Entire US high school due in Israel for 10-day mission

"One of the school's major cornerstones is Zionism and a love for Israel," says Dennis Berman, who subsidizes the trip for the entire school.

melvin j berman 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
melvin j berman 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Some philanthropists donate buildings, others donate libraries, but there are very few who subsidize trips to Israel for an entire Jewish high school. Dennis Berman, a real estate developer outside the Washington D.C. area is sponsoring, along with other contributors, a trip which will bring nearly the entire high school of the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, Maryland to Israel for a 10- day mission beginning Thursday to foster greater ties with Israel among students and faculty. "One of the school's major cornerstones is Zionism and a love for Israel, but if you don't go there, it's the difference between reading about a site and actually being there - you just can't compare," said Berman, who underwrote a similar trip three years ago. The trip cost students just $400 including air fare, hotels and meals, and faculty travel for free. There are 155 students and over 30 other faculty members and guests, including many of the school's rabbis, traveling on the mission. Before their departure, students were able to choose from up to five different daily itineraries, including hiking, touring, and hesed (community service) activities, thus allowing each student to shape his or her own Israel experience. "That's what I like about doing this mission," said Berman. "There are so many levels to make connections on, and each individual has his or her own idea of what is important." The trip was met with almost unanimous approval within the school community. School administrators feel that by traveling to Israel, students will have the opportunity to learn in an environment much different from that of the everyday classroom. "The mission allows us to live one of our core values, which is our deep attachment and love for Israel," said Dr. Joshua Levisohn, headmaster of the school. "There is no way that any classroom experience could accomplish what an actual trip as a school community could." Berman first got the idea about sponsoring the mission in late 2002 when he and his former wife chaperoned a small group of about 30 kids to Israel immediately prior to the outbreak of the Iraq war. According to Berman, most other groups slated to tour Israel during that time canceled, and tourism in Israel came to a virtual standstill. On that first trip, the students carried gas masks with them at all times and were treated like heroes everywhere they went. Upon his return to America, Berman was asked how he could possibly top that first trip to Israel, to which he replied jokingly that he would have to take the entire high school next time - and he did. In 2004, nearly the entire high school traveled to Israel on a school-led mission that was deemed a tremendous success. Berman hopes the mission will enhance students' Jewish identity and encourage them to go to Israel for the year after high school and beyond. According to students on the previous mission, the trip can be life altering experience. "Before I went on the mission in my freshman year, I didn't really understand why everyone made such a big deal over Israel," said Tali Rasooly, a freshman at the time of the last mission. "But after being in Israel and seeing the beauty of the land and the Jewish state, Israel consumed my life. It became a focus and a destination for my future, a place that I could not imagine being without." When deciding to sponsor the previous mission, Berman had entertained the idea of sponsoring a trip every four years so each student in the school would have an opportunity to travel to Israel. Berman would still like to do so, but said that sponsoring the mission is quite expensive, and that he will "worry about it in a few years."