Yeah, that’s right, I went to Israel. It was pretty awesome actually to get to see the country, not to mention it was an experience I won’t ever forget. Most would say that they won’t forget seeing Israel because they are more religious now, or because a sight in Israel really touched them, but for us, this trip was all about the connections to others that we made. The group of people that we had the opportunity to go with was absolutely awesome! I could not imagine a better group of people. By the end of it, we were more akin to family than simply close friends. I will go through some of the sights we got the opportunity to see, and then talk about the best part of the trip a bit further. The trip itself is called “Taglit-Birthright” and is a free opportunity that college students can take advantage of, if they are between the age of 18 and 25.
So every day was basically non-stop. We were doing 12 hour days from the time we touched down in Israel. Our plane left Newark airport at 2:30 PM on 5/10, and hence landed at 7:30 AM on 5/11 (local time) in Israel. Not one to waste time, we were seeing sights all day WITHOUT any sleep for pretty much any of us. We landed, and started the trip in Jaffa. From there, we went to a market for lunch and then moved on to Independence Hall in Tel Aviv and Rabin Square. Independence Hall is where the country was declared a sovereign Jewish state, and Rabin Square is where Rabin (one of the leaders of Israel in the 90’s) was killed during his term. We then ended the first day on Mount Scopus.
Mount Scopus deserves a little bit more of a description. Firstly, it is just outside of Jerusalem, and gives a gorgeous view of the city along with the Dome of the Rock. Also, it is the home of one of the Israeli universities and did I mention it is gorgeous up there at sunset? This is where they welcomed us, officially, to Israel, served us challah and wine, and provided some music to encourage some ethnic dancing (of which there was lots of). At this point, we have ONLY had one day in Israel, and that hasn’t even included sleep yet!
The next day started with a tour of the Jewish Quarter of the old city, and a little exploring around there, but was focused around the visit to the Western Wall. I had REALLY high expectations about the connection I would feel when I got to touch the Western Wall, but I unfortunately had TOO high of expectations for the experience. When I touched the Wall, I only saw all the people around me who were affected more, and I regret not taking the moment to truly go within myself. I wish I had allowed myself to be more introspective, but sadly I did not, and this is the ONLY regret of my entire trip!
The Western Wall was followed by dinner and a thing they called the “Mega Event,” but that was just a huge opportunity for them to talk about how great Birthright is and how it has been around for 10 years, etc. The next day started early with a talk from a man named Avraham Infeld. As speakers go, Avraham was amazingly good, and the sad room he talked to us in was an embarrassment to the message he was trying to tell us. The greatest quote from him was that “Judaism is not a religion” and that it is a culture and a people and a connection that we all have. He continued by telling us many stories about his life experiences, how he grew up hearing that Judaism is not a religion, and that to others, Judaism is a religion and not a culture. It depends on the person, their upbringing, and many other factors that shape that opinion in a Jew’s life. However, the crux to it all was that we are all a family. We are connected to each other in an almost indescribable manner that goes deeper than any religion truly can (he also inserted a plug here for all of us to move to Israel). His talk was definitely a highlight and learning experience!
We then followed Avraham’s talk with a visit to Yad Vashem. For those who don’t know, Yad Vashem is a Holocaust Memorial Museum. But calling it that understates its importance and connection to anyone and everyone who has learned about the Holocaust, not just Jews and other peoples who lost loved ones during World War II. You can equate much of the memorial to the one in Washington D.C., and as a result, many of the images had been seen by me before and were a little less profound, but the final room is where I was truly touched. Of the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust, they have managed to collect in this final room boxes upon boxes of identifying information for 3 million of the men, women, and children who died. For many of them, this includes pictures of them before the war and information about their birthdays and country of origin. For others it is simply a name and the signature of a relative who survived saying it was so. Seeing this room, being able to truly grasp the enormity of 3 million, really hit home for me compared to the entirety of the rest of the memorial.
