As some of you may or may not know, I was recently able to travel back to Israel for ten days through an amazing program called Taglit Birthright. If you want to learn more about the Birthright mission and history just follow this link here but this post will be more directed to my personal experience with it.
There are many different providers for the Birthright trip and for my experience I chose to go with Israel Outdoors, specifically their “Israel by Foot” program that puts a big emphasis on the outdoors and connecting with the land of Israel. It seemed like the perfect program for me seeing as they didn’t have a program that explores the beers of Israel. I had waited a long time to go on this trip because I had always planned on going with one of my good friends from high school and I didn’t think that I was personally ready for the experience. I waited until a point that I felt I would truly get the most out of the program but had to pull the trigger because the trips had age restraints.
While this wasn’t going to be the first time that I went to Israel (I had the opportunity to travel to the Western Galilee area on a service-based spring break trip through Partnership2Gether) I knew going in that this Birthright trip would be much different. Between a significant amount of traveling, the goals of the program, and the obvious fact that I would be there with new people these trips would end up being completely different experiences for me but both extraordinary in their own right.
My trip to Israel lasted ten days and they were some of the most packed days that I have experienced. We arrived in Israel that morning and after getting our bags, meeting the staff, and slowly gathering ourselves onto the bus we headed towards the old city of Yafo where we had an amazing breakfast (set the standard extremely high for the rest of the trip) and explored the ancient ruins and seaside before heading into Tel Aviv. By this time the travel and long day was beginning to catch up with me so unfortunately I wasn’t as tuned into the histories of Tel Aviv and Independence Hall. However I experience my first truly emotional experience when we visited Rabin Square and I stood right where Rabin was standing when he was murdered. The memorial, which is located right where the event occurred and almost looks like it was just thrown into a corner of a building downtown, was very powerful for me and the preserved graffiti from all of the mourners really brought home for me the fact that I was standing in a place where history had been made, even if it had been made for the worse. Completely exhausted we checked into the hotel, cleaned ourselves up, ate, and had our first group meeting to try and get to know each other a little better. By this point I had already begun to get a good grip on who people were but had hardly gotten the opportunity to talk to many of them. Sleep that night was glorious.
Our second day began with a swim in the Mediterranean which was beyond refreshing. From there we had one of our longer drives from the coast out to the Judean desert. On this drive I got my first look at the city of Jerusalem which was very inspiring but I was surprised how affected I was when I saw the wall separating the West Bank from Israel. To see the source of such controversy and division brought up a lot of questions for me. One of the big reasons why I came on Birthright was so that I could form a stronger connection with the land of Israel and up until that point I had yet to see anything that I had a negative connection with but there it was snaking through the desert and all I could think of is why the world would should ever need such an atrocity. Soon we arrived at the hostel and once again went through the routine of cleaning up and eating. After our meeting I sat down with a few people and taught them how to play euchre (which I had just learned about a month before). It was these late night hang outs where the group really started to bond even though we knew each morning was going to come a lot earlier than if we had just gone to bed.
The third day was one of my favorite because we got to enjoy our first hike. My idea of what a hike would be on this trip was quickly corrected. I had gone in expecting and prepared for hikes that I had become accustomed to in New Zealand but these would be much more casual. Once I corrected for this I allowed myself to just get lost in the desert landscape. We hiked through the oasis of Ein Gedi alongside several freshwater springs that had formed throughout the rockface. We got to stop and swim in a few of them and our tour guide, Maya, really showed how much she knew about the culture and history of Israel as she always had stories and information for us. After the hike we traveling to the Dead Sea where I mudded up and went for a casual float. Thankfully I had no lingering knicks or cuts but I was one of the unfortunate souls who tried to move from their back to their stomach too quickly and got a mouth full of water (which was 33% salt) for my effort. Yuck. That night we camped out in the desert and after the most delicious lentil soup I have ever tasted we set up a fire and did our best at 40 person karaoke where I may or may not have revealed an extensive knowledge of Disney lyrics.
