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Former NCSY members reunited in Israel

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Three former members of the Greater Kansas City chapter of NCSY recently had a brief reunion in Jerusalem for the purpose of this story for The Chronicle. Ari Wolf, Davida Rosenthal and Blake Berkowitz are all taking part in different gap year programs in Israel. (At least one other Kansas Citian, Jonathan Edelman, is also in Israel for this school year.) The three students were excited to see each other since they are based in three different parts of the country — Ari lives in the Golan Heights, Davida is in Beit Shemesh and Blake is in Jerusalem.

Ari Wolf

Ari, the 19-year-old son of BIAV members Andy and Cara Ernstein and a 2011 graduate of Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy, is in Israel for the fifth time. He first came to Israel on a family visit when he was 7. He took another family trip a few years later. In 2007 he visited again along with the HBHA freshman class trip. In 2010 he went to Poland and Israel on the March of the Living.

For this gap year, Ari chose a unique program based on Moshav Avnei Eitan in the Golan Heights. It’s located 30 to 45 minutes south of Katzrin, the Golan Heights capital.

Ari explains that the Leadership Yeshivah Academy is an English-speaking program for youth thinking about going into the Israeli army as well as for youth “that want to improve certain aspects of themselves like leadership skills.”

He learned about the program from Ari Solomont, who is the brother of family friend and BIAV member Adina Glass. Solomont lives at Avnei Eitan and works with Yeshiva University helping young people find Israel programs.

“I chose it because it’s not a typical yeshivah program, and there is a lot of focus on skill sets and improving yourself as a whole, not just learning skills,” Ari said.

Of the group of 17, about half intend to join the Israeli army at the end of the program, so in addition to daily classes, they learn military skills or krav maga in the evening. (Krav Maga is a noncompetitive self defense system developed in Israel which focuses on real-world situations.)

Another special aspect of the program, Ari reported, is each young person is adopted by a moshav family where they go on Shabbat. That allows the participants, “to better understand Israel culture and learn Hebrew.” (A moshav is a cooperative agricultural community of individual farms.)

“My family are farmers. They have two kids in the army and two others,” Ari said.

Since he hadn’t spent much time in the Golan Heights before this program, Ari feels he has gotten a new perspective on Israel.

“Now I’m getting the Israel experience. I’m living next to a bunch of cows! I’m learning the way the economy works and I’m learning a lot about the army,” he explained.

When Ari returns to the States, he may attend George Washington University, where he is currently enrolled.

Davida Rosenthal

Studying at a girls’ seminary for a year is a lot different than Davida Rosenthal’s six other trips to Israel. The 18-year-old HBHA graduate and daughter of BIAV members Dr. Howard and Brenda Rosenthal visited the Jewish state four times with her family.

She also took part in HBHA’s class trip when she was a high-school freshman and was a member of the 2010 March of the Living.

“We’ve been learning so much about Israel and how it became a state, I’ve gotten a different appreciation for being in Israel, and I really feel a part of the land and the future of the state,” she said.

This is partially due to the program at Machon Maayan, located in Beit Shemesh, a community that’s been in the news a lot recently that’s located 20 miles west of Jerusalem. Davida chose this seminary because it caters to women of all Jewish backgrounds. In addition a lot of NCSY graduates, including some of her friends from the youth organization, choose the program.

The program includes learning three days a week, volunteering two days a week and touring. Davida has volunteered as a big sister to an Ethiopian child and as a mother’s helper for a family that made aliyah from the United States, which has a new baby and a 2-year-old child.

The part of the program that excites Davida the most is day the group goes touring.

“One of my rabbis is a tour guide. He opens up the Tanach and reads when we arrive at a place. It makes it very real to learn and love Israel,” she said.

Her classes are quite varied and include The Joseph Story, Customs, the Laws of Shabbat, the Garden of Eden and Portion of the week taught in Hebrew.

Next year Davida plans to attend Stern College in New York.

Blake Berkowitz

Last week, just a few hours before he was interviewed for this story, Blake Berkowitz learned the program he was attending in Israel was shutting down. The 19-year-old Blue Valley West graduate, the son of Congregation Beth Torah members Susan and Jacob Berkowitz, was taking part in a program called Imadi through Hebrew University.

“This is a modern Orthodox program focused on Hebrew University classes, living in an apartment and night learning twice a week,” Blake explained.

Because the program is dissolving, Blake will be heading back to Kansas soon. He checked into the possibility of taking part in another program at Hebrew U, “but it won’t help me next year and the other options are more costly.”

Next year Blake is planning to attend Missouri Science and Technology University in Rolla, Mo. At the time of the interview, he was uncertain whether he would receive a tuition refund for Imadi’s second semester.

This was the third time Blake had been in Israel. His first trip was his junior year in high school when he participated in the TJJ, Jerusalem Journey program. Last year he came with his parents to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary and to check out gap year programs. But this semester’s experience was much different because he spent a longer time here.

“I got used to the Israeli style and Israel attitudes and that’s a cool experience. We lived in a nice, old neighborhood in a building that was once a bed and breakfast, so each bedroom had its own bathroom,” he said. There were six bedrooms and bathrooms in his apartment where seven guys and a madrich (leader) lived.

With this program, Blake said, “I had to focus on some studying and I made a lot of new friends. Before we found out our program’s problems, we had a really awesome trip to the south of Israel, hiked for four days, slept in tents and cooked out.”

Even though this was to be a year-long program, Blake says, “I’m sad about what happened, but I have no regrets about this year.”