This past December, I had the opportunity to travel on a Birthright trip to Israel. My trip organizer was Amazing Israel, though they're all fantastic. I had an "amazing" experience and I'm excited to share some images from the trip. We arrived at Newark Airport on Monday, December 12, with plenty of time to spare before the long flight to Tel Aviv.
Our first stop when we landed was The Museum of Jewish People, where we had a talk on Judaism and what it means to be Jewish, and saw two exhibits. One was about synagogues around the world; the other was about Bob Dylan. Part of the Dylan exhibit was dedicated to the photography of Elliott Landy, which was so, so cool.
We did a quick ceremony with grape juice standing in for wine, overlooking Tel Aviv, officially welcoming us to Israel. After a quick stop for lunch at a mall (where I got some of the best falafel I've ever had!), we headed up north to Kibbutz Gadot in the Golan Heights.
After some time to rest, we did some icebreaker activities and had dinner on the kibbutz. There was a bar on the kibbutz, which was kind of like an underground-speakeasy-meets-college-bar. (We later learned that the bar is also a bomb shelter- all houses in Israel are required to have a bomb shelter.)
On our first full day in Israel, we stepped outside of our room to see a dog waiting there (turns out he roams the kibbutz and everyone collectively takes care of him)- we nicknamed him Elijah, which was fitting. We drove up the Golan Heights, along the Jordan River (which used to be the Syrian border). It rained for a lot of our time in Israel, which is surprising- but the rain meant we saw plenty of rainbows. We saw one as we drove past the Kinneret (also known as the Sea of Galilee), which was incredible, and stopped at a hot spring, where our tour guide, Ayal, taught us about the political and cultural history of the area.
After a relaxing soak in the hot springs, we headed to the outskirts of Katzrin- the only city in the Golan Heights- to visit the Olea Essence olive press where we washed our hands with an olive scrub and sampled some of their olive oil. We made a quick stop for lunch (where I had delicious hummus and pita- I love hummus, so I was happy to have it every day) and then went on to the Golan Heights Winery for a tour. We had an absolutely lovely tour guide, Shalom! You can see that Ayal liked to goof off when he wasn't in "education" mode...
To end the day we stopped at a Druz village for pastries and coffee, before going to Mt. Bental to look out at the Syrian border. As a Jew you're always told that Israel is your homeland, and it certainly felt like that. Mt. Bental was the first that I realized not only how different Israel is from the US, but how different the Middle East in general is. It felt different but it felt important to be there, to feel connected.
On Thursday, December 15, we headed to Mt. Meron for a hike. As someone with bad knees, hiking has never been my favorite activity. At the top, we had a group discussion about spirituality, asking some of life's hardest questions. It was intense, but it was powerful to have that discussion at the top of a mountain.
We then drove to the mystical city of Zefat, where we had a talk from Kabbalah artist David Friedman. It was fascinating to learn about all of the symbolism involved in his art. While walking around for lunch (falafel and fries), we saw an adorable little Pomeranian in a sweater. Ayal then gave us a talk about "finding your light" and the importance of pursuing your passion and not giving up on your dream.
Our bus then headed south to Jerusalem. The long bus rides were interesting: we always got restless and antsy, so there'd be plenty of goofing around... but the days were long so we'd end up dozing off for naps. After dinner at the hotel, we had an evening program, where we put stickers on a map where our grandparents were born- I was surprised at how varied everyone's backgrounds were! Then, we walked to Machane Yehuda Market to check out some of the bars and shops.
On Friday morning, we met the young Israelis- all members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)- who would be joining our trip for a few days. Touring the Old City of Jerusalem was fascinating- this is where it all happened! We visited the Western Wall and were able to walk around for lunch- I had falafel and a soy cappucino overlooking the Old City- what a view.
We went back to the hotel to change, and to celebrate Shabbat we had a brief service in the Old City, and were able to visit the Western Wall again. Lighting the candles as the sun set felt pretty special, but thank goodness we did it when we did- a few minutes later, it started to rain... which made the walk back to the hotel feel even longer!