Thursday morning came early and not just because we had spent the night singing around the fire but because our wakeup was at 3:30am. I cant really say that I was awake when I took down the tent, trudged over for what I would call more of a midnight snack than breakfast, and stumbled onto the bus. However by the time we arrived at our destination at the ancient palace fortress of Masada I was ready to go. Even at that hour of the morning the Jew inside of me was excited to see such a unique landmark of my heritage and the nerd inside of me was fascinated to get a look at the best preserved Roman siege in the entire world. The reason why we had started so early is so that we could watch the sunrise over the Jordan mountains and Dead Sea valley. Not only was the trek to the top of the mountain a nice challenge but it was completely worth getting up so early to witness something so beautiful. Masada itself was fascinating and Maya took us through the store houses, Roman bath (ironic, huh?), water cistern, and the palace. It was in the water cistern that she told us the significance of Masada and why it had become such a huge landmark for the Jewish people because really the story of Masada itself is pretty dark and controversial. But Maya made it very clear that the reason why Masada is celebrated is because we are still here. And guess who isn’t? From Masada we returned back to Jerusalem where we would spend the next three days. We didn’t do much for the rest of the day but that night was our one night out on the town. The area we went to was extremely touristy but it was still a great night out and really let the group further bond together.
Friday, we finally MET OUR ISRAELI PEERS! After a short welcome session, Maya took us to an overlook where we could see almost the entire city. Then we went on a short tour of the city on our way to the Western Wall. Even knowing far in advance that we would be going, I was not prepared in the slightest and I don’t think that anyone ever can be. Just sitting here now thinking back on what it was like to move across the square towards the wall has me in goosebumps. I had yet to stand in a place that had such a massive amount of historical significance paired with an intense personal connection and the combination was actually slightly overwhelming. There were only two times where I was the very last person to show up when it was time to regroup and this was one of them. And I will be back again. After the Western Wall, Maya took us on a tour underneath the ancient City of David during which we were actually in the ancient tunnels that they used for their water supply. Really a fascinating architectural achievement and it was something completely different than anything that I had done before. We also got time to explore the main market which was absolutely fascinating with all of the food, gifts, and more food. I could have spent hours there. Our day ended early because of the Shabbat holiday and before dinner we all took a moment to recollect on something that had truly impacted us but we may not have vocalized. It was a very special moment that really turned us from a group of strangers into a mishpucha.
Saturday was interesting simply because I was experiencing what it was like to be in a city where Shabbat was officially observed. That morning we walked to the The Israel Museum and I kept joking that it felt like a zombie apocalypse because we may have seen 10 cars the entire time. There was no one on the streets, no cars, and all the stores were closed. The museum itself was one of the best that I have been in. Our tour guide had a very Israeli sense of humor which rubbed some people the wrong way and I have come to the conclusion that one of my biggest pet peeves is when I am rushed through a museum but I loved this outing because there was just so.much.stuff. Art, synagogues that had been completely relocated from other parts of the world, Judaica relics, and a Dead Sea Scroll exhibit which was a personal favorite. I opted to stay at the museum for a few more hours with some other members of the group and afterwards we spent the rest of the day relaxing around the hotel.
The rest of the trip is kind of a blur (especially now that it has been almost two months since I was there). I do know that we had a wonderful hike in the Galilee that was by far my favorite of the trip. It was a full day of wonderful landscapes and a fantastic hiking partner in Lital that culminated in a sense of true accomplishment. The feeling was a bit short lived however as we almost immediately had to say goodbye to our Israeli peers. This was very hard because not only did it feel incredibly rushed but these were people who had legitimately become family. I don’t think I will ever get used to saying goodbyes.
This trip could not have been any different from my first experience in Israel and I honestly don’t know how to explain the difference other than that it would be similar to comparing apples and oranges. On the outside they might look similar but the experience underneath were totally different. My birthright trip was spent with people I will never forget and who I truly do hope to keep in my life not only as friends and connections across the world but as a michpucha who I will always be a part of.
I do apologize for the delay of this post. I hope you all enjoy it regardless.