Imagine what it would be like to stop everything you are doing, to forget about all your responsibilities, to step away from your crazy, demanding life. Imagine sitting by yourself surrounded by the peaceful sounds of nature (and occasionally the grunt of a camel in the distance), laying down looking up at the stars above, and hearing your own thoughts as you reflect on your day, week, or whatever else crosses your mind. This is what we experienced as we walked into the dark, cold, and quiet Negev desert to stargaze while reflecting on our thoughts, ideas, and adventures in Israel thus far.
I know for me this has been the most moving and impactful experience of the last 6 days because I had the time and quiet environment to truly think about everything we have done and seen, and thus appreciate it, connect it to my everyday life in America, and realize how I will forever be changed as a result. However, there were a lot of exciting events that led up to this moment in the desert. Our day started at 6 a.m. as we headed out of Jerusalem, with the sunrise in the background, towards Masada for a difficult hike with an amazing view. Once on top of the mountain overlooking the stunning sights below and out into the distance, we did our naming ceremony. Four of us, including me, presented our self-chosen Hebrew names and what these names mean to us. After this, everyone shouted the name and if it was accepted, the mountains would shout it back. After hearing an echo of each name, we knew everyone's was accepted!
After the long hike up and down Masada, we swam in the Dead Sea. Well, floated in the Dead Sea. It was an amazing experience to lay in a body of water that is 30% salt, one that you cannot fully understand until you are effortlessly floating or until you taste salt on your lips without even touching the water. I still feel the salt on my hands and in my hair! Following this, we drove farther into this desert, seeing road signs that cautioned about camel crossings. Soon enough we arrived at the Bedouin camp with the view (and smell) of multiple camels- the camels that we would soon be riding. I didn't realize how tall camels were until I was sitting on one walking through the desert, or when they tried to lay down by leaning forward on their front legs and then backwards, almost throwing me off. After the short but exhilarating camel ride, we were introduced to our tents for the night, Bedouin history and culture, and an amazing Bedouin style dinner. This led up to the peaceful and reflective walk into the desert, which was followed by a camp fire, music, and S'mores to culture the Israelis to some of our traditions! Overall, it was an amazing day, my favorite day of the trip so far, filled with hiking, history, meaning, and fun!
Danielle Fiedler, Bus 1297
They say the best pictures follow the Rule of 3. Between the top, middle, and bottom thirds of a photo, each
section contains its own unique identity from which the section derives its beauty. However, when taken in holistically, the photo takes on a new quality that can't be seen until you take that step back. Yesterday was that perfect combination that exemplifies the Rule of 3.
We started our day leaving the Kibbutz Deganya Bet at the lovely hour of 8:15, which of course involves waking up early enough to allow three exhausted guys to drag themselves out of their beds which feel like little pieces of heaven after seven 18+ hour days, showering, and schlepping over to breakfast. We made our way to the southwestern banks of the Sea of Galilee to the beautiful Kineret cemetery. Israel seems to have a lot of these. The cemetery was bursting with life amidst the death it so beautifully commemorates. There was one set of gravestones set into a pile of rocks of the same color. I stared at those graves for a couple minutes lost in thought; these people died while living the dream they worked tirelessly to accomplish, and now they are buried in the fruits of their labor. During this time, one of the Israelis on our trip, Chen, told the story of her grandfather while we stood in front of his grave. It was a great way to help us put a face to the people, and by doing so, internalize the importance of what these people lived to accomplish.
One reason I mentioned the Rule of 3 at the beginning of this is because of the incredible beauty of this location. I attached a photo so you can see the beauty and maybe experience what I did by proxy. Standing in the greenery of the cemetery, I could look out and see the mesmerizing, shimmering blue of the Sea of Galilee, and just behind that stood the stark rock face of mountains. As our tour guide enjoys pointing out, I feel incredibly in touch with the land of Israel, and no place exemplifies this sentiment more than this site. How one people could take sand as the foundation and from it build what Israel is now astounds me. In my opinion, even in mourning death, no one should ever be sad to come to this awe-inspiring place to celebrate the sanctity of life.
Following our trip to the Kineret cemetery, we travelled to Mount Bental, one of the highest points in Israel. As we drove up, we noted the gleaming patches of snow that speckled the mountain side. On a perfect day, you could see out to Syria; however, the weather was far from perfect. Fog blanketed the mountain top, and visibility didn't extend for more than 20 meters. I don't know how the experience would have been different had we been able to see, but it was interesting to feel at the end of the world with an endless grey in front of us.
Despite the lackluster visibility, it was very interesting to listen to our tour guide talk about the second largest tank battle in the history of the world that occurred in a valley directly under the mountain during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The Israeli tanks were outnumbered 10:1, as the Syrians had over 1,000 tanks. Despite the severe numerical disadvantage, the Israelis were able to prevail. I really like the fact that the motif of Israel as an underdog has not been very prevalent during this trip, so when we do hear it, as in this case, it really resonates.
