Israel: Visiting the Country with Birthright
Birthright: My Israel Excursion
Until I visited Israel for myself, I never appreciated the long history behind my religion. But a trip to Israel, following a family tradition that my brother Aaron began, brought me closer to my Jewish roots.
Birthright Israel offers a free, 10-day trip to Israel for young Jewish adults between the ages of 18 and 26. The non-profit foundation’s objectives include to strengthen each participant’s identity as a Jew, to build an understanding and lasting bond with the land and people of Israel, and to reinforce the unity of the Jewish people around the world.
Get Out of the Comfort Zone
“When I was in Israel, I was on a mission to get more out of my comfort zone, do things that I can brag to my friends at home about, and make new connections.
I got way more than I asked for,” said participant Zach Tuman.
On Sunday, May 11 of 2014, I met my two staff leaders and fellow group members before boarding the plane at JFK. I went with URJ Kesher, the Taglit-Birthright Israel trip affiliated with Reform Judaism.
Participants came from all across the United States and Canada. From this point forward, I would make some of my best friends to date.
In less than 48 hours, we were no longer just a group of young Jewish adults, but rather a family with a shared desire to discover a Jewish culture we were once disconnected from.
Experiencing the Desert
My favorite parts of the trip started at the Western or Wailing Wall, what remains of the Second Temple. It was required that everyone wear conservative clothing to show respect to others praying. Women were led to the right side of the Wall and men to the left. My sister and I prayed with our heads against the Wall and our eyes closed.
It is custom to place notes with written prayers in the cracks so before leaving the hotel everyone in the group got a small piece of paper to write a prayer on.
For lunch I indulged on shawarma, a wrap with lamb, tahini sauce, hummus, and a mix of vegetables. That was my first time eating the dish and certainly not my last.
Later in the day we headed to the Negev desert and jumped on camels for a sunset ride. Each camel held two people and Bedouin Hospitality workers led the ride.
We stayed in the Kfar HaNokdim Bedouin Tent that night, an area surrounded by the desert. We put our luggage down in large open tents filled with colorful rugs and blankets and small mattresses where we would sleep that night. We joined the host and tribe leader for an ancient coffee making ceremony. Using a mortar he began grinding the coffee beans in a traditional beat.
The coffee was dark and rich in taste. After the ceremony we were led to dinner where we sat on carpeted floors without utensils. Instead, we used the bread and pita to wrap the other dishes and eat them as a sandwich.
At 11 p.m., Amado gathered a group and brought us out of the village into the open desert for a meditation. She lead the meditation, citing prayers and personal experiences during her travels in India where she learned about the practice. It was in that moment that I learned more about myself than I had in years. Lying on the desert ground, I looked up at a sky lit by millions of stars with my sister and group members I had met just a few days ago, although it felt as if I had known them for years.
In that moment I felt remarkably small, just a speck in the grand scheme of things. Yet, at the same time I felt infinitely important, like that specific experience meant something in that same grand scheme. “That was one of the most significant moments of my life. Lying on the desert ground in the dark using the stars as light. I felt free,” said my sister Chelsea Aihini.
Wednesday morning the group woke up before dawn to climb Masada. We watched the sunrise from the top of the ancient fortress that was once home to the Zealots. Ronen led us through the mountain refuge for Jews escaping the Roman legions after the destruction of Jerusalem. The hike down the mountain was a steep and rocky journey.
The Lowest Point on Earth
Once we descended to the bottom, we made our way to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth. The English translation is “Sea of Salt” because it is nine times as salty as the ocean therefore causing you to float without even trying.
Each person covered themselves in Dead Sea mud, known to be beneficial for the skin and body, and walked in to the shell and rock filled waters. I would try to push my body down, although you are highly recommended to keep your eyes above water, but I would inevitably pop right back up every time.
We left the Dead Sea and traveled to the North of Israel where we were first introduced to the eight Israelis who would be a part of the rest of our Israeli excursion. Before going to the Balev Kibbutz Hotel, we were surprised with a small cruise on the Sea of Galilee filled with music during sunset.
As soon as we set sail, popular Israeli music intertwined with radio hits in the US filled the boat and in minutes everyone was on their feet dancing. The ride was the perfect way to get comfortable with our eight new friends and let loose after a day history and hiking.
Tuesday arrived after a sleepless night with the Israeli’s and we were led to Tel Dan Nature Reserve to climb through a dark cave into natural waterfalls. After, we traveled to the Golan Heights to explore the beauty and history of war. On top of the Golan Heights, I was able to stand in Israel while looking at Syria and Jordan. Many of the group members claimed they heard a bomb sound go off in neighboring Syria.
Nearing the End
After a long and busy 10 days of traveling from border to border, edge to edge, the trip came to a close. I walked through Mount Herzl, the national military cemetary of Israel to pay tribute to the fallen soldiers. Ronen shared his personal experience serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. “It was terribly hard to see a close friend wounded or dead beside me and have no choice but to continue on,” he said.
I toured Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum and Memorial and reflected on the monstrosities of the genocide. It was extremely powerful walking through the museum seeing graphic photographs of prisoners whose ribs looked like they would penetrate the skin at any given moment.
Our Final Hours
On our final day in Israel we visited the Independence Hall and learned about the major role that Tel Aviv played in establishing the state of Israel in 1948.
Saying our goodbyes to the Israeli’s and several group members extending their trip left me in tears.
My brother, who had gone on Birthright several years before me, always said how incredible life changing the trip is. At the time, I never believed him, thinking I would have an amazing time but transition back to reality with ease. My experience in Israel was more than I could have ever asked for.
In the span of 10 days I met some of the most authentic and genuine people building deep connections. I feel more connected to my roots and heritage and I look forward to visiting the Holyland once again.
Find out more at Birthright Israel.