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Reflections on my Recent Trip to Israel

Dear Senesh Community,

Usually I dread the 12-hour flight home from Israel, but this time was different. I needed the uninterrupted time to process and reflect on the week I spent there. How was it? Incredibly special and meaningful, deeply sad and painful, restorative and joyful, filled with despair and hope. It’s complicated to hold so many conflicting emotions, but that is Israel. It is a very difficult time—life is moving forward for many, but the impact and trauma of October 7th are ever-present.

Before the 8th graders arrived, I spent time in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Cafes, parks, and markets are bustling. But soldiers carrying M16s are everywhere, regardless of whether they’re on or off duty. Posters of hostages, stickers, graffiti, and yellow ribbons are omnipresent. Everyone knows someone killed in the war, taken hostage, displaced, or actively serving in the IDF. There is an unrelenting undercurrent of collective pain, but also a palpable sense of support and connection.

I also drove south, to the site of the Nova Music Festival. Here the roads were eerily quiet, except for tanks and tourist buses. Every bus stop was filled with soldiers on their way to Gaza or on their way out. My visit to the festival site was extremely painful, a stark reminder of the atrocities committed by Hamas. Images of hundreds of young people, dancing their hearts out until terror rained down upon them, flooded my mind. As I sat in the shelter where hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin was captured, I was startled by the thunder of bombs landing in Gaza. The sound was deafening and one I will never forget—a blaring reminder of the ongoing war, the hostages still held captive, and the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

In addition to connecting with Israelis, I visited a handful of Senesh alumni who are living there now. This was a true highlight of my trip. We shared laughs and memories, reminiscing about the earlier days at Senesh. They described how critical Senesh was, and remains, to their Jewish foundation and identity and their proficiency in the Hebrew language. One alum told me how she always makes a point to visit Hannah Senesh’s grave when she’s near Har Herzl—and that she attributes her love of Torah to our middle school Judaics teacher, Jessica Lissy Trey. Inevitably, these conversations turned to the topic of our alums’ experiences since October 7th. Every single one attended funerals and volunteered to help. Many knew people who were killed, and some are currently serving in the IDF. I was struck by their ability to express tremendous pain while maintaining their will to carry on, to persevere. And I was overwhelmed with nachas witnessing the kind, confident, thoughtful young adults these alumni had become—living in accordance with their values and making a positive impact on the lives of all they cross paths with.

Another highlight, of course, was joining our 8th graders for the first few days of their trip. It was clear how powerful, meaningful, and, yes, fun this trip has been for them. I was struck by how thrilled Israelis were to see our group. Several cried, explaining that they’d seen numerous adult missions but had not seen a group of students in many months. So far, our students have prepared food for soldiers at an army base; picked strawberries on a moshav that lost its workers due to the war; enjoyed the sights, smells, and sounds of Shuk Ha’Carmel; and spent time on the beach playing volleyball and making friends with Israelis.

The 8th graders’ first stop in Jerusalem was at Yad B’Yad, an Arab-Jewish school where a former Senesh teacher is the principal. Our students had the opportunity to connect with Jewish and Arab peers—sharing about their favorite sports, foods, and subjects at school. The Yad B’Yad students taught us about Ramadan and shared what’s most special about it for them, and together we made and enjoyed fataya—a traditional Ramadan dessert. Before parting ways, our 8th graders gave their new Jewish and Arab Israeli connections friendship bracelets that they’d made back in Brooklyn.

Visiting Hostage Square with the students was one of our most powerful moments together. The Square features art installations and banners highlighting the plight of the hostages and calling for their release. There’s a constant flow of visitors, including family members of hostages—who speak at rallies held there weekly. One of our 8th graders asked our guide, “So no one tears down hostage posters here?” I nearly broke into tears hearing this question, which was a stark reminder of the anti-Zionism and antisemitism our students continue to experience at home. 

I left Israel just in time to return to Senesh for our in-school Purim celebration. While marveling at the fabulous array of creative costumes and enthusiastic Megillah-reading, the beautiful words of Dr. Tanya Zion Waldoks, an Assistant Professor at Hebrew University, echoed in my mind. This year, Tanya reflected, one of the most powerful aspects of the Purim story is Esther’s request that everyone fast for three days before she goes to see the king. This communal fasting forges a sense of community and connectedness that’s especially important in times of great adversity—an idea that certainly resonates today. 

In Israel, in Gaza, and for Jewish people around the world, there has been a tremendous amount of suffering since October 7th. In these difficult times, I’m especially grateful for our Senesh community and the many ways in which we come together to support one another. 

Our Senesh 8th graders return from their trip next Tuesday. In the meantime, I encourage you to read their reflections on their adventure (and see some great pictures) on the Eighth Grade Blog.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Purim Sameach,

Nicole Nash
Head of School