During the first two weeks of July, I was given the incredible opportunity to explore Israel for ten days as part of Birthright Israel.
For those of you who don’t know, Birthright is a completely free trip to Israel for young Jewish adults (age 18-26), sponsored by the State of Israel, local Jewish communities, and leading Jewish philanthropists. The program sends young Jews from all over the world to Israel as a gift in order to reconnect them with their homeland.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the trip: would it be overly religious? Would they try to encourage me to move to Israel? Would I literally melt in the desert heat? Despite all my doubts, I still love to travel and explore new countries, so I left home with an open mind. Little did I know that I would be taking off for one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
The trip began with meeting 40 complete strangers I would be traveling with the entire trip, including two staff members and an Israeli tour guide. We would later meet up with a group of eight young Israelis who traveled with us for five days of the trip. The purpose of this ‘mifgash’ or “encounter” was to experience the country through the eyes of Israeli peers our own age.
In one of our first group exercises, we were asked to express our expectations for the trip. It was something I hadn’t really put too much thought into. Most of the time when I travel, I just expect to learn something about a new culture and hopefully a little history. Many people expressed that they were looking for answers, about themselves, their faith, their heritage. Our guide told us that we would get no answers, only more questions. At the time this was confusing, would we learn nothing? What he actually meant, and what I would learn by the end of my experience, is that throughout our trip we would learn things that would expand our thinking, allowing us to develop deeper, more meaningful questions.
I could write a novel on my experience, but…in the interest of time, I thought I would share some of my favorite moments. Enjoy!
The Old City of Jerusalem
Probably the most well-known attraction for both tourists and religious pilgrims is the old city of Jerusalem. It is an ancient walled city inside of the larger, modern city of Jerusalem and is filled with thousands of years of history. Not going to lie, this day was HOT, and it was a struggle to pay attention to our guide and stay hydrated at the same time. However, the history buff in me had a field day learning about all the incredible events that happened within those walls.
The most powerful thing of all was the Western Wall (Kotel). It is the single most significant site in the world for Jews. People come from all over the world to write a prayer and slip it in the cracks. We learned that more than a million notes are placed in the wall every year, and once every few weeks they are removed and buried. It was an incredible feeling to stand in front of it and imagine all of the influential people who had stood there before me.
Masada/En Gedi/Dead Sea
Okay so this is technically three different places, but we did it all in what wasdefinitely the most action packed day of the trip. We left our hotel at 3:30 am tohike Masada, an ancient Roman fortress atop a desert plateau, and watch the sunrise. Among the ruins are the remains of King Herod’s palace, which spannedthree tiers going down the plateau.
After hiking down the mountain in the heat, we were brought to En Gedi, one of only two freshwater oases on the western shore of the Dead Sea. Even though the water was only a few inches deep, it felt like heaven after hiking through the desert with plenty of water falls to cool off in and we did not waste the opportunity to do so!
The last stop of the day, and the one everyone was the most excited for, was the Dead Sea. The lowest place in the world, the Dead Sea, sits 1,412 Ft below sea level, is ten times saltier than the world’s oceans and contains barely any plant or animal life forms. The high levels of salt allow occupants to float with no effort whatsoever and for those of you who are wondering, the water is HOT. We were also told that sunscreen wasn’t necessary; it’s very difficult to get sunburn because you are so far below sea-level that the sun is that much farther away.You could only really stay in the water long enough for a photo-op (15 minutes tops) before it started to burn, but it was definitely worth it for the experience.
Tel Aviv Graffiti Tour
You could live in Israel your whole life and still not know everything there is to know about the history that’s happened there, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a modern country. Although we didn’t get to spend as much time in Tel Aviv as we would have liked, we got to learn a lot about the juxtaposition between the ancient culture and modern influences that have made the city a hub of both technology and the arts.
We got the chance to go on a guided graffiti tour through the Florentin neighborhood, an up and coming hip area full of young people. The walls of almost every building we saw were graced with some form of artwork that was so intricate and beautiful we were all in awe. The stories behind some of the beautiful pieces we saw were so interesting and things you wouldn’t know unless you talked with the artist. Our tour guide knew EVERYTHING about the graffiti. We would point to pieces and she could tell us who it was by, their inspiration behind it and whether or not it was popular with the people who lived there.
It really is amazing to consider the amount of information I learned in just ten short days. Our guide was right; I left with even more questions than I arrived with, questions that I hope to one day return and find answers to. I would HIGHLY recommend this trip to any and everyone who qualifies, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I am so incredibly grateful that I was given this beautiful gift.