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Cleveland girl explores her Jewish heritage
Ella Padawer treks across Holy Land to learn the culture, history
Ella Padawer, 17, traveled to Israel this summer as part of the Bronfman Youth Fellowship program. The White County High School student studied Jewish heritage and culture.

For Ella Padawer, traveling to Israel is a normal summer activity. The 17-year-old Cleveland girl heads overseas for a month to visit her aunt, uncle and grandparents who live in Tel Aviv. But this summer, Padawer’s trip was anything but normal.

Padawer, a White County High School senior, visited the Holy Land with more than 20 other Jewish high school students from the United States and Canada as part of the Bronfman Youth Fellowship program. The intensive five-week course is designed to expose high school students to their heritage by studying Jewish texts and culture and touring sites tied to Jewish history.

“It’s a lot of study and discussion groups,” Padawer said in a phone interview from her Cleveland home. “You talk about Jewish values and your Jewish identity. The whole subject is very encompassing.”

But first, Padawer had to earn a spot as a Bronfman Youth fellow, which is just as intense as the course itself. Padawer filled out the lengthy application, submitted letters of recommendation and then traveled to New York in March for an interview with the program’s co-director.

“It was very intimidating,” Padawer said, noting the rabbi questioned her about a metaphor from a test and asked her to interpret it. “I was like whoa. I didn’t know what to do. It was surreal.”

However, the 17-year-old passed the test and was accepted as a Bronfman Youth Fellow. Now, she could accomplish her goal of connecting with her Jewish heritage and faith during her trip to the Holy Land.

Before embarking on the five-week trip she said she wanted to explore her Jewish identity.

“Around here I don’t have a lot of Jews where I live,” she said earlier this summer. “(This) will be a way to fully understand where I came from and what I am.”

Padawer and her fellow Bronfman Youth fellows hiked in different parts of Israel and visited historical and present-day sites. She also heard journalists, writers and scholars including Sayed Kashua, an Israeli Arab who lives in Jerusalem, talk about different topics.

“He talked about how it is to live as an Arab and the conflict of how his children go to school and are Muslim,” she said. “And he doesn’t like the language barrier.”

Padawer connected with him on that point. The 17-year-old lived in Israel until she was 7 years old before her family moved to Georgia to be near her father’s family, who live in the United States.

“I grew up bilingual, so I understood” what Kashua was talking about, she said.

Padawer also enjoyed meeting Etgar Keret, an Israeli novelist. One of his short-stories called “Wrist-cutters,” was turned into a movie that Padawer had seen, but she didn’t know he was the author.

“He’s very funny and strange like his stories,” she said. “It was very fun to listen to him and people’s questions were very engaging.”

Padawer admitted to liking the writers and scholars on her trip since she loves books and reading, but she also was awed by the places she saw. The city of Tsfat was one of her favorite places.

“The city is very ancient,” she said. “I felt like I was going back in time.”

Watching the traditions of the ultraorthodox Jews in Tsfat was an eye-opening experience as well.

“Everybody crowds into the synagogue,” she said with enthusiasm. “And you get to see the whole process. It was interesting to see that way of life versus my Jewish and secular way of life.”

The Cleveland girl is a member of Shalom B’Harim, which is based in Dahlonega, and attends services once a month as well as high holidays with the congregations. Therefore, going to the synagogue every Shabbat morning was “strange” since she rarely goes. She also experienced the strict tradition of keeping the Sabbath day holy.

“Not doing work, not driving a car and having to walk everywhere, that was a strange experience,” she said. “I liked it … and I was surprised at myself.”

Being immersed within the Jewish community and tradition also gave Padawer a sense of community. During a three-day stay with a family originally from India, the teenager viewed the traditions of a religious family.

“At the end of the meal, (the father) blessed each of the children and blessed us,” she said. “It was interesting and it felt nice.”

The White County High School senior also was “blown away” and “in awe of the brotherhood and sisterhood of the Jewish people.”

“A lot of my friends saw their friends from back home in Israel and that surprised me,” she said. “America is a large place and everyone was congregating in Israel. It was nice to know I had something that I didn’t know I had before.”

During the trip, Padawer felt free to discuss her Jewish identity and where she came from with her Bronfman Youth Fellow peers.

“I was opening up to the group, letting myself get vulnerable, not keeping things back and not having a defensive barrier,” she said. “It felt good to let go and say what I thought.”

With her newfound knowledge of her heritage, Padawer is more aware of her options in regards to her faith.

“I have this community that is always welcoming and always there,” she said. “I have some people I can go and learn from. And I’m guaranteed to find friends wherever I go.”