For Oakwood sophomore, Israel semester cut short still a meaningful experience

When Rebecca Blumer first heard about the opportunity to spend a semester in Israel with the Reform movement’s high school program there, she knew it was for her.

“I wanted to learn more about my Jewish identity and about the history of the Jewish people,” Rebecca, an Oakwood High School sophomore told The Observer in an email interview. “I wanted to meet lots of other Jewish kids that were interested in the same things that I am.”

But because of Covid-19 social distancing measures and shutdowns in Israel and around the world, the semester — which began Jan. 27 and was to run through May 27 — ended March 17.

Even so, Rebecca, the daughter of Molly and Jeff Blumer, said her seven weeks in Israel made for a meaningful experience.

“It was some of the most amazing weeks of my life and I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” she said.

Rebecca learned of the URJ Heller High in Israel program at her summer camp, Goldman Union Camp Institute in Zionsville, Ind. Heller High and GUCI are both programs of the Union for Reform Judaism.

To make the $20,000 semester in Israel a reality, she and her family raised money through the Jewish National Fund Plant Your Way to Israel program. She also received scholarships from her congregation, Temple Israel; the Reform movement’s youth group, NFTY; and the Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton.

“I paid extra to earn college credit for my Jewish history and Hebrew classes,” she added.

The first sign of trouble came when Heller High’s weeklong trip to Poland to learn about the Holocaust, scheduled for the end of March, was cancelled.

“In February, all travel for students to Poland from Israel was cancelled,” Rebecca said.

By week six of the semester, Kibbutz Tzuba, where the students lived, adjusted the number of people who could eat in its cafeteria until only 10 guests could be there at a time. Ultimately, the students would eat outside or in their apartments, Rebecca said. The students knew what was coming, “even though we tried to deny the inevitable.”

It was March 16 when Heller High Principal Rabbi Loren Sykes told the 87 students they would return to the United States on a chartered flight 24 hours later, along with students from other programs in Israel with various Jewish movements in the United States.

“No one took the news well,” Rebecca said of the end of their time in Israel. “Some people cried as soon as we were told the news and for others it took more time to settle in. We embraced and tried to spend all the time that we had left together thinking positively.

“We know the people in charge really thought through everything, trying to figure out what was best to keep the students safe. When the (Israeli) government ordered all tourists to leave Israel, there was nothing else to do but send us home.”

For the students, the departure from Israel went smoothly. Rebecca said staff spent a few sleepless nights coordinating with other Jewish youth groups to get the flight together.

Rebecca’s father picked her up from JFK and drove directly home, where she spent the next two weeks under quarantine.

“None of the students have shown symptoms since our return,” she said.

Rebecca continues with her Heller High classes via Zoom: Biology, English, U.S. History, Algebra II, Hebrew, and Jewish History: Land, Culture, People.

“This was my first time in Israel,” she said. “We got to go to visit the Old City of Jerusalem, the City of David, Eilat…Masada and the Dead Sea, and Tel Aviv for Purim.”

She was disappointed she didn’t get to Poland.

“My relatives were from Poland and some of them died during the Holocaust. I was also disappointed to miss out on the Sea to Sea hike (Sea of Galilee to Mediterranean Sea).”

Rebecca intends to return to Israel when she’s older.

“I had an amazing experience even though it was cut short.”

To read the complete May 2020 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

— Marshall Weiss

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