All I can say is that in the past 10 days that we've been in Israel, something in me has changed. I came on because a free trip to Israel sounded pretty cool, but since we've been here I've really grown to love and connect with this country and everyone in it in ways that I never deemed possible. So many things are clearer now than they were before Birthright.
A huge turning point in the trip for me was our group's visit to Mt. Hertzl. At the military cemetery, Akiva--one of the IDF soldiers that joined us on the trip--stood in front of an adorned grave and shared with us the story of one of his best friends who died in combat. His story was incredibly powerful, and I couldn't help but place myself in their shoes. I'm 22. I'm preparing to graduate from UVA, searching for a job, planning out where I might want to travel, and just generally doing what a 22 year old does. And at the same time, the friends that we've been making in Israel that are the exact same age are out at the front lines of combat fighting for their country and dying every day. And they do it voluntarily, gladly, so that Jews everywhere can have a place to call home. So that we can all have this homeland, this territory, this safe space where we can simply be with one another. And that, to me, is an incredibly powerful thing. But it's not anything new. For years, Jews have been fighting to have a place to call our own, to practice our faith and traditions free from discrimination and hatred. To me, continuing to reject that history, to distance myself from something that so many people have died for would do a huge disservice to Jews and allies everywhere.
So I decided to get Bat Mitzvahed today because I eventually came to the realization that I am a product of the people who have fought for me in the past, who are fighting for me today, and who will continue to fight for me--for us. That is a tradition that I personally feel an obligation to carry forward. This trip is the first time in my life that I have actually felt Jewish, and I am extremely proud to be. I am proud to be part of this amazing community, this culture, this religion.
While I still have a long way to go in my Jewish journey, today's ceremony was my public affirmation that I could not be prouder to be part of the Jewish community and will continue to learn and grow within the tradition, sharing it with others along the way.
After the very compelling talk, Oren led a group discussion on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. While it (predictably) trended towards the Israeli views, it took all sides into consideration.
After the scintillating academic morning, we switched gears to a more spiritual and emotional angle. At Mt. Herzl, (the stunningly gorgeous) Akiva gave a very moving speech about a fallen soldier that he was very close with. Ariel and Gelfand spoke on Lone Soldiers who made Aliyah and passed away while serving. After the three very personal talks, everyone was clearly moved. The feeling of Jewish community was very strong, so we did the only logical thing-- go to a mall for a startlingly average lunch before visiting the Old City.
The Old City was beautiful. The history of the surroundings, the countless Orthodox Jews, and Oren's voice left everyone with feelings of excitement. After weaving through roads that couldn't fit most compact cars (but were used for trucks and buses), we finally reached our destination. I can't speak for everyone, but the Western Wall was a truly incredible experience for me. Just being at a spot that has been so central to Judaism for thousands of years was completely surreal. The power that eminated from the wall showed on the faces of all those who were near it. When I was forced to step away to avoid holding up the group for the third time, it honestly felt like saying goodbye to a loved one. It was difficult to wrap my mind around the concept of such a pinnacle-- I had done what so many Jews wish to do. Each year at Channukah, my family finishes the prayer by saying "next year in Jerusalem". For me, it was this year in Jerusalem. And this day at the Western Wall.
Afterwards, we were able to explore the Jerusalem shuk. It was a very cool opportunity to buy gifts for (somewhat) loved ones and practice our bargaining skills. It is safe to say that noone succeeded in lowering any price more than the equivalent of three US Dollars, but the experience was nice nonetheless.This was all followed by a short bus ride and some great birthright trip bonding with the students and soldiers.I think it is safe to say, whether academically, religiously, or socially, everyone is better for having lived this day.
O. Frederick "Freddy" Warmbier
The most impressive was how they were able to survive with minimal water since they settled on a mountain top in the middle of the desert (though from our night experience it might be hard to understand).
We saw the remains of the kingdom and descended into the cave-like space that was the water hole. Otto and Polina were formally given Hebrew names that they had chosen, and their names echoed through the valley. Well, kind of - the wind was a bit too strong, it's been a weird day in regards to weather. After countless beautiful pictures that were all successfully photobombed by the Dead Sea and mountains of Jordan, we descended down the opposite side of the mountain which is longer yet less steep than the Roman path that we took to climb up. There's also a cable car that can transport people up and down the mountain, but hiking the heights is what separates the boys from the men - The Wajews did Masada right!
From the highest highs to the lowest low, after a quick lunch - where I finally got my first falafal (yum!) - we drove over to the Dead Sea, which is actually the lowest point in the world. After covering ourselves head to toe with mud, it was finally time to float! I was warned by many even before this trip of how potentially painful the Dead Sea experience can be. Because of all of this, I didn't quite understand why one would want to put themselves through such misery, but I get it now. It's kind of like the opposite of gravity because all your body wants to do is float up towards the surface - it was pretty awesome! Not to mention our skin was abnormally soft once the mud washed off. However, the warning that I will pass on is to not put too much mud on your face. It will burn once it starts to dry, and you will try to wipe it off with your salty hands which will make it burn more. I'm just saying, you've been warned.
We are now on the bus on the way to Jeruselam where I am pretty much the only one awake - The Bedouin tents were great, but you can only sleep so well in a big tent with 40+ people in the middle of the desert. We're all super excited to experience the culture and true Judaism that goes on in this great city, plus all the fun sites and activities left on our itenerary!
