by Alexander Schwartz
On an early morning, our birthright trip began. The airport was filled with hellos, hugs between old friends, and introductions to new friends. After getting our hats and tickets and going through security, we started our long flight. Some were lucky enough to sleep, while others watched multiple movies. After arriving, it felt like just another airport, similar to those in America due to how nice it was. One of the walkways was designed to look as if you were walking past the stone walls of ancient Israel. The soldiers from Israel joined us and offered us cookies. I wasn't sure at first if they'd be any different from us. Although raised in a different country and having experienced military service, they were just young people like us hoping to enjoy their time on birthright. Our travels continued and we saw a Roman aqueduct. The night ended with dinner at the hotel and a long session of icebreakers.
What truly makes a group of people memorable and close is a combination of time, fun, and deep moments. Today provided all three of those. For example, my roommates and I woke up very early and used that time to better know the other members of the "Sababa" bus. The morning was serene. We got a nice breakfast and I sat outside enjoying everyone's company and the beauty of this place. This was the start of a long day, in which we found the time to bond with our small community.
As we arrived near the Syrian border, I was surprised by what seemed to be a view of a seemingly boring land filled with fields. As Manash started explaining the history of the wars between Israel and Arab nations, the field transformed into a battlefield. The Syrian tanks, Israeli soldiers marching through the land filled my imagination. Manash taught me that previous Egyptian President, Sadat, was assassinated by his own people because he was trying to make peace with Israel.
The rest of the day included great activities. First, we enjoyed Israeli falafel and shawrma. Then, we went rafting through the Banias and Jordan Rivers. Shout out to Jonah for carrying our raft. While it wasn't a race, we did come in first with a 45 minute raft time #teamjonah. After rafting, we enjoyed activities like archery, rock climbing, and a zip line. This was followed by pizza and a winery. I was surprised that chocolate wine could be so good. This was the fun that's necessary to bond a group.
After a long day, I was skeptic of any other planned activities. But as we broke into two groups, a deep conversation ensued. As per our agreement, I cannot share anyone’s story, but I can tell you that these stories really allowed us get to see others' perspectives. We already got chances to learn about each other and to enjoy time with each other. This segment led by Paulette and Ben gave us the chance to start to understand each other. Our little Jewish community started to form a connection here in Israel. Hopefully through this trip, we'll form our connection with Israel.
Our day began in Tsafat, one of the four Israeli cities that are also holy sites. This city has both a new and old portion, but we walked through the old parts of the city. We saw a Sephardic synagogue that was damaged from attacks years ago. The city appeared to be peaceful, yet the bullet hole on the bima reminded us of the conflict filled history that has filled all the parts of Israel.
The city is associated with mysticism due to its association with Kaballah. So much so that Paulette told us that each of the four cities is associated with one of the elements: earth, water, air, and fire. I believe Tsafat was associated with air, but don't take my word on that. Paulette is the expert on all things astrological.
While the spirituality didn't reach to me personally, I could tell that there were those who felt the magic of the city. Some wanted trinkets and jewelry to capture that mysticism, such as one of the Matthews. Some got souvenirs for themselves, others like me and Jonah got it for people important in our lives. The city was filled with arts and crafts, almost as if the entire street was designed to be an art gallery. Some of us tried to bargain at the shops, but we failed miserably. Oh well, I had to say goodbye to some shekels.
After spending 2 shekels for the restroom, we headed off to an army base. This base specializes in training communities that would otherwise be ill-prepared for the military. We were constantly reminded that Israel devoted a huge amount of resources to helping these communities fit into the army. Perhaps it's due to patriotism, an interest in improving communities, or some other agenda. The night ended with a geopolitical update.
Today was a day of learning. With the Israel-Palestine conflict being near and dear to our hearts or ascribing itself to a deep-rooted moral code, it can be hard to find any truth in the situation. Especially when both sides, and each actor within those sides, have their own truth. Today we heard from Grecia, a former colonel in the IDF. He was mayor of Gaza and involved with the civil administration (former government of the Palestinian territories). We entered Zone C of the West Bank. To any family members reading this, don’t worry. It is a safe area. Many things I thought were true were not. The logic of the situation seemed contradictory. The security fence, border wall, BDS movement, terrorism, security, and more aren't so clear. The reasons, motivations, and details vary. Perhaps I sound confused and all over the place and that's because I am. It's confusing. One interesting thing I learned is that the West Bank and Israel are very much connected for economic reasons, which makes negotiations or direct conflict very tough.