Our last excursion was to the Golan Heights Winery. We were going to go near the Lebanese border to visit a kibbutz and a nature reserve, but due to a slight escalation in activity along the border, our itinerary was changed. I don't think the kids were upset with the spontaneous trip to a winery. After a bus ride home where more people fell asleep than I've seen on this trip, we returned to the Kibbutz. We did an activity that we did on the first night in the hotel of Ashkelon. We answered questions on a spectrum of varying levels of agreeing. It was interesting to see how people's responses changed if at all to any questions. The only question where I changed my answer drastically was to the question about whether "every Jew should go to Israel." On our first night when this was asked, I disagreed. I didn't feel that it is necessary for every Jew to come to Israel because it's a luxury that would be nice but definitely not necessary.
However, this trip has made me realize how vital visiting Israel is for a Jew. I am not very religious, so I didn't think I would be able to connect with Israel the way that some other people on the trip may have. However, I now know that there are many different ways to connect to Israel. For example, with me, I connect a lot with the land and the natural beauty and the people as well, I would never have guessed this would occur before the trip. So now, I do think that every Jew should visit Israel, because one way or another, you will find a way to connect that you may have never expected, and it's an incredible thing.
Danny Niez '18
After four nights in beautiful Jerusalem, on Monday we packed up and headed west. First, we visited the military base where Shachar, one of the Israeli soldiers on our trip, is located. The base, called Mitkan Adam, is a K9 unit, which was super exciting because we got to see the dogs show off a little. We saw one of the dogs go through an obstacle course and we saw another attack one of the soldiers in protective gear. We learned about the different jobs that the dogs have including attacking, tracking and finding explosives. The dog that Shachar handles, named Stephie, works with him to find explosives. We met her and Shachar showed us some of her adorable tricks.
It was interesting to see that there were many Americans on the base. Because many Americans are lone soldiers, meaning they made aliyah and joined the army while their families are still in America, they are treated well and are placed in the most coveted units, like the K9 unit. I know that many of us can relate to the American soldiers because we know where they come from and we know what they gave up to be serving here in the army. It's crazy to think about the sacrifices these lone soldiers have made and I was glad to get to see them in their daily lives in the army here in Israel.
After leaving the base, we headed further west towards Tel Aviv. We spent some of the afternoon in Shuk Ha`Carmel looking around, shopping and eating lunch. I bought some gifts for my friends and family and had delicious shawarma. I got to work on my haggling skills when buying jewelry and have to say that it was a unique experience. We then walked a few blocks to independence hall, where we learned about the history of making Israel an independent state. This whole week, I have especially liked learning about the role Golda Meir played in the beginning of the state of Israel. For me, it's interesting to think about the different levels of female leadership in American history and Israeli history.
We then got on the bus and went up the coast to Caeserea. We spent time taking pictures in the stunning evening scenery and had the chance to learn about the structures left there from the Roman period. Both the beach and the ruins were spectacularly beautiful. We hopped back on the bus and headed north east towards Kibbutz Degania where we will be staying for the next couple of nights. In my opinion, it was surprising how modern everything in the kibbutz seemed. After dinner we were surprised with some fun games and activities from the amazing Israeli soldiers on trip. These included a Hebrew version of little Sally walker and a cool krav maga lesson. As we get closer to the end of our trip, I can't help but think about how privileged both the Americans and Israelis are for being able to have this amazing experience. I know I speak for everyone when I say we are going to cherish and make the most of our last few days.
Erica Comm '18
Our first stop today was Yad Vashem, the Jewish National Memorial to the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. I thought that my experience with the subject matter would have left me well prepared for today's visit. I couldn't have been more wrong. The terrible story unfolded right before my eyes as I walked through all of the museum's authentic artifacts from the Holocaust. Each had a story to tell that was even more astonishing than the last.
After a quick stop to grab some falafel, we continued on to Mount Herzl to honor the 24,000 Israeli soldiers who have fallen in service. Here we saw the burial sites of Theodor Herzl, Yizhak Rabin, Golda Meir, and many other heroic figures. The Israeli soldiers who have joined our trip provided us with insight about life in the army and personal narratives about lost soldiers. Their words resonated throughout us all as we learned about the life people our age live in Israel. It was truly eye opening.
All in all, it was an extremely impactful day with quite a bit of reflection. We look forward to continuing to the Dead Sea basin tomorrow!
Morgan Brazel, Bus 1297
While the last few days of our trip have been extremely exciting they have also left us all exhausted. Luckily as the week came to a close we have Shabbat to look forward to and with it an opportunity to catch up on much needed sleep. Shabbat started with a nice lighting candle ceremony where our entire bus worked together to light candles in UVA's sabers as a nice throwback to home. We were largely left to our own devices for the rest of the day with the exception of the a great dinner.