Our Jeep tour guides discussed the Six Day War as well as the strategy of conquering the Golan.
Next, we headed to the Tel Dan Nature Reserve, which is located on the largest tributary of the Jordan River. We enjoyed a nature walk and saw the Abraham Gate, the second oldest gateway structure in the world. It was very old, but in very good shape. After the walk, we headed over to an Israeli shopping mall for lunch. In case you were unaware, my luggage (Ali's) is still in Rome. According to my clothing, the saying goes, "When in Rome, stay in Rome." So I enjoyed shopping for Israeli essentials while the rest of the group enjoyed some fine dining in the mall.
After some speedy shopping and a hearty lunch, we went to the top of Mt. Bental. The mountain overlooks the Syrain town of Kuneitra. On the top of the mountain there is an old bunker that was once used by the Israeli army. Oren, our tour educator, told us the history of the bunker, and we got to explore it ourselves. On top of Mt. Bental, we discussed the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and learned the importance of the Golan Heights during this battle.
Finally, we went back to the Kibbutz to have dinner and have a group conversation about how we relate to Israel. It was very insightful and eye-opening to discuss various topics with the Israeli soldiers. Their relationship with Israel is very different than ours, but our Jewish culture helps us relate to one another. As the trip continues, we will continue to learn more about Israeli culture and various perspectives from our friends in the IDF who joined us today.
2014 Birthright Participant
After packing the bus, exchanging money and settling in with our bus buddies we set off for the kibbutz. Our tour guide, Oren, introduced himself, our driver (also Oren, funnily enough), and our security guard Amit (Amit was packin' heat). They took us to a diggity dope restaurant where we had a late dinner of pita with hummus and various side dishes. Upon eating our fill we filed back onto the party bus and drove to the kibbutz where we'll be staying the next three nights. This morning we got a "late start" according to Oren with a breakfast at 8:00 and orientation activities at 9. Once Oren had aquianted us with the trip we gathered our gear and loaded onto the bus, heading for the Arbel Cliffs overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Bleating goats shouted encouragements as we made our way up the trail to the edge of the cliffs where Oren explained about the nature of Israel's water difficulties. Up at the top we watched a mother goat nurse her two newborns while her fresh placenta (that description courtesy of Polina) lay a few feet away. The kids struggled to stand on their new legs while we watched some Israeli children test the mother's patience by petting the babies. After Oren finished his speech we had a little free time at the top of the cliff we went back to the bus and went to the town of Tiberius. There we split into groups and explored the streets in search of a lunch. Many of us had our first Israeli falafel (which were of course delicious). We reconvened at the bus and returned to the kibbutz for some free time before shabbat services and dinner. The dining room was packed with guests and we enjoyed a delicious meal before another group bonding session and a night to explore the kibbutz. We can't wait to see what shabbat in Isreal holds for us tomorrow!
At 12:30 we listened to a quick, but fascinating lecture from our tour guide, Oren. The lecture encompassed every major occurrence from the arrival of Abraham to the modern day to give us better context for our discussion of the current political climate of Israel.
Following our lecture and discussion, the tour guide for our brother group guided us through the Kibbutz on which we were, technically, located. In the main campus, she introduced us to the concept of a Kibbutz, a community where all work together and are paid equally to achieve the production of a single product such as bulletproof glass or an amalgamation of different productions that allow the Kibbutz to survive. Once we had learned about the social basis of a Kibbutz, we got together in groups to discuss the social ramifications of Kibbutzim and the pros and cons of living in such a society which was then followed by a lively discussion between the two groups.
After the discussion, we got to see one of the main products of our Kibbutz, the raising of cattle for dairy. The cows were pretty darn cute, despite the stench. Some of the younger ones seemed to have just been born.
We took yet another break before saying our Havdallah prayers and heading out for the night. We stopped for dinner, which for myself entailed yet another round of Shwarma and Kebab. Given the choice I'd probably eat it every single night. You can't go wrong with perfectly cooked meat, tahini sauce, choice vegetables and the occasional french fry in a warm pita.
Dinner led us to the mountain top city of Zefat, the ancient, stonewalled home of the Jewish practice of Kabbahlah. Walking around its aged streets of dingy beige stone, one can't help but feel the mysticism oozing out of the walls all around you. It's a beautiful sight, site, Zeit, really, all of the above. In a renaissance era synagogue, Jake explains to us the confounding origins of Kabbalah and how the secrets of the universe are so intensely guarded.
On a lighter note, we conclude our activities of the day in Ascent, your place for the Zefat experience, or so I'm told by the sign as I enter the building. After a few flights of stairs, we are greeted by an old Rabbi playing an electric guitar—the most bizarre sight I've witnessed in my short time in Israel so far—who encourages us to sing along to the Hebrew songs he sings. I'm not certain about the rest of my fellow birthright travelers, but I did not understand a single word he said. Following our short sing-a-long introduction, we were greeted by the jolliest, santaesque Rabbi I have ever seen in my life. He convinces us to start dancing and enjoy the doughnuts that they've cooked up for us. An interesting experience if for no other reason than to witness some of the silliest dancing I've had the pleasure to witness. Tomorrow we meet our soldiers and will be heading to Golan Heights, but for now, I'm going to try and sleep.
The Brody Jewish Center, Hillel at the University of Virginia, is the focal point in a renaissance of Jewish life for the 1,000 Jewish students on Grounds.