Sackman is a senior at Hamilton High School Academy of Music in Los Angeles and the vice president of communications for the Far West region of USY.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the March issue is Feb. 15; deadline for the April issue is March 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

War enhances intensity of Israel trip


The siren went on for at least a minute.

It was a Friday evening in early July 2006, during the war with Hezbollah, and I was sitting on a hill overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, getting ready to welcome in the Shabbat with the Kabbalat Shabbat prayers.

Unlike the previous week, when we quickly evacuated the north, the siren we were hearing now was not an air strike or emergency alarm. It was the customary siren sounding the start of Shabbat, unique to Jerusalem.

Along with 44 other teenagers and six staffers, I was on the Eastern Europe-Israel Pilgrimage, sponsored by the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth. We had arrived in Israel that week after spending two weeks traveling through Prague, Warsaw, Lublin, Krakow and Budapest, and everyone was so enthusiastic and completely ecstatic that the air was charged with happiness and excitement. As we sat there, we had a moment of silence listening to the alarm.

We had been supposed to spend our first week on the banks of the Kinneret, but the plans were canceled after five rockets hit a town 15 minutes from our hostel. Even though it was Shabbat, we were immediately evacuated back to Jerusalem. Later, our free time in public places was suspended because a suicide bomber was caught right before entering the Old City through Jaffa Gate, which we used regularly.

While our family and friends back home voiced concerns for our safety when we called them, nobody in our group felt in danger or unsafe. Nobody wanted to go home. Instead of fear, I felt anger that there was a war and anger that Israel still has to fight for her existence.

Being at that hilltop as we welcomed the Shabbat and listening to the siren and watching the Old City’s walls as the Holy City went dark, I felt so many emotions. Though we had been there a week, the realization that I was in Israel — the country of the Jewish people — our land — hit me hardest at that moment. I held back tears of gratitude, joy and happiness as we went around the circle we were sitting in, discussing our favorite part of the week. Mine was that moment.
The strong feelings I had came not only from the realization that we were in Israel. It was the magic of the moment or the magic of the city — the lights were so astoundingly beautiful, the walls gave off an air of age, history and religiousness and the view could not have been more perfect. The breeze ruffled the treetops, and I felt that God was hovering over us, watching.

What made this unforgettable experience even more irreplaceable was the two weeks that came before renewed my understanding of how much Israel means.
While traveling in Eastern Europe, our close-knit group visited the concentration camps, sites of mass murder and mass graves, the ghettos and places of resistance. Viewing all these places where history made its horrific mark was actually proof of what we had been learning since elementary school. We saw the gas chambers, the crematoria, the indentations in the earth that formed years after a mass grave was filled.

We saw what happened, and it became real in our eyes. It was no longer something we read about in textbooks — the ashes kept at Majdanek were once people, Jewish people; at Mila 18 in Krakow, the bunkers where the partisans of the Krakow ghetto had once fought. I understood more about the Holocaust and the resistance. I also understood how much Israel means to our people and to me.

I looked at the partisans, the resistance fighters, the Zionists, the Haganah fighters, the early halutzim or pioneers, and I saw the determination and love they had for Israel. I understand now that Israel is not just the place toward which we face when we pray daily, or the distant homeland, or the place where our forefathers lived but our haven and our land. It is the place where Jews from all over the world look to for hope in seemingly hopeless times.

Especially the week after being in Krakow, when the war started, I felt so lucky to be there, so lucky to actually have an established Jewish state.

Instead of making me feel cautious and insecure, being there during a time of war allowed me to connect more with Israel. I only realized with stronger effect that Israel truly is my homeland and haven — the one place in the world I can be a Jew in the land of my forefathers.

While I was in Jerusalem, I bought a ring that I hope to wear at least until I return. On it is engraved a passage describing my sentiments exactly: “Libi be’mizrach, veanochi b’sof ma’arav,” meaning, “My heart lies in the east while I am far to the west.” Especially after my journey, Israel will never be far from my heart.

Daniela Bernstein is an 11th grader at the Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy.