By: Jon Benedic
Perched atop one of the most famous mountains in Jewish history, the ancient fortress of Masada overlooks the Judean Desert and crystal waters of the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth. The story of Masada has become ingrained in our collective Jewish history. It is a symbol of Jewish heroism, resilience, and faith in God. Its lessons and values have been an integral part of Jewish education, a staple educational component for Israeli students, IDF ceremonies, and hundreds of thousands of Jewish visitors for decades. The message of Masada, that it shall never fall again, is a reminder of our national pride, connecting generations to the Jewish tradition and faith.
In early July, students of the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI), a Jewish and pluralistic educational institution in Israel affiliated with Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF), made an arduous but incredibly impactful trek up Mount Masada, bringing the message of Masada back to their campus.
The trip to the ancient Jewish fortress located on top of the mountain was unlike any other the students had undertaken. It created a sound foundation for them and their descendants to stay fully committed to the state of Israel.
“We want them to understand what happened here and not just about how good the sunrise was,” explained Aubri Isaacs, a veteran teacher at AMHSI, “The deeper goal is to throw them into the story and let some of the dilemmas of the people who lived here at various times be real for them. They came up here in a desperate attempt to survive and made a conscious choice to embrace Jewish values.”
Jonah Collins, an Alexander Muss High School student from Florida, instantaneously felt a strong, visceral connection binding him to Masada and the Jews who had lived there almost two thousand years ago.
“I knew I was about to see a huge part of Jewish history,” Jonah explained. “The second I got up there, I looked around to soak everything in, and I was amazed that my ancestors were here and that I actually felt that I was part of history.”
Isaacs spoke of a certain point where the students went through an emotional experience that connected them to the 997 Jews who, according to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, are said to have chosen death over being sold into slavery by the Romans.
“The students screamed out in Hebrew, ‘Am Yisrael Chai’ (‘the nation of Israel lives’) and ‘Masada shall not fall again,’” Isaacs related. “They then heard the most amazing phenomenal echoes from the mountains screaming back at them. We then asked them to imagine that it’s not just an echo but the defenders of Masada shouting back at them.”
That same day, the completion of the first Torah scroll written on top of Masada and sponsored by Jewish National Fund, as part of the organization’s Be Inscribed program was dedicated by Andy Klein of Forest Hill, Maryland and handed to the Alexander Muss High School as a testament to the program’s agenda to keep the bonds everlasting, between Israel and future generations of Jews.
“We’re building a safe and vibrant land of Israel by scribing Torah scrolls on top of Masada that once symbolized our destruction but now symbolizes our life,” explained Ron Werner, former alumnus and current president of the board of directors at Alexander Muss High School. Werner shared that now Jews across the globe have the opportunity to stay connected with Israel by purchasing parts of a Torah scroll written on top of Masada
“Torah is the soul of the Jewish people and our moral compass,” he continued. “By connecting people to Torah, we elevate the whole equation and will build better bonds between Jewry and Israel, which helps Jewish National Fund accomplish its mission.”
“If we can show our students to love the history of the Jewish people we will be successful in ensuring Jewish continuity and the survival of the Jewish people,” Werner added.
Each of the students played a role in completing the Torah scroll as the quill was passed among them one by one and then handed back to the scribe.
“It gave so many people the experience they wouldn’t get back on home, said Danielle Schwartz, one of the students who comes from Arizona. “To participate in writing a Torah on Masada of all places really helped to solidify our connection to Judaism.”
The experience motivated Danielle to commit to solidifying her own ties to the state of Israel and the Jewish world at large.
“For a while I felt disconnected from who I was as a Jew in America and didn’t know where I stand,” she said. “Now I want to go back and relearn Hebrew.”
The Torah scroll was officially completed at Masada’s ancient synagogue, a house of worship used by the Jews who sought refuge on top of the mountain close to 2,000 years ago. The students who were seemingly unaffected by the sweltering heat of late morning on Masada proudly showed their commitment towards the continuity of the Jewish people as they energetically danced around the newly inaugurated Torah scroll.
The next day, July 4, was far more than an annual Independence Day celebration for the students. That day they welcomed the Torah scroll into the Hod Hasharon campus in a customary ceremony marked by jubilant dancing. Joined by a number of faculty members and distinguished guests, the students danced with the same vigor they had displayed the day before. This is the story of Masada, entrusted to these students as a testament of their obligation to uphold this legacy.
During the dancing ceremony, Ron Werner was so overcome with emotion that he could not find the words to describe the nature of his feelings. “I’m speechless,” he finally said with profound succinctness. “I’m never speechless, but it’s just beyond me.”
Werner’s momentary loss for words was completely understandable considering the absolute conviction displayed by the students to stay strongly connected.
“I don’t worry about anything in the future because I think we’re stronger than anything before as a people as proof through these young kids,” said Russell F. Robinson, CEO of Jewish National Fund, shortly after the ceremony.
“Twenty-five years ago we didn’t have this type of program or kids that understood Israel. We understood Israel emotionally, but they’re understanding Israel both intellectually and emotionally.”
In that vein, former Member of Knesset, Rabbi Dov Lipman shared accolades for the two-day experience provided to the students of Alexander Muss.
“Torah is central to our lives and to Israel and when you don’t have the spiritual component, I don’t think there’s enough to keep it going,” Lipman said. “I give a lot of credit to the school and to Jewish National Fund for recognizing that component has to be included. It made me very proud to see kids from whatever background, not necessarily the strongest spiritually, being infused with this connection.”