On Saturday, we got to sleep in. We then walked to The Knesset Building where Ayal talked about Israeli politics. After that we headed to the Museum of Israel- exploring the Dead Sea Scrolls was fascinating, and I wouldn't miss the chance to take a picture with the "LOVE" ("Ahava") sign. I only wish we'd been able to spend more time at the museum- there were so many exhibits I wanted to explore.
After lunch at the hotel, we talked about the week's Torah portion, and related it to our experiences with overcoming struggles without forgetting what we have been through. We ended Shabbat with a Havdalah ceremony, which was so much fun. We stood in a circle and sang, lit a candle, blessed the wine, and I held a thing of herbs and walked around the circle so everyone could sniff it (which was super funny but really nice- they smelled lovely). We wished each other Shavua Tov- "have a good week"- and then had dinner at Eucalyptus, a fancy restaurant in Jersualem, before going out and exploring the nightlife some more.
Sunday was another more low-key day. After breakfast we had a program at the hotel about the Israel-Palestine conflict from a guest lecturer, and then Ayal talked about it and shared his thoughts. We drove to the West Bank which was one of the more intense parts of the trip, to overlook it. It was drizzling as we got off the bus, and then all of a sudden we saw a rainbow stretching from the Old City to the West Bank, which felt significant.
We drove back to Machane Yehuda market where we had lunch at an Iraqi place. But more exciting than hummus and pita was the vegan ice cream I got at Gela afterwards (I've got a huge sweet tooth!). We were supposed to do more outdoor activities but the weather was our enemy once again, so we visited an LGBT center called Open House, where we learned about the programming there and the LGBT community in Jerusalem and how it differs from the rest of Israel.
At our hotel that afternoon we had a program to prepare for our visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum and memorial. It was very tough to talk about and while the Holocaust is always difficult, being in Israel made it feel more real. We all continued talking about it over dinner.
After dinner we met a representative from Gift of Life Marrow Registry. When people with blood cancer need a bone marrow transplant, their best chance at a match is with someone of a similar ethnic background. The Gift of Life representative told us the organization was created following a registration drive for Jay Feinberg, a Jewish man diagnosed with leukemia. When Jay was diagnosed, the worldwide donor registry was not representative of all ethnic groups; if more Jews- and people of all ethnic backgrounds- registered to donate, then members of those groups would have better chance at finding a match. If you're interested in registering to donate bone marrow, find out more on Gift of Life's website here.
On Monday morning, we checked out of our hotel in Jerusalem and went to visit Yad Vashem. To say it was an emotional experience wouldn't quite cover it. It was very, very intense from start to finish, and especially harrowing to think about similarities between Hitler's rise to power and the dialogue around him and the current political climate in the US. The "First They Came..." poem was written on a wall, and it's an important reminder (if you aren't familiar, read it here). One of our group members, John, has a grandmother that was on Schindler's List and at the beginning of our visit, we found this tree that was planted in Oskar Schindler's memory.
We stopped at a plaza for lunch where I had the most amazing grilled eggplant with tahini sauce (oh, how I love tahini sauce) and a soy cappuccino. After lunch we visited Mount Herzl, the national and military cemetery on the west side of Jerusalem. Military service is mandatory for all citizens in Israel, which unfortunately means that just about every Israeli knows someone buried at Mount Herzl.
We had a long drive south to the Bedouin Tents in the Negev Desert. I've always found deserts to be enchanting, and this one especially so. It felt more remote than southwestern US deserts I've driven through on tour; it was so open. We crowded in one tent for a Welcome Ceremony and then had dinner sitting around crowded tables, laughing about the day. One of the participants of the trip, Katie, is a yoga teacher, and led us all in a short yoga class in the tent before we went outside for a bonfire.
One of my favorite parts of the trip- which will forever remain a very special memory- was going stargazing in the desert. Ayal instructed us to be silent on the walk over, and said we were not to use any sort of flash light. That proved challenging, as it was dark and there were plenty of rocks to be tripped over; when we got there, it was magical. I have been so mystified by the desert for as long as I can remember; to actually lie on the sand dunes and gaze at the stars was so special. We took turns sayings words that the stars made us think of, and we spent several minutes just lying there, thinking and praying and absorbing it.