We continued to learn throughout the day. We learned about women who empowered themselves within the Bedouin community. Ama (I believe her name was) pushed against all pressures in order to become a nurse. The other speaker told of an organization trying to better the community, especially women.
The learning went even further when learning about how Bedouins make coffee, food, and find water. Our dinner involved sitting on mattresses around a table and putting food onto a piece of bread that I believe is called Laffa. Definitely one of the more unusual forms of eating I have experienced. Manasch told us that it's rude to leave food so we have to finish everything in the bowl. To be honest it's difficult to trust Manasch. Between requiring a driver's license to ride a camel and a number of other jokes he made, I wasn't sure whether it's actually rude or if Manasch wanted to see us overeat. Fortunately my table made a pretty big dent in the bowl of grain, potato, lamb meatballs (I think), chicken legs, and dolma.
We tried to discover our spirituality in the darkness of the desert. There was a lot about this night to enjoy. There was a bonfire with s’mores, a bunch of places to hang out and chill, and a few people who were ready to go to bed. Omer (or Itay as he insisted his name was) turned out to be a good stand up comedian as long as he is hidden behind a curtain. We then got a short sleep on mattresses in a Bedouin tent.
We learned a lot this day. From more serious topics like Israel-Palestine relations and women and education in the Bedouin community, to Israeli McDonald's, Bedouin hospitality, and our own spirituality.
Hello there, coming at you from the Negev desert at 4:34 am. After an extensive night of sleep (between 0 and 4 hours), we sipped tea and munched on cookies in the darkness. Then we drove through the late night/early morning to hike Masada and see the sunrise. We learned that this ancient fort was built by a paranoid Roman king and later used by members of a Jewish rebellion. Although we saw the beauty of the sunrise and the area, we learned the tragedy that the 950 Jews here all killed each other in order to prevent being enslaved by the Romans. There were churches, destroyed aqueducts, a synagogue, and a palace all on Masada. To be honest, I spent most of the time looking for "Harry and Sally", as our tour guide Manasch likes to call the restroom. But after Masada, we went to breakfast at the Bedouin camp. We saw rabbits and goats, and one of the Daniels made some pretty good goat sounds, leading to a back and forth of "baaaaaa".
Then we went to the Dead Sea. In photos, you always see people comfortably resting on this salt filled sea. I will admit it was incredibly easy to float. Comfort? Not so much. Besides cuts and recently shaved areas burned as a result of the salt water. Even with the pain, this was an amazing experience, especially as this sea will be gone in 40 years if something isn't done to save it. While it would be a shame, we learned that Israel would become even richer due to the huge magnesium deposits under the Dead Sea.While resting on the bus ride to Jerusalem, I was woken up by songs about Jerusalem played over the bus speakers. For a brief moment, I was amazed by the beauty of the city with the western wall and holy mound in the distance. But we already lost sight of it as we went to the suburbs. We arrived to a beautiful hotel and prepared for Shabbat. We went through some nice services and songs, and had dinner. Perhaps it's standard Israeli food or standard hotel food, but we were greeted by the same food from the first hotel. I'm not complaining though as I definitely enjoyed it. Thus, our day of rest began.
Sometimes we forget the little joys in life, like the joy of being able to sleep in after a long and tiring week. I'd like to say the day of rest of the day was spent by the pool, at the gym, or playing ping pong. Unfortunately, we had no paddles, there was $18 gym entry fee, and only bald people can use the pool. Even with those obstacles, I think many of us still managed to enjoy our Shabbat.
We eventually got to the naming ceremony. Many chose new names. Taidze chose Ariel meaning lion of God. Walter chose Amichai or something along those lines, meaning life of his people. We then went to the bar mitzvah ceremony. It was amazing that we managed to get a Torah for the ceremony.
The night went on with havdalah. I have a request for those reading. Next time you do havdalah and sing the song that has the words "la dai dai...", discuss with your family if it's actually the theme song to Star Trek (2009). We then went to a market with some bars and restaurants. A lot of dancing happened that night. Asaf (one of the Israeli soldiers) is a great host, introducing us to his friends and assisting us in talking to waiters. The night ended with us pushing through crowds and getting some much needed rest to end our day of rest.