The next day, we met the soldiers who would be with us for the next 5 days, and volunteered at a local soup kitchen. Since the soldiers were THE highlight of the trip, let me say a little bit more about them here, and then I’ll move on to a description of Mount Herzl. In America, we imagine soldiers as burly men, or the depiction of them in Jarhead and other movies. Israeli soldiers are very different. Their military is based upon all men and women serving 3 years, and being in the reserves well into their 40’s (or maybe right up to 40). As a result, the soldiers are no different than myself when out of uniform. The group of 8 soldiers who joined our group for 5 days had something even more special than that. They connected with us. Each and everyone one of the 40 people who went to Israel in our group. We hung out with them at night, joked with them during the tour, cried with them at Mount Herzl and at departure, and connected with them at a level akin to the lifelong connections that people typically make over the course of years. All in just 5 days! They are our family, and we are theres. As if the group of people we flew to Israel with weren’t awesome enough, we got there and met these soldiers who truly resonated with us and will always be part of the memories that this trip gave each and everyone of us.
Mount Herzl is what Americans would call a cemetery for the Israeli soldiers who have died for the state of Israel. To Israeli’s, and clearly to anyone who visits it, it is more akin to a memorial of what people are capable of when they truly believe in their cause. There are stories for each and every grave, some of camaraderie, others of bravery, and many of commitment and believing in what they fight for. Even to the most staunch anti-Zionists, the stories that accompany the sight of the graves is moving.
Shabbat services were led by a member of our group, and would have been great if the other buses had been more respectful. Also, I have never heard so many diverse and different tunes for the same songs. Who uses the tune of Yankee Doodle? The next day was Shabbat, and the first time that we had some time to relax, and we used it! The majority of the day was spent sleeping, and it was a good thing that we got so much rest, because the next day started with hiking Masada. For those who don’t know, Masada was the site of the Jewish Zealots’ last stand against the Roman Legionnaires where, the night before the Romans were going to overrun the outpost of Masada, after a terribly long siege, the Zealots took their own lives to never surrender, so that they would “die as free men” instead of under the whip or sword as defeated men. The hike up was not easy, since we climbed up the Snake Path (a series of many, many switchbacks that took us up about 400+ meters in elevation to the top), but the hike back down was on the Roman Path, which was a straight shot done, and much easier to do.
After our hike, we got to ride camels, and float in the Dead Sea before we headed to the hotel. Israel without getting the experience of riding a camel is not worth the money, I’m glad we got to do that, even if the ride was short. Floating in the Dead Sea is… painful. Imagine the saltiest water you’ve ever seen (it creates salt crystals on the bottom in lieu of a sand bed) getting into any cut, nick, or orifice, and multiply that by 4. For anyone who had a cut, it stung like hell. If you got it in your eye or nose, that hurt to no end and you were out of the water in a snap to rinse. But just staying in the water eventually causes is to get into areas that most prefer not to talk about, and that stinging is just annoying. With all that being said, floating in the Dead Sea is a true experience!
The highlights of the next day were a nature walk in the Tel Dan Nature Reserve, standing atop the Golan Heights, and rafting down the Jordan River. The walk was really cool because the area was very nice, we got to see the ruins of a Canaanite temple, and we were able to see the border of Lebanon. Later that day, we went up the Golan Heights and were able to look out from atop the mountain, through the haze since it was a bit rainy, and see the border of Syria. Then rafting down the Jordan was TONS of fun (once people got into the mood of it). We started out with a bunch of people who just didn’t want to be splashed by the cool water, but by the end of it, everyone was splashing each other, jumping from one boat to the other, and dragging people into the water. It was tons of fun (and I ended up with a broken sandal from the experience).
The following day was the saddest day of our entire trip. It was our last day with the soldiers, and saying good bye to people who we had connected to so thoroughly was difficult at best. You know the song Absolutely (Story of a Girl)? Well we cried 40 rivers that all drowned the world!!! We sat in a circle and basically kept talking about how much none of us ever expected to connect to each other and to the soldiers at half the level that we did, and there were SO many tears! The rest of the day from then on was pretty much shot. That evening was Shavuot, which was delicious! The rest of the night was spent with everyone just kind of going to bed. The next day included bnei mitzvah services and naming ceremonies on the beach in Nahariya, which were beautiful! We hung out on the beach for the rest of the day and then were surprised by some of the soldiers when we got back to the hotel. It was so awesome to get to see some of them just one more time and we went out that night and had a great last night together at a couple bars on the beach. Was a stellar way to end the trip minus the fact that many of us didn’t bother going to bed since we were leaving the hotel at 4:30 AM.
Overall, the trip was absolutely awesome! There are precious few moments in life that I would be willing to trade for the memories that I have from Israel. I love everyone who we were with and all 8 soldiers! You are all awesome and that was the most fucking Taglit trip of my life!!!