Birthright: A trip of history, landmarks, beauty
January 17, 2015
When I told my family and friends I would be traveling in Israel for 10 days over winter break, the majority of them dismissed me with a death sentence.
“Don’t forget your Uzi!”
“How many bodyguards will be with you?”
“I’ll be sure to watch the news more closely when you’re away!”
“My mom would never let me go!”
Before I became more involved with the Jewish community at the University, I knew nothing about Israel. Whenever I did hear about it, I had thoughts of Middle Eastern stereotypes, like conflict and war.
But attending Taglit-Birthright Israel: Shorashim, a 10-day Jewish cultural immersion trip, introduced me to people that are often misunderstood and misrepresented, connected me to Judaism and opened my eyes to another part of the world.
On Dec. 30, my group of approximately 40 departed from JFK International Airport in New York on a 10-hour flight for 5,700 miles across the Atlantic Ocean and Europe. We flew out on El Al, which could be considered the safest airline in the world seeming that in addition to the extra baggage fee, they asked me everything from if I celebrate high holidays to how many girls in my sorority, Alpha Epsilon Phi, were born in Israel.
The flight was far different than any I had previously been on. People stood in the aisles and talked, Hasidic Jews stood in the back for hours on end to pray and excited Birthright groups chattered in between aisles.
The screens in the plane showed a map of our location, and as we neared Israel, our surroundings became clearer. Syria and Lebanon were to the north, Jordan to the east, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to the west. The reality of where I was headed began to set in as I thought of the protests and violence in these countries I’d heard about in the news. We landed and the plane erupted in applause. The pilot said, “Welcome home.”
Seven excited Israeli 20-somethings and our guide, Michal, cheered and jumped as we met them at Tel Aviv Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Despite being in the middle of the airport with dozens of eyes watching our every American move, we formed a circle and chanted “Achim,” followed by “Sachim” while turning, which mean “brother” and “happiness.” It was a little awkward but got everyone’s blood pumping and excitement up.
It was only 4 a.m., but our day had begun. We boarded the coach bus, converted our dollars to shekels and set off for the Golan Heights, a mountainous region in the North.
As we traveled, an Israeli man named Yuval sat next to me. He told me about the Israeli Defense Force, which everyone is required to serve for after high school — men for three years and women for two. He can’t tell me the details of his work, and I later learn all soldiers must undergo lie detector tests every six months to be sure they keep all their secrets. He has never been to America but says it’s the dream — he has a few friends who toured the country for a year and loved it. And for someone who has never spoken English but has learned it through school, reading books (“Harry Potter” is his favorite) and watching movies, his language skills are impeccable.
The sun rose as we traveled, a white orb behind the early morning mist. We made our first stop at Nahal Harod Park and began with a bonding activity: staring into the eyes of someone we didn’t know for a minute straight. Many of us couldn’t do it as we laughed uncomfortably and looked away, nervously saying how awkward it was. And then Michal jumped in asking how we felt.
But there is no word for awkward in Hebrew, she said. There is no awkward in Israel.
The next few days consisted of hikes and hot springs, art and shopping.
In a town called Tzfat, a local artist named Avraham Loewenthal taught us about infinite goodness. Everything that happens is good and leads to something good. We called the Kibbutz Afik Guest House our home for three nights and eventually learned the history of them. Stemming from socialist ideals, they are collective societies originally based on agriculture. Some were so extreme that when a child was born, the entire community decided what its name should be.
On Friday night, we celebrated Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath and day for rest and spiritual enlightenment that flows into Saturday. We enjoyed a ceremonial meal along with optional services or text study and spent the next day reflecting on our experiences so far and resting.
Our perfect weather turned against us at this point, and it downpoured daily thereafter. It forced us to either stay inside and bond or brave the weather and play soccer, which multiple people did.
We drove to Tel Aviv and enjoyed a quick night out, walking through pouring rain yet again. We found a bar that was very Americanized and swarmed it — there were hardly any Israelis but we enjoyed relaxing together at the end of a long day.
The following morning, Independence Hall at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv taught us the history of Israel.
The museum is the site where first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declared the independence of the State of Israel, and they even had recordings of the historical day for us to hear, albeit they were in Hebrew. But hearing the power and emotion in his voice was enough to understand.
Rabin Square, where former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, was where we received our next history lesson. We were sent in groups to interview people on the street about their feelings of the assassination to which many people felt intimidated and awkward, but the responses were incredible. In my own group, we met a woman whose husband was on stage during the attack while she watched in the audience.
“He called me and told me to go home,” she said.
The country had been divided.
It was finally time to visit Jerusalem, a place I often heard about in church and religion class growing up that had always seemed mystical and surreal.
It was beautiful and ancient, the old buildings exactly as you’d imagine them to be. History enveloped us as we toured the room where The Last Supper was held, saw the Dome of the Rock while the Muslim call to prayer went off and overlooked the city. The day ended with the Western Wall, the holiest of Jewish sites because it is a remnant of the walls that originally enclosed and supported the Second Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans after standing for 420 years.
It is custom to write a prayer to place in the wall, and hundreds, if not thousands, were shoved in crevices or were disintegrated into the ground as rain again poured on us at the end of the day.
The Wall is divided by gender, the women’s side is smaller, and I watched as girls and women around me prayed and cried. I felt almost out of place as I timidly placed my prayer among a pile of others and touched the Wall. I didn’t know what to say or think and slowly backed away, not turning my back as is custom. I thought of friends and family but mostly pondered what everyone around me could be thinking about in this time of insecurity and violence. My group solemnly left.
We followed with another emotional day by visiting a Holocaust museum all morning. The museum tour ends with a children’s memorial site in which the names of murdered children are repeated by a recording as visitors enter a dark room. The room has only four candles, but multiple mirrors create the illusion of hundreds of small lights that go on forever, the symbolism up to interpretation.
That night we enjoyed the hospitality of the Bedouin people and stayed in a large tent in the Negev desert where we also rode camels the next morning. Our day consisted of desert activities as we visited David Ben-Gurion’s desert grave at Sde Boker, hiked the natural cliff formations of Ein Avdat and learned about agriculture while a sandstorm blew around us.
And then it was here — the hike up Masada, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Of the four hikes, Masada is the toughest one, especially because participants leave at 5 a.m. in order to watch the sunrise. As we neared the top, it became clearer that the sky wasn’t going to clear — clouds, sand and wind prevented us from seeing the actual sunrise we worked so hard to get to, but we did celebrate six Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.
Our last few days included visiting Mount Herzl, a military cemetery, endless shopping and the Haas Promenade where visitors can look out at all of Jerusalem.
We drove back to the airport exactly as we entered — in the dark. We said our goodbyes to our Israeli participants and friends who extended their trip and boarded our long midnight flight home. I sat next to a fidgety married couple, and as we received our first meal, the man next to me sighed and said, “Oh the days of business class,” as we departed a country that has been war-torn for years. Chemotherapy treatment drips into a frail old man about 30 rows up in first class. Syringes line the table beside him. When we land, my neighbor pukes from nausea.
Israel is a country I would never have thought to go to on my own. It’s also a country I never would have guessed has so much history, beauty and culture. I entered the trip knowing nothing and left with a newfound knowledge of life in the Middle East that is so often misinterpreted. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back (although after our trip to the Dead Sea was canceled because of possible flooding and road closure, I may have to) but this is without a doubt a memorable and impactful trip that I will cherish forever.
Brittney is a sophomore in LAS. She can be reached at [email protected]