We woke up early on Tuesday morning, but before 7am the sun was already strong in the desert! Our first stop of the day was Masada, and on the way, we saw a camel! He wasn't too far away and seemed to look right at us when I pointed my camera in his direction. While steep (in my eyes, anyway!), the hike up Masada was actually pretty easy, though I'm definitely not too fond of hiking in any form. Our medic and guard, Alex, and Eric, Ethan, and Sam from our group helped me when I had trouble at the top.
Touring the palace and bathhouses, and looking out over the Dead Sea, was fascinating. When we went down the steps into an old cistern it really felt like we were reliving history. There was light shining through a small high-up window; we took turns standing in it and taking pictures. Then we all stood looking out over the valley and shouted, one word at a time, "A second time Masada won't fall"- the echo was so loud! My knees were hurting so I took a cable car down with Ari, one of our trip leaders, which presented some really incredible views.
Ever since I was very little, I had dreamed of floating in the Dead Sea. I've always loved to swim and to visit a sea that was so incredibly buoyant sounded magical! It was honestly a dream come true to float in the Dead Sea; I'm so grateful I was finally able to (even though I got the water in my eye- which hurt!). It was crazy to see the mountains of Jordan on the water's other edge. Being able to float just made me feel so free! We ate lunch at the spa there and then had a goodbye discussion with the Israelis on our trip. It was so great meeting them all and it's so special knowing I now know people that live in Israel.
Our final stop would be Tel Aviv. On the bus ride there, a friend of Ayal's who works at the UN hopped on, to tell us about what he does. Our hotel in Tel Aviv was a very fancy hotel called the Metropolitan. After dropping our things in our rooms we had dinner at the hotel, and then went out to Jaffa to see a show called Not By Bread Alone. The show was about- and starred- deaf and blind individuals who struggled, but still had hopes and dreams. They were actually baking fresh bread on stage, which we all got to taste at the end- it was the best bread I've ever tasted.
We returned to Jaffa in the morning to tour the old city; it was so amazing looking out at the Tel Aviv skyline along the water. Tel Aviv is basically a brand new (just over 100 years old) city right next to Jaffa, which has so much history! After stopping for coffee we met up at a Christmas tree and then walked to an old train station and then walked to Tel Aviv.
I was so fascinated as we walked to Rothschild Boulevard- the main road in the financial district- and learned about what daily life is like in the city. We walked to the Karmel Market which was so cool- busy and crowded with so much going on. We got empanadas and falafel and did plenty of shopping (I'd promised my mom I would bring her a menorah from Israel, and I found one that was really lovely). I found a gelato place that had a few vegan flavors available and got hazelnut, dark chocolate, and "Aztec" (chocolate with chili pepper) in a huge waffle cone.
At the time I wasn't that excited, but looking back, going to Independence Hall was such a cool experience. We watched a film and then a woman presented to us about the ceremony declaring Israel an independent state.
Did you know that Israel is FULL of start-ups? It's ranked 4th in the world in terms of number of start-ups and has by far the most per capita, which is crazy. So, at the end of the day, we paired off into groups and took to the streets for a scavenger hunt all about them! My group had a lot of fun trying to answer the riddles, but we also made sure to take a break for coffee, and stop to pick up some Israeli snacks.
Back at the hotel, we had a group wrap-up session where we talked about what we got out of the trip. I thanked all of the gentlemen that went out of their way to help me on the hikes, and found that many of my peers had shared my fears and hesitations about the trip- and about life in general.
Finally it was time for one last night out on the town in Tel Aviv. We headed to the Dizengoff area to a bar- but pretty quickly I found myself next door at a place called Cookeez that made vegan ice cream cookie sandwiches! I found myself also in conversations that may have changed my life, with people who certainly did.
My trip to Israel was incredible; I think about it always. I am so grateful I was able to visit and I hope to return someday, but for now, I have memories and photographs to remember it by.