There was a lot of turkey, cranberries and stuffing at Jerusalem’s Kibbutz Ramat Rachel on Thanksgiving night. Also, a lot of hugging, waving, singing and dancing. For the seventh time in close to 20 years, alumni of Aspen Hill’s Berman Hebrew Academy who live in Israel were invited to join the school’s quadrennial high school mission to Israel for Thanksgiving dinner.
This year, more than 150 former students, faculty, parents and grandparents joined with more than 100 Berman students and faculty who were concluding a 10-day trip that explored the beauty, spirituality and fun of Israel.
The trip is sponsored by Dennis and Debra Berman, (the school is named for Melvin J. Berman, Dennis Berman’s father) who first took the high school on a mission to Israel in 2003, prompted by the lack of travelers during the second intifada. The idea to have alumni join for dinner began with the very first mission, said Dennis Berman. “At Berman we’re a family so of course everyone in our Israel family is invited for Thanksgiving.”
For many of the alumni who attended the dinner, the biggest draw was the chance to thank the Bermans for their particular Israel mission. Liora Guberman, 20, who made aliyah last year and is an adviser at a girls’ seminary as well as training to be a tour guide, said her mission four years ago “solidified my decision to live in Israel.
Rabbi Matthew Nitzanim, (Berman, ‘12) stopped in for just a minute on his way to teach at a gap year program for post high school young men. Nitzanim, who made aliyah with his wife, Yael, three years ago, said that “to this day, I feel indebted to the Bermans for the life-changing experience I had on the 2010 mission to Israel. Coming to Israel with Berman allowed me to see the country, not as a place for visiting cousins or spending holidays, but through the broader prism of the Jewish education I had received through school. The experience was, without a doubt, a major factor in leading me toward building my life here.”
Dennis Berman noted with pride that “we’re the only modern Orthodox high school that takes the whole school on a trip to Israel.” In fact, the trips become a whole school event with students in all grades part of the formal send off. Their commitment to the missions, said the Bermans, builds on the foundation of the unbreakable relationship with Israel that Berman students form beginning in preschool.
In fact, the nursery school faculty produced a sendoff video that had 2 to 4 year olds advising the high schoolers to take their stuffed animals with them and included a proud roll call of those who had siblings or teacher/parents going on the trip.
Excitement pervades the whole school on send-off day, prompting one alum/lower school teacher who attended a Thanksgiving dinner during her gap year in Israel to tell her third grade students that the high point of her mission trip 16 years ago was the moment that Berman students who had never been to Israel before entered Jerusalem and said the blessing of “shehecheyanu” thanking God for that moment. “I was 6 when I first went to Israel,” the teacher explained, “and so I don’t remember that first glimpse of Jerusalem. That’s why it was so special for me to share in my friends’ joy.” This year, close to 40 students made the blessing to mark their first trip to Israel.
The foundation that Berman high school students bring with them on their trip includes Hebrew instruction beginning in nursery school, in- depth text study about the land of Israel, classes in Israeli history and a full night and day celebration of Israel Independence Day, which is given the same religious significance at the school as all other Jewish holidays, including prayers, Torah reading and celebration.
Very significant to that connection to Israel are the “bachrurim” and “b’not sherut” who join the school each year — young Israelis who study texts and Hebrew with the students, plan fun activities related to Israel and holidays, especially Israel Independence Day, and serve as role models for the students.
“We make such strong connections with the students during the year that it was wonderful to see those relationships just pick up again at the dinner,” said Moshe Balofsky, 22, a 2021 bachur, now studying education in Israel.
Many of the student alumni say they felt so comfortable coming to the dinner because of the strong bonds they created with Dennis and Debra Berman during their trips. The Bermans travel to Israel together with the students, stay with them at the hotels and join them for the activities.
“This mission, a highlight for me was going with the students to Dialogue in the Dark, a museum without light in Holon, which requires visitors to rely on each other, as well as a session one night when dozens of students shared their feelings about being in Israel,” said Debra Berman.
At the end of the dinner, the school announced a new alumni program that will pair Berman graduates who join the IDF with Berman alumni families, which generated as much excitement among prospective hosts as among the several alumni lone soldiers eating turkey and sweet potatoes.
Dinner ended with Dennis Berman making a “siyyum” or completion ceremony on a tractate of Talmud during which, like the gentlest coach before the biggest game, he shared with students and alumni alike, his slow and steady journey to complete three cycles of the entire Talmud over more than 22 years.
After Berman completed the formal Hebrew conclusion for a siyyum, the band struck up and the students and alumni danced with the Bermans, in separate men’s’ and women’s circles, celebrating Torah study, a trip of a lifetime and the school and the patrons that made it possible. “What I took away that night,” said Liora Guberman, “was how much love there was in that room.”