For most of the students that was the extent of plans until lunch Saturday. However for so of the students, this was an active time as they were preparing for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Lana, Sammie, Lauren, Erika, Danny and myself (Daniel) all had our Bar and Bat Mitzvahs as Shabbat neared its end. After Shabbat we listened to a presentation given by Avraham Infeld. In addition to being and excellent speaker and giving the audience many laughs, Infeld also taught us some very important lessons on what it means to be Jewish, and in my opinion answered many of the questions people in our group were trying to answer.
The following day we visited the graves of Theodor Herzl, Yitzhak Rabin and Golda Meir. We learned much about their accomplishments, struggles and personal beliefs during this visit and it really helped all of us better understand the mindset of the founders of Israel. We next went to National Military Cemetery. In many ways it was similar to the Arlington National Cemetery and in many ways it was different. It was a very sobering experience particular when we think about how many of the fallen were our age and even in some situations were originally Americans.
We next went to Old Jerusalem where we saw tons of ancient architecture and gorgeous buildings, learning much of its history in the process. Much of Old Jerusalem is characterized by thin windy pathways making it very easy to get lost in. We finally reached the Western Wall, Judaism holiest site where were able to pray, and leave wishes. As we left the wall we all received notes from home telling us about our parents impressions about israel, Jerusalem and wishing us safe get exciting travels ahead. It really is hard to believe it's been less than a week since we left, it feels so much longer.
Daniel Monaco '16
Hi parents! My name is Andrew and I'm a second year writing to you about what we've been up to in Israel. On our first day, after a ten hour plane ride and scrumptious airline food, we walked around Tel Aviv, and we did team building activities to strengthen our Kehillah, which means community. We then continued on to independence hall, in which we learned about the history of Israel. Shortly after, we stopped in the 4000 year old city of Jaffa and had the chance to overlook the Jaffa Port. The day finished with a new years eve party for every birthright trip currently in Israel.
On day two, we explored the Old City of Jerusalem. We saw the room where Jesus had his Last Supper, learned about the long (very long) history of the city, and prayed at the Kotel, also known as the Western Wall. We enjoyed our time at the Western Wall so much that we couldn't bear to leave even while being pelted with hail! That day we also went to an Israeli mall to learn more about the culture and eat shawarma! On the eve of our second night we began our shabbat celebration with prayers and dinner at the hotel with our friends from the other buses. Yesterday, we continued our shabbat celebration by sleeping all day! We then went to another mall (apparently Israelis love malls) to enjoy dinner and eat more shawarma!!
We are having so much fun (which is why I haven't called, mom) and are learning so much.
Andrew Seigel, Avi Montanez, and Spencer Rubin and the rest of bus 1297
The main event of our New Years Day was our trip to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. Despite the hail and cold weather, we had an unforgettable experience on our tour. We had a wonderful tour guide, who we could listen to through a head set and gave us detailed facts about the horrific events that transpired before, during, and after World War II. Yad Vashem channels a multitude of themes throughout the museum, including highlights of the heroes and the enemies, the triumphs and the failures, the survivors and the victims of the Holocaust. Another remarkable trait of this tribute is the thoughtful and powerful architectural design of the building.
The main section of the museum is one long hallway and visitors can see the entrance and exit at the same time when crossing through exhibits. This design represents the resilience of the Jewish people and their ability to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel during a time of pure darkness. In addition to the anecdotes about families fighting for survival and the heroic tales of people who bravely saved Jewish lives, a striking element of the museum was the Children's Memorial. As a separate building, the Memorial is a dark room made of mirrors, with five candles reflecting off of them, creating a vision of many lights glowing around you, as a voice lists names and ages of young lives tragically lost.
This day was definitely my favorite part of the trip so far. I hope to one day return to Israel so that I may learn even more about the history and culture of the Jewish people. I feel so fortunate to be able to experience this journey with so many amazing people. My connection to Judaism and my passion for this country has been fervently strengthened and I am forever grateful for this unparalleled opportunity.
Rachel Mayman '18
The theme of the day (Sunday, 1316) was Israeli culture and society. We met the eight Israeli soldiers who will be joining us on our journey for the next five days. The group visited the Yitzhak Rabin square and learned about the significance of Israel's first prime minister, who fought for peace until his assassination in the square on November 4th, 1995. We followed the visit to the square with one to the home of the Save a Child's Heart organization in Holon. We heard about their initiative, which has saved the lives of thousands of children from 50 different countries suffering from congenital and rheumatic heart conditions.
We were then able to play with children who were either preparing for surgery or recovering from it. I played with a 12-year-old Ethiopian child named Eliyas. Eliyas is recovering strongly from his procedure and is preparing to go home in a few weeks. We talked about football (soccer) and he taught me some Amharic, his native language. We exchanged contact info and I really hope to keep in touch with him. I enjoyed learning about the history of Israel at the Yitzhak Rabin square and experiencing the charitable culture first hand thanks to Save a Child's Heart.
Mason Smith, Bus 1297
The Brody Jewish Center, Hillel at the University of Virginia, is the focal point in a renaissance of Jewish life for the 1,800 Jewish students on Grounds.