i s r a e l : part two

This trip, in many ways, felt like sleepaway camp. As opposed to the simple “free trip to Israel” many of us imagined before landing halfway around the globe, this Birthright experience allowed me to develop several strong emotional bonds. I connected with my fellow travelers, who live across the US from New York to Laramie to Provo, in conversations spanning from introductory small talk to intense queries about the validity of relief when natural disasters reduce population size (Halley is a superb thinker.)

When traipsing around Israel, I felt a novel sensation of being intensely and barely Jewish at the same time.

Standing atop Mount Masada at dawn to witness the sunrise, looking out to the Dead Sea, surrounded by a mixed, mixed assortment of fellow Jews was astounding. Then, to hike over that mountain and imagine the thousands of years’ worth of events that had transpired atop the fortress, ranging from daily dove-tending to heart-rending massacres of Jews against Jews… this was so much more than a free trip. It required you up at dawn the first morning after a two-ish day day of travelling across the globe to get on your hiking boots and walk up a mountain. You were allowed the gift of meeting Bedouin nomads, drinking their coffee, and meditating on more stars than you’d ever seen while cloaked in the darkness of the Negev desert evening. Seven young Israelis ranging from soldiers to students to engineers accompanied you for five days. At first you were doubtful about their value, but after just a few days, you found yourself making silly faces with them and sincerely sorry when they left.

Even now, I’m not sure how Jewish I feel, or how to sort out the web of politics, history, and sorrow that the Jewish state has both endured and waged. However, I do know that because of this trip, I see Israel in a new light that’s framed with more understanding, support, and pride. I’ve strengthened my Jewish identity by holding onto the aspects of the religion I truly cherish such as universal respect, love, and the belief in education.

For the first time since high school, this trip gave me a huge community of young Jews to befriend. (I tried to enter the Wes group but it never felt right.) One of my favorite parts of going to Temple has been and will always be the multi-aged, family-filled community I can’t help but grow to love. Even though I’m far from most of my tripmates here in Connecticut, the idea that they’re all over the country is comforting, leading me to the thought that, when I do find a job and live somewhere, I can find another Jewish community to integrate myself into. Another home. To a lesser extent, I also now feel that Israel is another home for me if I wish it. That’s another incredible takeaway from ten days in a place steeped in meaning.

i s r a e l : part one

How do I begin writing about a ten-day trip across a country with as much history, conflict, beauty, scents, and sights as Israel? Well, I’ve gotta start somewhere. How about

Before landing in Tel Aviv, I was so wrong about many aspects of this trip.

I prepared myself to fight the various types of Judaism-related brainwashing they’d attempt on us all. On the right (0) to wrong (10) scale, I was wrong by 8.

I imagined the Israelis who’d accompany us for five days would be difficult to interact with and mostly sent by the organization to make us fall in love and settle in Israel with them. I was wrong by 9.

As someone not intimately involved with current events, I imagined Israel would feel something like a war zone: safety not guaranteed. However, with our two personable medics/security guards and itinerary that took us mainly to rural parts of the country, I hardly felt unsafe. While we were hiking close to the Syrian border (still many miles away), we heard four distant booms akin to those from the Hunger Games. A bit unsettling but barely. We later learned from UN peacekeepers that those sounds were from Israeli military exercises. So in the end, I don’t think I was ever very close to danger. Wrongness level: 9.25.

In terms of company, I didn’t think much about the others joining Elior and I on our trip through the holy land. I purposefully chose to join the 22-26 group over the college-aged groups because I thought they’d be more mature and better partners to explore the controversial, highly complex land that is the birthplace of humanity. Turns out I was right- this was a CRITICAL choice in elevating my experience. However, I didn’t foresee how much I’d bond with them on a level approaching that of sleepaway camp.

One aspect of the trip that I wish I hadn’t been wrong about was the food. I didn’t anticipate the daily buffets of plentiful cabbage and schnitzel, but had been hoping for more colorful and place-relevant dishes. True, we were offered roasted eggplant, various forms of sub-par shakshuka, and some okay hummus at these buffets, but it was at the markets and stands where the flavors really burst forth. Dare I admit that the hummus I tasted in London was better than the vast majority of the Israeli varieties I sampled? Reality check: I went with a group of 39 other young adults, on a practically FREE trip, for ten days. There’s no way I could’ve asked for higher quality food on the regular. Ultimately, I did expose my little tongue to some wonderful Middle Eastern flavors and for that I’m grateful.

At this point I’m still overwhelmed with the amount of information I wish to write and explore, so I’ll ease it by providing some pictures.