It was a sight they had previously seen only in textbooks.
But Masada, the 400-meter fortress from the time of Herod the Great, was brought to life when a group of Hillel Academy eighth-graders took their end-of-the-year trip to Israel and Amsterdam, the culmination of the students' Jewish education before they part ways to their respective high schools.
Each year, the eighth-graders from Hillel, one of only two Jewish education schools in the Tampa Bay area, visit the place they have studied as the Holy Land — a land often fraught with religious, political and geographic strife. But to the students, the land has inspired the basis of many of their teachings.
This year, 13 of the 16 graduating eighth-graders took the trip, one they said brought experiences they will never forget.
"It was crazy," 14-year-old Anika Trotman said.
The 16-day trip — coordinated by an external company that Hillel director of admissions Cathy Grossman said ensures security and safety issues are taken care of — included visits to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, camel rides and wading in the Dead Sea.
Their days would begin around 7 a.m., and with classmates from their sister school in Greensboro, N.C., the students toured the streets of a nation that was no longer as flat the pages of their books.
A few years ago, the school added Amsterdam to the itinerary. There, the students visited the Anne Frank House, as well as prayed in a Portuguese synagogue.
"The Anne Frank House gave me goose bumps," Anika said. "You can't really put yourself in her shoes or imagine what she went through, but seeing it was such an experience."
Grossman, who accompanied the students as a chaperone, said the trip as a whole puts many of the teachings the students have read about since primary school days into context.
"This brings it to life," she said. "It lets them see the history — and feel it."
On one morning of the trip, the students woke up at 3 a.m. and boarded a bus for what would be a steep climb up Masada.
Anika said she initially wanted to go back to sleep. But catching the sunrise and praying atop the cliff after climbing more than 1,000 feet made it all "totally worth it."
"I've dreamt of climbing Masada for the past 10 years," Anika said. "But actually doing it — you can't put it into words. It's so beautiful."
Madison Koplar, 14, called the view "awe-inspiring."
Grossman said her favorite part of the trip, which she has taken three times, is seeing the students' reaction at the top of Masada.
"It's an amazing experience, seeing their eyes light up," she said.
Eighth-grader Harrison Greenfield turned 14 while in Amsterdam. He celebrated his birthday with cake and apple pie, as he would do in the United States, though he said the pie wasn't quite the same.
Apple pie wasn't the only difference the students noticed.
"On the streets, a totally random person could just start talking to you," Anika said. "Like they might come up to you and tell you to put on sunscreen and that's not weird, just because they care. You don't really see that kind of warmth in the States and I think that's what draws people back there."
Grossman said in addition to the learning that takes place, the trip provides students an opportunity to bond through their common experience before they start high school — an experience that could land them in classes that may be more than 10 times the size of their tight-knit graduating class. Harrison and Madison plan to attend East Lake, while Anika plans to attend Steinbrenner.
While she said she's a little nervous socially about starting high school, Anika said she's pretty sure than 10 years from now, when she thinks back to this time in her life she'll remember Israel and her middle school friends.
"It just added tons of new memories," she said.
Divya Kumar can be reached at [email protected]